The Dreaded Beet and a Tempting Recipe
by Victoria Challancin
I've never understood why so many people actively dislike the taste of cilantro (coriander) and beets as well, but apparently they do--and ditto for mushrooms, liver, okra, and cactus. As it turns out, I am not genetically predisposed to an aversion to cilantro (yes, this is well-documented) and I find beets to be "earthy" and totally pleasant to eat, whether raw, pickled, or cooked. But the term "earthy" is the catch. It turns out that that their earthy flavor, which comes from the same substance that makes the earth smell good after a rain, is the culprit that causes so many to blanch at the thought of ingesting the beautiful beet.
Beets, or beetroot as they are called in British-influenced parts of the world, contain the terpene geosmin which can be a flavor enhancer in small doses, but can overwhelm in larger amounts. It is what can make catfish, water, wine, and beets taste like mud.
A Bit of Beet History
The beet has a long history indeed. Cultivated since at least 2000 B.C., the beet has been much-appreciated throughout history. In its early form as what was called a "sea beet," the beet as we know it today originated somewhere along the Mediterranean shores, possibly of North Africa, from where it spread to Babylonia in prehistoric times and later to China. The lack of a Sanskrit name for it supports the idea that it spread from West to East in very ancient times. Beets have been excavated in the Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt as well. Whether wild or cultivated, it also made an appearance at Neolithic sites in Europe. The tribes that invaded Rome spread it throughout Europe, it was used as animal fodder. And by the Middle Ages it was commonly cultivated throughout Medieval Europe.
Known at first as a "pot herb," or edible leafy vegetable, the bulb later also became an important food.
Its early uses were in its leafy form, as is well documented in early Roman and Jewish literary sources of the 1st century.
Like most plants, medicinal uses also abounded. The ancient Romans used beets for many conditions, including as a treatment for fevers and constipation. The Roman cookbook Apicius offers five laxative soups, three of which contain beets. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, advocated its use in the binding of wounds. Later, in the Middle Ages, it was used to treat various ailments relating to digestion and the blood. Some even used it as a remedy for "garlic breath."
Some Fun Facts
- The betalains, or red pigments, found in beets have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support
- Beeturia, a reddening of the urine after the consumption of beets, occurs in 10 -15% of people eating them in normal amounts
- Victorian women used beet juice as a blush
- The British Red Coats wore bright jackets (easy to spot by sharpshooters) dyed with beet juice
- Beets are high in copper, a free radical scavenger
- Beets are high in magnesium, which promotes healthy bones
- Beets are high in iron and phosphorus, both of which produce energy
- Beets are not just rich in anti-oxidants, they are notable for the mix of anti-oxidants they contain (carotenoids, phytonutrients such as anthocyanins, vitamin C, manganese, and more)
- Many of the unique phytonutrients found in beets are also proven to be anti-inflammatory
- The betalin pigments present in beets have been shown to support detox activity in the cells
- Research increasingly cites beets as possible cancer fighters
- Beets are high in fiber
- Because the phytonutrients, such as betalains, diminish with heat, shorter cooking times are best (such as steaming)
- Beets color can be modified during the cooking process--adding an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice or vinegar will brighten the color (add 1 tablespoon to cooking water), wile an alkaline substance such as baking soda will often cause them to turn a deeper purple--salt also causes the color to diminish, so add it at the end of cooking time
- Beet powder is used as a coloring agent for many foods, including tomato sauce
- Beets come in a variety of colors (white, yellow, and candy-striped)
- It is estimated that about two-thirds of commercial beet crops end up cans
- Beets can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, pickled, roasted, and sautéed
- To reduce bleeding and to preserve nutrients and flavor, cut the tops off, leaving at least one inch of stems intact, then boil or roast whole and unpeeled
- Roasting is, in my opinion, the best way to prepare beets for intense flavor (preheat oven to 400F, place whole beets, rubbed with olive or vegetable oil, with leaves cut off on aluminum foil on top of a baking sheet, and bake for approximately one hour, depending on size)
- Complimentary herbs and spices include: allspice, bay leaf, cloves, dill weed, chives, garlic, mustard seed, thyme, and citrus flavors (and after using this recipe, I can add ginger, soy, and sesame!)
- To remove beet stains, rub with wet salt and lemon juice and then wash with soap and water
- To remove stains on cutting boards, use bleach
- Because beets are high in sodium, so no salt is necessary in the cooking water
The following recipe is something I concocted to use the fresh vegetables I bought at our local Saturday organic market, which I have written about several times. I had earmarked this dressing as something that looked promising, and it certainly was. I love, love, love this recipe and will use it again and again.
Cook's Notes: This is such a flexible salad (see suggestions below). I have carefully written down how I made it, but I simply used what was fresh in my fridge. Because I pressed the garlic and grated the ginger, I simply whisked everything for the dressing together in a bowl, thus saving a wash of the blender. I would have preferred green onions here, but didn't have any. I truly meant to sprinkle the salad with chopped peanuts, but forgot. You could use all three herbs (I was hoping to echo some bright Southeast Asian flavors), or stick with only one. I did use the mayonnaise, but suspect that yogurt would also work just fine. This was one of tose rare times when I added no salt or pepper (beets are high in sodium naturally), but check your seasonings and adjust to taste. Oh...the possibilities of ways to change this recipe...
I found this recipe on Smith Bites who quote it as being from The Kitchn, one of my favorite sites. I tried to find it on the original site, but failed miserably. How grateful I am to Debra, though, for finding it for me! A truly delicious and flexible recipe.
Recipe: Beet and Carrot Slaw with Ginger-Tahini Dressing
(Salad Recipe by Victoria Challancin, Dressing Recipe borrowed from Apartment Therapy--The Kitchn via Debra of Smith Bites)
2 medium-large beets, peeled and grated
6 medium carrots, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon minced mint
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
3 tablespoons finely sliced red onion or green onions
1/3 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons tahini
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Place the salad ingredients in a large bowl.
Mix all dressing ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour over enough dressing to moisten the salad and save the rest for another use (see suggestions below).
- Add chopped nuts: peanuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, etc
- Add toasted seeds: sesame, pumpkin, sunflower
- Add jícama, grated or julienned
- Make the base of the salad some sort of cabbage, red or green--or even lettuce--or add kale
- Add a bit of grated apple
- Cubed cucumber? Sure
- Use the dressing with crudites, summer rolls, or any green salad (good with fruit additions)
- Drizzle the dressing over steamed asparagus, as I did last night
- Use the dressing with some sort of wrap sandwich
- Use the dressing to dress a cold Asian noodle salad
The Salad looks a bit of a mess all mixed up, but truly it was pretty
A bit of Mexican humor via my friend Jennifer--one of her many, many examples
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.
Like life, recipes are meant to be shared (please pass them on), but ask permission before using my photos or text. Thanks!