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The Beet Family

Folks from all over tend to flock to our North Carolina beaches this time of year. We’ve got lots of sun, lots of sand, and, this year in particular, lots of steamy heat. We’ve racked up so many days with a heat factor of over 100 that I’ve lost track of the number.

Personally, I’m not too fond of heading down to the coast this time of year. In August they are just too darn crowded for my taste. The sight of guys my age or older wandering around in speedos hurts my eyes, and the thumping music some idiots insist on blasting from their super-duper subwoofer enhanced car stereos with an ultra-bass setting hurts my ears and forces me to grind my teeth. Be that as it may, summer tends to bring company from out of town to my doorstep. Inevitably, some of them want me to show them my favorite ocean spots and, fool that I am, I find myself packing up the car and heading down to Brunswick County beaches with them.

Every year, I watch several cousins, nephews, nieces, or other kin turn beet red in the sun.

They come in from Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire revved up for their two-week vacation and broil quickly. I try to warn them that our Carolina sunshine is much more intense than they’re used, to but the kids and some their parents think the old guy is talking nonsense so they spend the entire day playing and laying on the sand while their pale bodies rapidly turn crimson. I hate to see them wreck their long-awaited and hard-earned vacations tending to a nasty sunburn, but even after preaching caution until I’m blue in the face, a few of them still end up looking like badly boiled beets by the end of the first day at the coast.

It’s a shame.

Some of you probably looked at the title of today’s column and cringed a bit as you remembered those nasty beets you faced in school cafeterias or were served from a can. That’s also a shame. Beets got a bad reputation with many people because they’ve never had them prepared properly. We’ll get back to that point in a few moments.

As part of my continuing series on vegetable families, I’d like to introduce you to the beet family. You botanists out there might prefer to call them members of the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family. Feel free to do so, but since I’m the one at the keyboard though, the rest of us will be referring to them as members of the beet family. This choice will save a lot of wear and tear on my limited typing skills and make the column a whole lot easier to read.

Popular members of the beet family include the chards, leaf beet, spinach, red orache, and, of course, your garden-variety beets. These veggies prefer fertile, moist soil. I find it best to prep the soil with Protogrow before planting and go back and add more about once a month. Generally, all members of this family are pretty easy to grow, although spinach in particular tends to bolt when the weather gets hot and humid. To avoid this, I recommend planting members of the beet family in early spring and in a partially shaded area of your survival garden. If you live in a warm climate like I do, you can also get another crop in the ground in early fall. Harvest spinach, chard, leaf beet, and red orache early and often to catch them at their best flavor.

Like the other members of their family, beets also prefer cooler weather. Down here in the sunny south, I can usually grow beets through December and get another crop in by late February. Depending on where you live, of course, your dates may be different. The key thing to know is that your soil temperature should be sitting at least forty degrees before you get started. You should plant your beet seeds about one or two inches apart in a row, cover them lightly with a little loose soil, and sprinkle a bit of water over them. You should see the plants start to grow in about a week or two. To keep up a steady supply of these tasty red globes, I usually do several plantings about three weeks apart from each other. For the best eating, you’ll want to harvest your beets about seven weeks after planting them.

Some you probably felt another cringe creep up your spine when you read that “tasty red globes” bit in the preceding paragraph. If you’re one of the folks who hates the taste of beets, you’ve probably never had them done up right. First of all, unless you’re making a soup like borscht, you don’t want to boil them. Yeah, I know, that’s the way you were taught to cook beets. Well, frankly, what you were taught is just plain wrong. When you boil beets, most of their nutritional value and flavor ends up in the water. The longer you cook them, the more good stuff is destroyed. Beets get their color from a combination of two compounds; betacyanins and betaxanthins. Studies have found that betacyanins are a potent weapon against inflammation (which is a cause of many degenerative diseases) and tumor proliferation. Other studies have shown that betaxanthins strengthen your immune system. When most cooks insist on boiling beets, the bulk of these compounds end up in the purple water that is often poured down the sink (where it doesn’t do your body any good at all).

You get the best benefits from beets if you peel and grate them. When added to a salad, they not only add color, but they enhance the salad with a sweet, earthy flavor and a solid dose of good nutrients. In addition to the compounds mentioned above, beets are a good source of folate, iron, niacin, potassium, vitamin C, and betanin. If you insist on cooking beets, you’ll reduce the quantity of some of the substances, but since you can’t convince some folks to eat raw beets, I recommend baking them over boiling them. You’ll retain more of the health benefits, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the flavor.

The humble beet’s leafy cousins are also nutritional powerhouses. You don’t need to be a Popeye fan to appreciate the health benefits of spinach. This leafy green wonder is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, magnesium, folate, manganese, iron, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B2, potassium, and vitamin B6. If that’s not enough, it is also a very good source of protein, phosphorus, vitamin E, zinc, dietary fiber, and copper. You want more? Okay—spinach is also a good source of selenium, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Although it can be frustrating to lose a portion of your spinach crop to unexpected bolting, it remains a worthwhile crop to grow in your survival garden. Chard and the other beet family members provide similar benefits, making this one of the healthiest and hardiest vegetable families to consider when planning your garden.

Until next time, this is Jerry recommending that you avoid getting burnt to a crisp by tending your survival garden in the early morning hours. Beet red is a healthy color for beets but is a painful one for humans. If you don’t believe me, ask my recently sun-baked cousins.

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