Beets were not in my lexicon growing up. A couple of encounters with cooked beets or borscht as a child at other families’ dinner tables were not enough to turn me on to the somewhat extreme and exotic qualities of beets. Once I entered my twenties and began running out of unexplored vegetable territory (and learned that Jeff is a beet-lover) I found that I had few (if any) objections to a salad of mixed greens with cooked beets and goat cheese — a simple staple that has sustained us many an evening alongside a frittata or pasta dish. I was not alone obviously, the beet and goat cheese salad has become de riguer at almost every bistro in America– ad naseum. The time to find other uses for beets has clearly arrived.
Had someone informed the 9 year-old me that I would one day be loving this borscht recipe, as I let a spoonful of red liquid slip back into my bowl at Lauren Cheatham’s friday night meal, feigning ingestion of her grandma’s recipe, I would have snorted with disbelief (and then felt guilty for insulting her grandma). If I had a comprehensive list of positively revolting foods from my youth, borscht would have certainly been in the top ten, along with chopped liver, chicken, (weird, I know), lox (still hate lox), and smelly cheeses. Time marches forward and palates change. I used to love green olives and feel so-so about avocado, now the opposite is true. Besides, life would be pretty predictable if we let our 9-year-old selves plan the week’s dinner menu all the time.
Dr. Zhivago Borscht, from the Naked Beet
The Naked beet is a great blog I found through food52’s site when I was looking for Hannuka recipes. I am pretty much just cutting and pasting her recipe here, with a couple additional comments of my own.
10 cups water
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (I used olive oil)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
3 medium sized beets
2 medium sized carrots
1 large potato (1 yukon or 2 small red)
1 celery stalk, cut into thin moons
1/4 bunch fresh dill, minced
1/2-1 whole lemon, juice of
2-3 teaspoons salt
dash freshly ground pepper
12 whole juniper berries (optional) — what I would do next time, is tie the juniper berries in a cheesecloth satchel that can be removed before serving, biting into a juniper berry is very piney (like the tree), but they do add great flavor to the soup, so I would not omit them altogether.
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon sour cream (per bowl)- we used tofutti
Set your pot of water on low heat. Add in 1 tbsp of oil, chopped onion, bay leaf and juniper berries. Peel the beets and cut them into halves if they’re small enough or into thirds or quarters if they’re very large. You want them to be of relatively equal size. Drop them gently into the water as you continue working on the rest of the vegetables.
Peel and cut the carrots into rounds, and for the potatoes, cut them into 1/2″ size cubes or small chunks. (I prefer my vegetables small as I find they distribute a lot better into individual bowls.) Add them to the pot as they’re ready. Then add the chopped celery and the juice of 1/2 of a fresh lemon. Bring your heat up and cook the soup until a fork easily pierces through one of the larger beet pieces; this should take about 15 minutes on medium low heat.
While the beets are getting tender, you should skim the soup from some of the foam that will form. By doing this, you will inevitably be taking out some of the oil along with it. Once you’ve skimmed it, put in an additional 1/2 tablespoon of oil.
Once your beets are done, scoop them out of the soup (bringing back into the pot any vegetables that might have clung to the beet) and let the beets cool for 2 minutes so you can handle them more easily. At this point, you can turn the pot to low heat. I’d advise wearing gloves for the next part so you don’t have to take beet stains off your hands. Using the large holes on your grater, shred your beets. Once you’ve grated all the chunks, carefully put all the shredded beets back into the soup pot and let this cook for an additional 10 minutes.
The soup should have a sweet tart taste. After the 10 minutes, add in the dill and taste the soup to adjust flavors accordingly. Add salt, a tad of pepper, and if the soup is still too sweet for you, another tablespoon or 2 of fresh lemon juice. Remember that if your soup is very hot, you will not taste the actual level of salt, so err on the side of less, as each time you reheat the soup, it will get slightly saltier. This soup is the perfect example of melded flavors getting better in the following days.
Notes (Naked Beet’s): Serve hot or cold, with sour cream or not, but eat this with black bread. If you want to make the soup a bit spicier, add thin slices of garlic to the soup before serving. If you want just a hint of garlic, then rub a cut clove over the crust of your bread. In the Winter, if you want to experience an even more authentic Russian meal, serve this soup with a side of mashed potatoes topped with sardines. Let the juices of the sardines drip into the butter- or milk-mashed potatoes. If you cook this in the Summertime, omit cooking with juniper berries and use a topping of cubed persian cucumbers or a hard boiled egg split in half.