In this refreshing summer soup, the sweet earthy flavor of grated beets is brightened
with a splash of lemon juice and lots of fresh dill and green onions.
At the lunch table at my San Antonio school, the only thing worse than stewed tomatoes were the dreaded canned beets. We didn’t have a choice: we had to clean our plates. If you didn’t, you’d sit in the silent, darkened dining room all afternoon, with the plate of cold, crimson, sickly sweet slices looking back at you. It was impossible to escape the sight or metallic smell of the beets. At last, when the dismissal bell rang, a tight-lipped teacher would appear to let you go home.
Needless to say, I spent more than one afternoon with the beets.
So I don’t know what possessed me to go into the old Russian Tea Room two decades later and order the borscht, a soup in which beets are the main ingredient. It was late in the afternoon and I sat there in solitary splendor; only one other table was occupied by a Broadway producer and his director in happy, animated conversation. I remember a deft waiter handing me an enormous menu and my eyes lighting on one thing I could afford: borscht with sour cream.
I don’t remember what it tasted like. But I vividly remember falling in love with beets for the first time. So it must have been good.
In the Baltic last month, I conducted an informal borshch study—that’s how it’s spelled in Russia—by ordering it whenever I could. In St. Petersburg I sat in the window of our 7th floor room at the Hotel Astoria gazing at St. Isaac’s gilded dome, the sun still glancing off its golden surfaces at 10 PM, spooning some of the most delicious borshch I’ve ever tasted into my mouth. It was perfectly simple, just shredded beets in their broth, lots and lots of fresh dill, and lemon juice. It came with a little dish of the thickest, richest smetana or sour cream I’ve ever had, and when I stirred them together, the crimson borshch turned a bright pink.
I soon discovered that borshch, which is said to have originated in the Ukraine, comes many different ways. At Restaurant Polovtsev, in the richly paneled dining room of a famous Russian senator’s mansion, I ate a hefty borshch of shredded beets—the beets were always shredded, never chopped— in beef broth thick with cubes of tongue. It was a hearty soup better suited to St. Petersburg’s annual 130 days of rain and snow than a summer’s balmy white night. At Podvorye, a dacha outside St. Petersburg, the borshch combines pork or beef brisket with an entire vegetable market: beets, cabbage, carrots, onions, sweet pepper, tomatoes and garlic. There is borshch with beans, with mushrooms, with potatoes and with roots of parsley, celery and parsnip.. In Estonia, at Kuldse Notsu Korts (aka the “Golden Piggie”), the beetroot soup was flavored with smoky sausages. It was very tart, splashed with both lemon juice and vinegar. There’s even a so-called green borshch, a sorrel soup or shchi, which has no beets at all.
In summer I want a light cold borshch with lots of fresh herbs. I found a recipe for a cold summer soup in Russian Cuisine, a cookbook by Lydia Liakhovskaya, which is the perfect fit. It is very similar to the borshch at the Hotel Astoria, except that it is served cold instead of warm. It has the refreshing idea of adding diced cucumber to the mix, and is brightened with lemon juice.
Early to mid summer is a perfect time to make cold borshch, when the beets are freshly dug from the earth and are still small and tender. (They are a cool season crop, so otherwise, wait till fall.) I used both red and golden beets; if you can find some of the heirloom varieties such as the red and white striped chioggia, all the better. Their sweet earthy flavor is perfectly set off by lots of chopped fresh dill and the green tops of white onions. (If necessary you can substitute scallion greens.) I always use crème fraiche which is much closer in richness and flavor to Russian smetana than grocery store sour cream. It is a perfect meal, needing only a glass of chilled white wine.
Cold Summer Borshch with Dill, Cucumber and Crème Fraiche
(adapted from Russian Cuisine by Lydia Liakhovskaya)
To serve 4
2-1/4 pounds of gold and red beets
6 cups water
1 pound cucumbers
1 large bunch dill, about 2 cups chopped
1 large bunch green tops of onions, about 1-1/2 cups chopped tops
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste
Pinch of sugar, to taste
Salt to taste
1/2 cup crème fraiche
1 to 2 tablespoons of shredded golden beets for garnish (optional)
Additional chopped dill and green onion for garnish
1. Scrub the beets with a brush under cold running water. Cut off the tops and tails. Put the beets in a medium saucepan, cover with 6 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer briskly until they are tender when pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes. Do not let the beets get mushy.
2. Strain the liquid from the beets into a bowl and reserve. In a separate bowl allow the beets to cool. When they are cool enough to touch, peel them and shred them on a coarse grater. (If you are using golden beets, reserve 1 to 2 tablespoons separately for garnish.) Set aside.
3. Peel the cucumbers, cut them half vertically, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut the cucumber into 1/4-inch cubes.
4. In a large bowl, mix the shredded beets, cucumbers and reserved broth. Add the chopped dill and green onions. Stir in the lemon juice, sugar and salt to taste. Mix well and chill for one hour.
5. To serve, ladle the cold soup into four bowls. Top with one to two tablespoons of crème fraiche, garnish with a spoonful of the shredded golden beets and sprinkle chopped dill and green onion over it all.