Summer Borscht

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Veselka in the East Village is a New York institution; NYU students stumble in there late at night to sober up. During the day, it’s an eclectic mix of East Village hipsters and older Eastern Europeans. I first went with my graduate class at NYU and stuck to standard diner fare–a burger, a salad, something eggy, a waffle. Only recently, though, did I consume the fare that Veselka is known for: “Ukranian soul food” (and that’s according to their website.)

The star attraction, especially right now while it’s hot and muggy, is their summer borscht. It even comes with its own graphic:

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Isn’t that charming?

The borscht–which you can also get hot, but then it’s not summer borscht–is, essentially, cold beet soup. It has all the tartness and earthiness of beets but is somehow lightened with broth (I’d guess vegetable) and chunks of crunchy things–maybe apples? Onions? It was hard to tell.

But the color (fluorescent pink), the temperature (cold), and the portion-size (one small bowlful) were a perfect foil for a hot summer day. In fact, this might be my official soup of summer, even though summer’s almost over. So if you live in New York and you want to drink the official soup of summer, head to Veselka and order their summer borscht. It comes free when you order their vegetarian platter (which is what I ordered for dinner) and that, too, is noteworthy. It comes with vegetarian perogies (with sour cream and sauteed onions for dipping) and a stuffed cabbage:

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Next time my grandparents come to New York, I want to take them here. This is their kind of food–though they’re not Ukranian, they are Jews from New York. But mainly Russian Jews and this kind of food is familiar food to them: especially the stuffed cabbage. And borscht too, probably.

But even if you don’t have Jewish grandparents (and who does these days?), Veselka is a place worth visiting. Don’t expect gourmet finery; just good old-fashioned Ukranian soul food. Order a bowl of cold borscht and feed your summer soul.

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26 comments

  1. Ah…I was already craving borscht and trying to wait until fall. Now I won’t have to. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of borscht served cold. Yummy.

  2. I’m dubious. My grandma made me try borscht when I was little and ever since then I get nauseous thinking about borscht and even just beets. But somehow, some way, THIS looks good! (And on another note, I love pierogies!)

  3. Adam, go into a grocer and buy the bottled cold beet soup (borscht) probably in the kosher section and a container sour cream. Put up a pot of pototoes to boil until soft…put a tablespoon of sour cream into bowl and slowly mix in the borscht till completely pink. Add the potatoes and voila easy summer soup so u don’t have to wait to go back again….personally when i am watching what i eat in order to lose a few pounds and that 8 o’clock period hits when i am starved i make this in a cup and drink.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful memory. My dad loved borscht when I was growing up and had it a lot in the summer (from the jar, though). also, visiting my grandmother in Sheepshead Bay each Sunday for her unbelievable stuffed cabbage. I wish I had thought of asking for her recipe.

  5. I lived in New York for a few months following Hurricane Katrina, and I return often. I really think the pierogies and borscht served in the hole in the wall restaurants in Greenpoint are far superior to Vaselka- and a lot cheaper. I always make a point to get some Polish food when I’m in NYC!

  6. Ahhh…that delightfully sweet neon-pink borscht! Adam, your posting and photo brought a smile to my face and transported me back to camphor-smelling summer days in a Delray Beach condo with my Jewish Grandma. (Yes, I too have walked in your culinary footsteps and got a real giggle from your Delray video clip). I love to add dollops of cold sour cream to my borscht as I make my way through the bowl, or tall glass as it may be. You have inspired me to revisit Veselka because the last time my wife and I were there and I ordered the borscht, it seemed more like a second cousin once-removed from yours. Maybe it wasn’t the “summer” version -as I recall there was snow on the ground.

    Really get a kick out of your blog and so enjoy your daily ventures filled with quick wit and unwavering enthusiasm! Though now a shrink and a happily committed foodie, I too was a lawyer in a prior life…mishpokhe!

    With warmest regards,

    Lisa (The Kitchen Shrink)

  7. Being originally from Russia both me and my parents make this kind of borsht a lot. You are right it is a perfect summer soup.

    And by the way, those chunks of crunchy things were probably cucumbers (at least that’s how we serve it in our family and other places I have had cold borscht).

  8. Oh wow, I love the neon pink color of that soup! Haven’t been to Veselka in a while. Do you remember Kiev? It was a Polish restaurant right across the street from Veselka, and their pierogies were just a little better. Sadly, it closed a few years ago.

    On the subject of Jewish grandmothers, mine grew up in a tenement house on E. 11th between Ave C and D, and I get the feeling her eyes would pop out of her head if she saw how the East Village has evolved…

  9. I remember being so afraid of borscht growing up… until I was forced into trying some in college, when I fell deeply in love with it! How could I have ever thought that beets would not be delicious? Not to mention vibrantly beautiful when pureed!

  10. Fun article, and great blog you have.

    When I bought my 1st iMac Rev B Tiel Green, it came w/ Broderbund Software of Williams-Sonoma CD-ROM. It had an awesome recipe for Borscht on there that had beef consomme, OJ and vodka in the recipe. My neighbor who was raised in Russia said it was the best Borscht she ever tasted. Only, I updated that Mac to OS9 and the CD-ROM wouldn’t work. When you try to order it online it only works on old windows systems. Anyone have this recipe written down?

