Thursday, August 18, 2011

beta vulgaris

This year was a truly satisfying year for beets. While our kale and collards were munched into unappetizing doilies by flea beetles and our tomatoes and peppers struggled to raise themselves above knee height, our bed of densely planted Detroit Reds and Cylindras clamored for space into which to extend their lush foliage.

According to the seed packages, we could plant beets two inches apart if we were interested primarily in greens; three inches apart if we wanted to harvest our beets in summer; and four inches apart if we planned to store beets over winter. We opted for a closer planting, because we thought that the greens would go over just as well as the roots, and because none of us owns a root cellar.

The seed packages also recommended that we soak our seeds at least a day before planting them to encourage their germination. Immersed in a mason jar filled with rainwater, the seeds plumped up to resemble Grape Nuts, and clung stubbornly to our fingers as we fished them out and drizzled them along rows of freshly forked soil.

In the following weeks, the beet plants grew vigorously, beating out all but the hardiest weeds in the quest for space in the bed. After their initial coddling, our beets required little from us other than occasional watering.

In 1610, the gentlemen farmers who wrote “A True Declaration of the State of the Colonie of Virginia” were happily eating potatoes—along with the parsnips, carrots, cucumbers, and turnips that they had brought from home—and praising them as food “which our gardens yeelded with little art and labour.” –Jane Mayer, “Down Under”, The New Yorker, November 22, 2010

In late July, we began to harvest our beets, pulling entire plants intermittently from the rows. The roots were small, but well formed; and the greens were darkly vibrant. Our beets radiated vitality.

A year or so ago, when we asked for recommendations of what crops to grow,  dietitians at Vital Bridges specifically requested beets. Beets are acclaimed for their abilities to cleanse the liver: just Google “beets liver cleansing” for a host of links to claims of varying degrees of believability. Because many victims of HIV suffer simultaneously from Hepatitis C (talk about salt in the wound), foods that cleanse the liver would, on first reflection, be welcome to the pantry’s clientele.

The theoretical appreciation of the health benefits of beets, unfortunately, does not manifest in a mad rush for our rooty produce when we make our deliveries to the pantry. Beets may radiate vitality, and even glow with virtue; however, they do not suggest summer fun. Our beet greens, in particular, often languish in their market baskets. Other garden products attract the attention of visitors to the pantry: our tomatoes are like models in Daisy Dukes handing out Jell-O shots; our beets, on the other hand, wear cargo shorts and carry clipboards, asking whether you have a second for the environment.

Many of us may have been dissuaded from beets by early experiences with institutional cuisine—the canned, pickled beets, which, along with canned spinach and stewed prunes, filled the compartments of our school lunch platters with unappetizing vegetable matter that we often only ate on a dare. We carried our childhood abhorrence of the purplish and vinegary juice of beets with us into adulthood.

This is unfortunate, because lovingly prepared beets can be wonderful. Beets are not just good for you—they can often be just good. My wife converted to beet love last winter after ordering a salad featuring roasted beets at Karyn’s on Green. She recently made a risotto of beets and greens, using a recipe from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which resulted in leftovers that I ate without hesitation for three days in a row.

We harvested the final beets from our garden last weekend. The beet bed will now, if all goes well, host rows of dinosaur kale and cabbage.

If you think that beets are a hard sell at the pantry, imagine how dinosaur kale goes over.