My Beet-y Valentine
While the universe of food bloggers readies its collective arsenal of chocolate dessert porn in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to take a fashion risk and pay homage to a red-colored, heart-loving delicacy that gets notably less airtime at this–or any–time of year: Borscht.
Now, if the word ‘Borscht’ conjures up romance-quashing images of hardscrabble nineteenth-century Eastern European peasantry for you, then I’d like to make the case for why this beautiful potage has just as much right to kick off your Valentine’s Day meal as the Red Velvet cupcake has to finish it off.
Of course, if you’ve never heard of Borscht, then I’m delighted to introduce you to this versatile and time-honored beet soup. You may find it served hot or cold, vegetarian or meaty, Ukranian style or Russian style, clear and magenta or spiked with sour cream to produce an opaque, creamy pink color. However it’s executed, you can be sure that every self-respecting Borscht-lover will claim that their grandmother’s version is undoubtedly the best.
Borscht is heart-y
Borscht is made with beets, and beets are loaded with nutrients that nourish your heart and support cardiovascular health. (It’s not a coincidence our grandparents lived so long despite their habit of spreading chicken fat (schmaltz) on bread and eating chopped liver by the gallon.)
For starters, beets are an excellent source of folate and a good source of blood-pressure-lowering potassium. Diets rich in folate-rich foods have been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease in multiple large studies, though researchers are still trying to figure out why. (Folic acid supplementation has not been shown to have the same effect. Go figure.) 1 cup of boiled beets contains about 75 calories, 16g of carbohydrate (of which 3.5g are fiber), ~35% of the daily recommended intake of folate, and 15% of the daily value of potassium. (Canned beets lose about 30% of their folate compared to beets you boil yourself, but remain a very good source despite that).
Betacyanins are the purply red pigments that give beets their rich, gorgeous magenta color, and they happen to be powerful antioxidants. While antioxidants are used throughout the body to help prevent cell damage that can give rise to mutations, animal studies suggest a possible benefit in colon cancer prevention in particular.
Betaine, another compound found naturally in beets, has anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that people with diets rich in foods containing betaine had lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood–like C-reactive protein and homocysteine–compared to be people with diets low in betaine-rich foods. These inflammatory markers are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, so it seems that the lower the level, the better.
Borscht is hip
Veselka, the venerable and hip Ukranian diner in NYC’s East Village, features Ukranian Borscht as the very first item on its menu, and reportedly serves 5,000 gallons of it every year. A photo of the restaurant’s famous borscht adorns the cover of its recently-published cookbook, whose pages feature not one but FOUR separate recipes for their intoxicating magenta brew, including their Famous Borscht, Cold Borscht, White Borscht and Christmas Borscht. (You can get their famous Borscht recipe here, but vegetarians beware that their version calls for pork butt and beef stock. Try their Christmas Borscht version for a meatless option, and see below for some cooking tips.)
Borscht is so hip that I suspect its only a matter of time until Bobby Flay challenges Veselka owner Tom Birchard to a Borscht Throwdown.
How to cook and enjoy Beets
While beets can absolutely be eaten raw (usually you’ll find them grated in a salad), you’ll most often encounter them roasted or boiled. Beets cooked from scratch are a thousand times more flavorful than canned beets, and have a much lovelier texture, so if you’ve tried the latter and were unimpressed, you might want to give them another try! Cooking beets is a cinch, but can be a bit messy. Here’s how it goes:
If you buy beets still attached to their greens, trim the greens off, leaving about an inch on top. Leaving some of the stem helps keep the healthful pigments from leeching out during cooking. Save the trimmed portion! Beet greens are super nutritious and you can chop them up and drop them into any ol’ soup… they’re sort of like swiss chard taste-wise…a bit bitter.) Just soak them a few times in cold water to remove all of the dirt before cooking. Wash them if you’re going to boil, but really give them a good scrub if you’re planning on roasting them. DO NOT PEEL the beet before cooking, or they will bleed more of their nutritious colorful pigments… and make a giant mess.
