Known for their intense color and earthy taste, beets are one of the oldest vegetables in cultivation. Believed to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable, the beet features in cuisines around the world throughout history, from ancient Greece to Elizabethan England to the early years of American independence.
Beets were so highly prized in the ancient world that early farmers developed methods for growing them all season long. Surprisingly, only the greens were widely consumed—the root was used only medicinally. Growers began cultivating beets for their roots in the 16th century, but they did not become widely popular until the 1700s when scientists and cooks discovered their use as a sweetener.
Beets are rich in vitamin C, folic acid, and minerals such as potassium, manganese, and iron. They also contain betalains, a unique cancer-fighting antioxidant, and are associated with improved blood flow, lower blood pressure, and increased exercise performance.
Separate green tops, pat unpeeled beets dry, and store in a ventilated bag in the vegetable crisper draw for up to 2 months. Beet greens can be wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Today, beets are prepared in just about every way imaginable, from grated raw to pickled to roasted, steamed, baked, fried, and even used as a food coloring. Their minerally flavor pairs wonderfully with tangy flavors such as goat cheese, tahini, or sour cream, and adds a burst of earthy sweetness when served with milder root vegetables such as turnips and potatoes.
Peel beets, cut into cubes, toss with olive oil and salt, and roast at 375 degrees until tender enough to pierce with a fork. Remove and drizzle with tahini that has been thinned with water and a splash of lemon juice. Sprinkle with sauteed garlic, toasted pine nuts, and feta cheese.
There’s a reason beets are popular as a natural dye—their intense color will stain anything it touches. Handle raw beets using latex gloves, and cover your cutting surface with a paper towel or old dish cloth to avoid stains.