Savoring the Seasons: Beets; a root for all seasons
By VINSULA HASTINGS
(Mary’s Note: I’m on vacation this week. Vinsula’s a recent UMass graduate and great cook who aspires to involve food and local eating in her work.)
Since mid July, I’ve been scouting my local farmers markets for beets. Perhaps this sounds strange, since most people associate beets with fall and winter. Indeed, beets store well and are at their sweetest in the fall when the cold signals plants to store sugars in their roots for producing new growth next spring.
However, beets can be harvested as early as late spring, and I find their flavor and texture is distinctly different from their winter counterparts. Where winter beets are hard packed with sweetness and a rich earthiness, summer beet roots are milder and have more tender, crisp flesh.
My Lithuanian grandmother’s beet soup is what has me looking for a window to my childhood in the farmers’ booths. I remember her stirring an enormous pot on the stove for family gatherings and grating beets until her hands were stained deep pink. She would use only water, beets, salt, vinegar, and sour cream, resulting in a sweet and savory creamy broth that left pink rings on the insides of her Corelle dishware and a craving in all of us for two more bowlfuls.
Since that first exposure to beet soup, I have sought out that experience in different places. I have eaten beet soup, or borscht, in a traditional Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach in NYC. I have sampled it at a Jewish deli in Brookline. I have reached out to friends’ grandmothers for their recipes, tips and tricks for taming the brightly colored root.
I discovered two common variations on beet soup, one for winter, and one for summer. The winter version is served hot, made with a beef broth, chunks of stew beef, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and cabbage. The depth of the beef broth and the acidity of stewed tomato complement the earthy sweet flavor of the winter beets.
The summer version of beet soup is served chilled, and more often showcases the beets themselves, along with their delicate iron-rich greens. Vinegar, salt, lemon, and dill temper and lighten the sweetness of the beets, and add a refreshing tanginess when served chilled.
Having tasted these variations, I concocted my own recipe which I feel combines the richness of my grandmother’s recipe with the fullness of the hot and cold versions that I have eaten and loved:
THIS WEEK WE’RE EATING…
SUMMER BEET SOUP
By Vinsula Hastings, Amherst
1-2 bunches of beets
10 C. beef or vegetable broth
1/4 C. white vinegar
1-2 C. sour cream
2 tsp. tomato paste
1 T. lime or lemon zest
Fresh chopped dill
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash beets and slice stems 1 inch from root, reserving stems and greens. Place unpeeled beets in broth and boil until fork tender, about 45 minutes. While beets are boiling, clean beet greens and stems. Separate stems from leaves and cut stems crosswise into 1/ 2-inch pieces. Stack beet leaves, roll into a chiffonade, and cut crosswise 1/2- inch pieces. Set aside. When beets are tender, remove from broth and cool. Reserve boiling liquid, straining through a paper towel-lined strainer. Set aside one cup of liquid and return the rest to the pot. Bring back to a simmer. Add vinegar, tomato paste, citrus zest, and beet stems and cook for 10 more minutes. When beets are cool enough to touch, peel the beets by pressing and rubbing the skins — which should slide right off. Coarsely grate the peeled beets. Remove the pot from the heat and immediately add the beet greens and the grated beet roots. Whisk sour cream with reserved cup of boiling liquid until smooth and stir into soup. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or chilled, with a dollop of sour cream and a garnish of fresh dill.