…and in the midst of this whole Corona deal, the seasons are a-changing, the days grow longer, the air is buzzing with life, and flowers are in bloom everywhere. The re-energized vegetables are growing away, smiling up to the warm sun and getting a little help from the friendly Chubeza irrigation system.
Spending all this time at home with family members, pets, books and cooking, one may find him/herself suddenly noticing someone/something that has been around this whole time but had gone unnoticed in the hectic days of normal reality.
This is the case with me and the lovely beet. Although it’s been with us for some time now, I’ve neglected to acknowledge its many virtues. The beet is one of the first vegetables to proclaim the transformation from summer to winter, and one of the last to leave us, marking the end of spring. This season it comes to you complete with its beautiful green leaves where the beet has stored the sunrays that helped him grow. So in honor of this wonderful vegetable – beat along with us as we sing its praises.
The first half of the annals of Beet History is actually the history of Swiss chard, its immediate relative and possibly even its older brother. Their common ancestor is probably the wild beet which grows along the Mediterranean area, whose leaves and stems were gathered as an early source of food. Naturally, the first farmers to deal with the beet attempted to cultivate a plant that yields large leaves and wide chubby stems, i.e., the Swiss chard. These farmers were probably Greeks and Romans living along the Mediterranean shore, and one hypothesis holds that the family received its name “beta” because its seed pod resembles the Greek letter Beta. The Hebrew word for beet, Selek, derives from the Arabic Salak.
The beet root became edible around the second or third century. The first beet root recipes for the Roman kitchen appeared around that time, some touting such praise as “better than cabbage!” In the beginning, only young wild beet roots were gathered and cooked, and only in the 16th century do documents appear attesting to the existence of a genetic mutation in the seeds that arrived from Italy to Germany and created: the beet root. To this day, one of the beet’s nicknames is “Roman beet.” Still, even during this time, it was a scarce vegetable in Europe. At the start, it was only used for medicinal purposes. The red beet was known to be beneficial in treating amebic or bacterial dysentery, internal wounds, nasal congestion and hepatitis. Only in the 19th century did its culinary virtues gain recognition.
The beet seeds deserve a few words as well: the beet or Swiss chard seed is in reality a collection of seeds tucked close to one another inside the dry fruit. Thus when seeded, it will grow a number of sprouts at once, meaning they must be thinned upon sprouting (some seed companies separate the collection of seeds and offer single seeds in order to allow accurate seeding and reduce the need to thin. But we go with nature…). Where there is no opportunity to thin the sprouts, the immediate results will be 10 cm-high plants whose leaves are ready to be cooked or placed in a salad. Usually the seeds sprout slowly, each at its own rhythm, over a long period of time, creating beets of various age and size. Thus, when we harvest them, we basically scan the entire bed and pull out the biggest roots, allowing more space for the remainder of the crop to grow.
In the popular medicine genre of “Like Cures Like” (similia similibus curentur), the belief is that plants represent their medicinal use by their shape, color or resemblance to body parts. The red beet is considered a remedy for treating blood circulation. Contrary to the purple color of other vegetables (cabbage, onion, eggplant, lettuce, pepper, basil, etc.), the purple in the beet is quite unique. Its origin is in the purple pigment category “betalain,” which contains strong antioxidant qualities and excellent capacities to battle cancer and heart disease. The beet also contains salicylic acid, an aspirin–like compound which is anti-inflammatory and contributes to the vitality of blood vessels and the heart. The beet is considered one of the “cleansing” vegetables which is highly beneficial for the liver, kidneys, and even swollen legs and constipation.
Unlike the internal cleansing qualities of the beet, the external experience is quite the contrary. The beet cells are unstable and they “leak” when you slice or peel the root. Cooking stabilizes the cells, which is why cooking or baking the beet within its peel will reduce the staining. These pigments stabilize under acidic conditions, thus making pickling your beets a good (mess-preventing) idea. But beets color things other than your hands. We all know the red beet-dyed horseradish. Natural coloring extracted from beets is used as a popular food dye for pizza “tomato” sauce, pink lemonade or edible ink (the kind you might use to print on slices of meat).
