In the Texas summer, islander turns to his mother’s chilled borscht soup recipe
When warm weather descends on the upper Texas coast, Robert Zahn likes to make a chilled beet borscht that’s tart, sweet and refreshing.
“It is messy to make as it stains your hands, and it can ruin a tablecloth in a heartbeat, but it is so worth it,” said Zahn, who lives in Galveston. “Borscht is Russian for soup and this is a special one. It is so bright and refreshing and such a pretty color.”
The recipe comes from Zahn’s mother, who learned it from a Ukrainian friend. Although cooking wasn’t necessarily his mother’s favorite thing, she was very good at it, Zahn said.
“She collected recipes on cards and clippings,” he said. “Now, I have all of her recipes and want to do something with them so they can be shared easily with my nieces and nephews.”
His mother came from a family of English Quakers known for their baking skills.
“She made breads, pastries and cakes,” he said. “I still make her hot cross buns and her Swedish rye bread. She also had a wonderful recipe for a meatloaf covered with a sour cream pastry. Goodness knows where she got it, but it is yummy like a beef Wellington.”
Zahn, a Realtor with Tom’s Galveston Real Estate, was born in Topeka, Kansas, and moved to Galveston 20 years ago. In Kansas, his family grew two gardens a year, one near the house and one near a creek. Corn, peppers, English peas and green beans were favorite crops, and Zahn has fond memories of his mother’s jams, apple butter and pear honey that all were made from local produce. He was an active volunteer at the San Jacinto community garden in his neighborhood, and he still likes to grow herbs, tomatoes and citrus at home.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in Stage and Costume Design, Zahn had a career in theater. This meant he often supplemented his theater work with gigs as a party planner, waiter and bartender, which opened a whole world of flavors, reinforcing his love of eating out, he said.
Collecting recipes of his own and asking cooks, both professional and amateur, for their recipes or for tips and tricks remains a favorite foodie activity, he said.
“My mother always said, ‘If you can read a recipe, you can cook,’ so I made sure to read ‘The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery,’” he quipped.
Zahn enjoys cooking at home with husband, Tim. For many years, they threw an annual party and catered it themselves with treats like tenderloin and home-made appetizers.
“I still love to make ridiculously lavish appetizers like spanakopita, stuffed grape leaves and summer rolls for dinner for the two of us,” he said.
Fresh, bright flavors like his mother’s borscht are perennial favorites, he said.
“It is so versatile because you can serve it hot or cold, with a potato or without and with different herbs, and it really is the prettiest color,” he said.
Cold Beet Borscht
1 bunch of beets
4 cups water, vegetable or beef stock
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons or so lemon juice or vinegar (Zahn prefers white vinegar for its sharpness.)
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
Remove beet greens and reserve. Boil beets whole and unpeeled until tender. Remove beets, reserve liquid.
Peel and cut beets into large dice. Reserve.
Cut onion, but leave quarters attached at the root end.
Simmer onion in beet liquids until tender. Discard onion.
Cut beet greens in ribbons and add to liquid along with seasonings.
Simmer briefly and add in reserved beets.
Chill. Serve over a cold boiled potato and add a dollop of sour cream.
Other additions at serving might be chopped dill or parsley, quartered hard-boiled eggs, chopped green onion and, of course, additional lemon juice to taste. It should be tart, sweet and refreshing.
You might also do a quick version using canned beets, cabbage rather than beet greens, or serve pureed for a thicker texture, Zahn said.