Borsch, borsht, borscht, of course, course, course

May 7, 2012

However you spell it, it’s delicious.

With Pasha and his sister in Kiev, Ukraine, 2004

One of the best things about comfort food is that there is almost always a comforting memory attached to it and making it is like taking you back to a time that you can only return to through taste.  Well my memory of how I learned to make borsch is probably one of my most dear and was made even dearer this past fall when the friend who taught me how to make it passed away in October.  I actually bought the beets at the farmers market back in August, planning to do a blog post on it, and they’ve been in my crisper drawer ever since. The emotions of his death were still too raw to make something that would remind me of him so much. But enough time has passed that I feel I’m ready to pay tribute to my dear friend.  I’ve decided to go ahead and make it and count on the comforting nature of food to bring back only the best of memories.

Because of my love for all things Russian/Ukrainian, borsch is the ultimate comfort food for me. I teach Russian and I love to make this for my students because when you combine beets and dill and sour cream you will definitely be transported to babushka’s kitchen. So I have had years of practice to elaborate on the simple recipe that Pasha originally had.

So because of the nostalgic nature of this food for me allow me to reminisce for a few paragraphs.

Pasha was 19 at the time and didn’t really know how to cook anything, nor did I really at that time. I had just returned from my first stay in Moscow, was missing it terribly and was always telling Pasha how much I loved borsch.  I think he too was homesick for some of his native cuisine, so he decided he would make it for me. His sister is a fabulous cook and has made me some of the best food you’ll find in Kiev. He emailed her asking for directions on how to make it and the very day she sent him the recipe we went to the store to get all the ingredients.

We had so much fun making it. And it goes without saying that a 19 year old bachelor’s knife skill are not yet very developed and we made such a mess with those beets in my mom’s kitchen.  Pasha always remembered the look of absolute terror on my mom’s face when she came into her kitchen and saw it besmeared with bright pink beet juice.  I remember that Pasha managed to even get a splat of beet juice on the ceiling and it was there for many years until my parents painted.

In Kiev for Pasha’s funeral in October 2011. Pasha’s sister taught me how to make pelmeni, or Russian dumplings.

So this is the recipe that originated with my dear friend and that I’ve refined and perfected over the years.  This is a comfort food for me.  The smell fills my house and I feel like I’m in Russia again.  That’s the power of food, it can be a memory, a comfort, a tribute to a loved one and a fabulous meal all in one.If you’ve never had borsch before you must try it, don’t be afraid.  It is sweet and tangy from the vinegar and creamy from the sour cream.  I usually make it a day before I serve it because the longer it sits the more the potatoes absorb the flavor.  Also, leave out the potatoes and put it in the freezer for ‘potom’ (That’s russian for ‘later’).  Boil up potatoes and add them to the thawed soup and it’s a fabulous revival.

This recipe makes a pretty gustoy (Still haven’t figure out how to perfectly translate this word), or thick, stew-like borsch.  Although the really runny stuff, just like they used to serve in the gulags, with a few puny strands of beet and maybe a potato here or there is far more common in Russian cafeterias.

Ingredients

1 lb beef for stewing (most packages are labeled ‘beef for stewing’)
3 Large beets, peeled and grated
*The beets should be about the size of baseballs. Some grocery stores sell them without the tops.  If they seem small to you and they don’t sell just the beets then get two bunches. You can chop and saute up the green tops with some lemon for a very healthy side dish.  My favorite beets come from the farmer’s market in the summer.  Chop off the green tops and they’ll keep for months in your crisper drawer. I used lots of little beets because that’s what I had.
3 carrots, peeled and grated (I had one HUGE carrot, but this was a special carrot. I expect yours will be smaller)
1 onion, quartered and sliced thinly (the thickness should be comparable to your carrot shreds)

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch or so cubes
2 cups green cabbage, sliced into thin strips

