Apparently the propitiation of the sun gods has worked: London has finally gotten a real hit of summer this week, and what a glorious week it’s been. People here are giddy; delirious even. Bathed in lambent sunlight, the narrow passageways and brick soften. The city at once feels broader and more open, and more risqué. London’s decided to show some milky-white leg. My flat has windows that face east and west. In the winter, when the sun sets at four o’clock, these windows are a lifesaver. These past few days, however, the afternoon sun has baked my front room to a sub-tropical heat. Working at home, I douse my top in water (a trick I learned from a friend who had family in Death Valley) and type until the water evaporates.
When I lived in Seattle, during the hot summers (they can and do get hot) I’d make a soup that I knew of only as my mother’s cold summer beet soup. I’d make it by the pitcher, pour it into glasses, and drink it. When the pitcher was empty, I’d make another batch. Soon friends in the know would drop by for some in the afternoons. Vividly pink-magenta, this soup is delightfully sweet-tangy and refreshing; it gives gazpacho a run for its money. I only learned its Polish name when I decided to make it for this blog.
Chłodnik means “cool” or “chilly.” It is pronounced with a hard CH; the ł in Polish is like a W. This is a classic Polish soup, although most Slavic and Eastern European countries also make a verson. Grated beets are gently simmered in water until the water has turned a deep scarlet. This is chilled, then mixed with buttermilk or what my mother calls “sour milk,” which is really like a kefir. You can add stock if you wish, but this is by no means essential. You can thicken it slightly with yogurt. It’s seasoned with salt and sugar and lemon juice, although in Poland some people use vinegar to add the crucial sourness. My mother makes hers with fresh dill, cucumber, and chives, so this is how I make it, but some people add garlic, radishes, and even cumin. Some people also serve it garnished with a sliced boiled egg, but for me that’s too heavy. I like to keep this soup light and fresh. My proportions in this recipe were precisely measured, but you should consider them only a guide. Follow your tastes; the only important thing is achieving that wonderful balance of sweet, sour, and salty.
600 grams (about 1.5 pounds) beets, peeled and grated, and stalks sliced. (Reserve the delicious beet greens for another use.)
1.2 liters (about 40 ounces) water
500 ml (about 17 ounces) white chicken or vegetable stock (optional), at room temperature
600 ml (about 20 ounces) buttermilk
250 ml (about 8.5 ounces) plain full-fat yogurt
80 ml lemon juice (about 3 ounces, or the juice of one large juicy lemon)
50 grams (1/4 cup) sugar
8-12 grams (2-3 teaspoons) salt
A large bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
An English cucumber, sliced as thinly as you can
Combine the grated beet and chopped stems in a big soup pot with the water. Heat the water until it is barely steaming, and keep it at this temperature for about 45 minutes or so, or until the beets are soft and the water is richly colored. Keeping the heat low and not allowing the water to boil is critical to maintaining the vivid shocking pink color of the soup. Beets that are allowed to boil won’t seriously affect the flavour, but they will give the soup a slightly muddier hue.
Pour this liquid through a fine wire mesh strainer, mashing the beets with a wooden spoon to extract as much flavour as you can. At this point, you can reserve some of the grated beets and greens to stir back into your soup, or you can discard them. It all depends on how you intend to serve the soup. Cool to room temperature or colder, then whisk in the stock (if using), the buttermilk, and the yogurt. Add the salt, sugar, and lemon juice and adjust seasonings until they are balanced for your palate. Stir in the chopped dill, chives, and cucumber, and then chill until completely cold. Serve in soup bowls, shot glasses at a fancy dinner party as a palate cleanser, or drink it from glass, like I do.
Makes about 1.5 liters of soup, or 10-12 servings.