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Usually, the sight of a root vegetable other than potatoes sends my kids running and screaming from the kitchen. But the beet claims a special place in our house whenever I make borscht. Beets were a cheap commodity in Eastern Europe, so they caught on like wildfire in poor communities, both Jewish and Polish. Borscht (or borsch) is the generic name for a soup of Ukrainian origin that appears in hot and cold variations, but always with beets. Cold borscht is a true summertime soup, and I offer a thick, hearty version more like a Jewish take on gazpacho. Whatever kind of borscht you make, don't leave out the dill--a staple of Polish and Eastern Europe cooking. A Generational Dish My borscht obsession started with my first taste of my mother's soup, which her immigrant mother cooked and chilled every summer for her family of seven in a South Bronx tenement. Grandma Lena made a special Passover Borscht with russel (brine in Yiddish and Russian). She'd put the beets in wooden barrels with vinegar and water and let them sit for three to four weeks. Every few days, she'd skim off the fermented crust that would form at the top. My mother recalls this version being especially popular with some of their more (ahem) intemperate neighbors. But Grandma wasn't trying to get anyone drunk--she was just trying to get borscht to keep longer. Fermented borscht could keep for weeks or even months without refrigeration. My grandmother made borscht in a pressure cooker, the old jiggle-top kind. If a food particle clogged the vent, or if she got distracted and forgot to turn down the heat (not an infrequent occurrence in a large household) the regulator blew off, taking the contents of the pot with it. The pink splotches on the ceiling are one of my mother's most vivid memories of her childhood kitchen.
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