Usually, the sight of a root vegetable other than potatoes sends my kids running and screaming from the kitchen. But the beet claims a special place in our house whenever I make borscht.
Beets were a cheap commodity in Eastern Europe, so they caught on like wildfire in poor communities, both Jewish and Polish. Borscht (or borsch) is the generic name for a soup of Ukrainian origin that appears in hot and cold variations, but always with beets. Cold borscht is a true summertime soup, and I offer a thick, hearty version more like a Jewish take on gazpacho. Whatever kind of borscht you make, don’t leave out the dill–a staple of Polish and Eastern Europe cooking.
A Generational Dish
My borscht obsession started with my first taste of my mother’s soup, which her immigrant mother cooked and chilled every summer for her family of seven in a South Bronx tenement. Grandma Lena made a special Passover Borscht with russel (brine in Yiddish and Russian). She’d put the beets in wooden barrels with vinegar and water and let them sit for three to four weeks. Every few days, she’d skim off the fermented crust that would form at the top. My mother recalls this version being especially popular with some of their more (ahem) intemperate neighbors. But Grandma wasn’t trying to get anyone drunk–she was just trying to get borscht to keep longer. Fermented borscht could keep for weeks or even months without refrigeration.
My grandmother made borscht in a pressure cooker, the old jiggle-top kind. If a food particle clogged the vent, or if she got distracted and forgot to turn down the heat (not an infrequent occurrence in a large household) the regulator blew off, taking the contents of the pot with it. The pink splotches on the ceiling are one of my mother’s most vivid memories of her childhood kitchen.
Food That Looks as Good as it Tastes
Color and stain is what my kids love most about borscht. The first borscht of summer is as delightful to see (and to touch) as fresh paint out of the can. They love the beet’s luxuriously deep color and watching magenta transform light pink as sour cream is stirred into the finished soup. They love how the beets stain our hands when we’re peeling them.
Yes, peeling beets is a chore I can actually get my kids excited about. We make pink hand prints on newspaper.
My mother’s borscht makes for a refreshing summer swig from a glass–sour cream optional. It’s finished with sugar and vinegar, creating that characteristic Ashkenazic yin-and-yang of sweet and sour flavors. It’s just right for swigging out of the fridge on a hot day.
My borscht is adapted from pressure-cooker maven Lorna Sass’s Pressure Points. You will never find a trace of it on my ceiling. That’s because we use a high-tech pressure cooker with fancy safety mechanisms. If I get distracted and forget to lower the heat when high pressure is reached, a handy vent releases excess pressure. Pick up one of these versatile (and inexpensive) cookers, and you can cook beets for borscht (and a lot of other tasty dishes) in 20 minutes.
Someday, if I ever get my hands on a five-quart crock, I’ll tackle my grandmother’s fermented borscht.
My Grandmother’s Fermented Beet Borscht with Russel (brine)
My grandmother never wrote down a single recipe or consulted a cookbook, but my mother insists that this version of fermented borscht from The Molly Goldberg Cookbook is the real deal. My grandmother made this from her head, once a year.
About 12 very large beets should be peeled and cut into quarters. Fill stone jug or crock with 5 quarts of water. Put the top on the container at a slight angle (don’t cover 100 percent). Cover with thin cloth to keep out dust. After 10 days, remove cover and skim surface carefully. Stir and skim every few days–for two to three weeks. The liquid should be clear, bright red, and have a wine-like aroma. Pour into glass and sip–but not too much, my mother says. Russel can also be used as stock for soups or stews.
Lorna Sass’s Pureed Summer Borscht
2 pounds washed beets, unpeeled
5 cups of water
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 small peeled onion
½ cup sour cream or yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Cook beets and salt under pressure according to size (about 20 minutes for medium beets). While beets are still warm, slip off skins. Puree beets, onions, and liquid in blender or food processor. Chill at least four hours or overnight. Add sour cream or yogurt, lemon juice, and sugar, adjusting for taste, and garnish with dill.