Lithuanian Cold Beet Soup | Šaltibarščiai [Recipe]
Growing up I was never a big fan of beetroot. I think this was due to the highly acidic pickled stuff you get in jars, which was pretty much the only type of beetroot available back then. My grandmother used it on all her salads and everything else on the plate would be tinted purple and tainted with its earthy, sour taste.
However, in recent years as fresh, unpickled beetroot has become more readily available, I have become a convert. So when someone gave us a few freshly dug beetroots recently I was absolutely delighted and started thinking about what I’d cook with them.
In Lithuania, there’s really only one thing to do with beetroot and that’s make cold borscht soup, known in Lithuania as šaltibarščiai (shalt-eh-barsh-chay). This garishly pink soup is incredible popular, particularly in summer when the weather can be quite hot. It is made using a cultured milk called kefir (kefyras in Lithuanian), which is like a cross between yoghurt and buttermilk. Because it is contains high quantities of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, kefir is very good for your digestive system. Couple that with the benefits of eating the “superfood” that is beetroot and you have a highly nutritious lunch!
As this is a cold soup it is incredibly quick and easy to make. The only cooking required is for the beetroot. If cooking beetroot seems like too much trouble, or if you can’t source fresh, raw beetroot to cook, you can simply use the cooked beetroot that is now available vac-packed in the vegetable section of most supermarkets.
The most difficult aspect of making this soup is probably sourcing the kefir milk. Unfortunately, while widely available in many countries, kefir is not available in all supermarkets. If it’s not available at your local supermarket you may find it at Lithuanian, Polish or Russia food stores. Alternatively you can make an approximation using yoghurt and buttermilk, both easily and cheaply available.
Despite being a cold soup, borscht actually makes a fantastic autumn lunch. It has a mild taste but is quite hearty due to the amount of solid ingredients. It would make for a great light lunch on a day when you know you’ll be having a heavy or stodgy evening meal. Lithuanian šaltibarščiai is traditional served with a side of warm, boiled potatoes. However, you can replace these with a slice of rye bread or your favourite crusty loaf, as you prefer.
In the original version of this recipe I used my own homemade pickles instead of fresh cucumbers as I liked the zing that they brought to the soup. Traditionally, fresh cucumbers would be used. Either will actually work well. In summer I tend to use fresh cucumbers, but off-season I still use pickles if I can’t find good quality fresh cucumbers.
Traditionally, šaltibarščiai would not contain lemon juice. However, in an attempt to use less salt in my diet I like to use a small amount of lemon juice to provide a little piquancy. It should not be possible to taste the lemon juice – only to feel a slight bite from its acidity. You can leave the lemon out if you prefer, seasoning only with salt.
Spring onions are not currently in season and are not widely available in Lithuania. Lithuanians rarely pull young onions for use in salads. Instead they simply cut some of the green leaves off the onions and use only the green part in their salads. The leaves replenish themselves over time, so you always have onion leaves available. We still have a few onions in the garden and I used some of their leaves in this dish.
For the soup:
200 g | 7 oz boiled & cooled beetroot (about 2 medium beets)
100 g | 3.5 oz cucumber (about 2 large pickling cucumbers, either fresh or pickled – see note above)
6 spring onions or 10 green onion leaves
2 hard-boiled eggs
1.5 litres | 3 pints kefir (or 500 ml | 1 pint thick natural yoghurt and 1 litre | 2 pints buttermilk)
Bunch fresh dill
Juice of ½ a lemon (optional)
Salt to taste
For the side dish:
200 g | 7 oz potatoes
- Peel the potatoes and chop into bite-sized pieces. Place in a saucepan of boiling water, add a good pinch of salt and boil until a knife can easily pierce the flesh.
- While the potatoes are boiling, assemble the soup.
- Slice the beetroot & gherkins into fine julienne.
- Chop the eggs into small dice.
- Chop the scallions or onions leaves into 1 cm (½ inch) pieces.
- Finely chop the dill.
- Pour the kefir into a large bowl or saucepan and add the chopped ingredients and half of the lemon juice, holding back some of the dill for garnish.
- Taste and season salt and additional lemon juice as required.
- Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle with the remaining dill.
- Serve the potatoes on a side plate so that they do not heat the soup.
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