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Food and Drink

Beating the bushes for beets

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I was thrilled to see Araxi executive chef Andrew Richardson in a recent ad in the Pique proudly but tenderly presenting a bouquet of hearty beets, greens and all. These often overlooked veggies need all the good P.R. they can muster.

When it comes beets on the road to haute cuisine, they fell off the shoulder and into the ditch long ago, relegated to the same lowly status as, say, cabbage and turnips. Farmer food, my granny would say. Although poor turnips slink along in an even more pejorative role, as in the ultimate insult to sophistication and intelligence from days gone by: you just fell off the turnip truck.

This isn’t by accident, or simply a leftover from the days of "DPs" (displaced persons) coming to Canada from eastern Europe after World War II, bringing with them their earthy food preferences.

In Food: A Culinary History we learn that even the Romans, in their erstwhile concerns over status and the subsequent classification of foods for the "rich" (dieus) and the "poor" (pauper), relegated beets as food exclusively for the poor. Likewise, faba or broad beans ("faba" is a play on words: "faber" means "worker"). The cabbage, lowly radish and even broccoli were, too, all foods for the uncouth, suitable only for a poor man’s dinner and a good laugh when served to the wrong – meaning aristocratic – people in the wrong way.

So heads up, beets. When people like Andrew shake off centuries of baggage and "rediscover" you, you’re definitely on the high road to fame and fortune, and thousands more dinner plates.

Maybe la-de-da Romans shunned beets because they were afraid of staining their best togas while lolling about at a banquet. I know my granny took extra precautions when serving beet pickles, warning all within hearing range not to get beet juice on her best white linen tablecloth. Eating beets was always associated with a bit of anxiety for me after that.

While beets come in a variety of colours – yellow, orange or, even white – they are best known for their "beet-red" roots. The compounds responsible for same dreaded staining are called betalains, one of the family of four compounds responsible for all vegetable-based pigments. Beets and the fuchsia fruit of the prickly pear are the only edible sources of betalains, but they also colour flowers like the bright bougainvillea.

In beets, the characteristic purple/red/violet colour comes from a pigment called betanin. Different amounts of pigment in the vascular system vs. the storage tissue of the root account for the different coloured rings when you cut across a beet.

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