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The beet goes on

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A serious vegetable requires serious attention

"The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious." So begins Tom Robbins’ novel, Jitterbug Perfume.

Beets, also called beetroot in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, are often overlooked as vegetables worthy of harvest table presentation. Perhaps it is their striking colour that bleeds onto every preparation surface or maybe, as one friend puts it, they taste too much like dirt. Whatever the reason, the beet’s fusty, mineral flavour coupled with its deep ruby purple hue should not be disregarded. Too often people have been introduced to beets by tasting a soggy, highly acidic, pickled variety that comes out of a jar, or worse, a can. If the beets are too large when harvested, they are woody and fibrous and no amount of cooking can correct for maturity. Freshly picked, young (less than three inches in diameter) beetroot are sweetly earthy and offer a vibrant, not to mention healthy, addition to dinner plates.

Beetroot are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region but are now cultivated worldwide. There are different varieties of beets; the sugar beet is grown for sugar production, the mangel wurzel for fodder and the garden beet, Beta Vulgaris , as a vegetable and as a food colouring. The word Beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet, which the round bulbous root resembles, but the word beet comes from the French word for beast, "bete", as the vegetable bleeds like an animal when it is cut. Vulgaris means "common".

The beet’s brightly-coloured red pigment, called betanin, has been used to help treat cancer. Specific anti-carcinogens that are bound to the pigment increase cell respiration. The beet root also has a high folate content and contains potassium, manganese and iron. Beet greens are also edible and contain calcium, iron and beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant. Greens can be prepared and eaten in much the same way as spinach – when they are very young, beet greens can be added raw to salads.

To help clean up the pink stains on hands and cutting boards when working with beets, use a simple scrubbing of salt with a wet abrasive cloth or, alternatively, wear rubber gloves. Not all beets bleed crimson however; Beta Vulgaris appears as hues of white, pink, purple, golden, and even as candy cane-like concentric circles of pink and white. It is an Italian heirloom beet with a mellow, sweet flavour called the Chioggia. More examples of beet names are Ruby Queen, Warrior and Gladiator – Tom Robbins is right, beets are serious.

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