Beeting the French
by Mark R. Vogel

      It was October 21, 1805.  Napoleon Bonaparte, self-crowned emperor of France was on the precipice of conquering Europe.  In less than two months he would crush the Third Coalition at the Battle of Austerlitz and pave the way for French dominance of the European continent.  But in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, Spain, the tables were completely turned.  Admiral Horatio Nelson and his Royal Navy fleet of twenty-seven ships, virtually obliterated a combined French and Spanish armada of thirty-three ships.  The French and Spanish lost twenty-two ships, but the British didn’t relinquish a single vessel.  The resoundingly lopsided victory cemented Britain’s control of the seas for the entire Napoleonic era.  It also led to a successful British naval blockade of France in 1807.  The blockade rendered France unable to import goods from the New World, one of which was cane sugar from the Caribbean.  With their supply of sugar cut off, the French (per Napoleon’s decree), turned to beets, which yield harvestable amounts of sucrose.  By the end of the Napoleonic era, over three hundred mills were in operation in France and other parts of Europe producing sugar from beets.

          Beets, or beetroots in Great Britain, are a round, root vegetable.  The most common variety sport a deep, dark-red hue, but golden, white, and red and white striped colorations also exist.  Beets originated in the Mediterranean region and were consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  However, they didn’t find their way to the Far East until the Middle Ages.  Like countless other foods in the history of man, beets were thought to cure a host of diseases and be an aphrodisiac to boot.  Modern claims purport that beats guard against birth defects, liver disease and cancer.  But, as I’ve highlighted in the past, everything today either causes or cures cancer.  Granted, beets are nutritious, containing fair amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as folate, potassium, manganese, magnesium and fiber.  The greens are also edible and add calcium and iron to the nutritional portrait. 

          The red hue of beets arises from a class of pigments called betalains, one of which, betacyanin, is especially touted for its cancer fighting abilities.  Interestingly, ten to fourteen percent of the population has difficulty metabolizing betacyanin, a condition known as beeturia.  It’s telltale and disturbing sign is red urine after consuming beets.  Whether beeturians receive the anti-cancer benefits of betacyanin is anybody’s guess.

            Beets are available year round.  Choose specimens that are firm, smooth and unblemished.  If the greens are still attached they should be brightly colored, and free of wilting.  Like carrots, you should cut the greens off before storing them since they deplete nutrients and moisture from the root.  Beets can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for one to two weeks.  Leave about an inch of the greens in tact however to reduce bleeding of the color during cooking.  Similarly, it is generally recommended to peel them after cooking to inhibit color and nutrient loss.

            Beets can be roasted, boiled, steamed—and if cut small enough—even sauteed.  Although they can be used raw, as in salads, most recipes call for roasting the beets first.  Roasting imparts a deeper flavor and accentuates their natural sweetness.  To roast beets, wash and dry them, coat with oil, and then individually wrap them in aluminum foil.  The foil inhibits moisture loss, a particular concern for large beets, which require extended cooking.  Place the beets into a four hundred degree oven and then, depending on their size, roast for one to one and a half hours, and sometimes, a little more.  They’re done when you can insert a paring knife with little resistance.  Remove them from the oven, allow them to cool, and their skins will slip right off. 

            In additon to salads, beets can roasted and served on their own.  I like serving them sliced, drizzled with extra olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and accompanied by goat cheese.  Or you can roast beets in combination with other root vegetables.  Beets and carrots make a fine synthesis.  Whether roasted or not, cooked beets can be mixed with all sorts of sauces, glazes, and vinaigrettes to make a unique side dish.  Beet greens are used in salads, pasta dishes, or simply sauteed and served on their own.

            And of course, how could we even discuss beets without mentioning the quintessential beet dish:  borscht, (also spelled borsch).  Borscht is a beet soup that originated in Russia and Eastern Europe and has become an indelible part of their culinary heritage.  Borscht became popular in France in the 1920s due to the inlfux of Russian immigrants.  Borscht can be served either hot or cold but the permutations don’t stop there.  There are many different variations of borscht, utilizing different assortments of vegetables, meats, and seasonings.  Some employ kvass, a Russian beer.  Cold borschts tend to be sweeter and make for great summer fare.  There is one constant in the borscht equation:  always serve borscht with a generous dollop of sour cream.  You can’t beat it!


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