Vegan Borscht + pumpkin seed sour cream

In college I worked at a global-fusion restaurant/cafe called Pangea that specialized in soups and natural/organic/locally-sourced ingredients. *If any of you dear readers go to Ashland, Oregon, definitely eat there. It even has a collection of coffee table books for your viewing pleasure, including What The World Eats, which I consider one of the best and most culturally-relevant photo essays ever made. I would’ve written a 5-star yelp review for Pangea but I don’t know if I can; I think yelp prohibits all employees (former included) from yelping about businesses they are or once were affiliated with.

So, at Pangea people would call consistently to check the soup menu. Some would special-order their favorite soup in advance and seemed to jump through hoops to make sure they never missed it. Even after we started the soups-of-the-day twitter feed, people would call with such a tenacity that you’d think the outcome of their day depended on it. The restaurant had a rotating menu of about 15 soups, or maybe more, with at least 5 unique and interesting vegan options. Every day we offered at least 1 vegan soup, along with a non-vegan soup or 2…usually 1 vegan, 1 vegetarian w/ dairy, and 1 with meat. Of all the vegan soups my favorite was the borscht. We served it chilled on warm weather days and hot on cold days, the way it is traditionally prepared in the Ukraine, where the dish originated. In Ukrainian and other Eastern and Central European cuisines, including those of Belarus, Poland, and Russia, the popularity of borscht spread and inspired various adaptations of the original recipe. According to tradition in some regions, cold borscht has distinct characteristics that hot borscht does not. However, in my experience if the correct proportion of beets to tomatoes to spices is achieved it will wow crowds both ways.

Borscht (beet soup) contributed to the “melting pot” of North American cuisine by way of Slavic and Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. According to Webster’s dictionary,

borscht or borsch
: a soup made primarily of beets and served hot or cold often with sour cream

Variants of BORSCHT
borscht or borsch

Origin of BORSCHT
Yiddish borsht & Ukrainian & Russian borshch
First Known Use: 1808

I tried borscht for the first time at the restaurant I worked at, but I had heard the word before and knew it was a soup of some kind. When I first went vegetarian I spent a lot of time browsing through my mom’s cookbooks, especially The Meatless Gourmet: Favorite Recipes from Around the World by Bonnie Hinman ©1995. Her recipe, unlike the one in 1974’s The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzan which calls for 2-3 Tbsp sugar or honey and 2 cups buttermilk, measures in at 106 calories per serving and 2g total fat with zero saturated fat. It doesn’t call for added sugar, and the only fat involved comes from the 2 Tbsp vegetable oil used for sauteing the garlic and onion. Most of the carbohydrate content could be eliminated by replacing the two medium potatoes with string beans/green beans, which: if we calculate the difference, would significantly lower the glycemic index of this low-fat vegetarian recipe. When I first discovered The Meatless Gourmet I felt like I’d stumbled upon the holy grail of healthy food choices.

My parents raised me on a relatively low-fat diet i.e. we never used butter, and always replaced the cream in recipes with unsweetened plain low-fat yogurt. I don’t think they ever bought cheese, so the only cheese I remember eating we received in the mail at Christmastime from a relative on my dad’s side (I don’t recall which one, but I remember the cheese was aged in special barrels or something, and thus made other cheese taste gross, which explains in part why when I eventually cut out dairy I hardly realized I had.

My mom stopped eating red meat after my brother was born when I was 3, so I never ate that either except for the time I tried a McDonald’s hamburger; took a bite of pepperoni pizza at a birthday party at Chuckie Cheese when I was 5; a hamburger at a family picnic in Paradise (near Chico) CA when I was 7 that I thought was a turkey burger; or when I was 12 and ate a few bites of steak on a family vacation at Lake Almanor and spent the night sick in the bathroom. Maybe the steak was too rare, but it turned me off enough to never touch a steak again. My grandfather has this theory that I’m supposed to eat meat because he has a memory of me devouring barbecue pork ribs as a baby, but my family documents everything and I’ve never seen that photo.

Meat brings us back to borscht, most “traditional” recipes for which utlilize a broth of kosher cuts of meat. However, in the history of borscht-making, meat wasn’t always available. Hence the reason why many other traditional recipes (some of which date so far back as to be available in the public domain and therefore free online) call for vegetable broth (which you make yourself; this was before the time of pre-made vegetable broth sold in pasteurized cartons at Whole Foods). In fact, the broth was created by default, just by cooking beets in a large quantity of water along with some salt, herbs from the garden, and other miscellaneous root vegetables such as onions, garlic, carrots, rutabaga, parsnips, and/or potatoes. Since my version is paleo it won’t involve a potato (a common misconception is that the potato is a vegetable, but it isn’t).

