Originally from Europe, beets share a common ancestor with chard; the sea beet. Sea beets still grow today on the European Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, and are wild leafy vegetables that were eaten by our Neanderthal ancestors. Charred beetroots have been excavated at Neolithic sites. The common red beetroot plant that we eat today was originally domesticated somewhere in the Mediterranean area in the second millennium BC and was popular in Babylon, Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Ancient Greece. The earliest written mention of the beet comes from 8th century BC Mesopotamia. By 850 AD it reached China.
In the 18th century, it was discovered that sucrose could be extracted from sugar beets, thus bringing down the price of sugar as it was no longer required to travel to the tropics to get cane sugar. Europe and Russia produce the most beet sugar, which accounts for over 30% of the world's sugar supply.
The natural red dyes in beets (called betalain) are used to decorate eggs, and to add coloring to sauces, jams, and jellies. Horses that have hay allergies or need more sustenance are fed beet pulp. Beets are also made into wine in some countries.
Beets are popular in Eastern European countries and used mainly in borscht. Many of the world's centenarians live in Eastern Europe, and scientists have been researching a possible link between eating beets and longevity. Eastern European countries that eat a lot of borscht have lower rates of colon cancer, so many scientists think beets may have colon cancer-fighting properties.
Beets can be eaten raw or cooked. When it's winter and there are no tomatoes available, beets make a wonderful addition to a salad. Just peel, boil until tender, and slice up. Or you can grate a raw beet on a salad or soup as a garnish. All parts of the beet are edible; the green leafy tops make wonderful braising greens. Roasting beets brings out the sugars very well and gives them a different flavor and texture than boiled beets.
Some recipes to try:
Beet Salad with Horseradish Cream and Frizzled Sweet Onions
Velvety Beet and Cocoa Cake
Beets on Crostini with Goat Cheese
Roasted Beets and Sautéed Greens with Hazelnuts and Goat Cheese
Cabbage Beet Coleslaw
Grated Beet Salad with Blue Cheese
Roasted Beet Salad with Barley, Feta, and Red Onion
Tip: How To Roast and Peel Beets
(Image: Flickr user phxpma - thanks!)