Last week, as a sticky heat wave descended upon New York City, I went on a mini-vacation to Vermont. There, I enjoyed country air, pastoral views, cool, fresh breezes, a swim in a crystal clear river-bend, and a much-needed break from the sweltering temperatures (oh, and lots of Vermont cheddar cheese).
Then I returned to New York, and the heat felt even hotter. As steamy weather always calls for light meals and cold food, I decided I’d make use of summer’s bounty by using my farmers’ market beets to make a classic cold soup: borscht.
Although, to me, borscht always calls to mind a deep purple-red soup accented with a white dollop of sour cream and a vibrant sprig of dill, its flavor the concentrated essence of earthy, beets, I discovered in my research that the word borscht can actually refer to many things. Contrary to my original belief that all borschts are chilled soups in which beets are the main ingredient, borscht can sometimes be a hot, hearty Russian stew made from beef stock and tomato paste and chock full of vegetables like cabbage, parsley root, and carrots.
But the borscht most of us here in New York know and love is a soup that was brought to New York City by Eastern European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. The word itself comes from Yiddish, and the soup bears the hallmarks of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking: it is sweet and sour, and, unlike its meat-based relatives in the borscht family, cold beet borscht is made with vegetables and only proteins like sour cream and hard boiled egg are included in order to keep it kosher for a dairy-based meal.
Despite the fact that it is neither a Hungarian or a German dish, borscht was frequently prepared by both my Hungarian and German grandmothers. I suspect the recipe made its way into their repertoires when they settled in New York City at the end of the 1930’s. In New York City, Ashkenazi Jewish food had made its way into the cuisine of the city. Undoubtedly, my grandmothers would have encountered borscht in restaurants, in the City’s European grocers, and in the Jewish “appetizing” stores that provided both of them with ingredients they knew from home while, at the same time, introducing them to foods like knishes, bagels, and other items more familiar to Jews whose origins stretched further East in Europe than their own.
The following is a recipe for borscht based on the best of several different versions I found through my research. It is smooth and very beet-y, light, but filling thanks to the chunks of vegetables included, and refreshing on a hot summer’s day. I hope you like it as much as I do.
5 medium fresh beets (about 2 pounds without tops)
1 cup vegetable stock
5 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
2 tablepoons sour cream, plus more for serving
1 cup medium-diced English cucumber, seeds removed
½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
1/2 cup chopped radishes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus extra for serving
1. Clean and peel the beets and cut them in half.
2. Place the halved beets in a large pot with the vegetable stock and the water, and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add the salt. Cook uncovered until the beets are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
3. Remove the beets to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.
4. Add the sugar, lemon, and vinegar to the cooking liquid, and set it aside to cool as well.
5. Once cooled, cut the beets into ¼ inch dice. Place ½ cup of the cooked beets, 2 tablespoons of sour cream, and about ½ of the beet broth into a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. Then, whisk that mixture back into the rest of the beet broth.
6. Stir the remainder of the chopped beets, the cucumber, scallions, radishes, and dill into the broth, and chill overnight.
7. To serve the soup, ladle into bowls, top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chopped dill.