cold beet borscht

When I was thirteen, my idea of the best birthday ever was to spend a day with my friends wandering around Soho and then having an early dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. I guess I was a weird thirteen-year-old, though, because when we got to the restaurant my friends were horrified by the round baskets and stools instead of tables and chairs, the absence of silverware, and the strong, spicy scents wafting through the place. So that birthday was a bit of a bust, but I did learn an important lesson: just because I think something is wonderful does not mean everyone will.

So, along those lines, I submit the following image:

Would you eat bright pink soup? Because I would. And I have. By the bucketful. For years.

Cold borscht is my favorite warm weather soup. It’s both light and hearty, and with a hard-boiled egg and slice of rye manages to make a complete meal. It also keeps really well, though the leftovers never seem to last long. And that color! Yes, please. My recipe, which has taken years to hone, is a hybrid: based primarily on the Moosewood Cookbook’s version, it is an attempt to recreate the cold borscht offered every summer at Veselka in the East Village.

Cold Beet Borscht

Ingredients:
-3 or 4 medium-sized beets
-2 cucumbers
-1 carton buttermilk, well chilled
-1 tsp honey
-1 tbs chopped fresh dill
-1 tbs chopped fresh mint
-1 clove of garlic, crushed or chopped finely
-plenty of salt
-4 hard-boiled eggs
-a few slices of rye

Chop the ends off the beets, but leave the skin on (it comes off easily after they’ve been boiled). If the beets are on the bigger side, or if you just want to cut down on cooking time, slice them into halves or even quarters (though not too small, or they’ll be difficult to grate later on). Cover with cold water and a shake or two of salt in a large pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce to low heat and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. To see if the beets are done, stab one of them with a fork — the tines should go in easily.

When the beets are done, fish them out of the water with a slotted spoon and set them on a plate to cool. Whatever you do, don’t throw out the beet water! Leave it uncovered on the stove to cool. You can even throw a few ice cubes in to speed up the process.

While the beets and water cool, peel the cucumbers and grate them coarsely into a large bowl (big enough for the finished soup). You can also chop the cucumbers by hand, but I find grating easier — just make sure not to grate them too finely, or you’ll end up with mush. You want the cucumbers to maintain their character, even while the beets are stealing the show. Oh, and now would be the time to put your eggs on to boil.

Chop the garlic clove and add to the cucumbers. Also add your chopped dill and honey. Mix it all together. Are those beets cool enough to handle yet? Not quite, but you can’t wait any longer? Okay, good. Slip the skin off the beets and use the same side of the grater (the one with big holes, the “coarse” setting, whatever you’d call it) to grate them into the large bowl. Watch them turn the cucumbers pink with envy!

Once the beets are grated, slowly add the cooled beet water. It doesn’t need to be cold, per se — just lukewarm/cool enough not to cook everything. You’ll probably end up adding about 2-3 cups of water total, just enough to create a stew-like consistency. You don’t want it watery, but you want the ingredients in the bowl to be saturated (rather than covered). By now you’ve probably taken your eggs off the heat and are letting them cool by the sink after dunking them in some cold water.

Now comes the best part: slowly start adding the buttermilk, stirring as you go. You want the soup to turn an opaque fuchsia. Don’t you love how color is so often an indicator of flavor in cooking? It’s such a visual process. Still, now that you’ve gotten the color right you need to attend to the salting. Taste the soup and see what it needs. I like to add about a teaspoon or two per bowl, but you may want more or less than that. It’s up to you.

Peel and slice the eggs in half. Make sure your chopped mint is at the ready. Once you’ve served the soup into bowls, float the eggs belly-up, right in the middle, and garnish with the mint. For the full experience, serve with a slice or four of rye bread, dunking repeatedly!

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