Growing up, just the word “beet” sent shivers up my spine. My mom did not often serve this vegetable but when she did it was a chore to eat what was put on my plate. Usually, it was pickled…can you think of anything worse than a pickled beet? Bright red, a juice that will instantly stain anything it touches, be it countertop, teeth or clothing, and a taste that must be acquired to be appreciated. For me as a child, the beet was a tragic addition to the dining table, and ranked a fast second behind tomato aspic (another red and jiggly form that sometimes showed its congealed form at our table) as the most feared vegetable of childhood. Unfortunately, the beet (beta vulgaris) is also chalked full of vitamins and nutrients and is thus a power vegetable that many people adore. So after years of ignoring the beet, considering it a lowly plant that sought only to wreak havoc with my tatstebuds and tablecloths, I decided to give it another try.
Hosting my book club this week, I needed to locate recipes that would reflect a Russian theme. Our summer read was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – a novel that I needed several months to get through due to its length. For me, Tolstoy, like the beet, was sometimes feared and ignored. Last year the group read War and Peace and I could not bring myself to do it. Since I don’t own a Kindle, the thought of lugging around a 1000 page text all summer did not appeal. Neither did the title…I could think of a million things I’d rather do – like pull weeds, wash dirty clothes, clean the bathroom – than spend sunny days reading about war (well, there was the peace part but that was not enough to tempt me). So this summer when I committed to Anna Karenina (AK as we call her in the club) I knew I had to solidify my decision. In order to ensure that I’d read it fully, I offered to host our monthly discussion.
Thank goodness my book club is filled with smart, fun and adventurous women who think that a discussion about a novel read should include good food and drink. We are very civilized. So whoever hosts will usually prepare some tasty tidbits to share and most everyone brings something to contribute to the evening. In order to commemorate Tolstoy, who I discovered is brilliant and writes incredibly engrossing tales, and to stick with the Russian setting, I decided to cook borscht. Seriously, if one is contemplating cooking something Russian, a cursory search of cookbooks or the Internet will glean the following: borscht, borscht and borscht with a smattering of perogies, stroganoffs and maybe something using caviar. Since I was hoping to feed a group on a warm summer afternoon, I chose the borscht, to serve slightly warm, and thus had to open my mind again to the wonders of the beet.
It’s actually a strangely lovely plant with a heart-shaped bulb and long, dark leaves of green variegated with veins of pink. I bought a bunch and wondered what I was to do with them…However, using the beet in my borscht was ridiculously simply. There was no chopping or grating required. All I had to do was scrub off the “dirt” and pop two firm orbs into my pot of boiling vegetable stock. The beets floated and roiled alongside carrots, leeks, bell peppers, and fresh dill weed. All in all a pretty simple recipe. I think what made it turn out so well was the color the soup turned thanks to the beets, and the addition of mashed potatoes blended with heavy cream. As I stated, there are tons of recipes for borscht, and the one I elected to make used cream. How can a soup go wrong when there’s a cup of heavy cream in it?
I cooked the borscht in a few hours and sampled my efforts at the end. Yum. After adding more sea salt and freshly chopped dill, I deemed the soup worthy of a book club gathering and a rousing discussion of Tolstoy’s epic AK. Served with a chilled vino verde (the poor man’s champagne), an olive tepanade (in lieu of clavier) and some hardy black bread, my homage to Russian cuisine and the writing of Tolstoy was a hit. I learned that the beet can be quite tasty (sorry but I doubt I’ll ever brave the pickled stuff again) and that borscht is soup that allows for much creativity. All in all, my work as book club hostess was a success as my friends devoured their bowls. As we ate we had a passionate talk about AK. Poor woman! How lucky I am to be born in a later time period, in a more tolerant society…but that’s another discussion.
For now, I encourage others to revisit the beet as a potential ingredient and to play with Russian borscht, chilled or warm. Childhood traumas addressed and conquered, I no longer fear the leafy purple beat or large Russian novels. Bring them on!