The beet is the fleshy root of a plant believed to have originated in North Africa. Red and white beets were well known to the Romans, who used them for their roots, while other peoples consumed only the leaves. In the 16th century, the English and the Germans began to consume the so-called garden beet as a vegetable, while the white beetroot was used as livestock feed. The first sugar beet factory was built in the early 19th century in Poland, around the same time that beets began to be cultivated in the United States.
Beets can be more or less fleshy and have a thin, smooth skin. The flesh is usually deep red but can also be white, yellow, orange and show pretty pink and white circles when sliced, like the Chioggia variety. The edible leaves are quite colorful and curly, and often measure over 14 inches in length and 10 inches in width. There are several varieties of beet, including the fodder beet, used to feed livestock, and the sugar beet, which is processed to make sugar and alcohol.
Beets can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. The leaves are delicious cooked and can be prepared much like spinach or Swiss chard.
Beets can also serve as substitute for coffee; the finely cut slices are dried, roasted, and ground to a powder that can be used on its own or mixed with other ingredients such as chicory, including the radicchio variety.
Red beets owe their characteristic color to bétacyanine, a pigment in the anthocyanin family that is extremely water-soluble. The slightest bruise causes the beet to “bleed” during cooking, releasing its purple juice upon contact with the cooking liquid. This characteristic is exploited in borscht, a colorful soup from Eastern Europe that is made of finely cut slices of beets and usually served with sour cream. Lemon juice can be used to remove the stains left on the hands by beets (wearing gloves remains the best way to avoid this problem).
Beets are an excellent source of potassium and vitamin A, and a good source of vitamin C, magnesium and riboflavin. Beets are one of the ten vegetables that have the best antioxidant potential. Beet greens are an excellent source of potassium and a good source of folic acid. Beets are said to stimulate the appetite and are easily digested. They are also used to relieve headaches and are believed to combat colds and anemia.