Beets are usually round and red, but not exclusively. They come in many colors and shapes, ranging from striped to yellow, white, and purple. And you’re already acquainted with the elongated Chubeza beet alongside its roly-poly brother.
Despite the fact that it is a vegetable with high sugar value, and perhaps because of that fact (even higher than carrots and sweet corn), the beet is a good friend of weight watchers, containing only 30-40 calories. In addition, it is rich in folic acid, vitamin C and potassium.
Another relative is a white-root beet – the sugar beet. From the time that the Crusaders returned from their journeys, they craved the sweet flavor of the sugar they knew and loved. But sugar was an expensive commodity, imported to Europe via sea dwellers or roaming merchants. In 1747, German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf succeeded in extracting a small quantity of sugar from a beet root, then used as animal fodder. However, the process was highly labor-intensive, and the sugar content in beets was low. One of his students, Franz Achard, was more practical. He realized that if you want to extract more sugar from your beet, you just have to create sweeter beets. He then crossbred white beets and created the father of the modern sugar beet:
- To store beets: trim off any greens (the greens pump the root dry of its liquids, like the carrot or radish), allow three centimeters of the stem, and do not cut the root. Store the beet in the vegetable drawer of a sealed container and wrap the greens in a towel and plastic.
- In order to prevent “bleeding,” don’t cut or peel the beet prior to preparation. After cooking, steaming or baking, it will peel very easily.
- Adding some vinegar to the cooking water reduces the smell of cooking beets and allows them to keep their color. The cooking creates a clear beet stock which can be used for food coloring (like for rice, p’titim or couscous). Beets are naturally high in sodium, thus no salt need be added when cooking.
- When baking beets: to prevent staining, wrap in aluminum foil. It is best to add some kind of preferred seasoning, i.e., garlic, lemon slices, cumin or coriander seeds. The flavor penetrates and enriches the beet as it bakes.
- Beets can also be microwaved: pierce an unpeeled beet with a fork (to allow the steam to escape), place in a microwavable bowl, add a bit of water and heat uncovered for 4 minutes per beet, till soft.
- After the beets are prepared: to clean your hands of beet stains, rub with wet salt and lemon juice, then wash with soap and water.
- When our beets come with greens, don’t trash them! Use the greens like spinach or Swiss chard for a great semi-sweet flavor.
Wishing you a week full of color, flavor and health, and hoping that we will soon be able to resume blessed routine.
Alon, Bat-Ami, Dror, Orin and the entire Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Our garlic crop in the field has been hit by a leaf disease, and we are compelled to harvest it now, to avoid damage. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sending you heads of garlic which are no longer “green garlic” (their leaves have already dried), but the bulbs have not completely dried. If you can’t use the entire batch at once, store or hang them in a well-ventilated place where they can comfortably dry. Within several weeks, you’ll have delectable garlic cloves to delight the palate and the heart for a good while.
Monday: Zucchini/slice of pumpkin, potatoes, fennel/kohlrabi, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, leeks/onions/parsley root, Swiss chard/kale, parsley/coriander/dill, green or red lettuce, garlic.
Large box, in addition: Cauliflower/cabbage, green fava beans/snow peas, carrots.
FRUIT BOXES: Oranges/red grapefruit, avocados, apples, bananas.
Wednesday: Zucchini/slice of pumpkin, potatoes, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, leeks/onions/parsley root, Swiss chard/kale/New Zealand spinach, parsley/coriander/dill, green or red lettuce, carrots, garlic.
Large box, in addition: Cabbage, fennel/kohlrabi, green fava beans/snow peas.
FRUIT BOXES: Oranges/red grapefruit, avocados, apples, bananas.