The Beautiful Beet Stars in a Savory Summer Soup
My husband loves beets in any fashion: boiled, steamed, roasted, pickled, pureed, or made into soup, chilled or hot. He knows he can have my share!
But one thing I will admit is that they are one of the prettiest vegetables around, and I really wish I could love them. I’ve made peace with the lovely little candy stripe heirloom “Chioggia” beet, and I can eat a bit of the golden beets without much hesitation. However, I ate far too many of the dark, red beets in my childhood to want to allow them bleeding on my plate.
Edible from tip of leaf to end of root!
But my family enjoy them, so I cook them, occasionally, and love looking at them. Strangely enough, while I pass on the beets, I absolutely love the beet greens, so growing them is not that much of a chore for me.
Beets have been trendy in the past few years, their beauty alone allowing them to rise to star status no doubt. And since they are a winter root crop that keeps for months (which is why we had so many of them when I was a kid), they grace the tables of all the farm-to-restaurant establishments throughout the year; every part of the beet is edible, so they are a great value, economically as well as nutritionally.
The Peasant Finds a Glass Slipper
As trendy as they are now, beet soups are peasant food at its best. The different ingredients in the many variations reflect what was grown and what was available in the regions where the recipes originated. They hold their own as elegant restaurant fare in the 21st Century!
There are many traditional recipes out there, Russian, Ukranian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc., and every family recipe is a little different, so I doubt there is any version that one could call THE recipe.
Often, this soup is made with beef stock, but chicken and vegetable stock, as well as plain old water are also used.
Borscht or Svekolnik? Does it matter?
Most old country recipes include cabbage and a lot of root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots and parsnips. Often there are tomatoes or even beans involved, and always an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. They are often served chunky.
A similar soup, Svekolnik, is probably more like the dish we think of as borscht. It uses more beets, fewer root vegetables, no cabbage, usually vegetable stock, and includes cucumber. Often, this is pureed, but not necessarily!
My recipe uses a little purple cabbage, but I don’t use the other vegetables except onion and garlic; however, if I had some potatoes or carrots on hand and needed to use them up, I would throw them in the pot. This is an excellent soup to put your own mark on.
One thing I love about this recipe is that every part of the beet, onion, garlic, and cabbage is used, from stem to the tip of the root!
2 small bunches of beets, with tops, about 3 lbs.
1 large purple onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups purple cabbage, about half a medium head
A few sprigs of fresh thyme (or tsp. dried)
1 tbsp. fresh dill (or tsp. dried)
¼ cup honey or agave syrup
¼ cup dill pickle brine or vinegar
1 tbsp. prepared horseradish
1 English cucumber, diced
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
Scrub your beets really well. Cut the root end and the top end off. Cut the long stems from the tender leaves.
First decision: do you want to quickly make your own stock? It is almost as easy as throwing your vegetable trimmings in the trash! Just throw them in the pot:
In your stockpot, place the root ends and the long stems of the beets.
Cut the top and bottom off your purple onion and peel. Place all these trimmings in the stockpot.
Mince the garlic and add the trimmings to the stock pot, along with the core of the cabbage. Dice up the cabbage.
To the stockpot, add a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper, two or three bay leaves, a couple of star anise, and a quart of water. Bring to a boil, and simmer for a half hour.
I prep all these vegetables and get the stock going, then proceed with the soup. It takes only a minute longer in your day to add water to the stockpot and make your own broth rather than throw out these ingredients! You will end up with a beautiful ruby red stock!
However, you can use a quart of vegetable stock in its place.
Once the stock is done, strain it and add it back to the pot along with the beets, onions, cabbage, garlic, thyme, and dill. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for another 40 minutes or so, until the beets are nice and tender. Cool.
Remove the beets from the pot and reserve one large one to use as garnish. I advise the use of plastic gloves here unless you want purple hands. Roughly chop the rest of them up. Since these beets will be mostly pureed, you don’t need to peel them.
Add the chopped up beets back to the stock along with honey or agave syrup, you can also use white sugar, pickle juice (or other sharp vinegar, or lemon juice, or combination of both), horseradish, cucumber, and salt and pepper to taste.
Second decision: Chunky or pureed?
Put everything through a blender and puree to your desired smoothness. You can also just pulse this carefully in a food processor if you want it chunky.
Third decision: Sour cream blended in or topped?
Many recipes call for adding the sour cream before popping in the refrigerator to chill. This will make the soup a pretty pink. You can also simply the add the sour cream upon serving and let everyone decide how much, if any, sour cream they want.
Chill at least four hours, but overnight is even better.
Dressed for dinner:Place in chilled, shallow bowls. Place reserved, chopped beets in the middle of the bowl, and add a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of dill. You can also top with a hard boiled egg, halved, sprinkled with capers.
Alternately, you can lightly steam some of the reserved tender leaves and drape them on top of the soup.