Unearthing the delicious world of beets is like striking gold for your palate. These vibrant, versatile gems of the vegetable world are packed with a unique blend of sweet and earthy flavors that can elevate any dish. Whether their rich hues paint your salads, their natural sweetness enhances your desserts, or their heartiness transforms your main courses, beets can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of any adventurous home cook or professional chef. Join us as we delve into the colorful and flavorful universe of beets, uncovering the best recipes, preparation methods, and pairings that bring out the very best this root vegetable has to offer. From traditional favorites to innovative culinary creations, get ready to be inspired by the world of flavorful beets.
Ingredient: Beets (Beta vulgaris)
Descended from: The wild sea beet. The cultivated beet (Beta vulgaris), which includes varieties like sugar beets, table beets (or garden beets), and Swiss chard, is thought to have evolved from the wild sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima).
The sea beet, also known as the wild beet, is native to the coasts of Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It’s a tough, versatile plant that can survive in a wide range of environments, from salty coastal regions to harsh, rocky terrains.
Over thousands of years, humans selectively bred the sea beet for desirable traits. Some of these included larger, more edible roots (leading to the table beet) and sweeter characteristics (resulting in the sugar beet). For Swiss chard, humans bred the plant to have large, edible leaves and stalks.
It’s believed that beets were first cultivated in the Mediterranean region. From there, their cultivation spread to Babylonia, Persia, and then to China and India. Beet cultivation was well established in Europe by Roman times.
The selective breeding and cultivation of beets over the millennia has resulted in a diverse array of beet varieties that are enjoyed worldwide today.
Domestication date: circa 2000 BC
Properties: Beets, also known as beetroot, have several distinctive physical properties:
- Color – The most common variety of beet is deep red or purple. This color is due to pigments known as betalains. However, beets can also be white, golden-yellow, or even striped (like the Chioggia beet).
- Shape and Size – Beets are typically round or cylindrical in shape, with sizes ranging from that of a golf ball to a softball. The size can vary based on the variety and how long the beet has been allowed to grow.
- Texture – The root of the beet is firm and hard when raw, but becomes soft and tender when cooked. The outer skin is rough and a bit tougher than the inside.
- Taste – Beets have a sweet and earthy flavor. This unique flavor is due to geosmin, a compound produced by microbes in the soil where beets grow.
- Leaves – Beet plants have green leaves that grow from reddish-purple stalks. These leaves are also edible and have a taste similar to Swiss chard.
- Interior – The inside of a beet is typically the same color as the exterior, but lighter. The interior is more firm and dense than the exterior.
These properties can vary somewhat depending on the specific variety of beet, the growing conditions, and the preparation methods.
Health benefits: Beets, or beetroot, are highly nutritious root vegetables that possess several beneficial properties:
- Rich in Nutrients – Beets are a good source of essential nutrients, including fiber, folate (vitamin B9), manganese, potassium, iron, and vitamin C.
- High in Antioxidants – Beets contain a high concentration of antioxidants, which can help reduce oxidative stress in the body. The betalains in beets, which give them their characteristic red color, are particularly potent antioxidants.
- Promote Heart Health – The fiber, potassium, and nitrates in beets can help lower blood pressure, which in turn can reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Improve Digestive Health – The fiber in beets adds bulk to the diet and can help improve digestive health, preventing constipation and promoting regular bowel movements.
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties – The betalains in beets have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases driven by inflammation.
- Improve Exercise Performance – Beets are a great source of dietary nitrates, which the body converts to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide can dilate blood vessels, improving blood flow and potentially enhancing exercise performance.
- Support Brain Health – Dietary nitrates from beets can improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain. This may have potential benefits for brain health, particularly as we age.
While beets have many potential health benefits, they are also relatively high in oxalates, which can contribute to the formation of kidney stones in susceptible individuals. Also, the high sugar content in beets can be an issue for those who need to monitor their sugar intake closely.
Dishes of Note:
The Lithuanian Cold Beet Soup, or “Šaltibarščiai“, is a traditional dish deeply ingrained in Lithuania’s culinary culture. Pronounced shul-tee-barsh-chay, this soup is especially popular during the summertime, serving as a refreshing and invigorating meal on warm days.
The primary ingredient of Šaltibarščiai is beets. These root vegetables give the soup its distinct pink or magenta color, offering an attractive and appealing look to the dish. Beets also lend a subtly sweet, earthy taste which forms the backbone of the soup’s flavor profile.
Complementing the beets is either kefir or buttermilk. These fermented dairy products are essential to the creation of the soup’s base, bringing a tangy note and creamy texture to the dish. They beautifully balance the sweetness of the beets, resulting in a harmonious blend of flavors.
Fresh herbs are also crucial in Šaltibarščiai. Most commonly, dill is used, although green onions and parsley also often find their way into the mix. These herbs add a vibrant, fresh flavor that enhances the overall taste of the soup.
Crunchy cucumbers are another key component of the dish, providing a refreshing crunch that contrasts nicely with the creaminess of the soup base. Hard-boiled eggs, either chopped and mixed into the soup or sliced as a garnish, add a level of heartiness and protein.
Some versions of Šaltibarščiai also include potatoes. These are usually boiled and served either alongside the soup or directly in it, adding another layer of texture and flavor.
After the beets are cooked, they are either grated or finely chopped and mixed with the kefir or buttermilk to create the base. The rest of the ingredients are then added, and the soup is chilled before serving.
Šaltibarščiai, with its vibrant color and refreshing taste, is a perfect embodiment of summer cuisine in Lithuania. Variations of the recipe may include additional ingredients like radishes or incorporate sour cream instead of kefir or buttermilk. Regardless of the exact recipe, this soup is traditionally enjoyed with a side of boiled or baked potatoes, rounding out a satisfying and delicious meal.
History: In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars, the British naval blockade cut off France’s supply of cane sugar, which was primarily imported from the Caribbean. Faced with this sugar shortage, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered increased production of sugar beets to compensate.
The sugar beet, a variety of beet with a high sucrose content, had been identified a few decades earlier by a German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, as a potential source of sugar. However, the extraction process was still inefficient, and sugar beet production wasn’t commercially viable at the time of Marggraf’s discovery.
His student, Franz Achard, later perfected the method for extracting sugar from beets. He opened the first beet sugar factory in the world, in Silesia (modern-day Poland) in 1801. But it was Napoleon’s decree and the circumstances of the blockade that truly spurred the large-scale cultivation and industrial processing of sugar beets.
Napoleon funded the construction of 40 beet sugar factories across France. By 1813, the French were producing about 35,000 tons of beet sugar per year.
After the fall of Napoleon, the beet sugar industry waned in France, but it had gained a foothold in Europe and continued to expand. Today, sugar beets account for about 20% of the world’s sugar production, with Europe being the leading producer.
IMAGE CREDIT: Eva Bronzini.