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Want to add some punch to your palate? Beet up your dinner plate

20130129_beets
Beets, fresh from the earth to your mouth via a farmers' market.
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 Strong vegetables elicit strong opinions. They’re either loved or hated, with very few people taking the middle ground. Beets fall into that love ’em or hate ’em category, with their intense, earthy flavor and outrageous color. 

It’s only fair to disclose that I’ve been a beet hater for most of my vegetable-eating life. Growing up, my experience with beets was limited to the occasional serving of bland, mushy, canned beets that made a rare appearance at Sunday dinner. The exotic red juices ran into my mashed potatoes, and their flavor – what flavor there was – was unlike anything else in my world. I had no idea that they’d come out of the ground, or where they grew. In later years, I’d try to reacquaint myself with the queen of root vegetables, but never got past a bite or two. What anyone saw in this crazy root was a mystery to me.
I came around to beets’ nuanced flavor profile late in life, when I tasted my first roasted beet. I’d been shifting my food choices gradually to locally available options, and beets just kept on presenting themselves; it was their beauty that drew me in, originally. Though I’m not even close to calling myself a beet lover, I’ve found a few reliable ways to welcome this intense vegetable into my life.
At this time of year, root vegetables rise to center stage at New Hampshire winter farmers’ markets, where it’s still possible to find local beets, tucked away with care a few months ago for winter sale. You’ll be lucky to find them – that is, if the beet lovers haven’t snatched them up first.
Through all those beet-shunning years, it’s likely that I’d been eating them anyway. If you’ve bought a bag of sugar for baking recently, or eaten something baked with sugar, you’re likely a beet eater, too. Sugar – the white, granular stuff we buy when it’s time to bake cookies – is produced from the sugarbeet as well as from sugarcane, and that five-pound bag may or may not disclose the source. These days, a label of “cane sugar” carries a little marketing pizazz, so you might see those words displayed proudly on bag’s label. If you see nothing, you’re probably buying beet sugar: both are sucrose. The difference, from tiny variations in mineral content, will be most apparent if you’re making candy, icings or crème brûlée. If that crème brûlée burns, rather than caramelizing nicely, you’re probably using beet sugar. Today, half of the world’s sugar supply comes from beets.
And sugar isn’t the only part of the beet that’s creeping into the food of the world’s beet haters. Beet extract makes an appearance as a substitute for artificial color in many food products, like yogurt, ice cream, beverages, candies and even dog food. 
Turns out, it’s not so easy to avoid beets after all. 
Some people think beets smell like dirt; others prefer to think of it as the sweet smell of a plowed field after a rainstorm. Whatever the smell means to you, it’s not because your beets are dirty. It’s because of an organic compound called “geosmin,” produced by microbes in the soil. You’ll find the same compound in mushrooms, spinach and lettuce, and the human nose is especially sensitive to its presence. Because so many people react negatively to the smell of beets, scientists are busy breeding odor-neutral cultivars. So, if the true personality of the beet offends you, stay tuned: the modern, blander beet will soon be available. Combining beets in recipes with cream will tame that earthy flavor, if waiting for the dumbed-down beet is too hard.
Beets are uniquely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin C and a substance called “betaine,” which reduces levels of homeocystine in the body, protecting against high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Betaine also promotes liver health by reducing fat deposits in the liver caused by disease and lifestyle. Juice aficionados proclaim the virtues of tossing raw beets into the juicer as particularly valuable in lowering high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, drinking 500 milliliters (that’s a lot!) of beet juice results in a measurable decrease in blood pressure in just an hour, with the effect lasting up to 24 hours. Some people turn to grated, raw beets for gall bladder health, too. As Hippocrates said some 2,400 years ago, “Let food be thy medicine.”
Look for beets with firm roots and avoid bruises. You’re not likely to find greens attached at this time of year but, if you do, choose beets with vibrant, healthy greens. (And be sure to use the greens, too!) Beets will keep for a few weeks in your refrigerator in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to cook with them, scrub them well with a stiff vegetable brush and trim off the stem end and dangling root. If you’re going to use them raw, as in grated into a salad, peel them first.
Combining beets with other vegetables means coloring the rest a vibrant pink – unless, of course, you’ve discovered golden beets. I was making chicken soup last week for a family member suddenly sick with the flu, and tossed a couple of golden beets into the pot along with several other more predictable vegetables like carrots and celery, all to be removed once their nutrients cooked into the broth. The golden color of the resulting soup, not to mention the flavor, was simply glamorous.
In the kitchen, the earthy sweetness of beets pairs beautifully with sour flavors, like vinegars, citrus, goat cheese and greens like arugula. If you find yourself with a mess of beets and a dearth of ideas, don’t worry. Just roast them up with a little olive oil and freeze them for later, when they’ll make a welcome appearance in winter salads. 
If beets are on your list of shunned vegetables, I urge you to give them another look (or sniff). Sometimes it’s just a matter of trying something new, cooked in a new way. Anyway, what’s more fun than eating New Hampshire-grown vegetables in January? 
 
Eleanor Baron lives, gardens, cooks and writes in Concord and stalks area farmers markets for fresh, in-season produce. She has a special passion for the more unusual, less appreciated “underdog” vegetables. Visit her blog at nourishingwords.net for more ideas and inspiration on incorporating healthy habits into your life.

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