Ancient history of beets
Beets, (Beta vulgaris) are a well known root vegetable, popular in many parts of the world. They are nutritious and versatile, with a history that goes back before the written word. Archaeological evidence shows that beets were eaten all around the Mediterranean Basin, Mesopotamia and even up into the area known as the Netherlands. People ate the tops, as the roots were small and insignificant at the time. The Greeks and Romans loved them and they were responsible for spreading them throughout the European continent. Along with being a food crop, beets had medicinal uses. Early peoples treated fevers, toothaches, skin conditions and constipation with potions made from the thin and fibrous roots.
The Romans went a step further and considered the beet an aphrodisiac. Ancient frescoes in Pompeii even depict beets with lovers frolicking nearby. There's actually a bit of truth to this particular belief since beets contain tryptophan and betaine which promote feelings of well being and contentment.
Discovering many uses for beets
As new varieties of beets were developed, the roots became larger and people discovered more uses for them. At first they were simply used as fodder for livestock, however when it was discovered that sugar could be extracted from beets in 1747, many more uses were invented. People flavored beer, made molasses and colored wines from the roots. When ladies realized that the red beet juice stained whatever it touched, they quickly adopted beet juice as a cosmetic, using it to stain lips and cheeks. That that is where the saying “red as a beet" originated. Since beets require less water to bring a crop to maturity and grow in much cooler climates than sugar cane, producing beet sugar quickly became an important industry. When Napoleon cut off sugar imports to France in 1813 because he refused to fund anything British, sugar beet production increased dramatically. Actually, the British set a shipping blockade preventing goods from reaching French ports and Napoleon being Napoleon, banned the import of anything British, regardless whether the goods were reaching French ports or not.
Cooking with beets
Beets became an important crop throughout Europe and since they grow well in cooler climates, they were vital in the survival of many peoples. The Russians and eastern Europeans love their beets and prepare them in numerous ways. The most famous being borscht, the iconic beet soup which is served either hot or cold. The basic borscht recipe calls for a meat broth, various vegetables and fermented beets. The fermentation process gives the beets the familiar sour flavor that is traditional, regardless of what vegetables or meat stock is used. Beets are incorporated into a number of foods and condiments and one that I'm curious to try is the Polish flavoring cwikla. This combines cooked grated beets and fresh horseradish into a tasty mixture used on sandwiches and as an accompaniment to cooked meats. Peel and grate the beets and add ½ the volume of grated horseradish to the beets. Stir in a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of brown sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator.
Beet nutrition and health benefits
Today beets are used in many ways. They are high in fiber and low in calories. They contain a significant amount of protein, potassium, Vitamin C and iron. They have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties along with their nutritional content too. Athletes have discovered that beets are high in nitrates which convert into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide naturally dilates the blood vessels, allowing more oxygen in the system. This gives them a little more stamina and more time before they reach exhaustion. The effects only last a few hours, so they consume the beet juice a couple of hours before competing. People wanting a natural way of reducing blood pressure also consume beet juice. The juice often reduces blood pressure by around 5 points and while that isn't a huge reduction, much can be said for exploring natural lifestyles and healthy diets.
Growing beets isn't all that hard. Gardeners just need to remember that they prefer cool conditions and plenty of moisture. They are a perfect early spring crop and here in west Kentucky, we plant them in mid-March sine they germinate best when the soil temperature is between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They withstand frost quite well and even light freezes. Plant seeds in loamy soil with plenty of drainage about 3 inches apart. When they germinate, mulch lightly to help conserve moisture and your beets should be ready to harvest between 50 and 70 days, depending on the variety. However, you can snip the greens at any point, but remember to only take a few outside leaves from each plant so the root can develop properly. The beetroot can be harvested anytime after they reach one inch in diameter, up to about three inches in diameter. If they remain in the soil much longer than that, they tend to get tough and woody. When harvested, leave an inch or two of the stems attached to the root and the beets won't bleed and stain.
Since spring is just around the corner and gardeners are searching for something early to plant, why not try a few beets? If your family is skeptical, simply hide the beets in familiar recipes. One enterprising cook even grates beets into chocolate cake batter and her family is non the wiser, so get creative and add some variety and nutrition to your table with beets.