Beets are an ancient Mediterranean crop, harvested for both roots and tops (or greens) and related to Swiss chard. Raw or cooked, pickled or roasted, beets make a delicious and colourful side dish or addition to any meal. If canned beets were your childhood nemesis, it may be time to reevaluate -- well-prepared beets are quite different from the variety available on grocery store shelves.
Selection and storage
Beet season runs through the summer and into fall, although they are available from storage year-round. While many supermarkets carry only one (red) type of beet, a number of heritage varieties are available, including golden beets -- advantageous because they're not messy like red beets can be. Try visiting your farmer's market in the summer and fall to find interesting varieties of beets and other produce.
The best-tasting beets are small to medium and firm with smooth skins. If the beets on offer at your store or market still have their tops on, you're in luck -- you'll have two veggies for the price of one, as the greens are edible too. Look for tops that are bright green and fresh-looking -- if they're too wilted, they won't be as tasty.
Eat beet greens as soon as possible after purchase. Unwashed roots can be stored in the refrigerator in plastic bags for up to a few weeks, although it's better to eat them sooner than later.
Both roots and greens are highly nutritious. Half a cup of boiled beet greens, according to Health Canada, contains 2 g of protein, 2.2 g of fibre, 87 mg of calcium, 1.4 mg of iron, 19 mg of vitamin C and a whopping 3,880 IU of vitamin A. Half a cup of boiled roots contains 1.8 g of fibre, 274 mg of potassium and 72 micrograms of folate. According to Ayurvedic medicine, writes Amrita Sondhi in her book The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook, beets fortify the blood and "are good for alleviating hemorrhoids, uterine disorders, and constipation." They are also considered by natural health practitioners to be an excellent liver cleanser.
Beet greens are delicious lightly steamed, boiled, sautéed or stir-fried; you can also use them in recipes as you would Swiss chard or similar greens, or add tender young greens to salads raw.
The roots can be eaten raw or cooked; either way, be careful with red beets as their juice will stain. If you're using beets raw, try handling them in the sink; if you're cooking them, don't remove the skin until after cooking and make sure to leave the top intact when chopping off the tops. Be careful when washing beets before cooking -- if you break the skin, they will leak juice (and colour).
Grated raw beets are a tasty way to brighten up the flavour and colour of a salad. Raw beets are also popular juiced, often mixed with carrots or other vegetable juices. Beets can be cooked in many ways; boiling is probably the most common, although they can also be steamed, roasted or microwaved. Once they're cooked, the skin will slip right off, and you'll be left with a bright-red gem ready to be sliced or diced as a side dish or on a salad, or to be added to a soup (like that eastern European classic, borscht).