Our grandmothers were sisters — from the village of Shumsk (or Szumsk) in Russia (though sometimes the region was part of Poland and currently it’s part of the Ukraine) — and Yael and I discovered that both of us grew up with potatoes on the seder plate, either instead of parsley or alongside it. Why? Because in Russia (or Poland or Ukraine or whatever) there were no fresh vegetables growing in April.
Passover foods generally involve a lot of potatoes, but beets are also traditional, especially for Jews from Eastern Europe, as it was another root vegetable available in early spring.
Yael told me about a sweet-sour beet salad she makes for Passover, and that reminded me of beet borscht. On Passover, my mother always served it a special way with an egg whipped in the soup tureen, turning the borscht from wine-red to a frothy deep rose color. Yael’s family made it that way too, she said.
My mother told me that her mother (my Baba) always made rossel (or rossl or rosel), which is sour or fermented beets, a kind of starter for genuine beet borscht. She started the fermentation six weeks before Passover, putting cleaned and peeled chunks of beets in an earthenware crock and covering them with water, checking every few days. The women neighbors in Rock Island, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived, would come to the house and take a cupful of Baba’s rossel so they could make their own borscht.
Looking around the Internet, I noticed a couple of things about rossel. For a long while it fell out of favor as it takes quite a bit of planning and some attention. (Even my mother, who kept so many food traditions, never made it.) Plus people’s tastes had changed and sour fermented beets didn’t sound so appealing –although kosher dill pickles, which are fermented cucumbers, never lost their fans.
But recently, it’s having a bit of a come-back (though one couldn’t exactly call it a resurgence) as fermented foods are becoming more popular. Now I am seriously thinking of making rossel next year (my Jewish cookbook says three or four weeks ahead is sufficient), and perhaps some of my trusty readers will try it too. As Levy‘s bakery famously said, “You don’t have to be Jewish . . .”
In the meantime, I tried Yael’s beet salad with lemon juice and a touch of sugar, which captured the flavors of our shared history.
It made me think of the freedom our grandparents found when they left the Old Country, and that, along with the marvelous color, made me happy.
Sweet-and-sour beet salad
(By the way, I first removed the beet greens and steamed them, for another use. Don’t throw them away!)
Once they’re grated, add lemon juice, sugar (I’d go easy on that) and a little salt, to taste.
There are many ways you could serve this salad, of course, but I thought it looked nice against the green of romaine lettuce leaves. You could fold the leaves around the salad and eat it as a finger food. It looks like a new Passover tradition for me!