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Beets and butter. June 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Beets: Love ’em or hate ’em. I love ’em. Even our friend Ben loves ’em, amazing given his horrific encounter with his great-aunt Ethel’s beet Jell-O as a child. (Poor OFB thought it was cranberry Jell-O and took a big spoonful before realizing that he’d made a terrible mistake. How he got the stuff off his plate without offending his great-aunt is a story he’ll have to tell himself.)

Beet Jell-O aside, OFB and I grew up with small red canned beets, served hot with butter and salt (and pepper for those who enjoyed it) or, my own favorite, “string beets,” canned beets cut into ribbons much like the shredded carrots and broccoli slaw you can now find in most produce departments. These were fun to eat and also served hot with butter and salt. I’d still be eating them if only I could still find them on grocery shelves, but sadly, it’s been years since I’ve seen a single can, and trust me, I’m always looking.

Cold beets just weren’t part of our childhood experience in the South. We might never have encountered them had we not come to scenic Pennsylvania, where pickled beets are an essential component of salad bars. It took me years to work up enough nerve to try a cold, pickled beet slice from our office cafeteria’s salad bar. But once I did, I was hooked! It took me a while longer to persuade OFB to give them a try, but now we both look forward to adding beets to our salads when we treat ourselves to an evening out. Hot buttered beets, or roasted red and golden beets with olive oil, herbs, and salt and pepper, are still our favorites, though.

Cold beets are one thing. Cold beet soup—aka borscht—is definitely something else. Hot beet soup, thick and full of shoestring beets and sauteed sweet onions in a rich vegetable broth, topped with sour cream: yum. Cold beet soup: eeewwww. (But please bear in mind that pretty much any cold soups, except cold fruit cream soups, which are really desserts, creep me out. I can sort of deal with gazpacho, but please heat up that vichysoisse—cold potato soup— before offering it to me, thank you very much.) 

I guess I’m not alone. OFB pointed out that today’s Wall Street Journal featured an article on the decline of borscht. Called “The Golds Try to Add Cool to a Soup That’s the Color Purple” (talk about reaching for a headline!), the article interviewed the folks who own Gold’s, America’s premier borscht makers. (Read it for yourself at www.wsj.com.) Despite sharp declines in sales, Gold’s still bottles six kinds of borscht. I decided to check the ingredients in the one that sounded most appealing, the thickest: Russian Borscht. Could a vegetarian like me even eat this borscht, or would it be made with chicken stock or chicken fat?

Good news on that front: Gold’s Russian Style Borscht lists only six ingredients: water, beets, sugar, salt, citric acid (a preservative, aka vitamin C), and garlic. Its calorie count is staggeringly low: 60 calories for a 6-ounce serving, or 120 for a more reasonable 12-ounce bowl. This doesn’t include sour cream, but if you add a tablespoon or two of nonfat sour cream, you’re still not going to go over 150 calories for a decent-size bowl. The description notes: “Originating in Russia, borscht—a specialty soup made from beets—has become a traditional favorite.” They suggest serving it with sour cream or chunks of potato.

Getting back to the WSJ article, the author, Lucette Lagnado, interviewed the scions of the Gold’s empire (best known for its iconic Gold’s Horseradish—and yes, I keep a bottle in the fridge at all times and add a tablespoon to my salad every night for extra zing) to see what they were doing to revive borscht’s popularity. The answers ranged from modernizing the jars’ labels to renaming borscht a “beet smoothie” (gack, God forfend) or promoting it as gluten-free and/or organic.

Well. Gourmet heirloom beets like ‘Chioggia’ (with its concentric red-and-white rings) and ‘Golden’ (actually a gorgeous orange), along with the rise of baby beets and the luscious and popular red beet-walnut-feta salad served on a bed of spring greens, have already converted any number of beet-haters into beet-lovers. In my opinion, it’s time for a borscht facelift, a transformation into a delicious, rich hot soup that will bring out the beet-lover in anyone. And fortunately, I didn’t even have to invent it. Judy Sobeloff of the Moscow Food Cooperative (http://www.moscowfood.coop/) had already found the perfect recipe.

Yowie zowie, what a delicious recipe. Thank you, Chef Ray Sandon! We’d of course add plenty of salt and pepper to taste, but otherwise are totally on board:

               Gold Borscht

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 medium onion, diced [I’d definitely use a sweet onion—Silence]

4 large gold beets, diced

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar [I’d sub a dry Riesling—Silence]

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

Saute onion in butter for 4 minutes. Add beets, broth, and cream. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add vinegar and turmeric. Pour in blender and puree until smooth. Return to heat until just hot; serve hot. Optional toppings: sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, pumpernickel croutons, fresh chopped dill.

Yum!!! But what about the butter part of our post? The Wall Street Journal also featured an obituary of the world’s greatest butter-sculpting champion, Norma Lyon, a Tennessee native like us. Norma apparently studied sculpting along with veterinary science at Iowa State University, then married a dairy farmer. Lifesize butter sculptures were popular at Midwest fairs, but Norma was unhappy with their shoddy quality and determined to put her education to use. Her butter cow sculptures, which ranged from Ayreshires and Brown Swiss to Holsteins and could weigh 600 pounds, were unequalled for realism. Though frankly, we’d have loved to have seen the 1925 Iowa State Fair butter cow, led by a butter President Calvin Coolidge. Which just proves that you really couldn’t make this stuff up.

OFB and I would prefer to save our butter for our beets—and other vegetables. And we’re definitely planning to try that Gold Borscht, served up hot with some crumbled Gorgonzola on top and luscious crusty buttered baguette slices, not to mention red beet-walnut salad.

               ‘Til next time,




1. mr_subjunctive - June 28, 2011

Citric acid is not the same thing as vitamin C.

As far as I know, I’ve never eaten any beets. Borscht sounds interesting, but I tend to be a picky eater (it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older, but there are still a lot of things I reject on grounds of texture, and a few that I won’t eat because of flavor), and I’m not sure I could get around the idea of soup that’s supposed to be cold. It’s just unnatural. The recipe you’ve presented here sounds interesting, though.

Oops, sorry, Mr. S., and good catch! My brain must have been on pause. Ascorbic acid is vitamin C, not citric acid, obviously. As for texture and flavor sensitivity, I fall into your camp, and have tremendous temperature sensitivity as well. I love beets, but the thought of cold beet soup makes my hair stand on end. If you want to try this recipe, I’d definitely suggesting eating it hot. Golden beets have a milder, mellower flavor than red beets, but if you make this and can’t take it, consider it a noble experiment and put your spoon down. No one should be forced to eat something that displeases them!

2. Deb - June 28, 2011

Love your blog! I’ve never been much of a beet lover (except for pickled beets or are they beet pickles?) but I do know I like ’em better with HimalaSalt pink salt from Sustainable Sourcing…. I prefer other veggies (like asparagus) much better. Their salt is awesome and ever-so-much better than the other s&p. Here’s their website: https://secure.sustainablesourcing.com . FYI my dad craved beets when he was sick from cancer chemo & radiation treatments!

Thanks, Deb! I like Himalayan pink salt, too, though I find it so potent a tiny pinch is plenty; we typically use RealSalt, mined from prehistoric inland seas and full of beneficial minerals like Himalayan salt, but not as concentrated. I’m sure there must have been a specific mineral in beets that your dad needed, and thus his craving; wonder what it was? Many thanks for checking in!

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