Sugar Beets: Thought for Food

October 01, 2012
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By Quin Shakra

I grew a lot of obscure crops during my heyday as a farmer in 2010 (and yes, this heyday is still ongoing). Among those crops was the sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), which has large oblong white roots that most of us have never seen, because the beets are grown primarily for their sucrose content, which is transformed into beet sugar. This sugar comprises 20% of the global sugar market, so chances are you’ve eaten it.

The roots also yield large succulent greens that are typically less thick-veined than a lot of Swiss chard varieties (although I do admit the leaf veins can be a bit more fibrous). We’ve grown them every summer at Mano Farm, and there is a bit of a historical resonance, as sugar beets used to be a major cash crop in Ventura County, with the first plantings on the Oxnard Plain as early as 1896.

The sugar beet is related to Swiss chard and all other forms of table beets, and this relationship is partly why it has become such a politicized crop in the battle over genetically modified (GM) food. Beets are wind-pollinated, so the potential of pollen out-crossing with other beet-species varieties is likely in areas where both organic and GM seeds are grown in close proximity to one another, for instance the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

GM sugar beets resistant to glyphosate herbicides (commercially known as Round-Up) were first deregulated in the United States in 2005, and in 2011, 95% of the sugar beets planted nationwide were a GM variety. Organic food advocacy organizations have fought the deregulation in the courts, but in the wake of a 2010 planting moratorium, the USDA fully deregulated GM sugar beets this past July.

Mano Farm sources untreated, non-GM sugar beet seed and this autumn marks our third attempt to produce a seed crop from them. It seemed politically germane, but it’s a bit difficult, because the roots need a prolonged cold period to properly vernalize and set seed, and in our Mediterranean climate that doesn’t consistently happen. So as I anxiously wait for the arrival of autumn and winter (rain please; cold please), I’m pulling the last of the summer roots out of the ground and working on perfecting my chocolate sugar beet cake.

Sugar Beet Cake

This recipe is vegan not for dietary reasons but because I think it tastes really good this way.

Mix separately:

3 tablespoons ground flaxseed in 9 tablespoons water. Set aside.

Dry ingredients:

2¾ cups pastry flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

3 teaspoons vanilla powder (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon ginger powder

1¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Wet ingredients

2 cups grated sugar beet (other beets, such as Blankoma, another white variety, will substitute well, but the darker beets will add a heaviness to the flavor)

¾ cup sunflower or safflower oil

⅔ cup canned coconut milk (because it’s expensive, I dilute mine about half and half with water)

¾ cup coconut sugar (Sucanant or Rapadura sugar are also good substitutions, but definitely use a darker sugar, as it’s what imparts the flavor depth)

¾ cup applesauce

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel (or 5 drops lemon essential oil)

Preheat oven to 325°.

Mix the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls, then mix dry into wet. Add the ground flaxseed and mix together again. Pour into a greased baking pan (I like to use coconut oil) with dimensions of approximately 9 by 13 by 2 inches. Glass baking pans with gas ovens cook things the most evenly; electric ovens and metal baking pans are less ideal. However, work with what you’ve got. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, depending on oven. Stick a knife in the cake; if it comes out clean, it’s done.

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