These gnarled vegetables with bristly tails aren't much to look at. But dust off the roots and rinse off the leaves, and suddenly the picture brightens. Beets are blazing with color and bursting with potential.

"The thing about beets," says Fran C. Grossman, R.D., a nutrition consultant at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, "is you have the roots and the greens." Both are edible, making this vegetable a culinary and nutritional treasure trove.

Renowned for their earthy sweetness, beetroots have the highest sugar content of any vegetable. Nevertheless, they are low in calories, high in fiber, and rich in iron. They may even defend against cancer (via antioxidant beta carotene) and birth defects (folic acid).

The red variety's flashy flesh, in shades of fuchsia and ruby, dazzles the eye and, yes, stains everything else. Happily, cooks can protect hands with disposable gloves, and clothing with an apron. Non-bleeding golden beets tend to be a hint less sweet but can be swapped into most recipes.

The leafy greens, which can stand in for their botanical cousin Swiss chard, are even more nutritious than the roots, with double the potassium, folic acid, calcium, and iron, Grossman says. The leaves can be sauteed with garlic in oil or cooked just like other greens.

As for the roots, sweet beets often find their balance when paired with tart flavors. Our beet relish gets its acidic nip from balsamic vinegar, and our pickled beets steep in rice-wine vinegar. In a vivid salad of beets and brown rice, lemon zest and goat cheese provide tang. Our beet soup has a light sprinkling of cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Top a serving with some plain yogurt, and its transformation into the spice lover's answer to borscht is complete. Now, doesn't that beet all.

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