Sunday, September 7, 2014

Summer Borscht (Холодный борщ)

Wow, September already?  Jeez.

Cold borscht is a dish I think of around this time of year, just as fresh beets are coming up, right around late August.  The first time I ever had it was on my birthday in my little kitchen in Iwate.  I'd thrown myself a birthday shindig and invited a few work colleagues.  Three hours before guests were set to show up my boss knocked on my door, arms full with a big pot full of beets and dairy, and without much of an explanation or apology took over my kitchen to make his specialty: cold borscht.  He had to make it at my house, he explained after twenty minutes of silence, because his -- like most Japanese homes -- didn't have an oven and roasting was the key, he said.

Up to that point I'd heard of borscht but never tried it.  I didn't even know what was in it (despite two years of college Russian).  And now here was my Japanese boss happily shucking roast beets and popping them into a pot full of broth.  Surreal moment, right there.

He was a super sweet guy.  I miss those folks.

Mr. Wakayanagi was kind enough to let me watch over his shoulder.  I didn't have the good sense to write things down as he worked, instead committing the process to memory.  I think most of it stuck, but to be honest it was kind of a wild party so I might be missing a few steps.  Even the pictures are hazy.

I still don't even remember this guy's name.  I called him Bambi after that.

The back story, if I understood it correctly, is that Mr. Wakayanagi's family had roots in Hokkaido and the recipe had been passed down that way.  It might be more complex than that (most likely it is), but that's the bit I feel confident about.  At any rate it's a good recipe, excellent for a colorful dinner on a hot day.

Summer Borscht (Холодный борщ)

Makes:  ~ 8 cups (easily halved for a more manageable batch)
Credits:  Wakayanagi-kachosan, plus some input from various Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian recipes.
Total Time to Make:  60 minutes to roast beets, 30 min to cool the beets, 45 min to cook the soup & eggs, 2+ hours to cool the soup, 15 minutes to garnish/serve.  So ballpark 4.5 - 5 hours start to finish.

  • Approximately half a dozen large fresh beets, washed & trimmed.  Reserve greens for other uses.
    • Can sub:  3 cups of chopped canned beets
  • 4 cups beef, chicken, or vegetable stock
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp majoram
  • 1 TBS soy sauce
  • 1 cup Greek/plain yogurt + 1 cup milk 
    • Alternative:  can use 2 cups of plain kefir, drinkable yogurt, or, if so inclined, buttermilk
  • 3-4 hard-boiled eggs
  • fresh dill, chopped cucumber, scallions, and sour cream for garnish
    • optional:  peeled, boiled, cubed potato for garnish
  1. Individually wrap fresh beets in tinfoil.  Add a few drops of water to each packet.  Bake at 400F for 40-60 minutes or until tender.  Allow to cool enough to handle safely.
  2. Remove tops & bottoms of beets.  Use fingers to peel them completely.  Cube the beets.  
  3. Heat the stock in a large soup pan on medium-low or simmer.  Add beet cubes.  Do not allow the stock to boil.  
  4. Add majoram, lemon, and soy sauce.  
  5. Keep on low heat, stirring gently every 5-10 minutes, for 30-45 minutes or until the stock has turned deep purple.
  6. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temperature.
  7. Using a standing blender or immersion blender, puree the beet soup.  Take extreme care not to splash, as beets stain on contact and can easily ruin clothing or kitchen towels.  (Apron recommended.)
  8. Mix yogurt and milk together with a whisk.  Add the yogurt mix (or kefir/buttermilk) to the soup.
  9. Refrigerate the soup for 2+ hours (or overnight).  Be certain the soup pot is room temperature before placing in the fridge, as placing hot objects on cold shelves can cause them to shatter or crack.
  10. To serve:  place a generous handful of chopped cucumber in a bowl.  Ladle cold soup overtop.  Top with slices of hardboiled egg, scallions, fresh dill, and sour cream (if desired).  Optionally, add cubes of potato to the bowl with the cucumbers for a heartier soup.

