Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

For the love of beets

For years, scientists and nutritionists have been touting the health benefits of brightly colored foods. Yet, while shoppers throng to farmers’ markets to scarf up locally grown blueberries, tomatoes and leafy greens, not many have been beating a path to beets.

“They’re not as popular as they used to be,” said John Dreyer of Dreyer Farms in Cranford, where beets have been grown since the farm’s founding in 1904.

“You know who loves beets? Deer,” said his brother, Henry. And even they just munch on the tops, leaving the brilliant crimson bottoms underground, he added.

Despite the meager following, New Jersey ranks third in national beet production, behind Texas and California. Locally grown beets should be harvested into November, according to the Dreyers. Back in the days before refrigeration, people would seek out crops that could be held in the family root cellar — like beets — and eat them over the winter, noted Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County, who has analyzed numerous beet varieties. “I think people that are into health foods probably buy them. Anything with that much color has to be just tremendous for you. But they’re just not part of the American diet,” said Infante-Casella.

Apparently, studying the possible health benefits of the brightly colored root vegetable isn’t on many scientists’ menus, either.

“I haven’t seen a whole lot of research about it,” said Karen Collins, a registered dietician and nutrition advisor with the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, DC, which focuses exclusively on the link between diet and cancer. Though beets are not particularly high in the classic vitamins like vitamin C and beta carotene, she added, they are low in calories and a good source of potassium, which is essential for controlling blood pressure.

Many ruby-fleshed foods, such as raspberries and pomegranates, get their color from anthocyanins, phytochemicals that can help protect against various diseases. Not beets. Instead, their color comes from betacyanins, red pigments that include betanin. “Apparently this compound, like many other high-color phytochemicals, is both a powerful antioxidant and one that stimulates body production of certain enzymes that detoxify carcinogens,” noted Collins. “This enzyme-inducing effect is a very important part of how vegetables and fruits protect us from cancer, preventing it before it ever has a chance to start.” Beets also contain salicylic acid, a relative of aspirin, and betaine, a colorless crystal that helps detoxify homocysteine, an amino acid that can contribute to heart disease.

So why aren’t more of us eating our beets?

“If people don’t grow up seeing their mother fix them, they just don’t know what to do with them,” posits Collins.

“It’s a flavor that I grew up with and I love,” said Chef Andrea Carbine of A Toute Heure in Cranford, who spent her childhood on an American Air Force base in Germany. Ever since her restaurant, which she co-owns with her husband, Jim, opened last May, beets from Dreyer Farms and from Phillips Farms in Milford have been on the menu in various forms. “People love them,” she said.

This spring and summer, she served beets in salads. Fall and winter plans call for golden beets in rabbit and duck dishes and roasted red beets served with cheese. Though striking in color, golden beets, said Carbine, “don’t have as pronounced a beet flavor; they don’t have as much juice or sweetness.” And so, she uses them as an accent ingredient, and dark red, pink, or striped beets like the Chioggia (pronounced KYO-jah) as a full-flavor component. She also puts the tops to effective use, wilting them with bitter greens. Carbine particularly likes the deeply veined tops of the Bull’s Blood variety.

Indeed, one of the bonuses of buying locally produced beets is that they’re typically sold with their tops still attached. Those red-veined greens are not only flavorful (similar in taste to Swiss chard), but also packed with beta carotene, folic acid, potassium and calcium.

A member of the goosefoot family of plants, which includes spinach and chard, the beet that we know, Beta vulgaris, descended from the sea beet (B. maritima), a wild seashore plant native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and northern Africa.

In classical times, they were grown for their greens rather than their roots, which bore little resemblance to the plump globes we know today. Anyone who’s ever boiled beets knows that the vegetable’s coloring will leach into the cooking water. (In Greece, this reddish liquid is popularly consumed, warm and perhaps with a twist of lemon, as a restorative.) But there are several ways to help the beets retain much of their color, along with their flavor and nutrients:

— Since the tops will draw moisture from the roots, remove greens before storing. Discard any damaged leaves and refrigerate the greens in a perforated plastic bag for up to two days. Unwashed beetroots can be refrigerated for about three weeks.

— When removing tops, don’t trim too closely to the bulb. Leave about an inch of stem.

— Do not peel the beets before cooking.

— Do not cut off any slender roots attached at the base, for doing so will leave an opening from which color will bleed.

— During cooking, avoid repeatedly poking the beets to test for doneness.

— To avoid staining your hands, wear gloves or use paper towels when peeling the beets. This is best done with when they’re still warm. Cold beets will be much harder to peel.

When shopping for beets, look for those that are relatively smooth and firm with dark color and unblemished skins. “Beet tops should look young, clean, fresh and tender. Roots should be firm and dirt-free. Tops should not contain any dry, damaged, or discolored leaves,” noted Infante-Casella. If sold topless, the beets should not be sprouting. “If people would just try them, I think they’d love them,” she said.