I was supposed to go to LA this weekend but it snowed and my flight and all its fellow flights got cancelled. I almost cried when I got the email, silly as that seems. I had been looking forward to this trip for so long — just not being in New York’s slush, ice and cold for two days was the carrot I dangled in front of myself to get myself out of bed many mornings. But I was able to rebook for a weekend in March and now I have this weekend totally free. There are definitely worse fates. I think I’ll make borscht.
The recipe I’ve used lately is adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s highly educational and fun book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. If you know anyone who was born in what was then the Soviet Union, you need to read this book so that you can understand where they’re coming from — literally, figuratively and culinarily. My only criticism of this book is that it doesn’t have nearly enough recipes, but I suppose that’s what Anya’s encyclopedic book on the cuisines of all 15 former Soviet republics, Please to the Table, is for.
The borscht recipe in Mastering is for an “über-borscht” that contains apple, kidney beans, green pepper and a garlic-parsley gremolata. This is probably delicious but the traditionalist I live with would never stand for it, so this is basically Anya’s recipe stripped down to its basics. She also includes rehydrated porcini mushrooms and their cooking liquid and while I like the umami depth this lends the soup I think they are texturally distracting as well as EXPENSIVE so I declare them optional. If you’d like to use them, rehydrate 1 oz in 1 cup boiling water and add them in the stage where you add the stock to the vegetables.
2lbs beef chuck or brisket (I highly recommend springing for brisket!)
14 cups water
2 whole onions
2 whole carrots
1 bay leaf
1/4 lb smoky bacon
2 medium beets
3 medium russet potatoes
half a green or savoy cabbage
1 16 oz can diced tomatoes
distilled white vinegar
sour cream and dill, scallions also if you like.
you could sub greek yogurt for the sour cream but no Russian person would ever do that, fyi
Making the soup:
Put the meat, onions, carrots, bay leaf and some delicious salt, Russian people’s favorite spice, in your biggest stockpot and cover with the 14 cups of water. Bring to a boil and skim off gray scum that floats to the top, then simmer partially covered for an hour and a half. Strain and reserve the stock and dice the meat into cubes, discarding fat and tendons and anything you wouldn’t want a bite of in your soup.
Peel the beets and carrot and potatoes, cube the potatoes. Grate the beets, carrot, cabbage and onion with a box grater or, if you are lucky enough to own one, a cuisinart with grating disc attachment. (Anya roasts the beets first, I don’t think this is necessary but it’s good, do it if you feel like it. Try it both ways for fun?)
In a separate pot if you have one, like maybe ideally a big dutch oven, render the fat from the bacon, then reserve the bacon for another purpose such as just eating it while you wait for the soup to be ready. Then add the grated vegetables and sauté in bacon fat til soft, adding butter if they look too dry. Add the stock, tomatoes, meat cubes, and potatoes. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 25 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Adjust seasoning with salt, white vinegar and, if necessary, sugar. (!)
Serve with mandatory toppings, incorporating the sour cream into your soup til it is a romantic, valentine’s-appropriate shade of pink.