growing fancy: chioggia beets

Farmflash:

  • Food = Expensive.
  • Kenya questions value of organics. (But did the study they cited test pesticide residue, or just nutritional content?)
  • Even England (not exactly renowned for its cuisine, and I say this with all due affection for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) is jumping on the local food bandwagon: an author solicits help for a book about local food in Leicestershire.
  • The Times features salt potatoes, an upstate classic — among other local Finger Lake faves.

Growing fancy: Chioggia Beets

I’m going to make an effort to post about some unique veggie at least once a week, with more details than I’ve previously given. For the newly-revised “Growing Fancy” section, expect to learn about the veggie’s history, nutritional content, growing tips, and cooking tips, too! Take one: Chioggia Beets.

History:

Beets are thought to have originated from wild species in the Mediterranean area of Southern Europe. Their botanical ancestors have been cultivated just about as long as anything — as far as historians can tell, since prehistoric times. Those botanical ancestors are also known as chard, a bulbless beet that Aristotle wrote about in the fourth century B.C. (I’m hoping that if I keep writing about chard, maybe I’ll become extraordinarily wise and famous, too.) Early Romans ate only the greens; the root — still hard and fibrous at this point — was considered medicine and only used for treating illness.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., Roman food writers started to babble about beta vulgaris — a plant that apparently possessed the fleshy, sweet root we’re familiar with today. (It was probably found growing in the wild and subsequently cultivated, but nobody is not too sure about that.) Anyway, not too much was written about the beet for a while after the Romans. (I harbor a sneaking suspicion that beets were largely a peasant food, and peasant diets aren’t often recorded in the history books.) Fast-forward to the fourteenth century: the beet entered European consciousness vis-a-vis written English recipes, where it clearly “took root.” (Groan.)

Linguistic note: as some of our customers have pointed out, Chioggia is technically pronounced key-oh-ghee-ah. The “Ch” in Italy is pronounced as a hard “c,” whereas an Italian “c” is actually pronounced like the English “ch.” Still, I really haven’t heard too many Americans say it this way. (I did take a year of Italian in college, but I’m going to stick to the colloquial parlance on this one.)

Botany:

Any gardener knows a beet seed when she sees it — unless, of course, it’s a chard seed. Chard and beet seeds are pretty much identical, and look a little like extraterrestrials destined for Martian soil; each “seed” is actually a multifaceted seed pod containing multiple viable plant seeds. As I mentioned before, chard and beets are closely related, and will in fact cross-pollinate with one another if given the chance. Ditto goes for sugar beets. Be forewarned: beets are wind-pollinated, and the pollen can travel great distances. If you want to seed-save and get true-to-type Chioggia beets next year, make sure your beets aren’t flowering at the same time as your chard (or at the same time as another beet variety, such as Golden or Bull’s Blood).

Interesting side note: if you leave the pods on the plant too long in a rainy season, you might find tiny little beet plants sprouting mid-air from the parent plant, like rainforest epiphytes. It’s not particularly useful, but it’s pretty cool to see!

Growing:

We follow Johnny’s Seeds’ instructions for these little guys: directly sow them one inch apart, half an inch deep. Water regularly (we drip irrigate every day). Since each seed pod will sprout multiple plants, you’ll have to do a bit of thinning pretty quickly. But since beet seeds aren’t cheap, I really try to get the most out of each sprouted seed: We wait to thin as much as possible until the greens are big enough to use in a salad (yum) — and even then we only thin them to, say, a two-to-three-inch spacing. We thin again for baby beets, which are so tender and tasty and have good-sized greens. Approximately two months after planting (depending on weather — hotter is faster, cooler is slower), the remaining beets should be nice and plump, the bulbs easily visible from the surface. (If you want a perfect-looking beet, you can mound dirt over the bulbs so the skin quality is more uniform. But when you cook it, you end up peeling off the skin anyway, so I don’t bother.)

Chioggia beets have been summering our ninety-degree days quite well, and haven’t found themselves too put out by our clay soil. While some of our other beet varieties (specifically the classic dark red variety) have suffered from mild bouts of beet scab — an unattractive but not fatal condition — Chioggia has proven more resistant. The tasty beet greens haven’t been particularly plagued by pests, either — despite the fact that they’re grown out in the open, without a row cover, in a field rife with leaf-eating cucumber beetles.

Eat It:

Roasted! This caramelizes the beet’s naturally occurring sugar (which is about 8% of the plant), bringing out the root’s innate sweetness. It also preserves the Chioggia’s striking colors better than boiling, which tends to fade the characteristic candy stripes, at least on the areas most exposed to water.

To maximize the wow factor and minimize the cooking effort, simply slice the beets in half, place them on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sea salt & pepper — maybe some balsalmic if you feel the urge — and put them in an oven until they’re nice and tender. (Cooking length depends on size of beet.) Then simply peel the skins off and serve. (Or, like we do at our house, simply serve and warn people about the skins. Our kitchen is a do-it-yourself operation.)

Chic Chioggia:

  • Doesn’t stain the heck out of everything like the classic purple beet.
  • The stripes are truly stunning, especially for peppermint fans. (Also: Can trick unsuspecting kiddies with promises of ‘candy cane beet’.)
  • It’s Italian, and those people really know how to cook, so chances are they developed a darn good — sweet and succulent — beet variety, too.
  • A good way of getting fiber without becoming The Prune Eater; you’ll also benefit from beets’ high levels of folate and potassium. (Beets contain some calcium, too, but be sure to eat the greens for an extra dose of calcium and Vitamin C.)

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6 Comments

Filed under Farming Info

6 responses to “growing fancy: chioggia beets

  1. Ryan S

    Very cool write up! Traditional beets have always given us trouble with the stains and such (amazing how quick a 2 year old can make a mess). We will definitely give these a try.

  2. Pingback: The Beet Goes On « A Chicken In Every Granny Cart

  3. Enjoyed reading this post, thanks a ton!

  4. Woods

    Getting ready to plant my Chioggia Beet seeds. I read that one can soak beet seeds in warm water overnight before sowing? Is this recommended or not? We live in Sacramento area so I hope they will survive our 100+ days. I do have a shade cover over raised bed. Planning 36 seeds for 3 sq ft to thin to 9-12 sq ft. Also planning to add sand to soil. This is my first time for beets! Looking forward to your book! Greatly appreciate any feedback!

    • Glad you’re trying out beets! We don’t soak beet seeds, so that shouldn’t be necessary. Only seeds we occasionally soak are melons, but even that isn’t necessary. Shade cloth probably a good idea for your hot summer planting. Adding some sand is not a bad idea if you’re able, but you can always try without as well…maybe do a little experiment. We thin our beets to about 6 inches apart once the seedlings are several inches tall. Good luck!

  5. Alexis

    Is there any connection between the city in Italy and the beet origin?

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