To boil: Drop trimmed beets into boiling water. Let them boil until they are soft enough to be pierced easily with a knife, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on size.
To roast: Rub clean beets with a little bit of oil (olive or grapeseed works well), wrap well in foil, and place on another foil-lined pan. (The double-foil will make sure that the sugars from your roasting beet don’t drip onto the pan and burn). Bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes to an hour (depending on size). Your beets are ready when they can be pierced easily with a knife.
To peel cooked beets: peel cooked beets while they are still warm (but cooled off enough to handle.) Some people like to use gloves for this to avoid staining their hands. My favorite way to peel a beet is by scraping the sides of the beet with a plain ol’ spoon while standing over the sink… the peel will slide right off and the mess will be contained. I do it bare-handed ‘cuz that’s just how I roll.
One of my favorite ways to eat beets is cooked, in a composed salad, spiked with some sort of vinegary drizzle (a syrupy balsamic vinegar works great here) to cut the sweetness. Beets pair beautifully with citrus fruits for a colorful, seasonal salad that injects some gorgeous color into your wintry food wardrobe. Try this classic (and easy) recipe for Beet, Citrus & Mint salad to take advantage of the amazing bounty of winter citrus available right now.
Don’t be alarmed if, after eating a heaping serving of beets or borscht, your pee is tinted pink or reddish. It’s called “Beeturia” (I swear, I don’t make this stuff up), and it’s totally harmless. Be forewarned that your number twos might also take on a bit of a rosy hue a day or so after you’ve gone on a beet bender…. once again, totally normal and totally harmless. Consider it a post-Valentine’s Day treat for your colon.
Now, back to the Borscht
There are countless versions of Borscht. Russian style tends to have more “stuff” in it: piles of cooked or pickled beets, cabbage and/or potatoes, making for a heartier soup. Ukranian style tends to be brothier, but often features some meat or a mushroom dumpling or two floating around, which adds some heft. You can approximate the homemade dumpling effortlessly by tossing some store-bought mushroom tortellini or ravioli into your soup. For a gluten-free version, look forDePuma’s (amazing) gluten-free Wild Mushroom Ravioli, or Conte’s gluten-free Potato Onion Pierogis. Other common borscht accessories include lima beans, hard boiled eggs, meat, potatoes, or any combination thereof. All borschts are generally garnished with dill and a dollop of sour cream, which can be swapped out for a fat-free plain, greek-style yogurt seamlessly if you’re looking to keep your borscht on the lighter side.
I made Veselka’s vegetarian Christmas Borscht (pictured to the left, recipe link above) and used the gluten-free Conte’s Pierogis instead of the (homemade, 2+ hour-prep time mushroom-onion dumplings) the recipe called for. Considering my grandma used to serve store-bought Borscht from a jar, I figured she probably wouldn’t have disapproved of this little shortcut. It was delicious, and the house smelled amazing while the beets were pickling on the stovetop and the aromatic vegetable broth was simmering.
However, in case you want to find your own Borscht beshert (that’s Yiddish for ‘soul mate’) before committing to the recipe I used, here are some other attractive candidates for you to consider, both vegetarian and non:
Hot Beef Borscht: for the meat and potatoes man…and the woman who loves him.
Russian Borscht: vegetarian; served chilled, with hard boiled eggs. To cool down after a passionate Valentine’s encounter, perchance?
Hot Borscht recipe styled after the version from the Russian Tea Room of old: A quicker version; uses store-bought beef broth and includes cabbage and tomato. For nostalgic New York couples who can’t afford the new, $18-a-bowl version offered on the restaurant’s current menu.
Borscht with Beet Greens: for the frugalista and her coupon-clipping man, who love the idea of using every last bit of the beet…greens and all.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your Borscht of choice!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.