A lot of people don't realize it, but beets and their greens are actually two vegetables: the tender tops have a sweet, buttery flavor like spinach, and they're one of the highest sources of potassium and iron you can find. The brilliant red beet roots have about the highest sugar content of any vegetable.
Fresh beets were much more popular in Grandma's day than they are now. People have gotten used to buying them in jars or cans, but fresh beets have a much more delicate flavor than processed beets, and they're not hard to prepare.
Beets are available year round, but they're at their peak between April and August. The best beets can be found at farm stands and markets that sell local produce.
The red beet root should be hard, with a fresh-looking tail at the root end. There should be no cuts in the flesh, and the color should be a good, deep red. The top leaves should be crisp and fresh-looking. Always try to buy beets with the tops on.
Beets without the tops get soft faster than those with them on. If you aren't going to prepare the beets right away, store them in the refrigerator with their tops on.
The roots are dirty, so they should be washed thoroughly, but avoid using a brush because beets have a very thin skin. Always cook beets whole, and leave a bit of the stem on--this helps keep the root from bleeding. Peel and slice only after cooking. Once beets have been cooked, they can be run under cold water and the skins will remove easily. Cooked beets can be served with butter or a little lemon juice and are good pickled and served cold.
To prepare the tops, wash carefully, as you would spinach, to remove any traces of sand. Remove the coarse part of the red stem, steam briefly with some ground pepper and herbs as desired; then add a bit of butter and salt and enjoy as you would fresh spinach. Fresh, raw beet tops can also be added to tossed salads.
If you have a juicer or extractor, give beet juice a try. It is excellent combined with carrot juice, plus a little apple juice for extra sweetness.
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