Lithuanian Summer Borscht

June 20, 2007 at 12:32 PM (beets, cucumbers, dishes by cuisine, Lithuania, milk and milk products, vegetables/ fruits, yoghurt)

If you are fond of beets, you are in for a treat; if not, you may well be converted by this simple, summertime recipe. Of course, you probably won’t give it a whirl if you don’t like beets, therefore, pass this recipe on to someone who does! Then, if you’re feeling brave, you can take a spoonful…

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I was one such person long ago…well, not that long ago I suppose…When I was in my early twenties I worked in a nursing home. Air-conditioning? Just near the nurse’s station at the centers of the long corridors. It was hardly noticeable at either end or in the rooms, where I did most of my work, and not at all in the basement, where the employee lounge was located. That was where a good friend and I would try to meet for lunch; you see, we both had the habit of bringing food with us (as opposed to the “snackers” who raided the vending machines), and, since we both had an inbuilt natural curiosity, seeing what the other had brought was a matter of course! And one warm summer day during our lunch-break, she talked me into a spoonful of this fuchsia-coloured stuff.

My friend was taken in, as a child, by foster parents, who happened to be Lithuanian. She was very proud of this fact, partly, I am sure, by the sheer exoticness of it all, but mostly, I think, because they were very kind people who cared very much for her, and that stability and unconditional love helped her become the person she is today: a registered nurse living in Austin, Texas…kind, caring, mature, self-confident, and still enthralled with life.

Unless she’s now dead; honestly I haven’t heard from her in quite a few years, nor she from me! Somewhere, sometime, between all the moves we have both made in our lives since those naive years, we lost track of each other. Perhaps someday fate will bring us together again for a quick “catching up” over something potable. Perhaps not.

The good news is that I managed to pry 3 recipes, this among them, from her and her recipe-hoarding foster-mom. [evil laugh] You see, her “mother” (perhaps I shouldn’t use the quote marks because this kind woman was everything a good mother could be) was quite old-fashioned in an Old-World way: most protective of her family’s gastronomic secrets. She had a thick, fascinating accent when speaking English, still…her use of it was good enough to politely evade my several requests for this and other recipes… until, finally, as the time drew closer to her daughter moving away for an irresistable job-offer, she loosened…just a bit. 

Such a simple recipe too, to cause all this mischief! But, when you consider that it is delicious enough to convert a staunch beet-hater into a beet-worshipper, it’s simplicity becomes a part of its charm; simple, that is, in its original avatar. By now, if you know me even somewhat, you will note that I enjoy tinkering a bit. And tinker I have indeed with this little gem from the Baltic sea-coast. I present to you a soup to catch the eye, cool the body and soothe the mind- both my version and the original (er…..I think….[always wonders] ) for you to play with as well…

You might notice how very much it resembles an Indian raitha…

You might want me to stop babbling and just get on with it…

You might be right!

Lithuanian Summer Borscht- original as it was dictated to me

Take about equal parts of cooked, shredded beets, chopped cucumbers and sour cream. Mix these well, then add a good amount of fresh, minced dill and a few grinds of black pepper. Thin it with buttermilk (I don’t think she meant true buttermilk– rather the thinned yoghurt available and sold here labeled as “buttermilk”) to a soup-like consistency and salt it to taste. Refrigerate it for at least a few hours, but preferably for a day to allow the flavours to blend. Serve chilled, of course, with crusty home-made bread. (Can we say rye?) And… (I recently learned this) boiled or fried potatoes….also, traditionally this soup is decorated with slices of hard-boiled eggs (I am rarely in the mood for these, so I’m afraid, pretty as they would be, they do not grace my photo).

Lithuanian Summer Borscht- the Pel variation

1 1/2-2 lbs of fresh beets

2 lg cucumbers

1 C green onions- green part only, sliced into 1/4-1/8″ rounds

1 fresh hot green chile- such as serrano, seeded and minced very finely- like 1 mm dice

3-4 T fresh, minced dill-weed (not the flowers or tough stems)

several grinds of black pepper

3 C whole-milk yoghurt (or a mix of real sour cream and yoghurt, or low or non-fat yoghurt- whatever spins your wheels)

salt to taste

See? Nothing terribly foreign to the Lithuanian taste-buds…and I am sure that, besides having a few “chile-heads” there, it is probable that there are many in search of a lighter version of this recipe- hence my use of yoghurt in place of sour cream…but, the two can be mixed if you like; I sometimes do this.

1)Wash and trim both the stem-end and root-end of each beet, place in a saucepan and cover with enough water to be an inch or so above the beets. Bring to boil, lower to simmer and cook for 45 minutes- 1 hour until tender. Allow to cool in the cooking liquid.

2)Remove each beet and slip the skins off- they should slide off quite easily; discard the peels, but retain the cooking liquid; place the skinned beets in a separate dish. Allow the cooking liquid to sit undisturbed while you complete the next steps. (obsessive me will often strain this through a fine sieve into another bowl, but I didn’t want to admit that- ooops, I just did!)

3)Into a large mixing bowl, shred the beets using a medium-cut shredder (if too fine, they tend to form clumps I’ve found). You should have 2 1/2-3 C or so…

4)Peel the cucumbers (if using small, young cucumbers there is no need to peel) slice each in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.* Slice each hollow half into 1/3″ strips lengthwise, and then across into 1/3″ cubes. Again, aim for about 2 1/2-3 C… Add these to the bowl.

5)Add the sliced green onions, minced chile, minced dill and black pepper to the bowl. Add the yoghurt and/or sour cream and mix very well.

6)Thin the soup by carefully decanting the reserved beet-cooking liquid into the mixture until a desired consistency is reached. (Any missed dirt will sink to the bottom, so don’t use the final dregs of the bowl. If you’d like it thinner yet, use water or American “buttermilk”)

7)Here’s the part that your real skills as a cook are on display: salt this soup to taste. Try not to overdo it: add salt little by little and mix very well before adding more. Salting a cold mixture is tricky, because it doesn’t dissolve as quickly as adding salt to a hot liquid- therefore, it is very easy to over-salt- what tastes fine now can turn to saline-unpleasantness in 30 minutes. Thin it with more liquid if this happens. Those of you adept at raitha-making already know what I’m talking about.

8)Chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably for a day to allow the flavours to meld. Serve with bread, toast, a sandwich, as a first course for a light summer meal or as a snack to cool you off. Offer some to your neighbor with the all-white rooms and act drunk as you step inside the door, clumsily offering a bowlful. Hours of fun! [winks]

*Oh yeah, the cucumber seeds…why chuck ’em? They’re perfectly fine and delicious, but they tend to cause faster spoilage in cold soups… So…here are a few things I do with them: break the pulpy chunks into bite-size pieces and place in a bowl…then either 1)season them with salt and pepper 2)season them with Thai fish sauce, lime juice, and a sprinkling of ground chiles 3)season them with Indian chat masala and lime juice 4)make of them a paste, and smear it on your face- or other body-parts- as a cooling moisturizer! (rinse it off before you go somewhere, unless you need a new look)

And one more little tidbit for those of you who enjoy reading my verbal dribble so much that you got this far: I sometimes add a stalk of finely-sliced lemon-grass to the soup as well, if I have some handy, which I often do…adds a lovely lemony note that goes quite well with the tart yoghurt! (But don’t tell any Lithuanians that I snuck in a Thai ingredient)

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