Carrots

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Bugs Bunny’s favorite vegetable was originally grown because people used the leaves and seeds. The roots were fairly bitter, and an anemic beige nowhere near the dazzling orange you find on your plate today. After several thousand years of tinkering, red, yellow and eventually orange carrots became available for our eating pleasure. They come in a few other colors, too, such as creamy white and purple. The purples, according to Jo Robinson in her book Eating on the Wild Side, are probably the most nutritious of the lot. Carrots are worth growing for their ability to attract beneficial insects and predatory wasps, even if you never chew a root. Just let them flower and the beneficial insects will thank you. The flowers are pretty, too.

Growing Carrots

Carrots take forever to germinate and the seedlings are nearly invisible until several inches high. Seeds are tiny, so the best way to plant them is to mix with fine sand and broadcast in a wide band. The garden books all tell you to work up your soil so it’s really fine, but if you have good soil and few rocks, I think overworking it can cause problems. You might get a few twisted or forked carrots if your soil isn’t powder-fine, but it’s not a huge issue.

Carrots are very hardy and can be stored in the garden, even under snow. You can also seed them pretty much any time of year – they will just take longer to grow depending on the weather. This makes succession planting a breeze and means you can have carrots of varying maturity all year long. Be warned that they may split if the weather suddenly gets hot when the roots are mostly developed. While you can freeze them, storing in the garden is a heck of a lot easier if you have the space. Just remember they are biennial; carrots planted in late summer will go to seed the next spring. Once they start to flower, the roots become tough and inedible. If you don’t like the licorice taste of cilantro (I don’t) carrot tops make a pretty good substitute. The tops can be used fresh or dried.

Carrot Varieties

  • Danvers Half Long – A very successful carrot developed by the market gardeners of Danvers, Massachusetts, and brought to market in 1886. It does well in almost any soil. They store well and have a nice sweet flavor.
  • Red Cored Chantenay – a relative youngster, it was introduced in 1929. Good for eating and juicing, but only fair for storage, in my experience.
  • Scarlet Nantes – this has really good flavor and not much of a core, which makes it nice for fresh eating. Henry Fields’ catalog had some complimentary things to say about it in 1927.
  • St. Valery – a French variety, and as is so often the case with French fruits and vegetables, it has excellent flavor. Vilmorin listed it in 1885, but some sources say it’s been around since the 1600s.
  • Longue Rouge Sang – The name means “long blood red” but this is really a relatively short carrot and multi-colored. The shoulders are deep purple, with the color transitioning through red, orange, yellow and beige by the time it reaches the root. It has a good flavor, keeps the colors when cooked and is very firm, so stores well. I can’t find anything on its history save that it is a French heirloom.
  • Oxheart – another French variety, developed in the 1870s. This one gets quite large and is a stewing variety. Not all that good for fresh eating. Grows well in heavy soil. If you live where the ground freezes hard, don’t try to overwinter Oxheart; it will split.
  • Long Orange – developed in America during the early 19th century, this is a fodder carrot. It’s a narrow long carrot that really needs sandy soil. Farmers fed this carrot to their milk cows as it made for deep yellow butter (which, by the way, was very rich in beta-carotene and vitamin A, as was the milk).

If I could only have one, I would probably go with Danvers Half Long or St. Valery. Since carrots don’t take up a lot of space, you don’t usually have to make a choice.

Carrot Nutrition

In addition to the aforementioned vitamin A, carrots are high in fiber and vitamin K. They are also a good source of potassium, biotin (another B vitamin) and vitamin B-6. Yellow and orange carrots provide lutein, an antioxidant that helps prevent macular degeneration, the most common cause of age-related blindness. Other carrot antioxidants: lycopene, polyacetylenes and anthocyanins.

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Beet Recipes

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Easy Beets

Roasting is, hands-down, the easiest way to cook beets. Just wash, cut the tops and bottoms so they are even and roast at 350°F until tender. I like to put them in a deep casserole dish with a lid so they don’t dry out.

Beet and Beet Green Gratin

  • 2 bunches (6 to 8) beets, with the greens (about 2 pounds beets and 3/4 pound greens)
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/3 cup chopped chives (1 bunch)
  • 2 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

This gratin is beautiful if you pair chioggas or golden beets with red beets. It is good hot or cold. Roast the beets. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then cut the ends off, slip off the skins and slice across the equator. Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you stem and wash the greens in two changes of water. Fill a bowl with ice water. When the pot of water comes to a boil, salt generously and blanch the greens for about one minute. (You can also steam the greens until they wilt, one to two minutes). Transfer the greens to the ice water, then drain and squeeze out the water. Chop coarsely. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium skillet, and add the garlic. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring, until fragrant. Stir in the greens. Stir together for a minute, season the greens with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat. Preheat the oven to 375 °F. Oil a 2-quart gratin or baking dish with olive oil. Beat together eggs, salt (about 1/2 teaspoon), pepper, milk, chives and the Gruyère. Gently stir in the greens and beets. Scrape into the gratin dish. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until set and lightly browned on the top. Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or room temperature.

