Late autumn, cusp of winter, cabbage, potatoes, onions and beets reign. Borscht is in the air. That and jingle bells.
When I think about the chunk of my life spent hating borscht, no, hating the idea of borscht. Thankfully, I’d been converted by the time I attended an all beet dinner party last year. Every course, beet inspired. Beets and goat cheese crostinis, borscht, salad with beets, arugula and a sweet and sour dressing, chocolate cake. It was a stretch, an experiment, and a delicious meal organized by strangers. I was invited by a friend to join and loved it, but it wouldn’t be culinary poetry for everyone. My friend Marla, for example, cooks and eats anything. Almost. For the rest of us with a bag of beets from the backyard or the farmer’s market, we’re on our way.
I thought I would abandon my usual cavalier approach to cooking and look at an actual recipe before making borscht. I found plenty of variation and several characteristic ingredients: beets, potatoes, onion, celery, dill, vinegar, sour cream (or yogurt). The broth can be made from scratch with beef bones, chicken or vegetable broth, or simply use plain water. I concocted a version based on these ingredients combined in ways I thought sounded good. Tomatoes are often, but not always present in borscht so they’re optional. You could add carrots. Actually, many facets of the recipe are optional, add, subtract, delete as you wish. Suit yourself. Turns out a cavalier approach is about right for this soup.
Borscht is at its heart peasant food that, like others of its genre, has enlivened our culinary world for centuries. It was made during winter using produce from the cellar that had been stored for months, like beets, potatoes, cabbage and onion. In the end I made it my own way, using the basic ingredients with more or less of this or that. It will undoubtedly be different the next time around, but this was delicious. With bread, smoked salmon, deviled eggs and candlelight, holiday worthy. Next: chocolate cake made with beets.
Borscht shouldn’t pretend to be sophisticated. I regret having blended the peasant character right out of this version – the delicious texture of small chunks interspersed with broth is gone. For some occasions this might be just right. It was delicious and beautiful, but next time we want a bawdier borscht.
Borscht (Beet Soup) Recipe
Ingredients: 4 large or 5 medium beets, steamed or roasted, peeled and finely diced/ 1 onion, finely diced/ 1 C each celery and carrot, finely diced/ 2 cloves garlic, chopped/ 2 C cabbage, finely chopped/ 3 medium parsnips and/or potatoes, small dice/ 1/2 C fresh, or 2 T dried dill/ 1 bay leaf/ 1/3 C apple cider or red wine vinegar/ 1 C diced tomatoes with juice or 1 C tomato juice/ 1 C room temperature yogurt or sour cream for topping/ 3 quarts, give or take, water, vegetable, chicken or beef stock, or a combination/ Some recipes call for beef soup bone which I didn’t use; Kielbasa or Polish sausage is excellent added near the end and cooked for just a few minutes – or served on the side.
If you’ve no intention of blending this soup, grate or make a small dice of all vegetables – make note that they will cook more quickly. Also, borscht often has a beef stock base, including plenty of the meat. Feel free to go that route.
Directions: Assemble all ingredients/ Sauté onion, garlic, carrot and celery for 5 minutes/ Add parsnip or potato and cabbage/ Cook together, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes/ Add 2 – 3 T dried dill, salt and pepper to taste ( If using fresh dill, wait.)/ Cook together for a few minutes/ Add water and/or stock and tomato (which is optional), bay leaf/ Liquid should cover the vegetables by about an inch/ Bring to a simmer, cover and let cook together until vegetables are very tender, 30 – 40 minutes/ Stir in 1/4 C vinegar and if using fresh dill add it now/ Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes and turn off heat/ Let cool for 30 minutes.
Optional: Process some or all of the soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender until soup is partly blended or completely smooth, whichever you prefer/ Return to pot, add more liquid if needed, adjust seasoning and reheat/ You could stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of cold butter after heat’s turned off for a luxurious finish – not very peasant-like, but num/ Serve in bowls with a swirl of yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.
Dear Borscht. My apologies. You might not like this frou-frou look. You are better bawdy and without frills. Next time, no silky dress, but a beret, jeans and a sweatshirt. Still, you were delicious and you look fabulous in hot pink.