Sunday, April 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/26/06)

Beets have been out of fashion for several years, considered by many a plebian vegetable along with turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips, but now beets and their allies are becoming de rigueur. Carrots have always remained a standard, not quite fashionable, bourgeois vegetable, conventional and humdrum. However, as gastronomic fashion changes with greater emphasis on food that smacks on home cooking and meat loaf, root vegetables are now happily chic.

Beets, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips are naturals for Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau. They don’t wilt at the first sign of frost, like tomatoes. A hardy lot, they’re nutritious, attractive, and easy to grow.

The beet with which to begin is the Detroit Dark Red (Beta vulgaris), an Heirloom developed in 1892 by a Mr. Reeves in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. He began with the Early Blood Turnip (Beta vulgaris cv.). The same turnip was also grown at Monticello by the author of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, whose gardens were undoubtedly tended by his slaves. At any rate, the Detroit Dark Red has a noble lineage.

An all around vegetable, almost all of it can be eaten. The
young leaves can be used in salads, and before they are too old can be used as a side dish or in soups and stir fry.

However, the real triumph of the Detroit Dark Red is the root, a delightful globe, best plucked early while it is still tender and tasty. To prevent the dark red from staining everything in sight, the globe is best boiled, baked, or roasted in its skin with the small base of leaves attached to the top and the small pig tail left on. After cooking, the skin can easily be slipped off without red stain running all over the place.

Beets are not all dark red globes. The Italian Heirloom, Chioggia (Beta vulgaris) with its interior rings of bright pink and white offers a great contrast to the Detroit Dark Red. With its sweet and peppery taste, it’s also an eye catcher when sliced properly on any dinner table.

The Golden Beet (Beta vulgaris) is golden in color and doesn’t bleed as do the red beets. A fetching contrast to the red beets, it’s attractive, sweet, and nutritious.

The Bulls Blood Beet (Beta vulgaris) is, also, an Heirloom. With an earthy yet sweet flavor, it’s darker and richer than the other beets with its leaves a deep maroon color. If the leaves are picked young, they are a striking contrast in salads. It’s a beet connoisseur’s beet.

The rules for growing beets are simple. Sow the seeds a few weeks before the expected last frost and keep sowing on through to fall. Plant an inch deep about 12 to 15 feet per foot and thin to 2 to 3 inches. Plant in well-composted soil and keep the watering even. When harvesting, choose a dry day, cut off tops near the crown, don’t wash the root, and store in the crisper in a plastic bag with small holes. They’ll last a long time. They can be stored, boiled, pickled, roasted, baked, canned, and frozen.

As far as pests are concerned, the ubiquitous aphids are a possible threat. Dill, coriander, and bronze fennel draw the insects that feed on aphids. Lady bugs are excellent predators on aphids. Insecticidal soap and detergent work as long as the leaves’ undersides where the aphids hide out are hit. If these are used, the leaves should be washed before eating. Never use systemic poisoning. Suicide and homicide are horticultural no-no’s.

Beets bring a delight to the eye, a pleasure to the palate, health to the body, and clarity to the mind.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

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