Chilled borscht in the summertime? We buy it at Zabar’s by the quart, along with chilled cucumber soup, fruit soup, and gazpacho.
In the summer, there are more chilled soups than you can shake a stick at*, as my Nana would say. Our personal Top 10 favorites (including those previously mentioned):
Ajo Blanco (Spanish Garlic and Almond Soup)
Chilled Cucumber Soup
Chilled Greek Yogurt Soup
Chilled Fruit Soup: Blueberry, Melon, Peach, Pineapple, Any!
Chilled Tomato & Basil Soup
Chilled Watercress Soup
Most chilled soups (a.k.a. cold soups) are also delicious hot.
While chilled soups are typically served as a first course, we like to serve the fruit soups as a light summer dessert.
This brings us back to borscht.
Recently, we had a bowl of hot borscht at the legendary, luxurious, and enchanting Russian Tea Room in New York City (photos #4, #5, and #6). We liked it so much that we asked for the recipe, which we’ve shared below.
We then added a twist to the second batch we made: We used golden beets instead of red ones. A bit about golden beets (photo #7) is included in:
> The history of beets.
Today they are still a specialty item, sold at specialty grocers, farmers markets, and through online seed retailers worldwide [source].
> National Homemade Soup Day is February 4th.
> National Cold Borscht Day is May 22nd.
> The history of soup.
> The different types of soup.
> The history of borscht is below.
RECIPE: THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM’S COLD BORSCHT
See the finished recipe in photo #4. If you like to serve bread with your soup, pumpernickel or seeded rye are culturally good cultural choices, although brioche is always delicious.
We like our pumpernickel or rye with sweet butter and crunchy coarse sea salt to sprinkle on top of it.
(We enjoy this combination far more than salted butter, with the exception of a great salted butter, Vermont Creamery’s Cultured Butter With Sea Salt.)
4 large red beets, chopped into medium-size pieces
1.5 carrots, sliced into rounds
12 ounces water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 quart beet juice
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Garnish: fresh dill, sour cream
Optional: bread of choice
Ingredients For 4 Servings
1. BRING lightly salted water to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add the chopped beets and carrots. Once the beets and carrots are cooked…
2. STRAIN and reserve water and vegetables, cool to room temperature. Once the vegetables are cooled, place them in a blender or food processor and purée.
3. ADD the beet juice, sour cream, and vinegar and adjust the seasoning. (Season to taste. You can start with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
4. BLEND. Once the purée is smooth and homogenous…
5. PUT the soup in the refrigerator to chill. To serve:
6. PLACE the soup in a bowl, and garnish with dill and sour cream.
THE HISTORY OF BORSCHT
Borscht, also spelled borsch, borsht, or bortsch, is a beet soup that is popular in Slavic countries. It is a key component in Russian and Polish cuisines, although Ukraine is frequently cited as its place of origin, and borscht is their national dish.
The name is thought to be derived from the Slavic word for the cow parsnip (a.k.a. common hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium), which is borschevik.
In early Slavic cuisine, the stems, leaves, and flowers of the cow parsnip were made into soup or fermented, yielding something along the lines of sauerkraut.
Beets Take Their Place
The more flavorful cultivated beet eventually replaced the wild cow parsnip as the basis of the soup [source]. The beets also gave borscht its striking red/magenta color.
It is commonly believed that the origins of modern borscht date to the 14th century, in the area that is today Ukraine. Old recipes seem to affirm that it was the Ukrainians who made the soup from beetroot.
Originally a peasant food, borscht spread across regions, becoming a culinary staple for all classes [source].
Hundreds Of Recipes Evolve
Today, the quintessential Ukrainian borscht is made with beetroot, potatoes, and pork fat (and of course, many variations thereof).
But cooks everywhere added other ingredients according to both what they liked and what was growing in the region.
Cabbage. The addition of cabbage became standard in Russia’s Volga-Don river region.
White borscht. A fermented mixture of rye flour or oatmeal was used to make white borscht, a popular Polish dish. (Today, you can make white borscht with white beets, a mutation).
Green borscht. Tangy sorrel was used to make green borscht instead of the earthy beet.
Black borscht.The most innovative take is a modern one. Maxim Volkov, chef of The Mad Cook in Moscow, added cuttlefish ink to create a borsch of deep black color, which he called “petroleum borscht,” photo #9 [source].
Fruited borscht. In Ukraine and Romania, unripe plums and apricots add a twinge of tartness to the borscht.
Polenta. Moldova recipes can use a fermented starter of polenta and bran water infused with sour cherry leaves.
Meat. Different areas like meat in their borscht: beef, marrow, pork, sausages, etc.
Chiles. Borscht gets some heat in Georgia and Azerbaijan, which can add fresh red chiles or hot chili flakes.
Temperature. Borscht is eaten hot or cold. Summer borscht is often vegetarian and chilled, hot winter borscht adds meat.
Texture. Some borschts are clear and light, others thick and chunky.
Acidity. Many recipes counterbalance the sweetness of the beets with the addition of kvass (a sour, slightly alcoholic beer made from bread), fermented beets, vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid.
The Borscht Diaspora
By the end of the 19th century, borscht had spread as far as Persia, France, and, the U.S. (via Jewish immigration).
Each country or cultural group has its different take on borscht: Recipes vary between Ashkenazi Jews, Belarusians, Georgians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. Even China has a take on borscht, called luó sòng tāng, or “Russian soup” [source].
Your Signature Borscht
What would you like in your borscht?
In our family, cabbage, onions, and dill were added to the beets, and the soup was garnished with small boiled potatoes, sour cream, and more dill.
Summer borscht was served cold, hot winter borscht added carrots and meat: brisket or flanken (short ribs).
You can play with the recipe and add just about anything:
Beans, bell peppers, carrots, eggplant, onion, tomato, turnips.
Fruits: apricots, cherries, olives (yes, they’re fruits!), plums.
Herbs: basil, mint, parsley, tarragon.
Meat: beef, chicken, lamb, pork (including sausage).
Enjoy your delicious beet soup.
*The origin of this phrase: In merry olde England, farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs at the animals to indicate where the sheep should go—human herding instead of dog herding. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said that they had “more than you can shake a stick at” [source].
†Doukhobors are a sect of Russian dissenters, many of whom now live in western Canada. Here’s more about them.
 A beet and tomato borscht from Jamie Oliver. Here’s the recipe (photo © Jamie Oliver).
 This Doukhobor† borsch is very different from typical borsch. It’s loaded with butter and heavy cream, and always and beet isn’t the main ingredient—it’s primarily used for color and then discarded before the soup is served. Here’s a recipe (photo Public Domain | PX Here).
 A tempting pot of borscht (photo © Monika Grabkowska | Unsplash).
 Russian Tea Room’s famed borscht (photos #4, #5, and #6 © Russian Tea Room).
 A sumptuous banquette at the Russian Tea Room.
 The entrance to the Russian Tea Room.
 Beets grow in different colors, including white, golden (orange), red, purple, yellow, and even red- and white-striped chioggia beets (photo © Edible Madison | Cibo e Vino | Facebook).
 Some golden beets have orange skin, but are golden yellow on the inside; others have yellow skin as in the photo aove (photo © Good Eggs).
 “Petroleum borscht,” made black with cuttlefish ink, at The Mad Cook in Moscow (photo © The Mad Cook).