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Beet it!

Discover the taste of beets straight from the ground and bursting with sweet flavor.

By George ErdoshCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2008

Deep Red: Pronto beets are grown at Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor

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A few decades ago, I never had to think about making choices when buying one of my favorite vegetables, beets. There was just one kind: the large fist- or grapefruit-size, carmine-red beet roots. As root vegetables store well, beets are available year-round and their flavor and texture hardly change with long storage, unlike most other long-stored vegetables such as carrots.

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Today you scan the root-vegetable shelf of a good market and you may find anywhere from three to half-a-dozen different kinds of beets. They come in white, gold, candy-stripes, and bunches of tiny baby ones with leaves attached, hardly larger than walnuts. Even the familiar red beets come in several variations.

The baby beets are particularly popular among restaurateurs and trendy chefs – they are very pretty in salads, mixed-vegetable side dishes, or simply placed next to the entrée, artistically arranged. As I am always eager to try new food items, I experimented with these trendy varieties and found them lacking in full flavor. To me, the standard, old-fashioned, large red roots beat all other beets, hands down. Only they offer a full, earthy, pleasingly sweet yet assertive, truly beety flavor.

Mediterranean roots

Like many foods, beets came from the east end of the Mediterranean region and locals originally picked wild ones for their tasty and colorful red leaves. Today we still grow beets for their greens for stews and salads, but most are grown for their roots, either for feeding livestock, feeding us, or to extract their sugar. They are easy and inexpensive to grow and thus their prices are always affordable.

Not only is this humble vegetable high in nutritional value, but beets are one of the sweetest of our vegetables. Table beets boast around 6 or 7 percent sugar, but varieties selected strictly to grow for their sugar contain 15 to 20 percent (for comparison, the sweetest of sweet onions contain about 15 percent sugar).

Most canned beets are stored either in water or in pickling solution. If you've never had a fresh beet, now is the time. Taste freshly cooked beets once, and you'll never buy the canned produce again.

The garden variety most commonly found at the market is called Big Red. Big Red's mother, a hybrid, was originally developed in a lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1950s. The immediate popularity among growers spread this hybrid throughout the world. However, there are dozens of other hybrids to choose from if you want to grow your own.

Beets dehydrate well and, during World War II, the US military brought tons of dried beets to the front-line kitchens – whether they were welcomed by the troops is another story.

Taming the beet

Many people hate beets, children perhaps most of all. Beets' flavor is simply too strong for their highly sensitive taste buds. (In kids' minds, beets may rival beef liver and Brussels sprouts on the scale of most hated foods.) In a way, mothers are blessed with their children's dislike since beets, by their powerful red pigment (called betalain) can leave nasty stains on clothing, table linen, and carpets.

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