A recent NPR story about borscht at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi made me reminisce about my own experiences with the flavorful cabbage and beet soup. (Really, you mean you don’t have borscht memories of your own? How odd.)
As twenty-somethings, my husband and I lived for a few years in a wonderfully peculiar first-floor apartment in Woodbury, NJ. (Among the odd features–the bathroom adjoined the eat-in kitchen making it. . . uh. . .”interesting” when we had dinner guests. Also, the bathtub hung down into the basement so that someone standing in the basement could actually rap on bottom of it.) The apartment was one of two on our side of a large, old, twin house that had been converted into apartments—two on our side, and three on the other side. The house sat on a on a quiet residential street, lined with tall, stately trees, from which bats, raccoons, and even an occasional flying squirrel would come to visit us—the type of guests you really don’t want to host, especially at 3 AM–whether they use your bathroom or not.
Our good friends lived upstairs. Let’s call the man John. That may or may not be his name. John’s mother is Polish. She grew up in a Polish enclave in Philadelphia. My ancestry is Russian-Jewish—all four of my grandparents came from Russia. We both grew up eating borscht. One week we decided to make and compare our versions of borscht. As I recall—and this was close to thirty years ago–John’s borscht was a meaty broth that included large chunks of potatoes and other vegetables. It was much different from my sweet and sour soup, which was more tomatoey and did not include these vegetables, but it was still delicious.
I made my borscht the way my mother did. Those familiar with my blog know that my family uses the shitarein method of cooking. That is, we throw in this and that without measuring. At some point after moving into our first apartment, I must have called my mom to ask her how to make borscht. This is what I wrote down (on old, left over stationary from my parents’ store). You have to understand this is actually my version of what she told me—so it’s sort of a shorthand shitarein “recipe.” I’ve had similar phone conversations with my own daughters. Apparently, it’s genetic.
The second borscht memory is also from our BK (before kids) days, but involves another set of friends. We used to sometimes get together with this couple and combine our dinners. I was making borscht one afternoon when the call came. “Want to get together tonight?” “OK. I’m making borscht.” “We’re having spaghetti.” “What time should we be over?” Yup, borscht and spaghetti—a combination that’s hard to forget! We had so much fun though talking and laughing at those dinners—and we all enjoyed eating, of course.
The third memory is a recent one, from this past fall. As the weather got cold, my mom was in the mood to make some borscht. Since she can no longer shop on her own, she needed someone to bring her the ingredients. She thought it would be a great idea to have my niece pick up the ingredients on the day before Thanksgiving, when they were going to make the cranberry sauce at my niece’s house for our family dinner (yes, Faithful Readers, for THE squirrel mold). For some reason, my mom could not understand why this idea was less than thrilling to my niece. (What could be more fun after driving with her three kids in the car on the busiest travel day of the year to pick her up?) For one thing, no one at my niece’s house even likes or would eat borscht. For another thing, making the cranberry sauce is always a production in itself. Well, they didn’t make the borscht that night, but the next week, my brother brought my mom the ingredients and she was able to make a pot for herself.
(In the summer my mom loves cold beet borscht that she buys in a jar. For the record, I think it’s disgusting.)
So since my head was filled with thoughts of borscht, I decided to make a pot of it yesterday. I make a vegetarian version now. It always seems like such a comforting and nutritious soup—filled with Vitamin C and antioxidants—but more importantly to me, it’s also delicious. I like it a bit spicy, too, which helps to clear my winter-clogged sinuses, so I add ginger and lots of freshly ground pepper. Here is the method. In the best shitarein tradition, you will have to guess at amounts. Come on, cooking is an adventure—at least it is for me. Sometimes I start making one dish, and then halfway through it turns into something else. This time though, I was determined it would be borscht. So here it is.
Vegetarian Cabbage-Beet Borscht
Sauté one large onion; add two chopped carrots, and cook until soft. Add 4 (more or less, depending on their size and your inclination) minced cloves of garlic. Mix in one can finely chopped beets with juice. I use the food processor. If you use fresh beets, I suspect that roasting them first will add sweetness to the mixture. I will try that next time, but the beets at the store didn’t look very good. Add one large can of tomato puree. Then add approximately one qt. of vegetable broth (homemade or purchased). I like Mark Bittman’s One hour vegetable broth recipe, which I follow—more or less. Chop cabbage—I used about ½ a head and add to the pot. Season with lemon juice, brown sugar, ginger (I used a combination of ginger root and ground ginger), salt, and lots of freshly ground pepper. I lost track of the lemons and amount of brown sugar I used. Start with the juice of two lemons, plus some zest if you want and about ¼ cup brown sugar and adjust from there. Remember the adventure. I also added a tablespoon or two of apple cider, because I had some in the refrigerator. So why not? Cook everything until all the vegetables are cooked through. Add more broth if needed. The result should be sweet and sour and a little spicy. If desired, serve with a dollop of sour cream.
Borscht is great with black bread. I baked some to go with the soup, using the Smitten Kitchen recipe (omitting the shallot because I didn’t have one.) Really do try this bread.
We added some dill Havarti to complete our delicious meal.
But now I’m craving spaghetti.
Hope you are warm and cozy wherever you are. Thanks for reading!