Beet and Citrus Slaw

  • 1/2 pound beets
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoon minced chives, mint or parsley (or a combination)
  • Salt to taste
  • Leaves of 1 romaine heart

Peel the beets with a vegetable peeler, and grate in a food processor fitted with the shredding blade. Combine the orange juice, lemon juice and olive oil. Toss with the beets and herbs. Season to taste with salt. Line a salad bowl or platter with romaine lettuce leaves, top with the grated beets and serve. Advance preparation: The grated beets can be dressed and kept in the refrigerator, covered well, for a couple of days. They become more tender but don’t lose their texture, and the mixture becomes even sweeter as the beet juices mingle with the citrus. Toss again before serving.

Harvard Beets

  • 3 medium whole beets, about 1 pound, or 4 cups cooked, sliced beets
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

No one seems to know exactly where the name came from. Harvard Beets seem to have showed up in cookbooks about the time (1910) that deep crimson became Harvard University’s official color. Another story is that they were created by some unknown individual in an English tavern called “Harwood” and name morphed. They are good both hot and cold. To make with fresh beets, wash the beets and leave an inch of stem and root end on them. Put the beets in a saucepan, cover with water, and add about 1 teaspoon of salt per quart of water and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and boil for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the beets are tender. Drain the beets and let them cool, then slip off the skins. Slice the beets to your desired size. Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Whisk in the vinegar and water and cook over medium heat, stirring, until thickened. Add the sliced cooked beets and the salt and freshly ground black pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir the butter into the beets and serve them hot.

Fermented Beets

  • 6 small beets or 3 medium beets
  • Spice choices (Pick any one of the five below):
  • 1. Add 1 cinnamon stick and 3 whole cloves.
  • 2. Add 1 tbsp pickling spice, 2 cloves of garlic and a flowering head of fresh dill.
  • 3. Add 2 tsp caraway and 5 black peppercorns to each jar.
  • 4. Add 1-2 cloves of garlic per jar.
  • 5. Slice one or two hot peppers in half and add to the jar without removing the seeds.
  • 1 1/2 tsp non-iodized salt
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of filtered water to cover

Scrub the beets, then chop them into bite-sized pieces or julienne. Wear gloves if you don’t want pink fingers! Pack the beet slices into a sterilized jar. At this point, you can add spices and other flavors. Add the cider vinegar (if you are using it). Dissolve the salt in a 1/2 cup of water. Pour over the beets and top with a second 1/2 cup of water, to cover. There is no need to weigh down the beets as they usually don’t float. Leave the jar to ferment at room temperature for about 3-7 days. Store in the refrigerator and consume within 1 month.

Rote Bete Salat (Red Beet Salad)

  • 2 Lb. of fresh beets
  • 1 medium chopped onion
  • 8 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon of caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of ground white pepper
  • 4 teaspoons of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of horseradish from a jar OR 1 heaping teaspoon of fresh diced horseradish

Wash the beets under running cold water with a soft brush. Cut the roots and leaves about 1–2 inches above the beet. Add 2 teaspoons of salt to a large saucepan filled with water. Add in the beets and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a little and let the beets simmer for about 35–45 minutes, depending on the size of the beets and the consistency that you prefer. When the beets are done, place the beets in a colander and drain under cold water. Cut off the remaining stems close to the beet. Peel the beets while they are still warm. Cut the beets into slices from the whole beet or cut them first into halves and then slice the halves. Use another bowl for the dressing. Mix the vinegar, oil, caraway seeds, salt, pepper, sugar and horseradish. Beat with a whisk. Dice the onions by hand or use a food chopper. Add the chopped onions to the dressing and stir with a fork. Pour the dressing over the beets and carefully mix using two spoons or salad hands. This tastes best if you give it time to soak in the dressing for a few hours. Keep refrigerated.

Beet Carrot Apple Juice

  • 2 medium beets, trimmed and scrubbed
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled

Juice, in this order, the beets, apples and carrots, following your juicer’s specific settings for each. Serve the juice immediately. Pour over ice, if desired.

