My childhood health food – Beet (commonly called beetroot or garden beet)

How, I missed my grandmother, she would let me eat beetroot raw, it was like a health food and one which I love, but second to chocolate. Beets are grown as a popular vegetable garden crop throughout the Caribbean and I guess around the world.

Beet tops are an excellent source of vitamin A and the roots are a good source of vitamin C. The tops are cooked or served fresh as greens and the roots may be pickled for salads or cooked whole, then sliced or diced. Beet juice is a basic ingredient of Russian borscht. The garden beet is closely related to Swiss chard, sugar beet and mangel. Mangels (also known as stock beets) are considered too coarse for human consumption but are grown for stock feed.

In the Garden

The beet “seed” is actually a cluster of seeds in a dried fruit. Several seedlings may grow from each fruit. Some seed companies are now sinuating the seed for precision planting, by dividing the fruit. Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep and one inch apart. Allow 12 to 18 inches between rows. Poor stands are often the result of planting too deeply or the soil’s crusting after a heavy rain. The seedlings may emerge over a relatively long period of time, making a stand of different sizes and ages of seedlings. Some gardeners find that placing a board over the row after planting preserves the soil moisture and eliminates crusting from hard rains. The board must be removed as soon as the first seedling starts to emerge.

Hand thinning is almost always necessary. The seedlings should be thinned to 1 to 3 inches apart. If thinning is delayed until the plants are 3 inches tall, those removed may be cooked greens, similar to spinach. Some cooks leave the small root (usually about the size of a marble) attached to the greens.

Though it is seldom done, beets actually may be transplanted. Some care must be taken to get the roots oriented vertically so that the beets can develop properly.

Frequent shallow cultivation is important because beets compete poorly with weeds, especially when small. Because beets have extremely shallow roots, hand weeding and early, frequent and shallow cultivation are the most effective methods of controlling weeds in the rows. Deep cultivation after the weeds are large damages the beet roots. Like most root crops, beets need a fertile soil (especially high in potassium) for vigorous growth. Keep your beet plants uniformly supplied with moisture for best performance.

Beets can be harvested whenever they grow to the desired size. About 60 days are required for beets to reach 1 1/2 inches in diameter, the size often used for cooking, pickling or canning as whole beets. Beets enlarge rapidly to 3 inches with adequate moisture and space. With most varieties, beets larger than 3 inches may become tough and fibrous. Beets may be stored in a polyethylene bag in a refrigerator for several weeks. Beets also may be stored in outdoor pits if the beets are dug before the ground freezes in the fall. Cut off the tops of the beets one inch above the roots. Beets store best at 32°F and 95 percent humidity. Do not allow them to freeze.

In the Kitchen

Wash beets carefully without breaking the skin. Breaks and tears allow color and nutritional value to escape. After cooking the skin can be easy rubbed away when the beets have cooled. Beets are known for their powerful red pigment which stains dish towels, wooden cutting boards and sinks. Don’t worry about your hands. Salt easily removes stains from skin.

There are many schools of thought on cooking beets. They can be microwaved, steamed, boiled, pickled, roasted or eaten raw. Because beets contain more natural sugar than starch, they are particularly delicious roasted in a hot oven. Roasting concentrates the sugar rather than leaching them out into cooking liquid.

Beets of different size and color cook at different rates. Select beets uniform in size to prevent overcooking. They are done when easily pricked with a fork. Raw beets need only to be scrubbed and grated or sliced as thinly as possible. Borscht is a popular beet soup which can be served hot in winter and cold in summer. Beets can be frozen, canned or pickled and dried beets yield fairly good results.

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