Once upon a time, beets were lonely outcasts, humble and reviled. But times have changed. Beets are everywhere lately. They've experienced a revival.
According to the food industry research firm Technomic, between 2009 and 2010 the number of beet dishes on restaurant menus increased by 16 percent - and the number of beet salad appetizers increased by a whopping 25 percent. And it has continued to go up since then.
The popularity is fueled because beets have become known as a superfood. Their vibrant red color comes from antioxidant anthocyanins and betalains, which may help prevent cancer and other degenerative diseases. They're also nature's multivitamin because they're rich in so many important vitamins and minerals - like potassium, magnesium, iron, fiber and vitamins A, B and C. Scientific studies have shown that beets are able to boost energy levels, lower blood pressure and reduce arthritic aches and pains.
A bunch of young beets
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
Beet greens are even more nutritious than the roots and can be prepared like any other greens: sauteed, braised or even juiced. They contain only 19 calories for half a cup (as opposed to 60 for the roots) but have lots of fiber, beta carotene, folic acid, vitamins C and A, calcium and iron, and almost twice as much potassium as do the roots. Like most other greens, they contain powerful antioxidants, flavonoids and other important phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Recent studies show that beet greens may suppress nicotine cravings, thus helping smokers quit.
Beets - and their greens - are particularly well suited to our cool climate and sandy soil. They don't require hot weather like corn or tomatoes, and do well in our relatively short growing season.
But beet greens have not experienced the same surge in popularity as roots, and so are still relatively unknown. Many recipes for cooked beets instruct you to discard the greens - that is, if the supermarket hasn't already done it for you.
That is not the case among Americans of African descent, however. My friend Douglas did not know what to do with the bulbs; he had watched his mother cook the greens and discard the bright red roots. Many African-Americans buy bunches of beets for the greens rather than the roots.
This is because greens of all kinds were one of only a few vegetables that African-American slaves were allowed to grow for themselves prior to the Civil War, and thus they became an integral part of African-American cuisine. The beet originated in North Africa and grew wild along Mediterranean seashores. People in southern Europe and northern Africa began cultivating beets for their green tops in prehistoric times; it was not until after the birth of Christ that the Romans began to use the beet roots as well. The Roman invasions of Europe spread this vegetable northward, and in time both roots and leaves of the beet became a traditional food in central and northern Europe. The greens were an early summer delicacy while they roots could be stored for food during the long northern winters.
Beet greens have great flavor and a good, sturdy texture similar to Swiss chard (a close relative). Look for greens that are fresh, young and tender, and have small baby beets attached. The leaves should have dark-green leaves with rich red veins running through them, and fairly long, upright stalks. Avoid any with wilted, yellowing leaves or slimy patches. Like all greens, they deteriorate quickly, so eat as soon as possible after purchase. Store them unwashed in the refrigerator, and wash in several changes of water prior to use to remove clinging sand.
They cook down, so one pound of beet greens will yield less than two cups when cooked, or about four to five cups when shredded for a salad. Young, tender greens are great in salads, the older ones in cooked dishes and soups. I use the bright red stems when cooking beet greens, unless they're very large and tough. They go well with strong seasonings like garlic, ham or chilies and are great braised together with other greens, such as chard, mustard or turnip greens. Cold beet soup is a quick, easy, traditional Eastern European favorite that is quite refreshing on a hot summer day.
Braised Beet Greens with Apples
Delicious served over pasta
1 pound fresh beet greens, including stems
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 small onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups cooked beans, such as navy or pinto
1 cup diced cooked ham (optional)
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 cup sharp cheddar or other sharp cheese
Wash greens. Separate greens from stems. Chop stems in half-inch pieces and chop greens coarsely. Set aside in colander.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add the stems, onion and garlic, and cook 5 to 7 minutes.
Add greens and chopped apples and cook 5 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in beans, ham and cheese, and cook until cheese melts.
Beet Greens and Barley Salad
3 small beets, with greens
1 cup barley
Salt and pepper
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 small garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 Tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
2 Tablespoons fresh minced chives
1 Tablespoon fresh minced parsley
1 Tablespoon fresh minced tarragon
1 orange, peeled, seeded and separated into segments
Cook barley according to package directions. Set aside.
Separate beets from greens. Scrub beets and roast or boil until just fork-tender. Wash greens and chop coarsely; set aside. Cut off stems, and reserve for another use or discard.
While barley and beets are cooking, make the vinaigrette dressing. Crush garlic with salt in a mortar. In bottom of salad bowl, whisk together the crushed garlic, vinegar, mustard and oil. Stir in the greens and allow to marinate in the dressing until barley and beets are done cooking. Stir in the cooked barley. Peel the beets, dice, and add. Stir in the herbs, feta, walnuts and orange segments.
Toss together, and serve at room temperature. Garnish with additional cheese and walnuts if desired.
Author of the award-winning cookbook "Garden Gourmet: Fresh and Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers' Market," Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.