Beets are the tap root portion of beta vulgaris, a plant that since at least the Middle Ages has been used for medicinal purposes to treat illnesses relating to digestion and the blood, as a food coloring for wines and other comestibles, and as a food. Beets are eaten raw (grated in salads), boiled (in soups like borsht) or roasted. Today a large percentage of commercially harvested beets are processed and pickled for sale as a condiment in supermarkets (see pickled beets below).
The leaves of the plant also are edible. Young leaves can be added raw to salads, more mature leaves are commonly boiled, sauteed or steamed like spinach. If you want to cook beet greens, choose beets that do not have wrinkled skins and limp leaves, both signs of dehydration.
Beets can be messy to prepare. Aprons and rubber gloves will protect your hands and clothing from red juice stains. Julia Child, in her cookbook entitled The Way to Cook, suggests that beet stains can be removed from hands by wetting them and rubbing them with salt, and that a little bleach will immediately remove stains from cutting boards and utensils.