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The beets we eat as a vegetable are also called red beets, root beets, or table beets. They have two edible parts—the bulbous root, and the dark green leaves. In ancient civilizations, only the green leaves of the beet plant were eaten; the roots were used medicinally to treat headaches and toothaches. Beets with good-sized, rounded roots, like those we eat today, were likely developed in the 16th century, though it took another 200 years before they gained any popularity as a food item.
Beets are a good source of potassium, folic acid, and vitamins A and C; provide calcium and iron; and add fiber to the diet, all this with only 55 calories per cup. Beet has long been considered, medicinally beneficial and is recommended as a general tonic. It can be used to help disorders of the blood, including anemia, and is an effective detoxifier. Due to its high fiber content it is recommended to relieve constipation. Beets have the highest sugar content of any vegetable. Their sweet flavor comes through whether they are fresh or canned. Fresh beets, however, have twice the folate (folic acid) and potassium, and have a distinctive flavor and a crisp texture you would not find in canned beets. Fresh beets also supply a nutritional bonus—their green tops are an excellent source of beta carotene, calcium, and iron.
Look for smooth, hard, round beets; a healthy deep red color is an indicator of quality. Avoid beets with soft, moist spots or shriveled, flabby skin. If the leaves are attached—and especially if you are planning to eat them—it is preferable that they be small, crisp, and dark green. Leaves that are larger than 8″ are probably too mature to be palatable. Limp, yellowed leaves have lost their nutritional value.
The beets generally seen in the market are globe-shaped roots, with deep red flesh and green leaves that have either green or red veins. Other less common varieties with golden or white flesh, are available at farmers market and can be grown at home.
Growing beets in your garden is very simple. Sow the seeds outdoors in winter, two or three weeks before the last expected frost. Thin the plants when they are about 2″ tall. For the best flavor, harvest when the greens and roots are small and tender.
I enjoy beets in the heat of summer, when I take them straight out of the baking soil to the cooking pot. I love them just as much in autumn and winter, when their hearty goodness seems just the thing to warm the insides on a chilly day.
Here are a couple of quick beet recipes.
1 bunch beets with greens
1 red onion
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
6-7 curry leaves
4-5 dried red chilies
½ cup water
1 tablespoon shredded coconut
1 teaspoon lime juice
Chop the greens and dice the beetroot. Dice onions and keep aside.
Heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds and wait till they splutter. Add curry leaves and red chilies and stir for a minute. Add the onions and chopped vegetables. Add the water and cook on low heat for 10 minutes, until the beets are tender.
Finally, add coconut and lime juice. Serve piping hot with chapati or plain rice.
PRETTY PASTA SALAD
This salad is very attractive and soothing on a hot summer day.
2 cups cooked bow-tie pasta
2 beets, baked, peeled, and diced
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
2 celery sticks, chopped
½ cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
½ teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
Mix all the vegetables and pasta in a big bowl. Whisk yogurt, mayonnaise, sugar, salt, and pepper, and pour on the vegetables. Garnish with walnuts and cilantro.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet. www.massala.com