Friday, January 19, 2007

"Beefy and Beety" or, On Borsch

Behold, my first borsch. Not the first I’ve ever had, of course, but the first one I made all by myself. I tried to make an authentic borsch-—beefy and beety—-and I think I succeeded.

Whenever I cook something Russian, I consult my usual sources: my mom, Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table, Helen Rennie (who occasionally posts authentic and yummy-looking Russian recipes) and two other Russian cookbooks I own (not nearly as good as von Bremzen’s). I’d bet that every Russian family has its own way of making this beet and cabbage soup, and I cribbed ideas for my borsch from at least half a dozen recipes.

The ingredients and proportions I got from von Bremzen and Helen; the technique is mostly my mom’s. As usual, I did not measure my ingredients precisely, so this is more of an annotated field guide than a recipe. Finally, if you’ve never had borsch, please don’t let the words “beets” and “cabbage” scare you. Borsch is not a boiled vegetable soup; when made correctly, it is hearty, beefy and zesty.

For the stock, which I made a day in advance, I used a pound of beef chuck, a couple of beef marrow bones, a soup bone, and some carrots and onions. These I covered with 4-5 quarts of water, brought it to a gentle boil, and then simmered for three hours, removing the scum from the surface as necessary. Quite a few recipes suggest using a ham bone in the stock as well, a good idea. The stock served its purpose, but I next time I want something meatier and beefier. I used too much water, too—3 quarts is enough, I think. Anyway, once the stock cooled, I refrigerated it overnight.

While I was making stock, I washed and trimmed 3 medium beets. I covered them with water in a saucepan and simmered them for 50-60 minutes. Beets are done when you can pretty easily pierce them with a knife.

The next day I degreased the stock, threw out the bones, cut the cooked beef chuck into 1-inch cubes and added it back to the stock. I brought about 3 quarts of stock to a simmer in a big soup pot. Why three quarts? My big soup pot wasn’t nearly big enough to hold all of it (see above photo). The rest of the ingredients turned out to be proportionate to the amount of stock I did use, though.

While waiting for the stock to come a simmer, I grated the beets and put them in a saucepan with a 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, half a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, a big pinch of salt, sugar, and a splash of red wine vinegar. I simmered this on low heat, stirring occasionally. Did you know that beets and tomatoes are surprisingly delicious combination?

When the stock came to a gentle boil, I added a bay leaf and 3 medium peeled and cubed potatoes to the soup pot. While the potatoes were cooking—about 15-20 minutes—I finely shredded ½ pound of cabbage (about ¼ head of a medium cabbage). I also diced 2 big onions, 4 medium carrots, a green pepper, and crushed 4 cloves of garlic. ( A note on the green pepper: my mom’s and von Bremzen’s recipes call for it; others don’t. I say, use green peppers if you like them—I do—and forget them if you don’t. )

When the potatoes were almost done, I added the cabbage to the soup pot. Meanwhile, I sautéed the onions, carrots and pepper in sunflower oil until the onions were soft and golden—15 to 20 minutes or so. I stirred in the garlic at the end. When the cabbage was soft, about 20 minutes later, I added the aromatics to the soup pot, along with a tablespoon and a half of salt. All this simmered for 5 minutes, then the beet/tomato mixture went into the pot. I let the soup simmer for 10 more minutes. I also added a small handful of black peppercorns to the pot.

Then I came to the part when, in my family, everyone stands around the soup pot and tastes the borsch while my mom asks, “What’s missing? Salt, sugar, acidity?” My borsch was missing all of these, so it was time to add a little of each, stir, taste again, and repeat until satisfied. I put some more tomato paste into a little bowl, along with a splash of tomato juice left over from the canned tomatoes, a splash of vinegar (substitute lemon juice), a splash of soup liquid, a dash of sugar and salt, and a heaping teaspoon of so adjika.

Adjika is a very spicy Georgian vegetable relish that’s sold in Russian/Eastern European stores. Do borsh recipes generally call for adjika? No. Can you use it to give your borsch a little kick? Yes. My mom sometimes uses lutenitsa, a vegetable spread, also sold in Russian groceries. Should you use, say, salsa, to flavor your borsch? I say no; it’s not at all authentic. Can you use a vegetable fix-in of Eastern European origin? I say yes, if it’s tomato-and-pepper-based. Don’t worry if you have neither adjika or lutenitsa; all you really need is tomato paste, sugar, salt, and vinegar or lemon juice.

I’d estimate that I used 2 teaspoons of sugar, a tablespoon of vinegar, and a 6-ounce can of tomato paste to flavor my borsch. Taste and repeat, taste and repeat. Before serving, try adding a couple of raw, crushed garlic cloves to the pot. Borsch should strike a nice balance between sweet and sour, tomato-y and beety, salty and zesty, with a little kick that comes from the crushed garlic or adjika.

Serve borsch with chopped dill or parsley, and sour cream. Bread is essential; good rye bread is preferable. Everyone tells me that you’re supposed to stir sour cream into the borsch, but I like to leave a thick clump in the middle of my soup bowl and swipe at it with each tablespoon. This borsch is even better on the second day, keeps for a week in the fridge, and feeds a small kolhoz.


Anonymous said...

We'll be moving to Milwaukee soon. Can you recomend a good Russian store.
Your blog made me hungry for a good home made borsch.


Yulinka said...

Milwaukee has four Russian groceries, but I've only been to two of them. I like Spartak in Whitefish Bay the most--nice selection, pretty good service.

International Deli in Shorewood also isn't bad. They have a lot of prepared food.

The other two stores are in Mequon and Fox Point/Bayside. I think the Mequon store sells fresh-baked rye bread.

There's also Old World Deli, a Polish grocery on the south side, and a Greek grocery (I can't remember what it's called) in West Allis. The Greek store is one of my favorite ethnic groceries in Milwaukee--it carries lots of Eastern European specialies.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!
I'll continue checking your blog.

See you in Milwaukee:)

chocolatka said...

I have my recipe, of course. But yours has very nice color. Mine is less deep, more red, than purple. I will try to get your color:)

yulinka said...

Chocolatka--My borsch was a deep, deep red when I made it but it had a purplish tint on day 2 and 3. In retrospect, I like the deep red color better. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm glad you're blogging again.

Mike said...

My wife's father moved to Philly from Russia (as a kid) but after he married, no more Russian food for him!

My wife never ate it growing up so I try to make stuff for her, including Borsh. We live quite a distance from any Russian markets, now. Can I substitute horseradish for adjika? Should I mail-order some? (My Russian friends in this area don't like to cook, so I can't ask them!)

Yulinka said...

Don't substitute horseradish for adjika, those are quite different. No need to special order adjika; all you need to season your borsch is tomato paste, a little sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice).

Anonymous said...

Very nice! I like your variation. I always add red bell peppers..and a whole lot of chopped fresh parsley & dill at the end of the cooking process.

Also, have you ever heard of Russians eating borsch w/ mayo instead of sour cream? I almost fell on my bum, Yuck!

Anonymous said...

Спасибо за комментарии о русских магазинах! Я живу тут уже больше года, а не знала о некоторых магазинах. Надо будет проверить :)

Yulinka said...

Anon-You're welcome. Keep reading for more reviews of local Russian stores.

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