The beet is a root vegetable related to sugar beets and Swiss chard. Beets originated in the maritime regions of Europe, and gardeners hybridized them in Germany and England in the middle of the sixteenth century. Today they can be found at local farmers’ markets in April, May and June, and again in October, November and December. The tops may be cooked or served fresh as greens, and the roots may be pickled for salads or cooked whole then sliced or diced. Fresh beets with the greens still attached may be stored in the fridge for 3 to 5 days; with the greens removed, they will stay fresh for 2 to 3 weeks (so use the greens quickly).
There are many varieties of beets for the home garden. Read seed packets carefully to select for these characteristics: early or late season harvesting, good greens, canning, root color, shape and time to maturity. Plant beet seeds in February, March, April, August and September in full or part sun in moist soil, following directions on the seed package. Like most root crops, beets need fertile soil, preferably high in potassium, for vigorous growth. For a continuous supply all season, plant new seeds at 3-4 week intervals. Thin the seedlings to 1-3 inches apart, depending on the type of beet; you can use the “thinnings” you pull for salad ingredients (both greens and roots). Most beet varieties mature within 60 days or less, but they can be harvested at any stage of development, from thinning to 2-3 inches (larger than 3 inches may be tough and fibrous). When harvesting, separate the green tops from the roots, leaving around an inch of stem to keep the root moist and prevent shriveling. Prepare the greens separately, or compost them if you don’t wish to eat them.
Wash beets carefully without breaking the skin so color and nutrition remain intact. After boiling and cooling, beet skin can be easily removed. (Beware of the red pigment, which will stain towels, wooden cutting boards and unglazed sinks.) You can also steam, pickle or roast them, or eat them raw. Beets have more natural sugar than starch, and roasting will concentrate the sugar and bring out the most flavor. You can also freeze, can or dry them once they’re cooked. Roots should be boiled until fork tender, from 25-45 minutes, depending on size, then sliced or cubed before proceeding to freeze or can.
Here are three simple and tasty recipes to tempt your palate:
1. If you like corned beef hash, add to your favorite hash recipe 2 or 3 beets that have been cooked, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes along with the other vegetables. This is known as “red flannel hash.”
2. Roast washed beets with short stems in a 350 degree oven for 1 to 1¼ hours. Slip off the skins when ready to serve. Leave beets whole or slice them and season with butter or olive oil, parsley, chives or dill, and lemon or lime juice. You can even toss them with your favorite salad dressing. Or bake them with fingerling potatoes and medium quartered yellow onions or whole pearl onions (and garlic if you like), fresh rosemary or thyme, all tossed in olive oil.
3. And of course, there is the Russian staple soup, borscht. Peel and grate 5 large raw beets in a food processor. Combine them with a chopped onion and 2 quarts of chicken or vegetable stock, and boil on low for 45 minutes. Then add 1 cup of tomato puree or sauce, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of sugar to the pot and boil another 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold with spoonfuls of sour cream on top.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.