16 November 2010

Gypsy Kitchens: Šaltibarščiai (Lithuanian Cold Beet Soup)

Rebecca and I have been eating a lot of soup in Lithuania - in the past month, really. One of my favorites has been the Šaltibarščiai, or cold beet soup. It is, of course, a borscht variant - like basically every recipe in this part of the world. The Lithuanian version is actually a summer soup, and it's characterized by the addition of kefir ("kefyra," in Lithuanian) and raw cucumber. It is one of the easiest soups I've ever made, even in someone else's tiny kitchen. Rebecca made a delicious mix of sauteed vegetables. She interpreted Brooklyn bacon-mania with an interesting, pescetarian twist, and it was great.
One starts with beets, which is pretty obvious. I started with three medium sized beets, but found that I really only needed two of them. It didn't disappoint me that I had an extra beet, though, because I love beets. Cook the beets well, boiling or roasting them whole. I would have preferred to roast the beets, but our oven didn't function well enough. Boiling had one great advantage: leftover cooking liquid.
Here are the beets - cooked, peeled and accompanied by a cup of beautiful beet-water. At this point, the cooking is done, which is awesome. It's good to do this a while before you want to eat. It could be three or four hours before, or up to a few days. Boiling beets is extremely easy to do, especially when it's the most difficult thing about a recipe.
Okay, so there are a few other steps. The most time-consuming is hardboiling eggs, though, which is about as difficult as pouring a glass of wine. The rest is grating and chopping, which goes quickly. Basically, the beets are grated into a pot (like I said, two medium beets were enough). Add a quarter cup of diced scallions, the yolks from two hardboiled eggs (smushed), one julienned cucumber and about a half gallon (less, really, because we're working with liters here - say one liter) of kefir. You can also use buttermilk, which is probably easier to find outside of Lithuania. Around here, kefir is big.
The final dish was pretty delicious: cold, rich, tasty and beautiful. The color is one of those shades that one expects never to find in nature. When garnished with the dill and egg whites, the dish has a nice mix of taste and texture accents, but the Lithuanians take it a step further. They serve the soup with hot boiled potatoes, which give the soup a nice hot-cold feature, but add about fifty percent more effort to the dish.
Here's the full recipe, which I adapted from a few sources:

Lithuanian Šaltibarščiai (Cold Beet Soup with Cucumber and Kefir)
Two medium beets, cooked, peeled and chilled
One large cucumber, julienned
Two hard-boiled and chilled eggs
One quarter cup (about six roots) minced scallion
One third of a gallon kefir, or one liter
One cup cooking liquid from the beets
A lot of dill

Cook the beets in salted water for about forty-five minutes, peel them, put them in the fridge. Save about one cup of the cooking liquid. Hardboil your eggs to get that step out of the way - then go do whatever for a couple hours. It's very satisfying to know that you have a soup almost made, sitting in the fridge.
About twenty minutes before you want to eat: smush up the egg yolks with the scallion in a pot or bowl that's big enough for all of the ingredients. Grate the beets into the pot, then add the cucumber and the cooking liquid (which also should have been chilled). Mix it all up, then pour in the kefir until you think it's liquid-y enough. Give it a good dose of salt. At this point, just let it sit for about five minutes to let everything soak into itself - then ladle it into bowls. Garnish with the cut-up egg whites and a large dose of dill. Leave the dill and egg floating at the top because it looks great.

(This recipe is adapted from a version by Birutė Imbrasienė, found in "Lithuanian Traditional Foods," a cookbook that was lying around our rented apartment in Kaunas, Lithuania.)

I'll let Rebecca describe how she made her accompanying dish.
Rebecca: "I bought the salmon above at the fish counter of a tiny gourmet store in Kaunas' New Town. Merlin had his beet soup all figured out and I was looking for some inspiration for my accompanying dish. I really wanted to make a Stuffed Cabbage Head from the cookbook, but the recipe called for bacon. When I saw this fish, I thought it would make the perfect substitution.
Rebecca: "Unfortunately (or fortuitously), our oven was too finicky to try to bake the cabbage head, so I had to come up with something else. As a riff on the common Lithuanian "cabbage and bacon" model, I shredded some brussels sprouts and sauteed them with shallots in butter. Then, I added some baby spinach leaves, let them wilt and sprinkled in the diced up salmon jerky. It was very strong, so a little went a long way. Lastly, I added another ingredient we've seen a lot of, plums, half of one, thinly sliced. It was a really under-ripe plum, but the cooking fixed that."


  1. salmon jerky....that's a new one...as is "smush"...especially think that term should be used more widely in cookbooks..it's a first for me to see:) i guess i should cross soup off the thanksgiving/chanukah/christmas menu, eh? :)

  2. I am Lithuanian and we use marinated beets for that soup,not boiled ��

    1. Can you tell me the proper way to make beetroot soup, my grandad was lithuanian and he made a lovely soup never looked like that though

    2. My grandad used to boil a ham use that liquid from the ham added fresh beetroot and onions, never seen him use cream???
      Would love the proper recipe

    3. There's a few types of beetroot soup that Lithuanians make, if it includes stock then your grandfather most likely made "Barsciai":

      http://rouxbe.com/recipes/3172-borscht-soup/text (only one i could find in English)

  3. Marinated beets?! Sorry, most Lithuanians use freshly cooked beets. The taste is much superior.

    1. Can you give me the lithuanian way of making meatloaf please, my mum tried making my grandads recipe but could never get the same taste

    2. Can you give me the lithuanian way of making meatloaf please, my mum tried making my grandads recipe but could never get the same taste