There I was, like a character out of a Nora Ephron film, standing in the middle of Zabar’s, asking anyone within earshot the difference between their two beet soups. The bustling Manhattan store’s two versions of borscht boast the same color, almost the same ingredients. Scrutinizing the two containers, I hold them up to the sage pastrami-slicer behind the deli counter, asking him how the two vary. Can I eat either cold? He shrugs, smiles and nods.
A few days later, shopping at my favorite Eastern European food emporium, M & I International in Brighton Beach, I spy a big pot of ruby-red borcsht labeled red borscht. But when I say want to eat it cold, the woman immediately turns her back and strides over to the fridge, pointing to another pot covered with plastic wrap. As I pay $6 for the tall tub of pink soup, the friendly Russian explains with great urgency that the cold version boasts sour cream and yogurt and should never ever be heated. If you enjoy pairing cold borscht with bread, buy or bake dark, old-world, farmer’s rye.
The pleasant dilemma is that there are as many versions of cold borscht as there are countries in the Olympics. Even the name and spelling changes with its place of origin depending on whether you’re concocting Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian or Belarusian borscht.
It’s mid-July and farmer’s markets and gardens are brimming with gorgeous produce. You don’t have to look far to find interesting ingredients for a summer meal — some of them are already a part of your everyday veggies. Instead of throwing away veggie leaves or discarding what are typically thought of as weeds (like dandelions and purslane), a slight change in perspective will reveal an even wider array of summer produce right in front of your eyes.
This week’s featured CSA veggie is beets. Often the leafy beet greens are discarded in favor of the rich root which is commonly baked, boiled, or made into soup. But beet greens are also a delicious and versatile summer veggie, and by putting the greens in a pan, rather than in the bin, you will gain a delicious and nutritious addition on your plate. Beet greens are actually so tasty that whole varieties have been cultivated so that the plants produce copious amounts of tender, sweet leaves and only the suggestion of a red beet.
Of all the salads that you can find in New York City restaurants today, none is more ubiquitous than the beet and cheese variety. Which makes it all the more surprising that I had never eaten it until I was a teenager.
Despite the prevalence of beets in the Ashkenazi Eastern European culinary traditions of my ancestors, they were banned from my family’s dinner table. My father hated the ruby spheres, so we never ate them.
Imagine my delight when I first tasted the sweet, robust flavor of a perfectly roasted beet. I sighed. How had I been robbed of this pleasure for so long?
Beets — most people either love them or hate them. It’s amusing listening to other CSA members pick up beets with the consistent refrains of yippee or oh-no. They really are a polarizing vegetable. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, given their availability for much of the growing season and their ability to keep well beyond many other vegetables. They are one of the crops that does very well from early summer all the way through the season, so you might find them now at the markets starting, with the beautiful (edible) leaves still attached. The beets are smaller in early summer, with delicious, sweet flavor, so grab them up while you can!
Here you’ll find some tips on using and cooking with beets, plus a recipe for the all-time Jewish favorite, borscht.
I have a confession. I pretty much hate Jewish Food. Not all Jewish food, of course, but the ubiquitous beige and brown kugels and meat-heavy holiday tables I grew up with never really did it for me. Passover in particular, with hidden matzo meal and farfel at every turn was never something I looked forward to. But at the same time the experience of Passover as a whole always had a strong impact on my understanding of Jewish values, history and biblical narrative.
Passover (Chag Ha Aviv, or the holiday of spring) is meant to do more than recall the exodus, we are to celebrate the abundance of spring vegetables and herbs that have just sprouted. I took a vegetarian cooking class for Passover a few years ago taught by Rabbi Hillel Norry of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. He taught that Passover did not need to be thought of as a week of deprivation. It is a time to rejoice in abundance of spring and to enjoy unprocessed, wholesome and healthy food. It is the Jewish version of a “cleanse” both spiritually and physically. Focus less on replacements for bread and other starchy items, let the seasonal produce shine, and take the time to prepare it impeccably.
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