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Beetroot - the Vegetable
Beta vulgaris - beetroot - a red-staining root vegetable.
Species: Latin B. vulgaris; Genus: Beta; Family: Amaranthaceae; Order: Caryophyllales; Class: Magnoliopsida; Division: Magnoliophyta; Kingdom: Plantae.
Herbalists know it as the 'vitality plant' due to its health-giving properties - the fact it's rich in magnesium and iron makes it good for the blood. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which are antioxidants, are present in most yellow, orange, and many red pigments in fruits and vegetables. Beetroot has no fat, hardly any calories and is a good source of fibre.
Some people consider that a salad isn't a salad without an essential ingredient - beetroot. Sliced, grated or whole - what a choice! Sweet-tasting beetroot has been around for a long time, since pre-Roman times at least. Hippocrates was using beetroot leaves as bandages around 400BC. The Victorians knew beetroot as the 'blood turnip'. It has never had great press but beetroot is now enjoying a comeback and relishing a new persona as a superfood.
The Department of Health recommends that a healthy diet should contain at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Three whole 'baby' beets, or seven slices of beetroot, counts as one portion.
Some ancient civilisations regarded beetroot as an aphrodisiac. The still-standing brothel in Pompeii, (the city which was destroyed in 79 AD by the erupting volcano Mount Vesuvius), has a picture of a beetroot on its walls, among the many frescos. Beetroot contains high levels of the mineral boron, which is thought to influence the production of human sex hormones, spicing up fruity thoughts.
Beeturia (Pink Pee)
Be aware that ingestion of beetroot can colour urine red and also discolour stools, causing the unwary to hot-foot it to their GP for urgent tests. The pinkness of your pee depends on the acidity of your stomach; some people don't see pink pee afterwards and some do (approximately 10 - 14%). If you don't see pink pee then your stomach is at the strongly acidic end of the normal range - if you do see pink pee then your stomach is at the less acidic end of normal, and the colour hasn't been broken down on the way through your gut.
Beeturia is a harmless occurrence and you do not have to exclude beetroot from your diet if you are affected by it. If you don't normally have pink-stained pee after consuming beetroot, you might like to try an experiment. Try taking some antacid1 tablets, then eat beetroot. Remember to look at what you're doing the next time you visit the toilet. That should satisfy your curiosity.
Some people don't like beetroot because it stains. Worktops, tablecloths and clothes can end up being stained an indelible red. When preparing beetroot you can protect your skin by wearing gloves, but if you do get splashed, rub a slice of lemon on it. If you really don't like the red staining element then the golden variety could be the one for you. There is also a white variety but this is hard to find in shops so it's a good excuse to grow your own.
Grow Your Own
First choose an area of well-drained alkaline soil. It should have had a different vegetable growing there the previous season, to ensure no build-up of disease. You will need to prepare the soil beforehand by raking it well, removing all the weeds and stones. A fertiliser mixture of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and a small amount of zinc (2:3:2 (22) with Zn) should be spread and worked into the soil before planting time. Boron2 is a particularly important trace mineral in vegetable crops and may need to be added to soils in which it is deficient. This may be recognised as it causes leaf yellowing and scorching in most root vegetables and, with beetroot in particular, it causes black cankers on the root surface and sometimes black lesions in the flesh of the root.
The seed should be sown in Spring after danger of frost has passed. Sow in small furrows 2cm deep, spacing the rows by 20cm. After planting, the growing area should be watered and mulched to prevent it drying out. The mulch should be moved to between the plants when the leaves start to show as it will keep the weeds down. Some plants should be discarded to allow the remainder enough space to grow. The gap between the plants should be approximately 7cm. Water regularly during hot spells but only once a week during colder weather. About a month after planting, the beets will benefit from 25g of sulphate of ammonia (or 20g of limestone ammonium nitrate) per square metre. Harvest your beetroot when the plants measure 7.5cm across.
Beetroot can be purchased as a raw vegetable to prepare yourself in a variety of ways. Like all fresh foods, use as soon after purchase as possible in order to reap the benefits of this wonderful nutritional vegetable. Freshly purchased raw beets can be stored in the fridge for a maximum of three days. Prepared beetroot is readily available whole in vacuum-packed bags in the greengrocery section and is ideal for picnics or lunchboxes. The most recognisable form of beetroot is the pre-prepared option which is sold in glass jars in the UK (tins in the US) with a sealed, twisting lid. With this you have the choice of 'baby beets' which are a small whole, perfectly round and sexy foodstuff; or the larger, thinly sliced beetroot which is perfect for sandwiches.
Prepare beetroot for eating raw by cutting off the tops and then peeling3 with a potato peeler. Beetroot can be grated, tossed with a little orange juice and eaten raw. Pigment in beetroot is light-sensitive and will turn brown on exposure to light, so use it up quickly. Remember to save any peelings and vegetable waste for your compost heap.
When cooking beetroot you should always cook it whole, after snipping off the stalks. Wash the beet under cold water before cooking, don't pierce the skin and resist the urge to top and tail like carrots (do not cut off the crown and base). Apart from the staining this would cause, the beet would also lose its flavour.
Boil or steam: Beetroot can be boiled or steamed (beware of staining your walls and ceilings) for 20-60 minutes depending on its size. It is cooked when you can pierce it easily with a skewer. Allow to cool and then the skin will slip easily off. It might be wise to have dedicated beetroot paraphernalia because of the staining issue.
Baked: Wash the beet, trim the stalk and wrap each beetroot separately in foil. Place in a moderate oven for about 40 minutes (for small beets), then serve with seasonal vegetables. Large beets, up to about a kilo in weight, can take up to four hours to bake.
Puré e: Reduce it to mush and add to home-made baby food; mashed potato; home-made soups; and vegetable smoothies.
Pickled: This is the most common way (in the UK) of using and storing beetroot; the sliced or 'baby' beets can then be dished up as required. Be aware that once the sealed jar is opened, the beetroot will start to turn brown so the contents should be used up as soon as possible.
Tip: Don't throw away the beetroot stalks and leaves, they are nutritious and should be treated in the same way as spinach. The greens have nutritional value, containing folate, iron, potassium and some vitamin C. Chop up finely and add it to quiches, curries and stir-fries, or mix with onion and garlic and serve as a dip.
Fun with Beetroot
Beetroot juice functions very well as a home-made chemical indicator of acidity; it turns pink in acidic solutions and yellow in alkalis. This is a popular experiment in the first year of UK secondary school (age 11 to 12) and it can be used to test various domestic products such as water, milk, baking soda, washing soda, vinegar, lemonade and so on.
Turn Edam cheese purple for a fun salad at Hallowe'en parties by cubing the cheese and adding it to a jar of beetroot which still contains the pickling vinegar but no beetroot. You can also use beet juice to dye white rice a fetching shade of pink for a special Valentine's Day meal.
Historically beetroot, along with carrot, was used to dye materials and foods. An interesting fun game can be prepared for children by cutting different shapes (eg, dinosaurs, fish, animals and space shapes) in beetroot, carrot, and potato. Supply them with blank paper for 'painting' with the vegetables. Make sure their skin is protected - and it's best to cover the table or surface with newspaper first. Don't use your best tablecloth.
Songs About Beetroot
Beetroot Ideas and Recipes
This simple relish serves four to six people:
Heat a frying pan and toast the cumin and sesame seeds until slightly browned. Add the olive oil, beets and brown sugar, and stir to mix. Add the wine and simmer for two to three minutes.
More Beetroot Recipes
There are more beetroot recipes at BBC Food.
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