Updated: Apr 5, 2019
By Jenny Hammer
Stroll through a farmers’ market or local grocery this month and the rich colors of autumn will catch your eye--among them the deep reds, maroons, and golds of beetroots and the magenta and sea-green of their leaves. Beets are in season and can add earthy sweetness and culinary versatility to your meals. But while they are packed with flavor, their most important attribute is the nutritional support of your good health.
A member of the Chenopodiaceae family, the common garden beet (genus beta vulgaris) is related to amaranth, quinoa, spinach, and lambsquarters--nutritional powerhouses, all. Beets have a long history of being used as food and as medicine. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the leaves as a potherb. Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes from the 1st century A.D., mentioned beetroot in broths and salads. Hippocrates supposedly used the leaves of the beetroot to dress wounds, and others ate the roots to combat sluggish intestines, cure fevers, or as an aphrodisiac.
It wasn’t until the 16th century, however, that Europeans started consuming the root as a vegetable. Over time, farmers have selected the plant for specific traits, giving us the four major beet cultivars of today: the garden beet, the sugar beet, Swiss chard, and mangels (or the mangelwurzel, used as livestock fodder since the 1700s).
While the garden beet and Swiss chard are what we are most familiar with, sugar beets have been and continue to be an important crop even though you won’t find them in any local markets. Because they can contain up to 22% sucrose, sugar beets supply fifty-five percent of the sugar produced in the United States and 20-25% of the sugar produced worldwide. Cane sugar (think C&H of Crockett) makes up the remainder. Unlike sugar beets, however, red and golden garden beetroots haven’t been genetically modified. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop has been modified, to make it resistant to glyphosate, a.k.a. “RoundUp.” This may surprise you.
Another surprise is that the first successful sugar beet factory in the United States was in the East Bay--in Alvarado, now called Union City. The year was 1870. A brainchild of Ebenezer Dyer, who traveled to Germany for the seeds and equipment, the commercial use of sugar beets kicked off a spate of factories and beet sugar production in California (Pleasanton, Tracy, Betteravia) as well as in rest of the country. Dyer even sent a fancy barrel of the stuff to President Grant.
But sugar and history are not what we have in mind when we go to the farmers’ market or the grocery store. Fresh, nutritious, and good food is. Pick up some beetroots and/or beet greens and get cookin’. Put beets front and center for awhile, and you may reap some remarkable health benefits.
How? Beetroots are full of phytonutrients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, they are an excellent source of essential vitamins and trace minerals, such as vitamin B6, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. They are a good source of dietary fiber and vitamin C. Most notable, however, is their high folate (folic acid/B9) content. One half cup of cooked beetroot contains about 17% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI)--the recommended amount--for this vitamin. Folate is important for healthy cell growth, the creation of red blood cells, and the repair of DNA and RNA in the body.
But it gets better, for this remarkable vegetable is really two-in-one: the root and the greens. Beet greens are equally--if not more--beneficial for your health. In fact, with the exception of folate, beet greens contain more minerals, vitamins, and fiber than beetroot. For example, one half cup of cooked beet greens provides 30% of your daily need for vitamin C; the root provides only 5%.
There are hundreds of ways to include beets--both roots and greens--into your daily diet. From traditional borscht to roasted kebabs to pickles, from warm beet greens with goat cheese to beet green frittatas, beets can make your eating enjoyable, colorful, and beneficial. Peruse cookbooks or on-line sites for recipes or prepare the one I’ve included.
I had my first beet burger about two years ago at the home of friends, and I was surprised at how good it was. Give this recipe a try; it might surprise you, as well.
Makes six 4” diameter burgers.
What you’ll need:
1 medium yellow onion
3 tablespoons grapeseed or safflower (high heat) oil, plus more for searing burgers
2 cups peeled and grated red or golden beetroot
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 cup walnuts (or sunflower seeds
1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
3 teaspoons sambal olek (ground fresh chili paste)
1/2 cup cooked lentils, drained
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups short-grain brown rice (room temperature)
Cut the onion into 1/4” thick slices. In a medium-sized skillet, sauté the onion in the oil for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat until it caramelizes and darkens. Turn down the heat and add the beets, garlic, walnuts, raisins, sambal olek, and paprika. Cook for 10 minutes. Stir often. Remove from heat and let cool some before putting into a food processor. Pulse until still slightly chunky but not mush. Transfer to a large bowl. Add salt and black pepper and lentils Put the rice and egg in the food processor (no need to wash processor between these steps) and pulse to a coarse purée. Add this rice/egg mixture to the onion mixture already in the bowl. Mix well.
With lightly oiled hands, divide the resultant mixture into six portions and form into patties about 4 inches in diameter and a little under 1” thick.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil. Gently place burgers in the skillet and cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Flip the burgers and turn heat down to low. Cover and cook an additional 10 minutes. Burgers will have a firm brown crust.
Beet burgers are a great replacement for beef burgers and can be served the same way, on buns with your favorite condiments. Or, serve atop salad greens. The reward will be not just the flavor, but a burger free of saturated fat and cholesterol. It may even lower your blood pressure or improve your general health. Bon appétit!