“Borscht” is what many American cooks will want to call this soup. But it couldn’t be more different from the sweet kinds that often represent the Russian borshch in American kitchens. It belongs to a family of cold soups that are based on sour milk or cream and some other sour principle, usually sauerkraut or pickle brine or some version of the fermented drink called kvas in Russia, kwas in Poland. Beets are just one of the things that can go into them.
Poles are particularly dedicated to this kind of cold soup (“chlodnik” in Polish), which they make in an amazing spectrum of different guises. The original secrets of flavor are two: Chlodnik used to be made from sour whole milk with all the butterfat intact — in other words, something at least two or three times as creamy as the usual American cultured buttermilk. To come close, you must throw in a good slug of sour cream. In addition, Poles and most other Eastern Europeans have a summer-fall tradition of pickling nearly anything that can conceivably be pickled, from apples to tomatoes. Cooks thus regularly have (or used to have) several different kinds of brine on hand to add to chlodnik — or they might put in some kwas/kvas made from bread or beets.
The resulting soups, often enriched with crunchy raw radishes or cucumbers, are liquid quasi-salads as gloriously varied and wonderfully refreshing as the gazpachos of Spain. Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most dramatic-looking of the Polish-chlodnik tribe is this classic version made from beets and beet greens. Poles attribute it to Lithuania, at one time a Polish possession (hence the name “Litewski”).
If you live near Polish, Russian or Serbian communities with stores selling barrels of summer vegetables and fruits in brine, be sure to get some in season and add a little of the brine to the soup in lieu of sauerkraut juice. The color is most beautiful when a grated raw beet is mixed in at the end. Yields about 2 quarts (8 cups).
4 to 5 medium beets, with leafy tops
4 to 6 radishes
3 to 4 small, thin-skinned Persian-type cucumbers, or an 8-inch piece of an English hothouse cucumber
6 to 8 scallions, whites and part of green tops
2 garlic cloves, or to taste
1 quart cultured buttermilk, at least 1.5 percent milkfat and made without salt or gums
1 cup sour cream, preferably Russian-type smetana
1/2 to 2/3 cup juice from sauerkraut or full-sour kosher-style dill pickles
2 to 3 teaspoons salt, or to taste
A large handful of fresh dill
2 to 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (optional)
Cut off the beet tops at least half an inch above the root and rinse thoroughly. Scrub the beets well. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and add 3 or 4 of the beets along with the greens. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, covered, until the beets are tender when probed with a knife, usually 25 to 40 minutes. Drain the beets and greens separately, and let cool.
Meanwhile, scrub the radishes and cucumbers and grate both on the coarse side of a box grater. Clean, trim and mince the scallions. Mince the garlic, or crush it to a paste using a mortar and pestle. Chop the drained beet greens fairly coarse. Peel the beets, and cut into fine slivers or dice.
Now combine the buttermilk, sour cream, 1/2 cup of the sauerkraut juice, and 2 teaspoons of the salt in a large bowl, whisking to a smooth consistency. Stir in all the vegetables. Grate the remaining raw beet on the fine side of a box grater and add the pulp and juice to the soup. Taste for seasoning and add more brine or salt as you prefer. Refrigerate, covered, at least 4 to 6 hours or overnight. Serve very cold, garnished with plenty of fresh dill and the optional chopped hard-boiled eggs.
This recipe is from Anne Mendelson’s book Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. To read more from her fantastic book, check out The Astonishing Story of Real Milk from our October/November 2011 issue.
Check out more of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous milk recipes from around the world: