Thursday, July 30, 2009

Exit Gazpacho, Enter Chłodnik

Dear Reader, you have probably tried borscht (in Polish, “barszcz”) before—a deep purple soup based on beets. Borscht is known all over Central and Eastern Europe, and each region has its own spin on it. Some are clear, others are chunky; some have sour cream, others don’t; some are chicken or meat based, others are vegetable based… But there is one version that, to my knowledge, is unique to Poland: chłodnik—pronounced who-wad-neek.

With chłodnik, Poland challenges Spain’s supremacy in the cold, savory soup category. Chłodnik is a deep magenta-coloured, creamy soup, with crunchy chunks of summer vegetables. It is replete with vitamins and insanely refreshing—a lifespan extending delight. The soup’s name is a modification of the word “chłód”, which is Polish for cool (the literal cool; “spoko” is the figurative cool). The addition of the suffix “-nik” has much the same effect as “-er” does in English. Thus, chłodnik translates approximately to “cooler”.

The key ingredient in chłodnik is whole, fresh young beets. Unlike the familiar hot borscht, the entire beet plant is used in chłodnik rather than just the bulbous beetroot. The purple, celery-like stems and the deep-green leaves of the beet – similar to chard – are an integral part of this soup and essential to its unique flavour.

Not unlike borscht, there are more recipes for chłodnik than there are households in Poland. Rather than giving you a precise recipe, dear reader, I will give a basic outline of the ingredients to be used and of the procedure to be followed. I believe that all recipes should be treated as guidelines and not as strict chemical formulas—do not take any of the quantities below too literally. I recommend that you play around with the quantities and adjust the different flavours to your taste. If you like pickles (as I do!) then you should throw more in; if you don’t like them, then leave them out—no worries! Important: use naturally fermented dill pickles – the ones in the murky liquid, not the vinegary ones in the clear liquid. (Here is how to make your own.) Most pickles labelled "kosher" fit this description. Anyway, after a little experimenting with the ingredients, your household should, like a respectable Polish household, establish its own chłodnik recipe.

  • 2 bunches young, fresh beets – roots and leaves
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 cup naturally fermented ("kosher") dill pickle brine
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 large cucumber, diced
  • 2-4 kosher-type pickles, diced
  • 1 bunch radishes, diced
  • 4 hard boiled eggs, sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch chives, finely chopped


  1. You will cut the stems off of the beetroots. You will peel and clean the roots and cut them into small dice (say 0.5 cm or ¼”). If you suffer from lazyitis, or perhaps if you lack dexterity and/or a decent knife, you will instead instead coarsely grate the roots. Either way, I recommend that you wear gloves for this part of the procedure or the beet juices will dye your hands a deep, murderous red which you will not be able to wash out for days.
  2. You will roughly chop the beet stems and finely shred the beet leaves.
  3. You will throw the stems, leaves, and diced beetroots into a large pot and pour in the stock. If the beets are not completely covered in liquid, you will add just enough water to cover them. Place the pot on medium heat. An important thing to remember when making any sort of beet based soup is that you must NEVER let the beets boil or else the soup will lose its bright purple color. If you see that the water is beginning to bubble, you will reduce the heat by a few notches. The surface of the water should be barely trembling. You will continue heating gently until the diced beetroots begin to soften. Remove the pot from the heat allow its contents to cool.
  4. When the beet broth is cool, you must stir in the pickle brine, buttermilk, and sour cream. You will then throw in the radishes, cucumber, and pickles. Stir gently and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to the fridge. You will chill the soup for at least an hour or two before serving. Like gazpacho, this soup benefits immensely from being properly cooled.
When ready to serve, you will ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the chopped herbs and sliced egg. Dear reader, equipped with this knowledge, you are now ready to chill like a Pole. Spoko.

If you live as deep into the northern hemisphere as I do, I urge you to try this recipe now (July/August) as all of the vegetables it uses are currently at their zenith. Also, it's hot outside and this soup is, as I said, insanely refreshing.

Good appetite.