Borscht was an essential part of my childhood meals. It probably was for any family that traced its ancestry back to Eastern Europe.
When my mother wanted to fix a quick, cold soup, she'd open a jar of borscht, ladle it out, top it with dollops of sour cream and serve it. I liked its vivid color and I loved what happened when the sour cream was added. If I gently stirred the soup, I got pools of purple and white that I could arrange in intricate designs. If I beat the mixture fiercely, I could watch it turn a strong magenta.
Unfortunately, its flavor was bland at best.
As I started cooking for myself, I thought surely something that looks so attractive could be made better tasting. I discovered there's no definitive recipe for borscht. There are well over 100 varieties of it in the Ukraine, to which it is native, according to Dara Goldstein, author of "A La Russe" (Random House, $16.95).
After several experiments I have what I consider my version of borscht. Although it's not as easy as opening a jar, it's certainly not time-consuming, either.
Make it in the morning and allow it to chill until dinner time. Accompany the borscht with hot biscuits, plain or with basil butter, and start a new soup tradition.
Borscht with horseradish
Makes 2 servings.
1 pound beets (2 medium-large beets)
2 tablespoons minced green onions or chives
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons white or red horseradish
salt, freshly ground white pepper
2 heaping tablespoons plain yogurt
Quarter beets and place in medium pan with water to cover. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer beets, uncovered, until very tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and peel beets. Mince by hand or in food processor. Set aside in serving bowl until cool.
Add green onions, buttermilk, milk and horseradish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill soup if time allows. To serve, ladle into 2 large bowls and top each serving with dollop of yogurt.
Biscuits with basil butter
Makes 4 or 5 biscuits or 2 servings.
1/2 cup flour plus extra for flouring board
-- salt and sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
few drops lemon juice
Stir together 1/2 cup flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in mixing bowl. Cut butter into mixture until crumbly. Add milk, tablespoon at a time, to make slightly sticky dough. Pat out on floured board to 1/2 -inch thick rectangle. Cut dough into 4 or 5 (2-inch) circles, using biscuit or cookie cutter.
Place biscuits on ungreased baking sheet 2 inches apart. Bake at 400 degrees 12 to 14 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to wire rack.
Meanwhile, blend together softened butter, basil, -- salt and lemon juice. Split each biscuit in half and spread with basil butter. Serve warm.