Cooking the East European Way: Green Borscht

There are books on Jewish cooking, of course. I have a few. Most are pretty general about where foods that are typically seen as Jewish come from. Oh, sure, they'll mention that Ashkenazi Jews adapted local recipes to fulfill their dietary requirements, but often that's as far as it goes. We don't generally learn that the bagel is Polish in origin and dates back to the 16th century, and was as popular among Slavs as it is now popular among Jews. Our beloved blintz is also Slavic, and apparently pagan, as the pre-Christian Slavs reportedly saw them as symbols of the sun. And so it goes, with cholent perhaps coming from the French, knishes deriving from either Ukranian or Russian antecedents, and kugels borrowing from the Germans.

So I've decided to just go ahead and claim East Europe's food as my own. Why not? It's where my family came from, and they claimed their share. I'll follow their lead and modify it to serve my own needs, as I am a vegetarian, but the basic recipes will be those from my ancestor's countries: Russian, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Moldova, as well as broader influences -- my Moldovan connection gives me license to explore Romanian food, while Poland leads me to Lithuania, and Ukraine gives me Mongolian and Turkish food. I know this is all just an exercise in making excuses to eat food I want to eat, but if you invaded or were invaded by one of my family's ancestral homes, I'm going to go ahead and eat your food.

I started with a Ukranian dish. Ukraine is a global breadbasket as a result of huge reserves of farmland (it's one of the reasons people keep invading), and so Ukraine is a country with an extensive and varied cuisine -- they have something like 30 varieties of borscht, which is a commitment to borscht you just don't see all that often.

So borscht was to be my first meal. Borscht is still something I am learning to love, and I blame my American upbringing. Americans have a notorious sweet tooth, and so a soup that could fairly be described as "sour" isn't going to be the first thing we turn to. Borscht is generally made with beetroot, which is also not something common in American cuisine, and it's often made with pickled ingredients and served cold, and this is about as far from a candy bar as it is possible for a food to get.

I started with green borscht, which does not have beetroot, but is typically made with sorrel instead. It's not that easy to get sorrel in Omaha, so I used a common substitution: spinach. One website suggested adding a splash of citrus to duplicate sorrel's acidity -- although spinach is alkaline, apparently it doesn't have that sour punch that is so distinctive of sorrel.

The other ingredients for the soup include diced potatoes, a smattering of rice, sour cream, and dill and green onions for flavoring, as well as a hard-boiled egg that has been chopped up. There are other recipes out there, but this is a good combination -- the resulting soup is a bit like cream of potato, but the spinach, dill, and green onions give it a sharp, earthy flavor. I'm not usually in the habit of chucking an egg into my soup, but I made my own ramen last week and that also called for a hard-boiled egg, so I am starting to think everybody else puts egg in their soup and I've just never noticed.

This is a soup that Jews absconded with a long time ago, re-dubbing it schav or shtshav in Yiddish, although that's barely a new name, as it is called szczaw in Polish, so our Yiddish name is a bit like we claimed the hot dog, insisted it was a Jewish food, and it's Yiddish name was the khat dag.

Green borscht can be served hot or cold. I've only had it hot so far, and, let me tell you, it's a great partner for a grilled cheese sandwich on a rainy night. Or perhaps I should refer to the sandwich by its Yiddish name: grill kez.