Have I mentioned in a previous post that my mother was an excellent cook? I suppose I have. In consideration of where my love of cooking has its origins, I’ll probably mention it again. A bit of a culinary pioneer for her time, she used far fewer convenience foods and many more fresh vegetables and homemade dishes than her friends. Most of her soups, stews and braises cooked slowly and simmered long. She made her own salad dressing and applesauce, always. As a child, I wasn’t aware that applesauce came in jars – at least not until I began attending the local public school. And as I know I've mentioned previously, all of this good home cooking was done on a working woman’s schedule, since the small business she and my father ran generally kept them busy for a good 50 – 60 hours a week. This of course meant that she was a woman often in need of shortcuts. Not everything could be made from scratch; not everything started with fresh, raw foods.
She loved to entertain, and her friends from the much tonier parts of our town clamored to come to her dinners. In summertime, she was fond of starting a company meal with a small bowl of chilled soup. One of her favorites was a summer borscht. Her trick was to use one of those tall jars of very sweet beet borscht that you find in the Jewish food section of most supermarkets. She would add tinned tomatoes, dill, scallions, and a cube of beef stock concentrate, and give it all a whirl in the blender, then chill it and serve it with sour cream and more chopped dill. The tomatoes and the beef bouillon cube cut the sugariness of the prepared borscht, so the resulting soup was elegant and refreshing. Despite being a purely vegetable soup, it also had a substantial feeling to it. If it was not intended as part of a longer dinner, it made a very good meal in and of itself, with sandwiches or good bread, cheese and a salad.
That’s true of my version as well. It adapts well to a gazpacho treatment, meaning that it can be served with little side dishes of extra minced scallion, dill, cucumber, and chopped hard-cooked egg, as well as the dollop of sour cream, crème fraîche or yogurt which completes the bowl. My father is fond of this soup with a whole cold boiled potato in it, to spoon up as he eats. And I have had it served with a whole hard cooked egg instead of chopped egg, the white convex surface rising prettily out of the dark magenta soup, ready to receive the same treatment from your spoon as the potato. Here's one of those places that you can start with a theme, and see what variations work best for you and your particular situation.
I don’t use bottled beet borscht, finding it too sweet for my taste. I usually start with those nice vacuum-packed cooked beets that you can find in fancy food stores, imported from France. And for soup in a hurry, I use canned tomatoes as well. To supplement the liquid missing from the tall jar of borscht, I use reconstituted beef or vegetable stock concentrate. Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t make this soup completely from lovely fresh farmer’s market provender: beets from your favorite farm stand, roasted or simmered gently until tender, and tomatoes just blanched, peeled and seeded. Maybe you have your own homemade stock to use – do so, by all means. Perhaps when cooking beets or peeling tomatoes for some other meal, you may want to make extra with cold soup in mind.
There are times, however, when we’re all in need of a culinary quick trick or two, as M.F.K. Fisher was prone to note when sharing some of her own. Here’s the version I made this weekend. We had houseguests, and most of our preparation time was spent cleaning the house and getting their room ready for them. Cooking was not the priority, and yet I wanted to have something special in the house for Jane and Grace, driving down from cool, pristine Maine to spend this hot weekend in New York. Jane has always loved borscht, all kinds of borscht. A bowl of the hot winter borscht from Veselka was a true friend to her when she lived on the Lower East Side. And this cold version of my mother’s became such a favorite that Jane begged for and published the recipe in a New England paper several years ago.
Chilled Beet Soup, aka Summer Borscht
2 250 gram vacuum packets of cooked beets (or 18 oz. of home-cooked beets)
1 16 oz. can of tomatoes in puree (or an equivalent of freshly blanched, peeled and seeded tomatoes)
2 large scallions
A large fistful of dill
2 tsp. of beef or vegetable stock concentrate (I use Better Than Bouillon), reconstituted in 2 cups of water
2 tsp. sugar
pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
Combine 3/4 of the beets in a blender jar along with everything else, and whirl until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Go for a balance of sweet, tart and salty, adding more dill if necessary. Stir in the last 125 grams of beets, julienned or chopped into little dice. Chill, and serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt, sour cream or crème fraîche, and more minced dill. Chopped cucumber, hard boiled eggs and boiled new potatoes can also be added for a more substantial soup. Another alternative is to add some yogurt or sour cream at the blender stage for a thrillingly pink soup rather than a dark garnet bowlful.
Accompany with good pumpernickel bread and sweet butter.