Cool Summer Borscht
By Victoria Challancin
Intensity. Scary to some; alluring to others. I am definitely one of those lured by the vigorous depth of beets. Extreme in color, concentrated in flavor, beets stir up strong emotions in people, who as with cilantro or coriander, generally seem to love them or hate them.
One of my friends requested this soup after enjoying at another friend's house--and am I glad she did. This chilled version of the Ukraine's famous soup, is a winner. Like its hot cousin, this cold soup is based on beets, or beetroot, as they are called in many countries.
A Little History of Borscht and Beets
Dating to at least Medieval times, borscht, was and is based mainly on beets, which were cheap and readily available, making it a common food for rich and poor alike. Countless variations exist, especially in the Ukraine, where it is considered the national soup. Of course, the Russians also claim it as their national dish, but the facts are tilted in favor of the Ukraine as the place of origin.
Today, the word "borscht" refers to any kind of soup with beets, but in Russia, it originally meant cow parsnips, or cow beets, from which the soup was originally made. Long associated with poverty, beets were popular food for cows, peasants, and Slavic-Jewish immigrants.
Borscht often includes beef or pork, but can be made vegetarian as well. Vegetables used in this popular soup include beets (of course) potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and peppers. Sour dairy products such as sour cream, kefir, soured milk, or yogurt, are also often added to the soup once it has cooled down. Chopped raw vegetables such as radishes or cucumbers are also used as garnish and dill or parsley are the herbal element; chopped hard cooked eggs are also used as garnish.
In its hot version, borscht is a hearty soup often served as an appetizer with dark rye bread; when served cold it often includes the garnishes mentioned above. Versions for pickled beet borscht also exist. For a comprehensive set of recipes from all over Eastern Europe, see this link.
Beets get their name from the Greek letter "beta," which the root somewhat resembles; it becomes "bete" in English. Their botanical name is Beta vulgaris. First domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East for the leaves, beets evolved from the wild seabeet, a native of coastlines from India to Britain. Borscht gets its name from the Slavic "borschchevik," which means hogweed, which earlier cooks used to add a greenish brown color to their soup--or just because it was commonly available and cheap--or free!
An AOL food preference poll in 2008 shows that beets are among Americans' top-ten most-hated foods--how can that be???? The reason, as I have mentioned before, is that beets taste like dirt to many people, due to the earthy-flavored substance called geosmin, that they contain (it also makes a garden smell so good after a rain!).
Fun Facts about Beets
Note: I also wrote about beet history here, and although I probably have recycled some of the same information, no doubt, there is also new research below as I continue to dig ; )
Until the nineteenth century, vegetables that were best for storing, whether by drying, pickling, or preserving in the root cellar, were the most popular. The lowly beet heads the list.
- Due to the number of Jewish immigrants in the Catskills, the area was known in early US history as the "Borscht Belt"
- Romans used beets as an aphrodisiac--perhaps the first natural Viagra? High amounts of boron, which is directly related to the production of human sex hormones, bear out this use
- Whether due to the aforementioned aphrodisiac properties or not, the Romans seriously cultivated beets; recipes from Apicius showed them being used in broths and in salads with a dressing of mustard, oil, and vinegar as well as boiled with cumin, leeks, and coriander; Romans also cooked them with honey and wine
- The medicinal properties of beets were more important than culinary qualities to the ancients who used them to treat a range of ailments such as fevers, constipation, various skin conditions, and wounds; other sources state that they were used also for headaches and toothaches
- In 19th century England beets were also found in cakes and puddings
- Beet plants were also used in 19th century England as decorative bedding because of the attractiveness of the green leaves
- Pickled beets became particularly popular after WWII, especially in Europe
- Ancient texts from 800 B.C. mention beets being grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
- Beets are a traditional food eaten for good luck on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana
- In modern Australia, home of some of the world's most innovative modern cuisine, Oz-style burgers include sliced beets on top--even McDonalds and Burger King have had to include beets on their burger menus
- Since the 16th century, beet juice has been used as a natural red dye
- Victoria women used beet juice on their lips, cheeks, and to dye their hair (one of my Mexican students says her best friend only uses beet juice for lipstick and blush--I'm having trouble imagining beet-hued cheeks!)
