The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
— Tom Robbins, American novelist, from Jitterbug Perfume
Tom Robbins is not kidding when he says the beet is an intense vegetable. Diners tend to either love or hate beets’ sweet, earthy flavor, making it one of those foods with deep divides. There is a good reason for that: a natural bacterial product beets contain called geosmin is the substance responsible for the smell of a freshly plowed field or the earth after a nice rain. Humans are highly sensitive to geosmin, which explains why opinions about it are strong. Those who partake reap the benefits. Beets and their greens are a great source of fiber and are rich in riboflavin, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K.
“Beets are a superfood, like kale,” says Chris Rawl, co-owner of Rawl Farms in Lexington, where they grow table beets, among many other fruits and vegetables. “They are one of the best foods you can eat. They’re very healthy.”
The benefits of beets have been enjoyed for quite a long time. The earliest beets, called sea beets, grew wild along the Mediterranean Sea. Other varieties evolved from prehistoric African vegetables. Sea beets, a favorite food of Greeks and Romans, were white or black in color. They had medicinal value as they were credited for feelings of well-being. Ancient Romans also considered beets to be an aphrodisiac. An indication of this belief is found in the beet frescoes that adorn the walls of the Lupanare brothel in Pompeii.
Beets (Beta vulgaris), which are edible from root to green, have four basic varieties. First is the common garden beet or beetroot. This is the bright purple-red bulb that most commonly comes to mind when beets are mentioned. Next is swiss chard, cultivated for its nutritional greens. The third beet type, the sugar beet, resembles a large white carrot. As its name suggests, it is cultivated to produce sugar. Finally, the mangel-wurzel or mangel beet has been used from prehistoric times to feed livestock because it was deemed too tough for humans to eat.
Garden beets were not always that fantastic red color. The vibrant shade was bred into them in the mid-18th century. Women in the 19th century used the juice of the beet to shade their lips and cheeks. About the same time that garden beets were turning bright red, an important discovery was made concerning the sugar beet. The sugar beet was developed for its sugar content by the Prussians in the early 1700s. Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, discovered the potential source of sugar in sugar beets in 1747.
This discovery led to the building of numerous factories around Europe, the sole purpose of which was to turn sugar beets into sugar. This process was perfected by Marggraf’s student, Franz Achard, requiring four times less water than sugar cane production. Sugar beets are used to produce brown sugar and molasses. Unsurprisingly, sugar beet sugar has an earthy, burnt sugar aftertaste. Cane sugar is sweeter, with a fruity smell. Cane sugar caramelizes more easily than beet sugar, while beet sugar can be crunchier and tastes unique. Sugar beets are the most economically important beet, accounting for one third of the world’s sugar.
Today, garden beets come in many shades, including pink, yellow, and the candycane striped ‘Chioggia’ variety. Sliced thin on a bed of greens, they make a plate beautiful as well as tasty. Garden beets are wildly versatile. They can be eaten raw, pickled, roasted, and stewed. Beet juice and beet hummus are also popular ways to enjoy the beet. One famous beet-based food is borscht. Thought to have originated in Ukraine, it is a diet staple in Russia and Poland. There are many borscht recipes; however, most include potatoes, starchy beans such as cannelloni or kidney, carrots, chicken broth, cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, and various spices.
According to Chris, beets and their nutrient-packed greens are fairly easy to grow, and they grow well in the South Carolina climate. “Only in the coldest months does the frost burn the greens. Even then, the beet root is still perfectly fine to eat,” he says. The beet has one principal pest: the armyworm. Army green in color, this caterpillar-fat insect can wreak havoc on a beet crop. Thankfully, natural pesticides are available to ward the critter off. Another beet enemy is Cercospora leaf spot, which, if left untreated, can result in unmarketable greens and root growth failure. Like the armyworm, this can be treated with natural pesticides.
Midlanders do not have to go far to find delicious, fresh beets. Rawl Farms in Lexington grows garden beets nearly year-round. They also grow Swiss chard in addition to many other fruits and vegetables. Third generation farmers, Chris and his brother, Spanky Rawl, took over Rawl Farms in 2009 and work the same land their grandfather, Harvey Rawl, bought in the 1940s. The Rawls sell their beets at their farm, located at the corner of Calks Ferry Road and Highway 1 in Lexington. They can also be found at the South Carolina Farmer’s Market. Most conveniently, their beets can be purchased at IGA and Lowes Foods stores.