Modern takes on the traditional borscht recipe include tomatoes, often stewed tomatoes, tomato paste, or both. My recipe calls for a few sun-dried tomatoes which contribute perfectly to the flavor and body of the broth without overpowering the beets. Borscht does translate to “beet soup”, after all.

A few important notes on the ingredients, before we start creating your fabulous paleo vegan borscht that will wow everyone you serve it to no matter what the context:

1.) the beets: in my experience at your average run-of-the-mill grocery store, these come in bunches of 3 with each beet weighing 1 lb approx). I bought these at a tienda, and they were the exactly that: 3 x 1 lb beets with the greens). At co-ops, natural foods stores, or at the farmer’s market you might find smaller beets. You might even find golden beets. Actually, you probably will find golden beets. Your vegan borscht won’t be as vibrant, but it would be an interesting experiment…since most borscht recipes call for potatoes, and instead I used extra beets…which made my broth magenta. If you swap out 1/2 the standard beets for golden beets in my recipe, the vibrancy of the broth might level out at something closer to the norm.

2.) the carrots: I used baby carrots, because I had 1/2 a 16-oz package left from when I bought them on sale, and kind of forgot about them. Normally I would use a whole carrot, which tend to have more flavor due to being unprocessed unlike baby carrots, but work with what you have or what is available.

3.) green vs string vs wax beans: wax beans are pale string beans, like green beans only white/off-white in color.

Vegan Borscht


1 bunch beets with greens attached
8oz carrot(s)
8oz green beans/string beans/wax beans
1 cup Herdez salsa verde
2 tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, chopped, soaked in 8oz warm water (save the water, to add to the soup)
1 tsp granulated garlic
1 tsp ground cumin
lemon slices, for serving
1/4 tsp salt


Bring 5 cups water to boil in a large soup pot. Meanwhile, wash, trim, thinly slice and dice the beets. Add beets to the water with 1/4 tsp salt. Cover, and cook for 5 minutes as you trim and dice the green beans and carrots. Stir in green beans and carrots to the soup pot with 1 cup salsa verde, 1 tsp granulated garlic, 1 tsp cumin, and soaked sun-dried tomatoes with the water used to soak them (some of the flavor is released in the water, so it will contribute to the flavor of your vegan borscht and otherwise important not to waste). Reduce heat to medium. Dice the washed and trimmed beet greens. Stir in beet greens and cover soup pot. Reduce heat to low, and let simmer while you make the pumpkin seed sour cream.

for the pumpkin seed sour cream:
1/2 cup shelled pumpkin seeds/pepitas
juice of 1 lemon
1 flax egg (1 Tbsp ground flaxseed mixed with 2 Tbsp warm water, let sit to “gel” for 2 minutes)
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
a few shakes/grinds of salt or a pinch of coarse sea salt

*if pumpkin seeds/pepitas are salted, you probably won’t need to add salt.

Blend in a food processor or blender. Add a bit of water if necessary.

*the flax seeds give the “sour cream” a starchy texture normally given by corn starch or heavy cream, so it doesn’t turn out watery.

Let your vegan borscht continue to simmer on low until ready to serve, or prepare an ice bath if you plan to serve it chilled.

Serve topped with a dollop of pumpkin seed sour cream and lemon slices if desired.

fresh beets
slicing beets
dicing beets
carrots green beans
seasonings for borscht
chopping beet greens
vegan borscht
*a few final notes…

Cost of Vegan Borscht (makes 8 servings)

1 bunch of beets with greens (3 lbs): $2.50
8oz carrots: 35 cents
8oz green beans: 50 cents
1 meyer lemon: free
2 Tbsp diced sun-dried tomatoes (1 serving from a 6-serving bag that cost $3): 50 cents
8oz pumpkin seeds: $1.50

Total: $5.35

You can also make fun designs with the sour cream, like we did at the restaurant I worked at. I learned today that pumpkin-seed sour cream doesn’t lend itself as well to hearts, flowers, or other standard motifs. It doesn’t hold together as well as the real thing because it doesn’t contain coagulating agents. At any rate, here is my attempt:
borscht with design

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