You might recognize it as Schav, but we called it Cold Green Borscht, as opposed to Hot Green Borscht, as opposed to Cold Red Borscht, as opposed to Hot Red Borscht. Enough confusion? There is also Cold Shchi, as opposed to Hot Shchi, as opposed to Sour Shchi… Ok already!
The long and short of it is that we make it for Shavuos, and the only similarity between our recipe and the green stuff in a glass jar at your local supermarket, labeled Schav, is the presence of sorrel. Actually, sorrel is not even necessary, as we only added it to spinach which is the main ingredient. I use it when I can get it, and if I don’t get it, I just use more spinach. In Poland, they used exclusively sorrel in the old times. It was the soup of pour people, and sorrel was a weed kids were sent to pick by the road. The word schav itself comes from schavel which means sorrel. I think my grandmother just liked to mix some of it with spinach to remind us kids that things used to be tough, and even spinach was scarce.
The first thing I do is measure spinach. It is a challenge because my grandmother’s exact measurements included a bisl (roughly a pinch), a zhmen’ke (literally a handful), and the most definitive of all, a gleizl (a cup, but a Russian cup is 12 oz, as opposed to an American 8 oz). By trial and error, I eventually figured it out: if I fill a two-quart pot with loose fresh spinach, it’ll be what I need for two quarts of soup. So measure your spinach and take it out of the pot. Soak it in ice water with salt, to get dirt and bugs out.
Here come the first two differences between our Green Borscht and the Polish schav: potatoes and scallions. Our soup is thick and creamy because it is potato-based. Peel, quarter, and boil potatoes until they are literally falling apart and the water is visibly opaque. Meanwhile, clean, wash, and dice scallions. Cut spinach into strips.
Fish your potatoes out, dump your spinach (with or without sorrel) into the potato-ed boiling water in the pot. Bring to boil and reduce to simmering. Mash potatoes to a real creamy consistency by adding a splash or two of soy, rice, or almond milk substitute, whatever is your preference. Of course, you can use real milk, as we had done in the old country, but I am trying to give you a vegan alternative. Add creamy mashed potatoes to the simmering spinach, and top with diced scallions.
It is at this point that I start feeling the excitement of Shavuos. Among its several names and meanings, it is also known as the kids holiday. When the Jews promised to keep the laws and obey the commandments, they had to produce guarantors. Rabbi Meir said: When the Jews stood before Sinai to receive the Torah, G‑d said to them: “I swear, I will not give you the Torah unless you provide worthy guarantors who will assure that you will observe its laws.” (www.chabad.org). So they tried to offer different collaterals: the forefathers, the prophets, the sages, but none of these distinguished and worthy candidates were accepted, until they suggested… children. Why? It sounds, well, childish! But listen to a toddler – every second word is WHY! Children incessantly question, and not because they doubt; contrary to adults, they question because they want to understand. That’s why children are brought to shul on Shavuos to listen to the Ten Commandments.
As you are watching scallions to lose their bright green color and soften – it shouldn’t take longer than 10 – 15 minutes – get your dill ready and take an egg our of the refrigerator to warm it up. The vegan variation will do without the egg, but with more milk substitute. You’ll need salt and pepper, and a bisl (again, that’s a pinch) of sour salt. Feel free to use real lemon juice, to taste. The only reason we resorted to sour salt was that there were no lemons to be found in Odessa in May – June. Season your borscht, add dill, remove it from the stove, and let it cool off. Spoon off about a ladle-full of liquid from the top into a bowl and put aside.
In a different bowl, whisk an egg (if you are vegan, skip this sentence and start with the next). Add some more milk substitute and keep whisking. If the soup liquid in the first bowl has sufficiently cooled (room temperature is fine), start slowly adding it to the egg and milk mixture while whisking. Make sure it doesn’t curdle.
Very slowly trickle the egg, milk, and soup liquid mixture back into the pot with borscht which should also be about room temperature by now. Keep stirring the borscht gently as you are introducing the mixture to it. My grandmother called this process “whitening the borscht.”
It should look like this, white and green. If you don’t get this color, add some more milk substitute and stir. Refrigerate. This should be your second course, served after salads and cheese pies.
It is usually served with some more diced scallions, a dollop of sour cream, and chopped hard-boiled egg. Sour cream could be replaced by my best friend Tofutti Sour Supreme, but I have no idea how to make up for an egg. An egg is present on almost every Jewish holiday, in one way or another, as a symbol of both mourning and rebirth. It is a part of a consolation meal traditionally offered to mourners when they return from a funeral. To us, it means that in the middle of all the joy and excitement of the holiday, we still find a moment to mourn for the Bais haMikdash in Yerushalayim.
Oh, and by the way, if you cook it exactly the same way (minus milk and sour cream) but use beef broth, it will be a Hot Green Borscht. The time for both cold and hot Red Borscht posts will come, I promise. And Shchi is a Russian cabbage soup, not to be confused with Red Borscht which is also a cabbage soup, and not to be confused with Sour Shchi made of sour cabbage, A.K.A. sauerkraut. Did I clarify things?
- Loosely packed fresh spinach enough to fill a two-quart pot. Optional: mix with a small amount of sorrel
- I large or 2 smaller potatoes
- 2 bunches (about 12 – 14) scallions
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
- 2 eggs (optional)
- 1/2 cup or more milk or milk substitute
- 1/2 teaspoon sour salt or 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sour cream or substitute to garnish
- Boil potatoes until they fall apart.
- Cut spinach into thin stripes.
- Dice one bunch of scallions.
- Take out potatoes, add spinach to boiling liquid, reduce to simmering.
- Mash potatoes to creamy mass by adding a splash or two of milk or milk substitute.
- Add mashed potatoes to pot, stir gently.
- Add diced scallions. Simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes, until scallions lose the bright color and soften. Do not overcook!
- Add dill, salt and pepper, sour salt or lemon juice. Remove from stove and set aside to cool off.
- Spoon a ladle-full of liquid into a bowl. Set aside to cool off.
- Whisk one egg. Gradually add the remainder of milk or substitute while whisking.
- Gradually add cooled soup liquid to mixture while whisking.
- Slowly trickle mixture into the pot while gently stirring. Add more milk or substitute if needed. Refrigerate.
- For garnish, dice the second bunch of scallions, hard-boil the second egg and chop it.
- Served with diced scallions, chopped hard-boiled egg, and sour cream (optional).