Peel the beets and dice them. If they are young, that is easy to do. If they are old and too hard to dice, simply cut them in half and, when they have softened with boiling, lift them out, cut them up, and put them back in the pan. Put the beets in a pan with 9 cups (2 liters) of water and salt and pepper and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.
Let the soup cool, then chill, covered, in the refrigerator. Add the lemon and sugar to taste before serving (these could be added when the soup is hot, but it is more difficult to determine the intensity of the flavoring). Remove some of the beet pieces with a slotted spoon if it seems like there are too many of them and keep them for a salad.
Serve, if you like, with a boiled potato, putting one in each plate. Pass around the sour cream for all to help themselves.
When the soup is served with meat to follow, and the sour cream cannot be added, it is usual to thicken it with two egg yolks. Beat them in a bowl, add a little of the boiling soup, beat well, and pour into the pan, beating all the time. Take off the heat at once, before the soup curdles.
There are dozens of different Russian and Ukrainian borschts. These are rich hot soups made with a number of ingredients, including meat, cabbage and potatoes, carrots, onions, celery and parsnips, sometimes spinach or sorrel, tomatoes or mushrooms, leeks, dried beans, apples, and dried fruit. The common ingredient, which gives them their name and their color, is beets.
The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden. Copyright 1996 by Claudia Roden.
Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.