LIVING

Along with great taste, beets have health benefits and they're low-cal too

10/27/2014 08:00 EDT | Updated 12/27/2014 05:59 EST
LONDON, Ont. - "Beets need a makeover," says Christy Brissette.

They are often thought of as "more of a traditional or out-of-fashion vegetable" and may be "seen as having limited culinary uses," says the dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, who works at the ELLICSR Kitchen of Toronto's Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"So I think people often pass them by for the kale and other 'superfoods' we hear more press about, which is too bad."

Nutritionally beets are a powerhouse, but they are also about as versatile as vegetables can get, says Theresa Makarewicz, a home economist with Foodland Ontario.

Both the roots and the greens are edible. They can be eaten raw or cooked and cooking methods run the gamut from boiling and roasting to steaming, grilling and microwaving.

They can be used to make salads, soups, stir-fries, chips, dips, breads, pickles, side dishes, sandwiches and even desserts and Makarewicz says there are indications the culinary world is catching on.

"I've noticed a lot more recipes for beets in magazines and featured on recipe cards, even the different colours of beets available in the stores. You see them more on restaurant menus. You didn't see that five years ago and now you'll see a beet salad with goat cheese and a vinaigrette or other different applications," she says.

There is no "best" way to cook beets, she says, but her favourite method is to do a big batch on the barbecue.

"I peel them, cube them and toss them with a little bit of olive oil, maybe a tablespoon (15 millilitres) for a couple of pounds (about one kilogram), and I do them in a grill basket at about 375 F (190 C) or so and tossing them occasionally so they get that lovely caramelization all around," explains Makarewicz. "We'll do a bunch of them at once and keep them in the fridge and then throw them into a salad or put them into a rice dish or just mix them in with other vegetables."

They can be boiled or roasted with the skins on or off. Leaving the skins on (and leaving about 2.5 centimetres/one inch) of the stem attached helps preserve the nutrients by preventing the "bleeding" associated with cooking beets, but the cooking time is longer. Removing the skins and cutting the beets into smaller pieces shortens the cooking time, so it sort of balances out.

Makarewicz agrees some people may be intimated by the staining factor of beets, but that "can all be remedied by putting plastic or waxed paper on your cutting board. I find it more when I'm peeling them raw that they stain the hands. You can wear gloves" to prevent that, but if you don't, after "a couple loads of dishes they're not red anymore."

There are three basic types of vegetable beets — red, which are the most common; golden, which are a vibrant yellow inside, not quite as sweet and have a more mellow flavour; and chioggia or candy-striped beets, known for their spectacular striped appearance.

Sugar beets, which provide about 25 per cent of the world's sugar, are white and much larger than regular beets.

Nutritionally, 125 ml (1/2 cup) of cooked beets have only 40 calories, says Brissette. They are "a source of fibre and are rich in folate and potassium. Folate is a B vitamin that is needed to make and repair DNA and for healthy red blood cells. Diets rich in folate help prevent anemia and may reduce the risk of some cancers. Potassium helps lower blood pressure.

"Beets are rich in nitrates, compounds that lower blood pressure and may help prevent heart and kidney disease" and their red colour comes from natural red pigments called betalains, which "may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties."

Yellow or golden beets "will be higher in lutein, a phytochemical that helps preserve eyesight," and beet greens are an "excellent source of vitamin K."

Canned beets are OK "in a pinch," Brissette says, but not nearly as good as fresh because the pasteurization process at very high temperatures can destroy many of the nutrients and because they are usually high in sodium used as a preservative. That can be reduced by 40 per cent by rinsing the beets before use, she says.

Pickled beets should be consumed sparingly because of the salt and sugar that may be used to preserve them.

Another advantage of beets is that they keep a long time. Raw beets stored in a plastic bag in a refrigerator crisper will last several weeks and cooked beets in the fridge will stay good for several days. Cooked beets in the freezer last up to 10 months, Brissette says.

All in all, "they're local and they're in season right now, so I think they're definitely a good choice to make."

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer@rogers.com.

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