    Also, my mother-in-law who hates handling beets because it stains her hands and everything else now swears by wearing surgical gloves when handling them…lol

  11. Ahhh…that delightfully sweet neon-pink borscht! Adam, your posting and photo brought a smile to my face and transported me back to camphor-smelling summer days in a Delray Beach condo with my Jewish Grandma. (Yes, I too have walked in your culinary footsteps and got a real giggle from your Delray video clip). I love to add dollops of cold sour cream to my borscht as I make my way through the bowl, or tall glass as it may be. You have inspired me to revisit Veselka because the last time my wife and I were there and I ordered the borscht, it seemed more like a second cousin once-removed from yours. Maybe it wasn’t the “summer” version -as I recall there was snow on the ground.

    Really get a kick out of your blog and so enjoy your daily ventures filled with quick wit and unwavering enthusiasm! Though now a shrink and a happily committed foodie, I too was a lawyer in a prior life…mishpokhe!

    With warmest regards,

    Lisa (The Kitchen Shrink)

  12. Cold Borscht is just awesome – my mom used to make it a few times each summer. It’s quite typical for Eastern Europe – Ukraine, Lithuania, eastern Poland (I’m Polish, BTW). The Jewish community was very large in this region before WWII, and all these cuisines (Jewish, Lituanian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Polish) combined, mixed, fused together (so in fact, it’s very hard to decide where the recipes originally came from).

    When we make cold borscht, we use no specific recipe. You just take fresh beets and grate’em (just don’t use the smallest grate holes, or you’ll get beet pulp). If you have the kind of beet with large leaves, you might add some of those, sliced (though some people hate’em – taste first!). Then we usually add some yoghurt, some kefir (that’s the sour kind of milk drink, similar to buttermilk). Season with salt’n’peppa. We serve it with quarters of hard-boiled egg, sometimes we top it with chopped chives. If you want to make it more filling, you might add some diced and fried bacon, and if you want it more sophisticated – add some cooked crayfish, shrimps, etc.

    A really great and healthy summer soup!

  13. Adam, where’s the half-egg in your soup?? It’s in the graphic, but did they leave it out of your plate? A cold borscht just isn’t so without the egg (and careful so it doesn’t get pink on top before you start eating! There’s something about that pure whiteness surrounded by a sea of all-staining pink… Growing up, I used to play at drowning chunks of egg white to get them “dirty”–which is when they must be eaten.)

    It seems like every eastern-European has their own idea of what goes into a cold borscht! I’m from Russia, and for me, cucumbers, scallions and sour cream are a must!

  14. I love veselka (I have a banana cream pie from there in my fridge right now–my uncle swears they’re the best) but I can’t stand their stuffed cabbage! what’s with the white sauce? Doesn’t even COMPARE to my polish grandma’s–tomato-based sauce with ground beef and rice. MMM. Thanks for the inspiration though–I may have to try to recreate hers!

  15. Hey Adam —

    I’ve been reading for years, but this is my first comment (That’s how strongly I feel about this!).

    Veselka is in my ‘hood, and thus I’ve eaten there at least a handful of times, but honestly… It seems more than a little overrated to me, especially when there’s B&H Dairy restaurant just a few doors down. (I found this pleasant explanation of B&H: http://tinyurl.com/5mw6rq). B&H was one of the original “kosher” restaurants, although it doesn’t have a certification… This is like, pre-certification kosher (it doesn’t get more authentic than that!). The place is “modest” (to put it lightly) but completely charming and humble in a way that few places seem to be in this great city of ours.

    If you’re looking for a nostalgic restaurant to take your Jewish grandparents, I think there are a few places that really set the standard. Yonah Shimmel on Houston, Katz’s, even Russ & Daughters for an incredible bagel, lox, and cream cheese.

  16. Adam

    I am still having a HUGE problem getting over the Pepto Bismol color. Even blindfolded, I don’t think I could eat that. Then again, if you could get over your broiler phobia, maybe I could find a way to think of “screaming florescent pink” as my friend.

    “Doc”

  17. Adam

    I am still having a HUGE problem getting over the Pepto Bismol color. Even blindfolded, I don’t think I could eat that. Then again, if you could get over your broiler phobia, maybe I could find a way to think of “screaming florescent pink” as my friend.

    “Doc”

  18. Adam

    I am still having a HUGE problem getting over the Pepto Bismol color. Even blindfolded, I don’t think I could eat that. Then again, if you could get over your broiler phobia, maybe I could find a way to think of “screaming florescent pink” as my friend.

    “Doc”

  19. Oh Veselka is so amazing! Went on a NYC weekend trip and had brunch there both days. Looking at this makes me want to cry its so yummy. Try the Vegetarian Combo, you get a little of so many of their offerings.

  20. Looks pretty good, and they managed to integrate a lot of typical Russian ingredients into their food, but I wish they would get more adventurous with marinated herring, holdnoye (somewhat like head cheese) and other Eastern European foods which are a little less ordinary.