I suspect that every ethnic group that has its own culinary traditions has some foods that are loved unconditionally by all who claim the heritage. These are the foods that we’re proud to share with outsiders and declare as part of our collective identity. For those of us Mennonites who sojourned in Russia for awhile, these foods include wareneki, farmers’ sausage and schmauntfat, zwiebach, pluma moos, and roll kuchen. We have eaten them for generations and aren’t likely to stop any time soon.
There are also our food embarrassments. We don’t talk about those much. Some of these foods only crop up in obscure and strangely detailed history books, and in awkward family dinner conversations. You won’t catch even me talking about these transgressions of our gustatory past. At least, not yet.
In between these two poles of culinary acceptance are a whole range of foods that are not revered enough to make it into the food canon of our people but are not disgusting enough to turn the stomachs of the entire next generation.
Summer borscht is one such food.
When I was a child, I wouldn’t go anywhere near summer borscht. For one thing, I found it strange and perverse to eat a hot soup in the summer. For another, it is a fairly odd-looking entree — a slightly murky clear soup with little white lumps and long green things floating about in it. I was not an adventurous eater as a kid and simply wrinkled up my nose and shook my head whenever the pot on the stove boiled with this particular cultural delicacy.
Though we had many a battle over my discerning taste buds, I don’t think my parents ever tried to force summer borscht upon me, recognizing that this foodstuff did indeed have an oddity to it that required a more mature approach to summer foods and green, slimy herbs floating in a soup bowl. I think we were all surprised when I tried it again as a young adult and discovered that I did indeed like greens, eggs and ham. And I would eat them in a soup and I would eat them with a whoop. Well, maybe not a whoop, but you get the idea.
Appearances aside, summer borscht is actually the perfect meal for those summer days that aren’t scorching hot but are still warm enough that you don’t want something on the stove for hours on end. It requires sorrel, which you really ought to have growing in your garden. If you don’t, scour your local farmers’ markets in the first half of summer. You won’t be able to find it later.
A couple of years ago, I planted what my little local garden centre called “French Sorrel.” It works just fine in summer borscht but I think there are purists out there who claim that the sorrel grown in the steppes of the Molotchna colony was not only different but superior to the sort that we grow here.
Actually, I know there are purists like that. Back when I was just a young little thing, I traveled around the Ukraine on a Mennonite Heritage Tour with a busload of other unruly Mennonites from my same cultural heritage. While it must be admitted that we were an excitable crowd to begin with, the tour reached a particularly telling moment when one of the women — someone in her mid-fifties, I’d say — was late returning to the bus and then came running forward, her face aglow and her hand high in the air proudly waving above her head a bunch of freshly-picked sorrel. It was a moment of victory and glory such as few of us get to experience. We caught her spirit and laughed and cheered as she boarded the bus with her treasure, our Russian tour guide no doubt cursing us North Americans with our ubiquitous cheer and our inattentiveness to schedules.
I assume she pressed the sorrel in her luggage and cooked it into a summer borscht when we came back home. And if it tasted no better than the summer borscht made with French sorrel grown on North American soil, it must have been the fault of the water or of the delay.
In my family, summer borscht starts with a piece of smoked ham in a big pot of water. Once that boils, or maybe a bit before, you add a few peeled and diced potatoes and then a handful each of chopped green onions, sorrel, fresh dill and parsley. The sorrel, which begins a vibrant emerald green, turns a rather unpleasant brownish green as it cooks. Watch for that, though it doesn’t really matter if the sorrel cooks longer. Just make sure the potatoes are soft. Right before serving, whip an egg with a tablespoon of sour cream and then add that to the soup, stirring. This provides the soup with that telltale murkiness. The final touch happens at the table. Alongside the soup, you want to serve cold, hard boiled eggs that each diner can peel and add to their bowl. Or not. That part’s optional. But I say, if you’re up for the murkiness and the floating brownish green things, you can be brave enough for a little hard-boiled egg.
Enjoy with a hunk of bread and a crisp rosé. Yes, I’ve made a cocktail to go with this blog post but it’s better for before dinner or to use up some of that leftover sorrel. Raw sorrel has a bitter, lemony taste. It works well with elderflower and tequila. This soup, on the other hand, cries out to be paired with a nice, pink wine.
All My Puny Sorrels
- 2 leaves of sorrel plus another for garnish
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1 oz St. Germain Elderflower liqueur
- 2 oz tequila
- 2 oz sparkling water
- saskatoon berries to garnish
Muddle the sorrel with lime juice in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the elderflower and tequila and swirl or stir until mixed. Strain into a glass. Add sparkling water and gently stir. Add ice and garnish. Enjoy.
This cocktail is, of course, named after Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and you could certainly drink it while reading the book. But you don’t need to. It’s a great book deserving of a great cocktail but this one is really all about the herb.