This is a recipe for something that is near and dear to my heart. Borscht. I grew up eating my mom’s version, which consisted mainly of beets and other vegetables, vinegar and a good glug of cream added at the end. For me it is the ultimate comfort food, my “go to” when I feel like my body needs a good dose of nourishment.
Borscht is the national soup of the Ukraine but is common in every Eastern European country. A tangy soup with beets often taking the lead role and is traditionally made with a meat stock base. There are so many variations to making borsch and I’m sure many a food fight has taken place in defense of the “best” borsch recipe. There is spring borsch, clear borsch, meatless borsch, with potato, without potato, white borsch, cold borsch and even borsch with fish. You can add cabbage, celery, potatoes, parsnips, beet tops, turnips, mushrooms, carrots, peas, green beans, peppers and even sorrel. Soon sorrel will be popping up in gardens and when it does, I will post a recipe for sorrel borsch.
The traditional way of giving borsch that much needed “tangy” or sour flavor was to add beet or rye kvas* or as they did in the old days, by adding a little bit of salt pork to raw onion and making a smooth paste (tempting). Nowadays, we just use a splash of vinegar, lemon juice, tartaric or citric acid, or even rhubarb juice, to taste for tanginess. Finished with a dollop of sour cream to round out the flavours.
I would suggest picking a simple recipe and adding ingredients or adjusting flavors as you see fit. This is a vegetarian borsch recipe that uses potato as the thickening agent (instead of flour) and was passed on to me a few years ago. I have played with it, added to it, deleted ingredients but I always go back to the “original” version. I love the process. It’s time-consuming and absolutely therapeutic.
I have occasionally experienced the borscht turning brown, and I’ve come to believe that the addition of a souring agent, ie vinegar, will help retain the vibrant color (yes, I’ve on occasion forgotten to add the vinegar). I’ve also noticed that if you let your borsch come to a rolling boil, this will sometimes cause the beets to discolor and give off a brown hue, so I always try to keep it just at a gentle simmer. Perhaps beets that have been stored for a long period of time will cause the discoloration, so my advice would be to get the freshest possible, preferably beets with the leaves on. And don’t even get me started with what you can do with the beet leaves…
Hearty Vegetarian Borscht
The secret to this recipe (and I can’t stress this enough) is too caramelize** your onions and cabbage before you add the rest of the ingredients.
It is also important to season as you go. By layering the addition of salt and pepper it will give the ingredients a chance to absorb the seasonings and meld all of the flavors together during the cooking process. You will adjust the seasonings again at the end, but if you have properly seasoned throughout, the adjustment should be minimal.
1 medium onion, diced
½ head cabbage, chopped into small bite size pieces
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
Salt and pepper
6 to 8 beets (peeled and cut into small bite sized pieces)
4 carrots (cut into small bite sized pieces)
2 green peppers, chopped (or red but green preferred***)
4 medium sized potatoes
1 cup milk (maybe more)
1 T vinegar
1 can (540 ml) crushed tomatoes (or 2 cups fresh, chopped)
1/4 cup (or more) fresh dill, finely chopped
In a large stainless steel soup pot, sauté onion and cabbage with oil and butter. Caramelize until very dark brown. Season with salt and pepper.
Add beets, peppers and carrots. Season and stir well.
Add enough water (or vegetable stock) to cover vegetables by approximately 2 inches. Soup needs to be “loose.”
Season generously with salt and pepper and a pinch of chilies (optional).
Add the vinegar and tomatoes.
Simmer soup until vegetables are tender. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and boil until tender. Drain. Add enough milk and mash the potatoes turning them into a very runny “slurry.”
When vegetables are tender, add slurry to the pot and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
Season and add lots of fresh dill. To serve add a dollop of sour cream and more fresh dill if you like.
* Beet kvas is a liquid of fermented beets, used to give borsch it’s tartness. Rye kvas can also be used which is made by fermenting yeast-raised batter diluted with water.
** Caramelization: Use a wide, thick-bottomed sauté pan. Coat the bottom of the pan with a mixture of olive oil and butter. Heat the pan on medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the onion and cabbage slices and stir to coat the onions with the oil. Spread the mixture out evenly over the pan and let cook, stirring occasionally. Depending on how strong your stovetop burner is you may need to reduce the heat to medium then medium low or low to prevent the onions from burning or drying out. To help with the caramelization process you can also add a touch of sugar. Stir the mixture occasionally and if necessary, add a bit of water to the pan if the mixture really seems to be scorching in some spots.
The darker the color, the deeper the flavor. This can take up to an hour. Patience is required.
*** Green peppers are slightly bitter and less sweet than red peppers, which works well for this recipe as it balances the sweetness of the beets and carrots.
Other bell peppers, however have more vitamins and nutrients and have higher vitamin C content than green peppers.