What a surprise to pull my first beet out of the ground. I’ve been admiring the gorgeous green leaves of this plant for weeks now. Not the course variegated leaf of a red beet that I typical cut off and put in the compost because I find them too bitter, these leaves have been developing smooth and creamy green, virtually blemish free. When I planted the ‘yellow mangel beet’ seeds I picked up at a local seed swap, I was imagining these would be the little round golden beets I love to find in the farmer’s markets. I was expecting that the little fingerling size beets that were forming would fill out and become round.
The greens let me know when it was time to finally harvest one from the dirt.
They clearly wanted to be eaten and I wanted to oblige. But the beet that emerged with them was only a much bigger version of the oblong shape I witnessed earlier. With some disappointment, I came in to consult Google, saw many pictures of a root that looked exactly like the one in my hand and was amazed to learn that this plant, also called ‘mangelwurzel’, is grown primarily for the economy of nutrition it offers livestock!
Mangelwurzel or mangold wurzel (from German Mangel/Mangold and Wurzel, “root”), also called mangold, mangel beet, field beet, and fodder beet, is a cultivated root vegetable derived from Beta vulgaris. Its large white, yellow or orange-yellow swollen roots were developed in the 18th century as a fodder crop for feeding livestock.
Contemporary use is primarily for cattle, pig and other stock feed, although it can be eaten – especially when young – by humans. Considered a crop for cool-temperate climates, the mangelwurzel sown in autumn can be grown as a winter crop in warm-temperate to sub-tropical climates. Both leaves and roots may be eaten. Leaves can be lightly steamed for salads or lightly boiled as a vegetable if treated like English spinach. Grown in well-dug, well-composted soil and watered regularly, the roots become tender, juicy and flavourful. The roots are prepared boiled like potato for serving mashed, diced or in sweet curries. Animals are known to thrive upon this plant; both its leaves and roots providing a nutritious food. Mangelwurzel may require supplementary potassium (potash) for optimum yields, flavour and texture, and foliage readily displays potassium deficiency as interveinal chlorosis. In 19th-century American usage they were sometimes referred to as ‘mango.’
I further learned that these roots can live in the ground for quite some time and get very large, up to 20 lbs. and 2 feet long. Clearly, what I had in hand was a young root, only 4″ long and barely 6 ounces. I went out to harvest a few more, scrubbed the roots clean and admired their bright yellow color.
The greens were beautiful, almost too perfect.
Arranged in a vase like a bouquet of flowers, they continued to call out to be eaten, the way something fresh and bursting with nutrition can do.
I boiled the whole roots in a large saucepan until they were soft. The skins slipped right off. The beets were cut into discs and while still warm, dressed lightly in a little olive oil and cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and fresh basil.
I admired the white flesh of these roots, noted the characteristic rings of a beet, and took my first bite. Sweet. Juicy. Yes, I found articles that talked about the bitter aftertaste that can come after a mouthful of these beets. But that wasn’t my experience eating the young roots the size that they are now. Characteristically different than it’s other more colorful cousins, there is a quality to these beets that brings lightness to the table and something altogether new to the repertoire of worthy seasonal vegetables to consider.
But it is the greens that truly make this plant something special. Boiled the first night, and served with dash of olive oil and fresh lemon juice, added to a plate with some of the sliced marinated root, a serving of garbanzo beans and slices of fresh bakery bread, made for a feast of simple fare.
These greens are some of the best I have ever tasted. Flavorful like spinach, though firmer, with a hint of beet and chard, it has all the qualities of a green worth adding to every meal. Yes, they do cook down, but a little bit goes a long way.
The next night was a variation on the theme. I threw the rest of the greens into a pot of cooking spaghetti for the last 5 minutes while making a sauce with gold cherry tomatoes picked daily from the one prolific plant outside my door. Tomatoes cut in half, sautéed with lots of garlic and chopped fresh basil, and tossed at the end with added butter, some more of the beans, and grated Parmesan. Sigh. It is just too delicious.
As with all beets, mangel-wurzel leaves contain oxalates and are more digestible when lightly steamed or stir-fried. I found a reference to serving the roots and leaves in a coconut milk-based curry with garbanzos and fresh ginger. Great way to use up the rest of the beans, smile.
I’m not sure why this plant doesn’t find its way into human consumption with the same priority as other beets. I am sure I will never see a yellow mangel beet for sale at the grocery store and have never seen them at the farmer’s market either for that matter. Ironically it is a scarcity, and yet grown in abundance at the same time. It makes me realize that just about everything else I eat I can get somewhere, any time of year, either from a local farm or the supermarket, fresh frozen or otherwise. Except mangel beets and their spectacular greens. So I’ll just have to keep growing them myself….