Spoiler: this plant we almost universally recognize for its ruddy root hasn’t always looked this way! Here is a brief history of this changing plant and its closest relative, plus a recreated recipe from Apicius.
A colorful photo of the cooked greens with leeks on a plate.
Beets are funny-looking plants. The deep purple, oversized roots can be unusually round like edible underground balloons. But despite their appearance (which, on further thought, isn’t all that unusual), beets have become remarkably versatile. Although they now have myriad uses, finding their way into salads, soups, spreads, steak tartare, and chocolate cake — absurd, I know! — beets weren’t always the culinary superstars they’re regarded as today. In fact, they didn’t always exist as we know them now (more about that later).
Historical records strongly document the long history of the beet: one Babylonian cuneiform tablet attests a recipe called tuh’u, a 4,000-year-old proto-borscht. Beets were apparently also grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, assuming they were once real, and physical remains of beetroot have been discovered at Thebes in Egypt.
The Romans formulated a laundry list of therapeutic uses for the beet. Of course! Pliny describes the beet could be used to remedy headaches, dysentery, and skin problems like chilblains, jaundice, and erysipelas. Given their reputation as a health food, beets did happen to make their way into a handful of recipes, one of which I’ve added below. Here, a recipe for beets with leeks from the largest ancient cookbook, Apicius:
Betas minutas et porros requietos elixabis, in patina compones. Teres piper, cuminum, suffundes liquamen, passum, ut quaedam dulcedo sit. Facias ut ferveat. Cum ferbuerit, inferes.
Boil small beets and refreshed/stale leeks, and put in a patina. Grind pepper and cumin and pour over liquamen and passum, so one (leeks) could become sweet. Make it so it boils/heats. When hot, serve.
So, we now have the recipe. But there’s one slight problem — Apicius uses the word betas, which is invariably translated to “beets,” but there’s no concurrence among modern recreations whether leaves or roots would have been used. That seems weird, you probably think, because who wouldn’t eat the root? Let me explain!
Modern beetroot — the stout-rooted plant we’re familiar with — descended from the sea beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima). This wild forebear continues to be grown for its leaves and was the starting point for the cultivation process that resulted in the beet’s large taproot. I wasn’t able to find any evidence for what Romans diners ate, but it is assumed that beetroot cultivation didn’t begin until the end of the empire at the very earliest (though I found some sources claimed the 16th century).
It’s unlikely, then, that the beetroot of the Romans or their forebears would be the size of what we can find at the grocery store or in the garden today. Since the undeveloped roots of the common beet would have been very small, the Romans probably just cooked with the leaves. I mean, who wants a single dirt-flavored root when the alternative is an armful of big, perfectly edible leaves?
Some recreated ancient beet recipes call for beetroot instead of the leaves. I’m under the impression this is inaccurate — as you can probably tell by my inclusion of this rationale.
Another case for cooking the greens could be found right in the original text. I noticed Apicius uses minutas, which translates to “small.” If the roots of the beets were already naturally small, why would Apicius specify? Given the verbal prudence of this text, it would seem unnecessary to specify the girth of the roots. Now, I don’t mean to rule out the presence of beets being grown for their roots entirely, but it’s most likely we ought to be using the leaves.
I had bad luck finding beets with greens that weren’t frail and wilted. I decided instead to use Swiss chard, a relative of the beet (a very close one — they’re the same subspecies) that’s grown for its leaves. For my purposes in the kitchen, robust leaves were a must since they form the basis of this dish. But if you do happen to find beets with healthy greens, by all means, use them. Here is my rendition of beet greens with leeks from Apicius:
6-8 leaves of chard
½ tsp of pepper
½ tsp of cumin
1 tbsp of liquamen
1 tbsp of passum
Chop off the very bottom of each chard leaf, then dice the stems into small pieces. Once you reach the leaf, cut it along the central rib and tear into large pieces. Take the leek and thinly slice the white bulb at the bottom. Rinse these slices (to remove potential leftover sand), then add to a large pan with the chard stems and some olive oil, cooking on medium heat. Season with the pepper and cumin. Many of the recipes I’ve written instruct to grind the spices in a mortar, but since both spices can be readily found pre-ground, feel free to use them in that form.
When the leeks have turned translucent and soft and the chard starts to smell like dirt (honestly!), add in the leaves. Pour a small amount of water into the pan and cover, about five minutes. As soon as the leaves have wilted, transfer to a plate, cover with the liquamen and passum, and serve while still warm.
Photos of the ingredients for this recipe (featuring a ginormous leek) and the finished dish on a plate.
I’ll admit I followed this recipe more loosely than I have some of the others, especially the boiling part, but it was wonderful! I thought the best thing about it was its relative simplicity, even though this recipe is a longer one. The dressing was questionable, but the leaves themselves wilted nicely and made a great pair with the leeks. The chard stem was sweet — a welcome surprise. Finally, what’s not to love about the striking color of the chard? This dish is a rainbow on a plate that shows the verdant history of the beet and its consumption in Rome.