The beet goes on

Bake your beets—and don’t neglect the greens.

Bake your beets—and don’t neglect the greens.

Four thousand years can bring wonderful changes to a dirty old root. Whatever beets looked like when they were first extracted from the wild and cultivated in a garden somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea prior to the Roman conquest, it was almost certainly a far and grubby cry from the colorful, tuberous beauties of today. But through its cultivated evolution, the beet—Beta vulgaris—acquired huge and delicious roots, bursting with flavor and beta carotene, and without which no farmers market would look quite right.

At the market stall of Watanabe Farm, for instance—present at the Saturday market at the light-rail station at Folsom and Sunrise boulevards in Sacramento and on Sunday under the freeway at Eighth and W streets—shoppers find three beet varieties: the red classic Detroit, the pink candy-striped Chioggia and the golden. Though boiling may be the surest means of cooking beets, it is also the most wasteful, rendering a pot full of crimson-magenta water dense with flavor and nutrients and, usually, dumped down the drain. Don’t boil them. Instead, keep what you pay for and bake your beets. Watanabe advises wrapping them in foil and baking at 400 degrees for most of an hour. Placing them whole or sliced in a baking dish also renders much the same result.

“And you lose none of the nutritional value,” Heidi Watanabe says.

Taxonomically, beets are virtually the same as chard, each plant being variations of the same species. Like chard, beet greens are perfectly edible and delicious, though only the savviest shoppers use them, with most beet-lovers asking that the greens be lopped off, according to Watanabe, who sets them aside and sometimes gives the tender foliage away to those who know to ask. Watanabe says beet greens are becoming more popular.

But something that never picked up popularity with shoppers—and which the Watanabe family removed from production after an experimental run—was the white beet.

“It never caught on,” she says.

A surprise? Hardly. For beets are an experience of color, and white beets might as well be turnips.