With its leafy green tops and edible roots, beets are a two-for-one vegetable packed with nutrition and recognized by their ruby-red color. After lifting from the ground and washing, raw beets can be grated right into hot soups or salads as a decorative garnish, and the smaller greens can be tossed in with the lettuce leaves, just like baby spinach. Larger beet greens are better cooked, due to the high level of oxalic acid in the bitter greens.
Concerning the Oxalates
Oxalates are naturally occurring acids found in plants and animals. In large amounts, these acids can inhibit your body’s ability to absorb calcium. Beets -- and most notably the beet greens -- are one of the few vegetables that have measurable amounts of oxalates. These can become concentrated in people with kidney or gallbladder problems, making eating beets a bad idea. Healthy people with normal digestive tracts can enjoy steamed or sauteed beet greens for their rich concentration of beneficial nutrients. Discuss your diet with your doctor if you're unsure if you should eat beets.
Harvesting the Beets
Beets are most tender when harvested young. Aim to pull the plants from the ground when their bulbs are 1 to 4 inches in diameter. Although beets can grow much larger, they tend to get woody and tough as they mature. Brush off any bits of soil clinging to the beets and don’t wash them until you're ready to eat them. You can harvest young beet greens as soon as they reach 1 inch in diameter, or wait until they are larger and pull them right up with the rest of the plant. The quality of the greens doesn’t always indicate the quality of the root. When shopping for beets, look for fresh greens with no yellowing and firm roots free of soft spots.
Preparing Beets for Storage
Separate the beet greens from the root of the plant using kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Leave about 1 inch of the greens standing on the top of the beet to prevent the beet juice from staining your hands and the other produce. Store your beet roots, without washing, in the refrigerator; sealed in a plastic bag they will keep for up to one month. The greens are more perishable and should be eaten as soon after pulling from the ground as possible. To help extend their freshness, bundle your greens together by their stems with a rubber band or twist tie, and stand them up in a tall container with 1 to 2 inches of water. Beet greens stay fresh when refrigerated this way for two to three days.
The ruby-red color of the beet stains easily, including wooden cutting boards, hands and clothing. Wear gloves when slicing larger beets, or roast them whole in a baking pan, drizzled with olive in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven. Once tender and slightly cooled, peel your beets by rubbing them briskly with dry paper towels to remove the skins. Once cooked, beets are delicious served hot, cold or pickled with vinegar and sugar. Saute beet greens just as you would Swiss chard, spinach or collard greens. Like all greens, they pair well with olive oil, butter and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to counter their naturally bitter flavor.
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