Whenever I tell others that I’m Russian, I often find myself responding to the same old stereotypes: cold, harsh winters, burly men knocking back shots of vodka, and a penchant for “that soup with the beets.”
That soup with the beets is the red borscht I, and every other child in Eastern Europe, grew up eating. I am still partial to my mother's. Her’s is an afternoon affair and unlike any of the chilled, pureed versions you will find on restaurant menus in the U.S. The broth is earthy, more sweet than sour, and the kind of hot that takes its time in delivering its fiery kick. Grated beets, tender potatoes, thinly sliced cabbage and a handful of other vegetables lend heartiness and a toothsome bite. An array of herbs, verdant against the broth’s vermilion, brighten the soup and perfume the home. On a blustery winter day, there's nothing better than borscht to fill the belly and warm the soul.
Come spring though, when the warming earth comes to life again, it's not that borscht I crave, but another: green borscht. Borscht has become synonymous with the red root vegetable, but, unbeknown to most, it is also an umbrella term for a number of sour soups without beets.
The main player in green borscht is sorrel or in Russian, shchavel (щавель). Somewhere between a lettuce and herb, this small edible green has an intensely lemony tang. It sings in this light, yet hearty soup. Like red borscht, green borscht features those same tender potatoes, golden onions and carrots, and the obligatory dollop of sour cream at the end. But that’s where the similarities stop. A mountain of greens goes in, and just when you think the soup can’t possibly take any more, a good deal of herbs is added as well. Lastly, eggs are whisked in for body and a silky texture. Despite the heavier ingredients, sorrel’s sour zing still manages to cut through and brighten the rich broth. This same magical, puckering quality also makes this soup extremely addicting. We make this green version for as long as sorrel is available and save the red for when fall and #winterishere (sorry, I had to).
So, yes, we Russians do love and eat a lot of borscht—just not always with beets.
Green Borscht - Sorrel Soup
Makes 8-10 servings
No less satisfying and comforting, green borscht is prepared in half the time of its red counterpart. This soup feels decadent thanks to the potatoes and eggs, but in truth it’s pretty light—chockfull of greens, herbs and healthy fats.
As for the deal with sorrel, unless you grow it yourself (I read it’s very easy), it’s not the most readily available green. However, with the proliferation of farmer’s markets and high-end grocery stores, sourcing has become less of a problem and I highly recommend you seek it out. For ultimate tang, you want slender, arrow-shaped Broad Leaf sorrel. If you don’t have enough or absolutely can't find it, substitute spinach. In the instance of the latter, add the juice of one or two lemons at the end until the soup is bright and puckering.
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled, cut into ¼-inch half moons or sliced if small
4 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 cups sorrel, stemmed, washed and roughly chopped
3 cups spinach, washed and roughly chopped
1 bunch dill (about 1 and ½ cups), stemmed and chopped
½ bunch parsley (about ½ cup), stemmed and chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
4 eggs, lightly beaten*
red pepper flakes
sour cream to serve
- Place the potatoes into a large pot of cold water (about 3 quarts). Add a large pinch of salt, cover with lid, and let simmer over low heat.
- Meanwhile, in a medium-sized frying pan, warm the oil and butter. Add the onions and carrots, a pinch of salt, and sauté over medium heat until the onions are golden. You want them to slowly caramelize and sweeten, not burn, so make sure you stir often and lower the heat if needed.
- Once the potatoes are fork tender, about 20 minutes, remove them from the pot and break them into small pieces with a fork or the tip of a spoon.
- Bring the pot of now starchy water to a gentle simmer and add the carrots, onions and potatoes. Add the greens, in batches if needed, and then the herbs and garlic. It is important to not overcook the delicate greens—you want to preserve their freshness and healthful properties. As soon as the borscht begins to simmer again, about a minute or two, it’s ready for the eggs.
- Slowly pour in the beaten eggs in a circular motion, gently stirring the borscht with your other hand. Let the soup stand for a few seconds to finish cooking the eggs. Remove from heat.
- Season to taste with salt and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Let the borscht sit for 30 minutes for flavors to meld.
- Before serving, give the a soup a good, but gentle stir. Eat with a generous dollop of good-quality sour cream and hearty bread.
Note*: Another variation is to hard boil the eggs, peel and chop them, and add them to the borscht this way. It all depends on preference— you can’t go wrong!