Last year around this time, I helped throw a surprise dinner party for a friend’s 30th birthday. We planned a menu that included all of her favorite things: a thoughtfully composed cheese platter, homemade pasta, and lemon pudding cake. And to satisfy her love of beets, we made borscht, which was far and away the most popular dish of the night.

It was easy to see—and taste—why. The borscht was velvety and sweet, with a slight tang from the dollop of yogurt on top. And it certainly had the looks. We spent much of the evening debating the appropriate adjective to describe its color. Over the course of the night, the soup got votes for fuchsia, magenta, ruby red, and—from one color-blind dinner guest—burnt umber.

I like to think of borscht as winter gazpacho. Like tomato-based gazpacho, there are several variations of this popular European soup of Ukrainian origin—and that birthday dinner made me realize that I’ve only ever had the cold, pureed version. Somewhere between the cheese plate and hand-rolled cavatelli, I realized I’d only just scraped the surface of all borscht has to offer.

So, I’m determined to expand my borscht horizons. I’ve already got plans to make a version with kielbasa and beans, which I’ll be sure to share in a future post. But for now, here’s the recipe that started it all. It’s perfect for chilly winter nights, quick (and inexpensive) weeknight meals, and, in my experience, surprise birthday parties.

created at: 2013-02-27Smooth, Creamy Borscht

2 pounds beets (red, gold, or a combination of both), scrubbed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup Greek yogurt, plus extra for serving
1 cucumber, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 tablespoon minced dill, plus extra for serving

1. Place beets, salt, vinegar, sugar, and 8 cups water in Dutch oven. Bring to boil and cook until beets are soft and a paring knife easily pierces through them, about 45 minutes.

2. Transfer beets to cutting board to cool. Strain cooking water through fine mesh strainer, then add back to pot.

3. When beets are cool enough to handle, remove their skins and cut them into ½-inch pieces (can be inexact). Slice ¼ cup of beet pieces into ⅛-inch cubes and reserve for garnish.

4. Add sour cream and yogurt to pot and whisk until smooth.

5. Transfer remaining beet pieces to pot. Using an immersion blender, puree until smooth. (If soup is too thick, add water in ¼-cup increments.)

6. Stir in dill and half of cucumber, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve cold or at room temperature, garnishing each bowl with dill, a dollop of yogurt, and reserved beet and cucumber pieces.