Vegetarian Borscht

Spring is playing me. First, in March, it gave itself with wild abandon. As in the old classic song sung by many, but most memorably by Ella Fitzgerald, it was “too darn hot. too darn hot. too-ooooh. dar-rrrrrn. hah-ooottt.” Though my mind warned “it’s too early for spring”  my heart leaped to “break out patio furniture, baby!” I allowed myself to be vulnerable: waking up expecting warm breezes and strong sunshine against my skin, I packed away my winter armour (Under Armour, that is) only to be left shivering with longing as April slapped me back to the reality of Spring’s fickle ways, with high winds, drenching rains and dipping mercury. What is a girl to do?

My strategy is to make Borscht. It’s a soup that will allow me to be flexible, resilient. If Spring wants to play hard-to-get, I serve up my Borscht piping hot and let myself be comforted, warmed. If Spring shows up on my doorstep with hotpants on, I’m ready with my cool-as-a-cucumber Borscht to give  rising temperatures the cold shoulder. Now, I’m still keeping it light and meatless in deference to spring and the inevitable body-baring season of summer, AND because it’s going to be on a menu I’m developing for a week of classes I’ll be teaching as Guest Chef at Rancho La Puerta Spa in Baja, Mexico, just a little over a month from now.

Denise Roa, the head of the Cooking School at RLP sent me a list of vegetables, fruits and herbs that will be available to be harvested from their own organic farm for my class, and I can’t wait to make this soup with freshly picked produce. So…enough daydreaming about my trip to paradise. Back to the soup.

It’s so simple, and quick that it’s hard to believe it is going to have any flavor at all but it does. You could throw all the shredded and chopped and sliced veggies into a big pot with vegetable stock and boil it for 25 minutes and it would be soup, but it’s worth taking the time to sweat the leeks and carrots for a while and then brown the tomato paste along with them.  I’m holding the pot up to the partly-cloudy light coming through my kitchen window to show you that layer of glaze on the bottom that will add sweetness and depth of flavor to the soup.

Then it’s just a matter of adding the vegetable stock, beets and cabbage and simmering for 25-35 minutes. In the meantime you can mix up a little Greek yogurt, salt, pepper and fresh parsley as a garnish for the bowl you will have to have as soon as it’s ready. But first, ladle it out into a bowl and just admire it, naked. It’s stunning. So brash, and beautiful and bursting with color.

Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a little lemon juice to taste, then add the yogurt and enjoy turning it pink with each bite. Pink, like a Summer sunset. See, who needs Spring?

Cabbage Beet Soup (Vegetarian Borscht)

Serves 8

1.5 pound beets (beetroot), peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 large leeks, sliced into half-moons
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks or coins
1 pound white cabbage, cut thinly into shreds
2 tablespoons olive oil
2.5 tablespoons tomato paste
8 cups vegetable stock
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Low fat sour cream or greek yogurt with finely chopped parsley or chives (optional, for garnish)


  1. Peel and cut the onions, carrots, and beets (alternatively, you can shred the carrots and beets using the shredding blade of a food processor). Reserve a small amount of the raw beet to grate and add near the end to enliven the color. In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks to the pot and a pinch of salt and sweat until soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add carrots and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and stir continuously until the paste is coating the vegetables and browning a bit. A glaze will form on the bottom of the pan. Do not let this burn.
  2. Add the vegetable stock to deglaze the pot, using a wooden spatula or spoon to scrape up the glaze and any browned bits. Add the shredded cabbage and cut beets. Bring to a boil and simmer soup for 25-35 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. With a few minutes left, add the reserved grated beet.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then squeeze in the lemon juice, aiming for a balance of sweetness to acid. Serve with freshly grated black pepper, a dollop of the sour cream/yogurt, and herb mixture if desired.