Image: Kristin Belz
A vegetarian Borscht, served hot, is a bright and healthy winter meal.

Beets are a favorite winter vegetable if only for their brilliant hue. But thank goodness we've progressed beyond the canned beets I knew of when I was a child; despite my relatively mature taste at the time (chicken livers and broccoli were among my favorites at age 10), beets were never anything I wanted to see on my dinner plate. But now, canned beets are not in the picture, let alone on the dinner plate. Fresh beets are available and appealing. One way in which to savor the beet at its best is in a naturally sweet, healthy Borscht. (It's vegan, but that's hardly the reason to eat it.)

Like many of the best classic recipes, Borscht can be made with countless variations. Add meat or don't; include cabbage or don't; put in some potatoes if you want. Adorn with chopped hard cooked egg, a dollop of sour cream (or yogurt), sprinkles of dill, or nothing at all. Whatever might have been on hand back in Russia, in summer or winter (it's traditionally served chilled in summer), is fine. Just don't leave out the beets.

This recipe, from our well worn copy of the Winter Harvest Cookbook by Northwest writer Lane Morgan, is an easy and wonderful vegan version of the classic beet soup. It includes ketchup, which might seem odd (and too American?), but as Morgan points out, "many traditional borscht recipes call for tomato puree, sugar, and vinegar, which add up to ketchup anyway." She suggests you "substitute chili sauce for extra zip." We used local company Dulcet's Mild Indian Curry Ketchup, which added the perfect touch of sweet, cinnamony spice; now we can't imagine not including that as our secret ingredient.

Borscht

3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 or 4 carrots, grated (or coarsely chopped)
4 large beets, peeled and grated (or coarsely chopped) 
one 15-ounce can tomatoes, roughly chopped, with liquid
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1/2 cup ketchup
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice 
1 tablespoon fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried (optional)
sour cream (or plain yogurt) for garnish (optional) 

Heat oil in a big soup kettle. Add onion and saute until soft. Add carrots and beets and saute another 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, stock or water, ketchup, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, and cook, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and serve hot, sprinkled with dill. Garnish with a spoonful of sour cream (or plain yogurt) if you like.
Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a main dish. 

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