Fourth of July Borscht
For all of you in the United States of America – Happy Independence Day! (For the rest, feel free to join the party as my guest or ignore it, as you feel most comfortable…)
We’re celebrating the creation of our country as an independent state – choosing, specifically, the signing of the Declaration of Independence as a date, though that was really quite early in the American Revolution. It was years before the nation truly existed. A very important part of this, as it developed, was that it was a country based on a concept – not lands held by a monarch, or an ethnic group. Although the majority of Europeans in the Colonies at the time were of English background, we already had Dutch in New York, Swedes in Delaware, and many others, both as groups and as individuals – and Spain was well established in Florida, California and the Southwest, and France in Louisiana, though none of those areas were yet part of the US. This diversity has just continued to increase. While we often refer to the original revolutionaries as our forefathers, most of us are descended entirely from people who were not yet on this continent – and that immigration has always been a crucial aspect of this country.
Living in New York City – which was always a major port and point of entry – I have always been particularly aware of this. If you have never been in a largely immigrant neighborhood for the Fourth of July, you’re missing out… These are people who know why they are here, who have sacrificed to be American, and who are wildly patriotic. You can feel the joy and pride!
One year, I was giving a party and decided to celebrate that, and serve a Fourth of July buffet with foods from many of the ethnic groups that have contributed so much to this country. I have to confess – that being many years ago – I no longer remember most of the dishes I prepared… but that was the first year I made borscht, and I have made that for the day many times since.
The recipe itself is Eastern European. In New York, we tend to think of it as Jewish, as it is a staple of Jewish Dairy restaurants here in the city – but I also get it in Polish and Ukrainian ones. For this holiday, it has the advantages of being cold and refreshing, and – well – it’s red. Served with white sour cream. And it is fun to do Red, White and Blue… (OK, so the blue has to be the bowl… but that’s pretty!)
It’s also easy. There are certainly more complex versions, but this is the basic – not much in it but the beets, and of course, as a cold soup, it is all made ahead, which is handy for entertaining.
Our CSA actually gave us a couple of beets the first few weeks. I thought they were storage, the first week, as this is early, but they seem instead to have been overwintered and starting to send up new greens. I just had four of them – but we also have no guests this year – so I made a very small recipe. It can very easily be expanded to make more.
I used a swivel peeler to peel the beets. To eat them alone, I cook them whole and then slip off the skin, but in this recipe the cooking liquid becomes the soup, so I peel them first, and then chop them. You can grate them, or chop them very small to begin with – I leave the pieces larger and then use a blender in the finished soup. Your choice. (Notice I used a plastic cutting board – I didn’t want the beets to stain the wooden board I use most often.)
Then put them in a pan, and add roughly twice the quantity of water that you have of beets, and a chopped onion. (Or in this case – half an onion…) Bring it all to a boil, and simmer until the beets are very soft, the onion has turned red from the beets, and the water has picked up the flavor and become essentially beet stock. Which is longer than you would cook it just to cook the beets – I simmered this about half an hour.
I strongly suspect that this started as a use for lacto fermented beets – related to rozl, which is considered a separate dish, though I’m not sure I understand why… At any rate, borscht always has something added to make it sour. I use sour salt (See edit below) as in a recipe a woman I knew gave me some years ago, or you can use lemon juice. (Most recipes seem to call for lemon – which was certainly not a traditional ingredient!) The sour flavor adds to the refreshing quality on a hot humid day. I like to chill it before I add the sour salt, so I can taste it for quantity, though I’ve seen recipes telling you to add it earlier. And then I use an immersion blender just to break it up a little – I don’t want a smooth puree, I do want something I can easily eat with a spoon. (You do not want beet juice spattering at all – that stuff stains!)
Now – the borscht itself is a very simple soup – but you can add garnishes, as desired. Sour cream is almost invariable, and I always serve it – plop a spoonful in each bowl, or pass it and let your guests serve themselves. And if you just want a light first course, that’s enough. I’ve also had hard cooked egg in it, or potato, so those are options if you want something heartier. Long ago there was a dairy restaurant near my office, and I’d go on the hottest days to get borscht with potato and a plate of pickled herring… and return to the office feeling refreshed.
So, enjoy your holiday, enjoy cold soup in the summer, enjoy traditional barbecues if you go to one – and remember how many strands come together to make this country. We would be poorer if we missed any.
Edit – A reader points out that I forgot to explain sour salt. It is a colloquial term for citric acid, which is also sometimes called lemon salt. For several generations, people who didn’t have lemons sitting around kept sour salt as a pantry item, to use when they needed that bit of acid – for the zing, or to curdle milk, or otherwise acidify a food. Sour salt is used in a number of dishes in American Ashkenazic Jewish cooking, as I said above, probably to replace the lacto fermented products originally used in Europe. (And now people who can easily get lemons still use sour salt, so the recipe tastes like Grandma’s…)
So you may find it in the Kosher aisle, or the Asian/Indian aisle (used to make paneer,) or from a supplier of goods for canning, brewing, or cheesemaking.
And you can just use lemon juice.
Fourth of July Borscht
- 4 beets 10 oz.
- 1 quart water
- 1/2 onion chopped
- 1/2 t sour salt citric acid or lemon juice, or to taste
- Sour cream
- Optional garnishes - boiled potato hard cooked egg
- Peel and chop the beets.
- Place them in a saucepan with the water and onion. Bring to a boil and simmer about half an hour. Chill.
- If desired, use an immersion blender to chop the vegetables more finely - but leave them with texture, do not puree. Add sour salt or lemon juice to taste - you want it tangy, but not unpleasantly sharp.
- Serve ice cold, with a dollop of sour cream in each bowl. If you want a heartier soup, potato or egg are also traditional additions.