I’m going to start counting to 5
As I reach 5, your face will fall gently away
Your eyes will pull in and relax
Your neck will sink down into your shoulders
Your body will slump
Your knees will fall out to the sides
Your hands crimped and tight will let go of all tension
1. . .2. . .3. . .4. . .5
Imagine you’ve awoken in a cabin before a window overlooking white fields and trees weighted down by snow. You’re wearing a vegan-friendly fur coat, muffs, and your honey has just come in from the cold and said, “Dr. Zhivago says hello.” You pounce.
After days of lovemaking and after reading Paglia and Sartre while soaking in a tub, you’re hungry for lunch. The most appropriate meal? Silky beet soup with a hearty hunk of black bread.
Oh, you say, you have just that warming up on the stove? Great, here’s how you got there.
not your everyday lower east side eastern european borscht
This is not the typical cabbage and beet peasant soup made with a heavy meat stock. This is a sultry and surprising beet soup (vegan when you don’t add the sour cream!) that is breathtakingly complex in its flavor profile, akin to the sweet, sour, tangy flavors of a Thai Pork Noodle soup enhanced with vinegar, sambal, and fried garlic.
I watched my Mother make this soup countless times since childhood and I think she made it with meat bones or meat stock, at the most, five times. Using meat stock subdues the amazing flavor of beets and imparts an oilier taste and texture, and also renders the soup less vibrantly burgundy and more orange red. No thank you.
What makes this soup such a standout is that the sweet beets coupled with the lemon juice create a nexus of sweet and tangy that you won’t experience in many other foods. If you were to leave the lemon juice out, the soup would be sweet, and still leagues more flavorful than the jarred impostor you’ll find in a grocery store. If a jar of sickly sweet beets in water is your only acquaintance with borscht, then I urge you to try this soup.
special guest star, juniper berry
I wanted to update this recipe without altering its original flavor profile. When you bite into a juniper berry, you’ll experience a softened berry bursting with small tart seeds. The berries have a sweet, earthy, and piney flavor that work perfectly with the fresh dill and the tang of the soup.
dr. zhivago silky beet soup
makes 8 servings
10 cups of water
1-2 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
3 medium beets (or 2 large, 1 small)
2-3 carrots, (2 large or 3 small to medium ones)
1 large potato, cubed (use a waxy potato like yukon or red)
1 celery, cut into thin moons
1/4 bunch fresh dill, minced
1/2-1 whole lemon, juice of
2-3 tsp of salt
dash of freshly ground pepper
12 juniper berries, optional, but highly recommended*
1-2 cloves of garlic, optional, but highly recommended
1 tbsp of sour cream per bowl, optional (people who are generally averse to sour cream, may like it in this unusual combination)
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. You might be tempted to start seasoning the soup here or adding salt to flavor the vegetables as they cook, but in order to get the full flavor, sweetness, and color out of the beets, you need to salt this after you grate the beets. Beets, like sweet peas and some other vegetables, will “seize up” if you salt them too early.
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 in 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 your salt now, a tad of pepper, and if the soup is still too sweet for you, another tablespoon or 2 of fresh lemon juice and a tad more salt. 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 gets better and better in the following days.
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 just before serving. If you want just a hint of garlic, then rub a cut clove over the crust of your bread. (You should do this whenever you want, not just when eating borscht!)
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.
*If you are diabetic, have kidney problems, or are pregnant, please consult with your doctor before using culinary dried juniper berries.