Classic Borscht

  • 12 cups beef stock or 3-4 Lb beef chuck steak/roast cut in 1-inch cubes plus 12 cups water
  • 5 cups green or red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large beets, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • 3 large garlic cloves, grated
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup dill or parsley, finely chopped
  • Yogurt sour cream and rye bread, for serving

If using the beef chuck, brown the cubes in coconut oil, tallow or lard in a cast iron dutch oven. Add water and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer for about 1 hour. OR, if using stock, add bay leaf and bring stock to a boil. Wash, peel and chop vegetables.. Add cabbage or sauerkraut. Reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes. Saute onion and carrots in large skillet with half of oil for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beets and remaining oil, cook another 3-4 minutes. Add sauteed veggies, potatoes, tomato paste and salt to dutch oven. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes. Turn off heat, add vinegar (if you used sauerkraut, add only ½ Tbs and taste – add the remainder only if necessary). Add vinegar, garlic and pepper. Let the soup sit for about 10 minutes so the flavors can marry, then add dill, adjust seasonings and serve with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. If you’ve used the broth version, you can chill the soup and blend it, then serve cold.

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Growing Beets

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Beets and other root crops are kind of like Rodney Dangerfield – they don’t get no respect. Which is too bad, because they’re easy to grow, resistant to most insect pests and diseases, and taste good. Beets appeared on Roman tables and came to the Americas with colonists who valued them for their ability to provide food for man, woman, bird and beast during the winter months. Beets are colorful (as anyone who’s ever dropped one on a pristine white tablecloth can attest. Who, me?) Lots of people like the yellow varieties, but I prefer the reds, because I think the flavor is better.

Classic beet seed is not one seed, but a little ball of seeds that will grow into multiple beets, so heirloom beets usually need to be thinned quite young, preferably with scissors to prevent root damage. They’ll do best in a fairly fine soil, and are either an early spring or late fall crop if your summers are at all hot. Many beets will overwinter nicely, although in really cold climates you may need to mulch them with leaves or straw.

  • Chioggia or Bassano – the candy cane beet, with concentric rings of deep red and white. Baby Chioggia can be eaten raw; they’re quite tender. It’s been around since the 1840s.
  • Crosby’s Improved Egyptian – if you want a bold red beet, this one is your baby. It STAINS! Although the original sellers claimed it traced back to an ancient Egyptian variety, there’s no proof of the story. Flavor is excellent, which is why Peter Henderson introduced it in the 1870s. The “improved” part of the name refers to its shape, which was originally quite lumpy, but Josiah Crosby smoothed it out by 1880. It’s an early beet and not good for winter storage.
  • Detroit Dark Red – this little jewel is good for cooking and pickling, and stores well. It’s been bearing dependably in gardens all over the place since at least 1892. Its leaves also make a good spinach substitute in salads. Very cold hardy and will germinate even with soil temperatures as low as 40 °F. A good choice for the root cellar and it will overwinter in the garden in most climates.
  • Cylindra or Formanova – shaped more like a thick carrot than a beet, which means you can get more beets in the same space; they’ll grow about 6 to 9 inches long. Easier to slice and peel than regular beets and has a good flavor. Leaves are also good to eat and sweeter than most beet greens. Good for cooking, canning and pickling. Introduced in 1880.
  • Albino – this is a form of sugar beet. Like all sugar beets, it is white-fleshed and very sweet. It does not have the earthy flavor common to other beet varieties. You can actually grow your own sugar if you want to – it’s not any harder than growing regular beets. I include a recipe for making table sugar at home just in case you’re interested. Mind you, you should not expect to have huge amounts of table sugar if you want to grow your own. One sugar beet can be processed into about 6 cups of sugar. But if you want a little to make hummingbird food or to have a teaspoon in your morning coffee (and a teaspoon is about the most you should eat on a daily basis), it is quite doable.
  • Detroit Golden – this was developed from an ancient variety known simply as the Golden Beet. The roots turn a deep golden yellow when cooked; they don’t bleed or stain like red beets. It was grown in the US in the early 1800s, but may be much older than that. They are supposed to make good pickles, although I have never tried them.

If I could only have one, my beet choice would be Cylindra. The flavor is good and production is higher because they grow a longer tap root in the same space as a round beet. It also has better-tasting leaves – most beet greens are OK but not what I would call real flavorful.

In terms of nutrition, beets provide folate, manganese and potassium. Folate as you may know, helps prevent birth defects that occur when the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly in the fetus. Manganese is an antioxidant that helps your body break down glucose and protein during the digestive process. Potassium is one of the big four electrolytes – the other three being sodium, chloride and calcium. These minerals are integral to multiple critical processes in the body, such as maintaining your fluid balance, helping create enzymes, promoting brain and heart function (drop your sodium too low and you can literally be unable to think).

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