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NATURE’S TURN: Garden to table: Beets for every palate

Considering that beets are among our most nutritious vegetables, I searched for varieties that would be irresistible to lifelong beet haters.

February 10 – 23, 2020

Attendees assess samples of cut and steamed beets during the Farm to Flavor dinner at UW’s Discovery Building.

Mount Washington — Beets, like arugula and cilantro, arouse strong aversion or raves of praise. Research has revealed that the strength of the repulsion is, in most cases, grounded in a person’s genetic sensitivity to the smell of a particular chemical component in the vegetable. It is not a matter of simply being picky. In the case of beets, people are reacting, whether positively or negatively, to the organic compound geosmin (from Ancient Greek geo-earth and osme-smell). Produced by microbes in the soil, geosmin gives off a smell like freshly turned earth or a field after a rainstorm (Goldman). The human nose can detect concentrations of geosmin as low as five parts per trillion. How about a beet with little or no geosmin for the growing season ahead?

Egg pickled with beets in brine for a few days. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Considering that beets are among our most nutritious vegetables, I searched for varieties that would be irresistible to lifelong beet haters. On the way I found the source of everything contemporary in the world of beet culture. Irwin Goldman, plant breeder, geneticist, professor and chair in the University of Wisconsin horticulture department, is the center of the universe for aspiring plant breeders, seed purveyors, food scientists and chefs.

Goldman’s career in regard to beets is summarized in “A Different Beet,” a superb article by Nicole Miller*. Here’s a short clip: “After starting with a focus on serving the traditional beet industry, Goldman’s program abruptly expanded to include culinary beets for gourmands and foodies. He set out to develop an un-beet-y beet, something a kid could like, and then went on to crack a long-standing beet mystery central to the vegetable’s earthiness. … The Badger Flame project showed Goldman that earthiness can be dialed down in beets …”

Pickled Beets and Purple Eggs. Foreground in jar, bright spot is incompletely dyed egg. Notice shape of dyed egg to the right and in the center above chunks of beetroot. Above and behind jar, blooming forsythia stems at bottom of vase of forsythia in full bloom. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Badger Flame beet seeds are marketed by Row 7 Seed Company**. Their description: “All the vegetal sweetness of the beet, without the polarizing earthiness — the brilliant Badger Flame is here to redeem the beet’s dirty reputation.” “Indeed, it is meant to be something entirely new.” According to health writer and gardener Jo Robinson, seeds of the widely available Detroit Dark Red yield low geosmin beets.

For Valentine’s Day, consider preparing Pickled Beets and Purple Eggs. Assemble your favorite pickled beet recipe. I cube the beets and cook until tender, then make a marinade with the cooking water. Alternate layers of the cooked beets with hard-boiled eggs in a jar or crock, then pour the hot marinade over the contents and refrigerate for two to five days.

Refer to Jo Robinson’s book and the PBS link, below, for reporting on beets as an aphrodisiac.


*Irwin Goldman, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin
https://grow.cals.wisc.edu/deprecated/agriculture/five-things-everyone-shoud-know-about-beets and https://grow.cals.wisc.edu/departments/features/a-different-beet

History of beets as food, including as aphrodisiac https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-beets/

**Row 7 Seed Company https://www.row7seeds.com/products/badger-flame-beet

***Jo Robinson, “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2013.

Opportunity to participate

Feb. 22, 2 p.m. – Berkshire Botanical Garden’s 23rd annual Winter Lecture “The Legacy of Wild Gardener William Robinson” with acclaimed gardener Tom Coward at Duffin Theater, Lenox Memorial Middle/High School, 197 East St., Lenox. Tickets $45/$35 Garden members. Discounted tickets available to groups of six or more. (413) 320-4794 or online: berkshirebotanical.org


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