When the term “vulgaris” forms the second half of the given Latin (or Linnaean) name of a plant, as it very often does, we understandably might think that it messages a negative connotation.
But, in Latin, “vulgaris” merely means “common.” The “vulgate” — or “vulgar” Latin — was that spoken by everyday ancient Romans. What we call “classical Latin,” on the other hand, was the Latin of the elite. (And became the bane of generations of high schoolers.)
The issue is compounded when considering root vegetables such as “Beta vulgaris,” the everyday beet (or “beetroot,” as it is called in the U.K.). A foodways hangover from the Middle Ages has us still considering groceries that come out of the ground as lower in status than those grown on or above it.
“Oh,” even modern people say, “all that the peasants in the Middle Ages had to eat was turnips,” and so forth. Indeed, many foods that came from the earth, among them onions and garlic, were forsworn at medieval court kitchens in favor of edibles such as roast fowl or game that, as was supposed of them in those days, “gamboled or flew freed of the Earth in the pure and open air.”
But an extremely long history has root vegetables such as beets, carrots, radishes, even turnips, as crucial to the human diet. Their very structure foreordains this. The root, or bulb, is not only the source and reserve of the plant’s own ongoing nourishment but, because it is, that storehouse becomes ours when we harvest and eat it.
Beets are especially prized as human food due to their abundant sugar (upwards of 20 percent by weight, one of the higher percentages of sugared flesh in the world of plants). Likewise appreciated is how they retain their firm texture after being cooked; too, esteemed, their delicious leaves, though oft overlooked by us Americans as either fresh salad or cooked greens.
For centuries, in fact, earlier humans ate merely the leaves of beets — and in abundance. (Those were all that they saw to harvest.) It was only until time’s turn into the Christian era that the bulb or root was discovered to be delectable, given certain cooking methods or preparations.
Beet sugar is its own evolutionary advantage, not just something that tastes good. The high level of sucrose acts as an antifreeze in the bulb, always best grown in cooler or even cold climates and often maturing when fear of frost is tangible. The heavy level of sucrose lowers the freezing temperature of a beetroot, thus preventing water molecules from crystallizing, which would otherwise burst and destroy the root’s cell walls.
We humans raise four forms of Beta vulgaris: the red (and golden, or striped) globe-like, roundish beet with which we are most familiar; chard (commonly called Swiss chard), a beet — yes, chard is a beet —appreciated more for its stalks and leaves than for its taproot; the widely grown sugar beet; and the mangel-wurzel, an enormous beet cultivated almost exclusively as animal fodder.
Sugar beets long have figured importantly in the economy of our state of Colorado. In the late 1890s, they become a particularly profitable crop here. The sugar beet industry commenced after a French-designed sugar-manufacturing plant, which had been brought to America by the Mormons, failed to work in Utah. The soil and climate of Colorado proved to be good for sugar beets, and the factory was purchased and then redeployed to Colorado by Russians from the Volga region who had come here to become sugar beet farmers.
We in the U.S. are more used to the red beet, whereas Europeans prefer golden or yellow beets for both their greater perceived sweetness and that they do not stain — what?! all other foods with which they are cooked, your hands and clothes, it seems everything — as red beets manifestly do. However, non-red beets increasingly curry much favor hereabouts nowadays.
Sweet beets for your sweetheart
Red beets are the original red food dye and, as such, prove particularly proper to consider as a food for our own reddest of holidays come-approaching — Valentine’s Day.
Two beet recipes, then, for that purpose: one, a way to “quick-pickle” any beet as a way to have at hand a terrific, vegetable-based snack for any time of year; two, an easy beet recipe for a sweet dessert (OK, another “snack”) to celebrate the day set aside each year to honor love, just love.
Due to their high sugar content — and when sugar from refined cane was scarce, say in time of war or rationing — cooked and puréed beets provided sweetness to many a recipe. Indeed, stories abound that, during World War II, red beets became a favored way both to flavor and color select sweets. Hence, some aver, red beets were the beginning to that markedly American cake, the Red Velvet Cake.
The origins of Red Velvet Cake in this country are obscure. It is alleged that it was birthed in a baptism of the then new-fangled red food dye at, of all places, New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Still, other stories suggest that the combination of cocoa powder (itself sometimes rationed during wartime), vinegar and red beet purée all figured in the beginnings of all things “red velvet.”
Distilled white vinegar (you may use rice vinegar) is that which helps “set” the redness in the recipe for the cake provided here. It is all-important; without it, the beets may turn the cake an unappetizing shade of purple-blue.
Well, then, perhaps yet another trend?
To cook beets ahead, afterward to use or treat in some other way, I prefer to roast them for upwards of 90 minutes at 400 degrees, depending on their size. Trim them top and bottom, coat them with olive oil, place them in a packet of heavy-duty aluminum foil — they’ll resemble large Hershey’s kisses — and rest them on a baking sheet. (Do so because oftentimes the packets leak.)
When cool enough to handle, rub the skins off under running water, using a piece of paper toweling to abrade the skins if helpful.
Watch the juices. They have minds of their own.
Quick-Pickled Beets recipe
Adapted from a beet recipe of Fatima Khawaja at saveur.com. Makes about 5 cups.
1 pound beets, trimmed and gently cleaned
3 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. On a foil-lined baking sheet, toss the beets with the oil, then season generously with salt and black pepper. Fold the foil around the beets to enclose completely, then bake until soft when pierced with a knife, 60-90 minutes.
When cool enough to handle, unwrap the beets, rub off the skin, and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a medium bowl and add the vinegar, fennel seeds and salt and black pepper to taste.
Toss to coat and marinate, refrigerated, for at least 30 minutes before serving. (Refrigerated in an airtight container, the pickled beets will keep for up to 2 weeks.)
Red Velvet Cake with Beets recipe
Adapted from allrecipes.com. Makes 1 9×13-inch cake, 2 dozen cupcakes or one smallish 2-layer cake. Avoid over-mixing the cake batter as much as possible. May be frosted with a plain vanilla buttercream frosting. Avoid a cream cheese-based frosting, though common; it is too piquantly flavored for this delicate, “velvety” cake.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 and 1/2 cups granulated cane sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup puréed, skinned, cooked beets
1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13-inch cake pan with parchment paper. Sift flour and baking powder together in a large bowl.
Whisk together sugar, buttermilk, beets, oil, eggs, cocoa powder, red food coloring, vanilla extract, vinegar, baking soda and salt in another large bowl. To it, gradually add the flour mixture, stirring after each addition until just incorporated.
Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Tap pan(s) firmly to settle the batter and remove large bubbles. Bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]