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Monday, August 20, 2012

Cool Summer Borscht

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to any kind of soup with beets, but in Russia, it originally meant cow parsnips, or cow beets, from which the soup was originally made.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
Kosher salt
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:

 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.  
Yes, I know,  they are less than impressive-looking, but wow, were they tasty.  I served them with some yogurt spiked with a bit of olive oil and lemon juice, and garnished with some fresh basil in chiffonade.

I forgot to add this photo of Angus,which was taken two weeks ago, when I wrote about the Corn Ravioli on the last post.  Here he is sitting atop a plant he has just destroyed with a cob of cooked corn he just took from his dad, Roscoe, who, for some reason, allowed it.  I call it simply:  Angus Likes Corn

Parting Shot:  

©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!


Joan Nova said...

Must admit I'm kind of a borscht virgin. I think I may have tried it somewhere, sometime but it was a long time ago and I've never made it. I like beets so there's no reason not to remedy that. It certainly is colorful and you know I love color on the plate.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

You really should try this one. It is just soooo good. Refreshing and pretty at the same time, though even you might find the color a little scary!

corrie said...

Those roses are nearly as 'intense' as the soup. I would love a blouse in that colour! I am looking forward to summer here so I can make this soup :-)

Eha said...

Love the borscht recipe and absolutely love all the facts about beetroot with which I can now bedazzle all those in my 'world'! Now: have a Q about Angus, who 'bedazzles' me even more at the moment! Victoria: you area a Florida gal, methinks, and your husband from Mexico? How on earth did that heartbreaker Angus get his sturdy, masculine Scottish name? Oh, love the second photo of the series! Oops, the roses are just beautiful!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

This is one of my favourite soups ever! It reminds me of high school as I had a Russian best friend :) Oh and I always thought that you could use beetroot to stain the lips and cheeks! :P

Hotly Spiced said...

I love the look of your soup. The vibrant colour and the way you have plated it and your beautiful patterned white plate make this so attractive. I love beets, not only for their flavour but also for their colour! xx

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

I am one of the people who loves beets and this vibrant soup sounds very good. Very refreshing for summer.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Eha, I am indeed a Florida girl, with a Dad who came from a northern Italian immigrant family (hence my French surname), but my Mother was a Thompson of good Scots-Irish blood though that side of the family has been in the US since the American Revolution (from Scotland). My grandfather's name was George Angus Thompson, so when I wanted a Scottish name form my new border collie, I chose that one--also I liked Zeke, but it is too much like Zack, my son. My husband is an American of Macedonian blood (his first language), but has lived in Mexico for over 30 years. Wow--my family history! said...

I made something like this for a pink party. I do so enjoy your posts and all the information and wonderful fotos.....will try your recipe...

Eha said...

Victoria - thanks a million for your family history: methinks I count about six strands converging and Angus, being a Border Collie, surely has a very appropriate name :) ! I can only provide 3-4: Swedish paternal grandmother, Baltic German maternal grandparents, originally from St Petersburg {!} and an Estonian landed gentleman for paternal grandfather! Born in Estonia, now a rather fervent Aussie - God bless the melange in the menage :) ! And, after all this, please give Angus an extra pat for me!!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Eha--Our combined families certainly cover a lot of ground! Interesting histoy--and you ended up in Australia????

Nancy said...

Hi Victoria,
I love love beets, and borscht. Though I've never had the cold version I know I'd love it as much as the hot. Love the history and facts too. Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend. Your puppy is too cute, even if he is getting into trouble:)