In my searches I found that there are many variants on cold borscht (also called holodnik, or holodni borscht), many of which center around how to cook the beets and what kind of dairy to use.  The options, far as I could tell, are: (1) boil/bake the beets, either separately or in the broth; and, (2) use various combinations of yogurt, kefir, milk, sour cream, or -- and this makes me gag to think about -- buttermilk.  There was even one that, so far as I could tell, was just shredded beets in a quart of buttermilk.  I...  yeah, no.  I don't do it that way.  

I like to roast fresh beets (for sweetness, also to keep dirt out of the stock since they're impossible to clean perfectly).  

The idea is to scrub them, cut off tops and bottoms:

Wrap these individually in foil with a few drops of water in each packet:

And then roast 'em at 400F for 40-60 minutes or until they're tender.  Let them cool long enough to handle comfortably.  You'll find that the peels slide right off:

See how easy?  I seriously ate an entire beet just like this.  Nature's candy!

Once they're peeled, cut the beets into cubes.

Now you're ready to get started!

Warm up your stock (beef, veg, or chicken all okay depending on your tastes), but -- and this is SUPER important -- do not let the stock get warm enough to boil.  The reason this is important is because if the beets get too hot they'll turn grey and get a little bitter.  This won't ruin the soup, but it will rob it of the gorgeous pink-purple color.  I keep the heat on medium low until it just starts to steam, then turn it down to low-low and drop the beets in.

Since the beets are already cooked it's not critical to heat the stock for long.  I give it about 30-45 minutes to let the color and flavor from the beets seep in.  (And give me time to boil the eggs.  I won't go over how to do that here -- just ask Google if you're not sure how to hard-boil an egg.)

Add in your lemon juice:


And soy (or salt, if you're avoiding gluten/soy):

Once the stock's good and red I take it off the heat and let it cool for a few minutes.  Then I blend it.  I used an immersion blender, but let me say with all seriousness that whether you use a standing blender or an immersion blender, you want to be so, so careful at this point.  Put on your scrubbiest teeshirt.  Wear an apron and gloves.  Make sure your favorite towels are out of the room.  The reason here is because it's very easy to slosh the stock onto your clothes or towel and it will stain.  So pretty please be careful and consider yourself warned.  Also, don't pour hot liquid into your standing blender.  Wait for it to cool first or you could end up with a cracked blender and hot purple liquid all over.  

This will give you a gorgeous dark purple puree:

When I learned the recipe from Mr. Wakayanagi, he used a drinkable yogurt product from the local dairy that's not unlike kefir.  Since my local market doesn't stock either of these things, I kludge it with a mixture of half yogurt and half whole milk.  Seems to work just fine.  If you want it more sour, use more yogurt.  If you want it really sour, use sour cream.  If you want it OMGSOUR, use buttermilk.  Up to you.

The way I do it, I first measure out a cup of Greek yogurt:

And then whisk it together with a cup of milk:

Into the pot it goes!

This is seriously my favorite part.  I love love love watching the colors change.

Isn't that amazing?

Damn, nature, you gorgeous!

Pop that bad boy in the fridge for a couple of hours -- even a day or two if you want -- and let it get good & cold.  When you're ready to serve, pop a handful of chopped cucumber into a bowl and ladle the soup over it.

Doesn't that pink just blow your mind?

Next up are 1-2 halves of a boiled egg (alternatively, you can chop it up into small pieces), and a few pinches each of fresh dill and scallions:

Tell me that doesn't look like Elmo.  

You can also top it off with a dollop of sour cream if you want:

And that's it!  You also put in cooked, cubed potato pieces if you want, or serve it with rolls.  Up to you.  

It's great on a hot day because it's full of fresh veg, has protein, and best of all is nice and cool.  Just make sure not to wear your favorite shirt to dinner.