1 8 oz can of tomato sauce
10 cups beef broth (reserve one cup to cook the potatoes)
1 tbsp dried dill (DILL, DILL, DILL! This is what Russia tastes like! Lick the floor of Sheremetevo Airport if you don’t believe me.)
1 bay leaf
¼ cup white vinegar (and more in the end if you like it vinegar-y, like me)
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt

Beet hands

½ cup chopped fresh dill
¼ cup chopped fresh italian parsley
sour cream

Step 1: The gruel of grating
Typically I make this recipe in huge batches and freeze a bunch of it.  In these instances I use my food processor to do the grating.  But if you’re feeling nostalgic and you want the full authentic Russian experience you MUST do the grating by hand.  So this time I made it, in honor of Pasha, I grated it by hand.  I wanted my hands to get stained pink for the photo opportunity.
If you do grate by hand mind that you don’t also grate your flesh into the soup.  My vampire friends tell me that human blood can make things taste bitter.
The slicer in the food processor also makes the perfect thickness of slices for the onions if you decide to go that route.

Step 2: Brown the meat
Heat up a tablespoon of vegetable oil on medium heat. Divide the meat into two batches.  You want the meat to get nice and brown and caramelly. If you put all the meat in all at once it won’t brown so you have to do a batch at a time. Turn the meat pieces so they brown on all sides. Take them out of the pan and put them on a plate to rest.  Turn the heat down to low and hurry to the next step.

Step 2: Browning the meat

Step 2

Step 3: Saute the vegetables
Add another 2 tablespoons of oil to the pot. Give a second to heat and then add the grated beets and carrots and the sliced onions.  Saute them all until you can see the onion turning translucent.
Add the can of tomato sauce and mix it all around for a bit.  Then add in the browned meat, the dried dill, the bay leaf and stir it up.

Step 3

Step 4: Boil away
Add in the 9 cups of beef broth, the vinegar, the sugar, and bring to a boil.  Boil for 30 minutes.  Then turn the heat down to a simmer.  This means that the soup shouldn’t be boiling all over, you should just see gentle blub blub blubs happening.  So most likely on low or medium low.  This low temperature simmer is what helps that stew meat get nice and tender.  Let it simmer for one hour, dump in the sliced cabbage and let it simmer for another hour.

Step 5: The problem of the potato
I’ve messed around with different ways to do the potato but all too often I’ve ended up with mushy potatoes that just disintegrate in the soup. So this is the method I have found to be most reliable.
When you have about twenty minutes left on your simmer time start on the potatoes.  In a pot mix one cup water with the once cup reserved beef broth as well as once cup of the broth from the soup that is currently simmering. Put the potato cubes in there, turn to high and boil them til they are tender but NOT crumbly.

At this point I typically plop the potatoes in the soup, turn off the heat and let it sit overnight. The next day the potatoes will have absorbed all the soup flavors and turned a glorious and oh-so-girly shade of PINK! I’m telling you, you’ve got to try day old, or better yet three day old borsch if you want the REALLY good stuff.

Na zdorovye!

But if you must serve it straight away then simmer the soup with the potatoes now added for another ten minutes.  Add in the fresh herbs.  You can leave some out to put over the top of your dollop of sour cream because it makes it pretty.  But you must put a dollop of sour cream in for the full experience.  Serve with bread and for a very Russian experience try and find some black bread or pumpernickel will suffice.

Приятного аппетита! Priyatnova appetita! 

One Response to “Borsch, borsht, borscht, of course, course, course”

  1. […] Because I had just been left to my own resources when looking for Russian music, I was having a hard time finding the good stuff.  I was listening to a lot of романсы, which are charming in their own way, and pop music.  Both types were a bit cheesy.  But that’s all I could find on the internet for free back then. I finally started to find the good stuff with a little help from my friend, Pasha, who I met almost nine years ago to this day exactly.  I’ve written many posts about him which you can read here, here, here and here. […]

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