Friday 14 September 2012

We've Got The Beets

I love going to farm markets at this time of year!  Such abundance!  The last of the late summer fruits and vegetables are there, together with the staple foods we associate with autumn. 

One of my favourites among the fall foods are bunch beets.  At this time of the year, they’re at their best, grown right on the farm, and harvested the same day I buy them.  They’re beautiful to look at -   their deep red roots, stalks, and leaf veins a perfect counterpoint to the dark glossy green of their leaves – and every bit of them is not only edible, but tasty too.

When I buy bunch beets, I prepare them for the fridge as soon as I get home.  (Doing so helps to preserve the nutrients in the greens.) 

I start preparing bunch beets by cutting off the greens, leaving an inch or so of stem at the top of each beet root. I put the greens and their stems in a sink full of cool water to soak.  There can be quite a bit of dirt clinging to bunch beet leaves, so I soak and rinse them two or three times before draining them in a colander.  Once the greens have drained, I trim the stems of just below the leaves and package the leaves and stems separately for the fridge.  I put them in cotton drawstring bags and store them in my vegetable crisper.  (If you don’t have cotton drawstring bags, clean cotton tea towels will work just as well.)

Once the greens have been packaged and stored in the fridge, the roots get a bath of their own.  Again, I place them in a sink full of cool water and let them sit for a bit.  Once they’ve soaked for a few minutes, I give them a gentle scrub with a vegetable brush.  I blot them dry with a clean tea towel (don’t do this with your best towels – the beet juice will stain them), put them in a cotton drawstring bag, and store them in the fridge too. 

Beets bring a lot of nutrition to the table.  They are a source of folate, manganese, fiber, potassium, vitamin C, tryptophan, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, and copper, and all or that nutrition comes in 58 calories per cup!

Beets are a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. Betanin and vulgaxanthin are the two best-studied betalains from beets, and both have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. [1]

In recent lab studies on human tumor cells, betanin pigments from beets have been shown to lessen tumor cell growth through a number of mechanisms, including inhibition of pro-inflammatory enzymes (specifically, cyclooxygenase enzymes).  The tumor cell types tested in these studies include tumor cells from colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate and testicular tissue.  While lab studies by themselves are not proof of beets' anti-cancer benefits, the results of these studies are encouraging researchers to look more closely than ever at the value of betanins and other betalains in beets for both prevention and treatment of certain cancer types. [2]

Although you can see these betalain pigments in other foods (like the stems of chard or rhubarb), the concentration of betalains in the peel and flesh of beets gives you an unexpectedly great opportunity for these health benefits. [3]

There are many, many ways to cook with beets.  The leaves can be used in any recipe that calls for kale or chard, or even spinach.  The stems can be chopped and added to stir fry or used to add both flavour and colour to stocks.  The roots can be boiled, baked, or pickled, and incorporated into countless recipes.

Besides being an excellent source of nutrition, beets are a good choice for my household because locally grown beets are available here almost year-round.  (We do only get the lovely greens of bunch beets from mid-summer to mid-fall, but beetroots store well and are almost always available at our local farm markets.)  Buying locally makes good sense to us because locally grown produce is often more affordable, its purchase supports our local economy, and – because it does not have to be transported for great distances – its carbon footprint is much smaller.

Because they can be grown in a wide range of temperatures, beets take a part in many different cuisines.  They are an important ingredient in many European and Russian dishes and - perhaps brought with immigrants to the area - are now an important ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes.   Beets are also used to add flavour, colour, and moisture to baked goods.  They pair very well with chocolate.

We don’t eat as many of beets here as are eaten in Europe, but that’s changing.  They are growing in popularity in North America.  A little on line research will yield you a wealth of recipes for this affordable, healthful ingredient.  

Even if you’ve had beets before and didn’t love them, do look up a recipe or two and give them a second try.  You’ll be surprised by how versatile this familiar, old fashioned ingredient can be.