Green borshch's brightly acidic flavor comes from sorrel leaves, which are packed
with oxalic acid. Potatoes, onions, other greens and lavish quantities of pepper
help to balance the tartness of the soup.
Green borshch, as you might suspect, has no beets at all.
Instead it gets its color from liberal amounts of sorrel, along with parsley, green onion, and a smattering of dill.
You rarely see sorrel in American markets, except perhaps in the gourmet herb section of your supermarket. Which is odd, since rumex acetosa is a perennial herb that grows rampantly throughout Europe and parts of Asia, Its bright, sour taste comes from an abundance of oxalic acid in the mature leaves, and in the time of Henry VIII it was favorite salad herb. John Evelyn, an 18th century diarist and friend of Samuel Pepys, praised the “grateful quickness” it imparted “in the making of sallets…as supplying the want of oranges and lemons.” Like citrus fruit, it was said to cure scurvy and all sorts of inflammatory ailments.
But most of us, if we think of sorrel at all, associate it with French cuisine. Larousse Gastronomique has a host of recipes for the herb, including a luxurious veloute soup in which the leaves are blanched in boiling water, sweated in butter, then pureed in a chicken consommé thickened with a white roux and beaten with egg yolks, double cream and more butter. What’s amazing is that sorrel’s powerful acidity can stand up to all that richness.
In contrast, Russian sorrel soup is plain peasant fare, the sort of dish that might have been casually improvised on a summer day after a walk in a lush meadow. Coarsely chopped leaves, gathered in the wild or cultivated in a vegetable plot, were simmered in a hearty broth with potatoes and onions. More greens were added towards the end, then a spoonful of smetana or sour cream and a sliced hard boiled egg. It was—and is—a complete meal, satisfying and filling, especially in a cool Northern climate.
Sorrel is also known as spinach dock, and in fact sorrel and spinach are sometimes combined in green borshch. Then it may be called zelyonye shchi. Shchi is a sour Russian soup, usually made with cabbage or sauerkraut—the connection, I suppose, is in the acidic taste. There is also a type of shchi that includes nettles and sorrel.
By any name this sorrel soup has a wonderfully tart flavor that seems right for summer, even if it is a bit hearty. I first tasted this soup as part of a vodka-fueled lunch at Podvorye, a rustic restaurant near the town of Pushkina that is said to be a favorite of Vladimir Putin. The recipe in Podvorye’s cookbook calls for 250 grams of sorrel –about 9 ounces. To get that much sorrel, I went to Whole Foods and ordered a dozen 3/4- ounce plastic clamshells from Jacobs Farm, an organic culinary herb grower in California. Quite naturally, the day after it arrived I was visiting a neighbor in the next block who showed me a healthy patch of sorrel in his vegetable garden. “I don’t know what to do with it,” he said ruminatively. Hmmm….
Russian sorrel soup seems to be made more often with beef broth, but because I had two quarts of homemade chicken broth in the freezer, that’s what I used. It is good either way: the important thing is that the broth should be rich and full-flavored. To slightly offset the sourness of the sorrel, I used buttery Yukon gold potatoes and sweet Vidalia onions. The cookbook specifies additional “greens” but doesn’t give many clues—I used tops of green onions, flat leaf parsley and a little dill. Lavish amounts of salt and pepper should be added towards the end in order to pull the flavors into balance. Podvorye’s soup was quite peppery.
With all the herbs, potatoes, a hardboiled egg and crème fraiche (which tastes more like Russian sour cream than the supermarket variety), this green borshch is so filling that you don’t need anything else for supper. Still, a tiny glass or two of chilled vodka wouldn’t be amiss.
Green Summer Borscht with Sorrel, Potatoes and Crème Fraiche
(adapted from the cookbook for Podvorye Restaurant)
The soup tastes even better if you make it early in the morning, so that the flavor of the sorrel has time to blend with other ingredients.
To serve 4
6 cups rich beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade
3 cups potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/4 inch dice
4 large eggs
3 cups onion, cut in 1/4 inch dice
2 tablespoons canola oil
9 ounces sorrel leaves, roughly chopped (see note)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup green onions or scallions, tops only, chopped
1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup crème fraiche
1. Combine the broth and diced potatoes in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, put the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them while preparing the soup.
3. In a medium skillet, sauté the diced onions in the oil until they are soft, translucent and just beginning to brown around the edges. Add to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Add the sorrel, green onions and parsley to the soup and cook for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, but don’t stint. You’ll need plenty to balance the tartness of the herbs and the blandness of the potatoes. The soup should be peppery tasting.
5. Before serving, peel the eggs and cut them in quarters. Add 2 or 3 pieces to each bowl, tucking them under the sorrel and potatoes. Top each serving with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche and sprinkle with a little dill.
Note: Fresh sorrel can be ordered from Jacobs Farm.