The famously red veggie shows its true color
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely/ illustration by julia rothman
“Red as a beet” is a simile everyone knows. That crimson color is the vegetable’s most striking characteristic. What people don’t know is that until fairly recently the beet wasn’t red and it didn’t have much of a root. It was eaten for its foliage: Green as a beet leaf.
The Beta vulgaris that we know comes from the leafy sea beet, B. maritima, that grows wild along the coasts of Western Europe and North Africa. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate the leaves, no doubt in a dressing of olive oil, vinegar and mustard, much as they do today. By 300 AD it had been sufficiently cultivated, according to Alan Davidson, for the roots to be consumed, but these were still long and tapered, pale yellowish in color.
In the late 16th century, the French botanist Jacques Daléschamps described something close to our bulbous red beet. In 1633, John Gerard, the English herbalist, praised the swollen red root vegetable in “a most excellent and delicate salad.” By the end of the century the diarist John Evelyn, who had traveled on the Continent during the English Civil War, included beetroot (to use the English term) in his Acetaria (1699). This discourse on the virtues of eating salads and vegetables, with little or no meat, bears rereading today.
As the root of the beet became desirable for its high sugar content and spinach was becoming more widely available, the beet was cultivated more for its tuber than its foliage. Swiss chard, a close relative, became the leafy variety notable for its thick and colorful rib. On the Continent one type of beet with yellow tubers was grown for animal fodder, sometimes eaten by people during famine (Mangoldwurzel, corrupted into Mangelwurzel). In the late 18th century the technology for extracting sucrose from the sugar beet was discovered, so that variety of beet was cultivated for the production of table sugar.
In addition to sugar, the beet whose roots we commonly eat are full of minerals and nutriments, and unpeeled they keep for months in cold climates where little else may be at hand. These two traits help to account for the vegetable’s popularity in Northern and Eastern Europe. As well as pickled beets, the thick soup borscht is beloved all over Lithuania, Poland, western Russia and the Ukraine, where it is cooked in variations infinitely more numerous than its many names and spellings. This may also explain why some Americans can’t bear the thought of beet roots: they were force-fed them as children. They might try again.
Today attention usually goes to the root’s various colorings—golden, white, red in differing shades, candy-cane striped rings (Chioggia, named for the fishing port near Venice)—and shapes—round, cylindrical, tapered in large and small sizes. But the green leaves too are full of earthy flavor and piquancy that deserve to be savored. They are a close cousin of Swiss chard, cultivated for its leaves rather than root and fleshy long mid-ribs in white, red, pink and yellow.
While beet roots and leaves are both highly nutritious, the greens contain some benefits that the sugary roots lack. They are a good source of fiber, minerals and antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular and other diseases. I often cook and serve both parts together, as they balance each other on the taste scale too.
As for other uses, the vibrant, sanguine color of red beet roots can be used as a natural dye, but it may be hard to affix to fabric. You’ll notice that in cooking, the red juice on your hands and perhaps clothing washes out easily. When you eat beet leaves as well as roots, you may observe this same characteristic in your digestive tract the next day. Do not be alarmed.
Now that we’re in growing season, farmers will be thinning their beet patches (“Beethoven” in German) and bringing beet greens to market, allowing the roots to mature. When they’re truly young and tender, greens are delicious raw, with appealing thin red veins on the leaves too small to need removal. Use them as you would baby arugula or cress. When they get a little older and coarser, a brief steaming or light sauté in oil, just enough to wilt the leaves, is all they need. And when they are mature, you can remove the large central vein and tear the leaves into smaller pieces for braising. If you don’t have quite enough, add some chard leaves.
Below is a variety of recipes for beet greens mostly including the root. But perhaps my very favorite way to serve beet tops needs no recipe at all: Lay a bed of baby beet greens fresh from the farmers market on a plate. Over them lay baby beets, very thinly sliced across to show the grain. Contrast the brilliant colors including, if possible, the candy-cane-striped Chioggia, which is especially sweet. Add any other fresh summer vegetable you like, or nothing more, maybe just some crumbles of chèvre or blue cheese and some toasted nuts. Dribble a little vinaigrette or other simple dressing over and serve. Presto: Red, golden, pink, white and green as a beet.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 25 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on "John James Audubon's Tastes of America" was in the Summer 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at email@example.com.