Borscht made with farm-fresh vegetables and grass-finished beef tastes like the real Russian thing.
Borscht. The very name evokes an older world, a simpler time when people ate food grown in the ground on which they walked. It’s almost hard not to picture the peasant farmer-cook pulling up beets, shaking off the dirt and putting them on to boil.
Borscht can be as simple as a beet puree finished with sour cream. But more often than not, it’s a lavish combination of beets and meats like the “Borscht on a Grand Scale” described in the “Soups” volume of the 1979 Time-Life Good Cook series. The editors of that series devote several pages to describing cooking the meats — beef shank, a chuck roast, a ham hock and a rasher of lean salt pork. But that’s the easy part.
“The first step in making this or any borscht,” say the editors, “takes place several days in advance of actual cooking.” Apparently, the most authentic versions of borscht in Russia, Poland and the Ukraine call for “beet liquor,” a mixture of beets, rye bread and water left to ferment for days to form a vinegary liquid that gives the soup its tangy edge. Other sources are equally intimidating. My 1961 edition of “Larousse Gastronomique,” adapted from the 1938 encyclopedia of gastronomy with a preface by Auguste Escoffier himself, includes four distinct versions of the soup. One of them demands that we “add a small duck browned in the oven, a pound of blanched brisket of beef and a rasher of bacon” to make the soup worthy of our efforts. So much for the old master’s dictum to “keep it simple.”
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But if the old versions are too complex, newer formulas for borscht seem almost too simple. The “Joy of Cooking” offers a recipe in which canned tomatoes predominate. The 2005 edition of the “Gourmet Cookbook” advises us to start with a jar of pickled beets. “The Best Recipe Soups and Stews” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated aimed for authenticity, but tedious explanations of every step put me to sleep.
I like to imagine that if I had a grand farm in the Old World style, I could produce everything I needed to make a hearty borscht any Russian peasant would be proud of. I’d start with beets and carrots, potatoes, cabbage and onions right out of the garden; the beef and the broth would come from my own steer, and the sour cream would be lifted off this morning’s milk, drawn from my own cow.
Alas, I live in the New World and my “farm” is a modest acre on Bainbridge Island. The only element for borscht you’ll find in my garden is the potatoes. Still, I get stunning beets from the local farmers market; cabbage and carrots, too. I don’t have my own steer, and I never seem to have an extra duck, but I do keep the freezer stocked with grass-fed beef. In lieu of that fermented beet liquor, I always have balsamic vinegar on hand; and I have olive oil to make up for the fatty salt pork. If I use my imagination, Nancy’s organic sour cream takes on the warm glow of clabbered cream, and before you know it, my borscht seems downright bona fide.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
New American Borscht
Makes 8 servings
Tailored to match the tastes and sensibilities of West Coast cooks with a reasonably well-stocked pantry and access to a good farmers market, this version of the traditional Eastern European soup might not be perfectly authentic but, made with the freshest local and natural ingredients, preferably organic, it does provide a certain sense of place.
For the beets
2 large beets (about 1 pound)
1 quart water, or as needed
For the soup base
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ pounds grass-finished stewing beef, in 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 quarts beef broth
1 bay leaf
For the saute
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
3 or 4 small yellow-fleshed potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
Half a head of Napa cabbage, shredded
To finish the soup
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A few sprigs of fresh parsley or dill
1 cup plain (unflavored) yogurt or sour cream, optional
1. Trim the leaves and larger stems from the beets, but keep the skins and tails intact. Put them in a pot over high heat with just enough water to cover and bring the water to a full, rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer the beets until they are tender, about 1 hour.
2. Once the beets are cooking, prepare the soup base. Melt the sugar in a dry pan over medium-high heat, and when the sugar is a deep caramel color, add the stewing beef sprinkled with kosher salt. Stir the beef around until it is well browned, about 2 minutes, then add the balsamic vinegar, beef broth and bay leaf. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer the beef until it is tender, about 1 hour.
3. While the beets and beef are still cooking in their separate pots, prepare the vegetables. Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onions and carrots over medium-high heat until they are beginning to brown. Add the potatoes and cabbage and sauté until the vegetables are heated through. Add the sautéed vegetables to the beef base and continue simmering until the potatoes are tender.
4. Use a slotted spoon to lift the beets out of the boiling water and under cold, running water, slip off their skins. Cut the cooked, peeled beets into batons, about 2 inches long and ½ inch across; add the cut beets to the soup. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper and serve it with a pinch of chopped parsley or dill floating on every bowlful. Pass yogurt or sour cream separately.
Greg Atkinson, 2008