Growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut, I was what some people would call a picky eater. My diet consisted primarily of bagels with plain cream cheese, and the occasional grilled cheese or turkey sandwich. I frowned on most of my bubbe’s Eastern European dishes—her matzo ball soup, or her famous sweet lukshen kugel. But every so often, I would enjoy what I called “princess soup,” a chilled bowl of hot pink liquid, naturally sweetened with bright red beets and sour cream. Yes, I loved her borscht as a child.
So, it’s not surprising that decades later, since I’m the author of a Jew-centric food blog, beets remain one of my favorite ingredients when I try to find new ways to use traditional foods.
Beets were first domesticated in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, though initially only the leaves were eaten. The Romans were the first to use the roots by cooking them with honey and wine. Apicius, author of one of the earliest cookbooks—The Art of Cooking—nearly 2,000 years ago, included recipes for beet broths and dressings in his tome. It is difficult to trace an exact origin of borscht, but Ukraine is credited as the source, due to the large variety of the soup and the fact that it is the country’s “national soup”—although it was originally made from cow parsnips rather than beets. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the borscht we know today (with cabbage and sour cream) came to be.
Beets were cheap (and still are) and could survive tough Eastern European winters, so borscht became a popular peasant food, served hot or cold, with additions ranging from beef to cucumbers, cabbage to potatoes, sometimes with a splash of vinegar for extra tartness. Jewish food historian Gil Marks notes in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food how the dish spread quickly through Europe, and it first appeared in Jewish sources at the end of the 1500s. In order to make the soup kosher, Jews created a strictly vegetarian version that could be eaten with sour cream. They added a little tartness from vinegar and sugar, making a sweet and sour version of their own.
Although borscht has long been a favorite of Ashkenazi Jews, beets also appear elsewhere in Jewish cooking. Ashkenazi Jews often ate beet greens in salads, in addition to fermenting the roots or making Russian beet salad with herring. Sephardi Jews have long used beets, prominent around the Mediterranean, in Moroccan spiced salads, or as a bright addition to pickled vegetables. Beets also frequently appear at certain Jewish holidays: For Passover, they are often mixed with horseradish to make the infamous “Hillel sandwich,” and can also be used by vegetarians in place of a shank bone on the Seder plate, due to their blood-red color. They are also eaten during Rosh Hashanah, because the Hebrew word for beets, silka, sounds like the word for removal, siluk, symbolizing the removal of roadblocks from the past year.
Everyone knows that beets are good for you. Despite having more natural sugars than any other vegetable, they are rich in fiber, magnesium, and potassium; they even help lower blood pressure and protect against heart disease. They’re also are known as a natural aphrodisiac, as they contain tryptophan and betaine. Maybe that’s why they’ve gotten popular lately: In an informal poll I conducted on Facebook, 93 percent of respondents admitted to loving beets.
I believe that most people who claim to hate beets just haven’t had them prepared the right way. (No, canned beets do not count.) Fresh beets thrive in colder weather, so they are perfect this time of year. Roasting them is the best way to bring out their sweetness, but they’re extremely versatile, delicious roasted or raw, in savory or sweet recipes.
I have fond memories of rolling out sticky rugelach dough with my bubbe, spreading on apricot jam, and sprinkling them with walnuts, raisins, and cinnamon sugar. But there are plenty of other ways to make these Eastern European cookies. Immigrants brought rugelach to the United States, and its name is thought to come from the Yiddish word rugel, meaning royal. What could be more royal than rich pink beet rugelach?
Though rugelach initially used sour cream, popular in Eastern Europe, Americans added cream cheese. My bubbe’s dough called for a little of each, but I’ve replaced the sour cream in her classic recipe with pureed beets and made up for the lack of tartness with some lemon zest. I’ve also replaced the apricot filling with chocolate, my favorite—and a filling that complements the beet dough nicely.
When you’re done making these cookies, you might find your hands stained red. I think of it as a badge of honor among beet-lovers. But if you’d rather not be caught red-handed, simply rub your hands with lemon juice, and nobody will know you’ve been cooking with beets.
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