- Said to be worth their weight in silver, beets were offered to Apollo in his temple at Delphi
- Beets have one of the highest sugar contents of any vegetable, up to 10%, but it is released slowly into the body rather than the sudden rush that results from eating many sweets
- Beets can be made into a wine that is similar to port
- A thickened sweet-and-sour beet concoction became popular in New England and was named by Fannie Farmer in 1896 "Harvard beets," with the idea that giving them an Ivy League name would upgrade their low standard
- The boiled water from cooked beets, when rubbed into the scalp, is a folk remedy for dandruff
- Beet juice can be used to measure acidity as a home-style Litmus test (when added to an acidic solution, it turns pink; when added to an alkali, it turns yellow)
- Beets contain betaine, a substance that relaxes the mind and is used in other forms to treat depression
- The ancients understood that beets are excellent for cleansing (especially good in detoxifying the liver)
- Aphrodite was said to eat beets to increase her beauty
- Many cultures include a legend that says a man and woman who eat from the same beet will fall in love
- The Romans were the first to develop the bulbous root we know today, though it was mainly used as medicine
- By Charlemagne's time (around 800) French gardens typically included beets
- Beets help regulate bowel health, detox the body, and cleanse and improve the blod
- Beet juice is a natural tonic for dry skin (especially good for people who sit in front of the computer and are exposed to its electro-magnetic field)
- Beets are related to the turnip, swede (rutabaga), and sugar beet
- The rounded root shape that is so familiar today wasn't developed until the 16th century
- Beets also contain tryptophan, which also contributes to a sense of well-being
- Beets come in all shapes and sizes, with the most common being round with a deep red color; other varieties are yellow, white, and candy-striped
- In the 19th century beets were known as "blood turnips"
- Swiss chard (called silverbeet in some countries) is a type of beet with no root to speak of; chard was probably the first cultivated beet
- Beets have anti-cancer properties due to the betacyanin they contain
- Beets are low in calories, about 60 calories per cup in spite of the high sugar content
- Beets contain over 80 beneficial nutrients
- Beets help keep the heart healthy, reduce inflammation, and may lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease
- The red tint beets may give your stools or urine is harmless
- The beets that the Romans and Greeks ate were white or black rather than red
- Aristophanes mentions beets in two of his comedies performed in 420 BC
- Pliny the Elder wrote that beets were easy to digest, but that some doctors thought them to be more harmful to the digestive system than cabbage
- Beets get their red color from the pigment called "betalain," also found in Bougainvillea and amaranth
- Beet greens are even better for you than the beet root itself
- If you have kidney or gall bladder problems, you may want to avoid beets due to the high amount of oxalates they contain
- Beets balance the body's pH levels
- Beets contain a lot of vitamin C (roots) and vitamin A (leaves), plus they are high in folate, dietary fiber, and antioxidants
Cook's Notes: I used Ina Garten's recipe for Summer Borscht as requested by my friend. It is absolutely delicious. I made homemade chicken broth, which is so easy to do here in Mexico. I also followed the recipe, which is a change for me, except that I chose to puree the soup, holding back some of the chopped beets, cucumber, and green onion tops as garnish to lend some texture--but this is as you prefer. Well, I didn't exactly follow it:I also used Mexican crema, which is very similar to créme fraîche and I thought it needed another squeeze of lemon juice and an additional teaspoon of Champagne vinegar to sharpen the flavors a bit. Be sure to serve this soup well-chilled and know that it is even better the next day!
Recipe: Cold Summer Borscht
(Recipe by Ina Garten, from The Barefoot Contessa at Home)
5 medium beets (about 2 pounds without tops)--my beets were larger than this
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
16 ounces (2 cups) sour cream, plus extra for serving
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups medium-diced English cucumber, seeds removed (peel the cucumber if you have to use a waxed variety as I did)
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus extra for serving
Place the beets in a large pot of boiling salted water and cook uncovered until the beets are tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on size. Remove the beets to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve and also set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of the beet cooking liquid, the chicken stock, sour cream, yogurt, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, 1 tablespoon salt, and the pepper. Peel the cooled beets with a small paring knife or rub the skins off with your hands. Cut the beets in small to medium dice. Add the beets, cucumber, scallions, and dill to the soup (or puree in a blender or food processor with a little of the broth). Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. Season, to taste, and serve cold with a dollop of sour cream and an extra sprig of fresh dill.
I served the soup the following day with a dollop of yogurt and some snipped fresh dill
Other recipes I have posted with beets include:
- Beet and Carrot Slaw with Ginger-Tahini Dressing
- Winter Salad with Roasted Beets and Citrus Reduction
- Honey-Balsamic Vinaigrette (used on a salad with lettuce, mango, cooked beets, alfalfa sprouts, blue cheese, and more)
- Lemon-Maple Vinaigrette (used on a salad with red onion, red bell pepper, cabbages, cucumber, celery, cooked beets, avocado, and sprouts)
I mentioned that I wanted to make patties with the leftover filling for the Corn and Ricotta Ravioli I prepared this week; I simply formed patties, rolled them in dry bread crumbs and fried them in a bit of olive oil. Delicious, in spite of the fact that they fell apart during cooking. To avoid this, next time I will add more binders, perhaps another egg and some more fresh or dried breadcrumbs.
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.
Remember that like life, recipes are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using text or photos. Thanks!