Where beets were once relegated to the crouton corner of restaurant salad bars, now many cooks feature the power-packed purple root in their creations. Swiss chard is another cook favorite. It has many different varieties and many fun colors, including several different reds, pink, green, orange, and rainbow. Bitter when raw, swiss chard turns lightly sweet when cooked. As for mangel beets, humans now enjoy them along with their four-legged friends, especially when the beets are young. Grated mangel beet makes a great beet burger. Mangel beet can also be used to make delicious muffins.
Love them or hate them, it is impossible not to appreciate the value of the beet in any of its forms. Many centuries after Romans and Greeks first took a liking to them, beets are more popular than ever. Beet enthusiasts revel in the many uses and benefits of this versatile and nutrient-packed vegetable. Even beet skeptics might be tempted to try hummus or juice made from this superfood root. And, they may find they like it, too.
Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
2 pounds beets
5 ounces arugula
1½ cups pecans or walnuts
2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
½ cup goat cheese, crumbled
Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash beets and trim off the root part and the leafy greens. Line cast-iron pan or Dutch oven with parchment paper, place beets on top, and cover. Roast for 50 to 60 minutes or until fork tender. Let cool until safe to handle. To peel beets, use paper towel or parchment paper and scrub beets with it. Peel should slide off. Slice cooked beets into desired size and shape.
In a large skillet, add pecans and toast on medium heat for 5 minutes or until fragrant, stirring often. Turn off the heat and add maple syrup. Stir until nuts are all coated.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Ground black pepper to taste
In a small bowl, add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic powder, and pepper, and whisk with a fork until well combined. In a large salad bowl, add arugula, beets, pecans, crumbled goat cheese, and dressing. Mix gently with tongs until well combined. Serve immediately.
Swiss Chard with Apples
1 bunch Swiss chard, any variety is fine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium to large yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 apple, any variety, cored and chopped
1 tablespoon coconut aminos
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
½ tablespoon fresh thyme, picked
Salt to taste
Wash chard and tear away leaves from center vein and stems. Roughly chop leaves, and slice stems into ¼-inch thick pieces. In a very large skillet or deep cast-iron pot, heat olive oil over medium to low heat. Once oil is hot, add sliced onions and saute 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure the onions are coated with oil. Spread out the onions evenly in the pan and leave them to cook for another 5 to 7 minutes, stirring only as needed. Allow to brown but not burn.
Once the onions have begun to caramelize, add crushed garlic and saute an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Next, add in chard stems and chopped apple, and saute 3 to 5 minutes. Add chard leaves in batches, stirring to coat with oil, and allow to wilt slightly before adding more. Once all the chard is incorporated, add coconut aminos and balsamic vinegar and saute another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, add fresh herbs and salt to taste. Enjoy warm.
Roasted Beets and Sweet Potatoes
2½ pounds red beets, leaves removed, cleaned, peeled, and cut into bite-sized chunks, about 1½ inches
1 pound sweet potatoes, cleaned, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks, about 1½ inches
3 tablespoons avocado oil, plus more for greasing sheet pan
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano
3 to 4 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, leaves only (garnish, optional)
Preheat oven to 425 F. Place beet and sweet potato chunks into a large bowl and toss with avocado oil, salt, black pepper, chili powder, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and dried oregano. Grease a large sheet pan with a little more avocado oil. Place beet and sweet potato chunks onto the sheet pan and spread them out in a single layer. Cook about 35 minutes, turning halfway, or until tender.
Once beets and sweet potatoes are done, transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with crumbled feta and freshly chopped cilantro, if desired.
Mangel and Moringa Muffins
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups mangel, or beets, peeled and cut into cubes
2 cups spelt flour, plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons moringa
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons vinegar
¼ cup milk or coconut milk
½ cup chopped pecans (optional)
Peel the mangel and cut into small half-inch pieces. Place in a double boiler for 15 to 20 minutes. Be sure to place a lid on while steaming and make sure enough water is in the bottom of the steamer or pot for it to boil on high for the entire time. The mangel should be very soft. Remove the mangel and mash with a potato masher or place in a food processor and process until smooth. Cream butter and sugar in a mixer. Add the mangel puree (it is fine if it is still hot). Mix well and scrap down the sides of the bowl. Add vanilla and eggs. Mix well.
Put spelt flour, baking soda, sea salt, and cinnamon together. Mix vinegar with the milk. Add the flour mixture and half the milk mixture. Mix well and scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the rest of the milk mixture and the pecans if using and mix again.
Grease and flour a large muffin tin with coconut oil and spelt flour. Divide the batter into the 12 muffin tin cavities. Bake at 325 F for 20 to 25 minutes.