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Saltie's Focaccia

Cold Summer Borscht

Fresh beets

It all started when the one local vendor at my Tuesday greenmarket had the most beautiful bunches of beets with vibrant, glossy, fresh greens (more on those later) last week. The minute I saw them, I felt a primal urge to make borscht. You know, the kind with beef shin or oxtail: hearty and warm, with little golden discs of fat floating on the surface. Definitely not the kind of meal you'd make on a warm summer's day, which it actually, surprisingly, happened to be. (Context break: With an exception or two, like my day of beets, our Berlin summer has been nothing but rainy and chilly and windy and gray. Here's something I never thought I'd say: I miss those hot and stinky New York City streets in summer something awful right now! My kingdom for a un-airconditioned subway car! For humidity! For sustained SUN! Anyway. Moving on.)

So borscht with beef was out. And then I started thinking about cold summer borschts, the ones you eat with boiled potatoes and buttermilk. I first learned about cold borscht when I was going through my Holocaust phase as a kid. Yes, there was a period in my childhood when all I read were books about the Holocaust. I can't have been alone? I was completely and utterly obsessed. (I even had nightmares about it, really vivid and terrifying ones that I have still not forgotten.) I feel more than slightly weird confessing a food craving that is in any way even peripherally related to the Holocaust, but sometimes the mind works in strange ways. That nourishing soup - a gesture of kindness in one of many bleak moments in that grim parade of stories - made an impression on me in the midst of all that horror, I suppose.

Once the thought of sweet, silky beets combined with cool, sour buttermilk and little waxy cubes of boiled potato occurred to me, it was difficult to think of anything else. A quick Google search led me to this recipe, in which the only cooking involved boiling beets and two eggs. (I had a few small leftover boiled potatoes from the day before, so I added those two - maybe you guys can tell me if that's more a Ukrainian thing? The original recipe, a Lithuanian one, is without potato.). The rest of the soup's work just involved dicing up a cucumber and some scallions. Once the beets were cooled and peeled, I grated them into a bowl, added the sliced scallions and chopped cucumbers, diced eggs and cubed potatoes, and then poured in a quart of buttermilk and a quart of cold water, plus salt to taste. The color was electric, hallucinatory, utterly stunning.

Lithuanian cold borscht

I stirred in a little sour cream at the end for richness, then put the bowl in the fridge to cool for a while. I committed what is probably heresy in the world of borscht by leaving out the dill, but as you may know, it is the final bastion in the almost-conquered world of Things I Do Not Under Any Circumstances Eat. Feel free to put it in, if you like dill. But for those of you for whom dill is an absolute no-go (solidarity fist-bump!), rest assured that the soup was as delicious as can be without it. Sour, crunchy, creamy, silky, cold and refreshing.

(As for the greens, I chopped them up, washed them verrrry carefully and then did a sort of Chinese stir-fry, with minced ginger and soy sauce and chile and garlic. They were delicious, especially with a fried egg on top. Yesterday I had another batch and made an aloo sag with them instead of spinach, which was also nice, but I messed up the potato-greens ratio and it was too potato-ey for my taste. My favorite use for them, actually, was in a frittata with a few sliced potatoes, chopped parsley and chunks of feta on top. I'm headed back to the greenmarket right now for another batch - have any other beloved beet green recipes to share?)

Cold Summer Borscht
Serves 6

1 pound beets (2-3 beets)
1 large potato (or 2-3 small ones)
½ English cucumber (or 2-3 baby cucumbers)
2 large eggs
4 scallions
Small bunch of fresh green dill (optional)
1 quart of kefir or buttermilk
1 quart of cold water
3 tablespoons of sour cream
Salt to taste

1. Put the washed beets and the potato in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Cook, covered, at a low boil until a knife inserted into the potato goes in without resistance (should take about 20 minutes) The beets will take longer, but should submit to the same knife test. (Time can vary according to size and freshness of the beets.) Drain and cool until easy to handle. In a separate pot, hard-boil the eggs. Drain and cool the eggs. Wash the scallions and peel the cucumber.

2. When the beets have cooled sufficiently, peel them and grate them on the large holes of a box grater. Put the grated beets into a large soup bowl or pot. Peel and dice the eggs and the potato. Add both to the beets. Dice the cucumber and slice the scallions and add to the beets. Mince the dill, if using, and add to the vegetables.

3. Mix 3 tablespoons of sour cream into the vegetables and season with salt to taste. Then add the kefir or buttermilk and the water. Mix carefully, cover and put in the fridge to let the flavors meld. Serve cold from the fridge.