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Summer cooler

Borscht (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

We’ve passed the Summer Solstice. Summer has rolled in with high heat for June. Hot, humid weather with thunderstorms is upon us.

My favorite hot-weather food is ice cream. I don’t make my own — I buy mine at Stewart’s.

But second in line is the Polish — and East European — soup known as Botwinka. It is made with tender, young beets and their greens. Fortunately, these are abundant at the farmers market right now.

Beets originated in North Africa and grew wild along Mediterranean seashores. People in southern Europe and northern Africa began cultivating beets for their green tops in prehistoric times; it was not until after the birth of Christ that the Romans began to use the beet roots as well. The Roman invasions of Europe spread this vegetable northward, and in time both roots and leaves of the beet became a traditional food in central and northern Europe. Greens were a summer delicacy; roots were stored for food during the long northern winters.

Beets provide many nutrients: folic acid, potassium, vitamins A and C, fiber, and many powerful antioxidants and flavonoids. Betacyanin, the dye responsible for the bright crimson color of red beets, is a powerful cancer preventative.

Beet greens are even more nutritious than the roots. They contain only 19 calories for half a cup (as opposed to 60 for the roots), but have lots of fiber, beta carotene, folic acid, vitamins C and A, calcium and iron, and almost double the potassium of the roots. Like most other greens, they contain powerful antioxidants, flavonoids and phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Studies show that beet greens may suppress nicotine cravings, helping smokers quit.

Borscht is a soup that originated in Central and Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania) where it has been a staple among the poorer people since Medieval times for one simple reason: beets are cheap. Borscht is any soup made with red beets; these are responsible for its characteristic red color.

It is the national dish of Ukraine, which probably has the most varieties of the bright red soup. There are many national variations on the name: borschtsch in German; bartsch in East Prussia; barszcz in Polish; barsciai in Lithuanian; bors in Romanian. The soup came to America with Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and is often thought of as part of Jewish cuisine. The American word, which is pronounced as one syllable, comes from the Yiddish Borsht.

Borscht can be hot, warming the bones when the weather is cold. It can be vegetarian or meat-based, a first course or the main meal, a clear consomme or a hearty stew chuck full of different vegetables, meat and potatoes.

On a hot summer day, a bowl of cool, magenta-pink borscht — known in many places as Botvinka — is a refreshing treat, brightening your day. This soup uses an entire bunch of fresh beets: leaves, stems and roots. Many years ago, when I visited Lithuania in June, it was served in every restaurant.

Cool Beet Greens Soup

Ingredients:

1 bunch fresh young beets, with greens

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups broth or water

1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

1 cup diced cooked ham (optional)

1 large cucumber

1 quart buttermilk

1/2 cup fresh dill sprigs

Eggs (one per person)

Directions:

Begin with the beets. Remove the roots; peeling is optional for young, tender beets. Chop fine or grate the beets. Peel and dice the onion. Place in soup kettle and cover with broth or water with a half teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer and cook about 10 minutes while you wash and chop the stems and leaves. Add these to the pot and continue cooking for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat.

Peel and chop the cucumber. Stir into the soup, along with chopped fresh dill, buttermilk, and diced cooked ham, if using.

Chill several hours or overnight for flavors to intermingle.

Before serving, cook eggs until hardboiled; peel and quarter. Place the egg in the bowl, add fresh minced dill and top with soup. Serve with cooked, dilled new potatoes or a fresh baguette.

Options:

Begin with a couple strips of bacon; render the fat and drain on paper towels. Use that to cook the onion, then add beets and liquid. Crumble bacon into chilled soup at serving time or use to garnish.

Use a quarter pound of sausage and cook with onion at the beginning, in place of ham.

Make vegetarian by not using any meat.

Omit buttermilk and use a couple dollops of sour cream or Greek yogurt when serving soup.

Cool Beet Greens Salad

Ingredients:

3 cups beet greens, washed, drained & shredded

2 cups shredded lettuce (Romaine works good)

1 cucumber, chopped

2 or 3 scallions, or 1 red onion, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced

1 unpeeled apple, cored and chopped

2 hard cooked eggs, chopped

1 cup fresh dill weed, chopped fine

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sour cream or Greek-style yogurt

Directions:

Wash beet greens and lettuce thoroughly, drain, shred, and spin dry; place in salad bowl. Chop the cucumber, apple, and eggs, slice the onion, and add to the salad bowl with the greens. Stir in the dill weed and salt, and fold in the sour cream. Allow flavors to blend for a few minutes, and serve chilled or at room temperature. If the beet greens came with small baby beets, you can also peel and shred these into the salad.

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Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: Writing and cooking. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on X: @yvonawrites.

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