*Also known as Borshch, Barszcz, Barščiai, and something in a Cyrillic script that I don’t have on my keyboard to name a few.
So I got beets two weeks in a row, and I took this as a sign that it was time to make borscht. I foolishly assumed this would involve finding a recipe, gathering the ingredients, and making the soup. Ah, the naiveté. Looking back, it’s actually kind of cute. I have since learned that borscht recipes are like snowflakes and mom’s chocolate chip cookie batches: no two are exactly the same. The variation in ingredients and prep methods convinced me to back up a bit and do a little research to try and determine what was essential, what was traditional, what was most common, and what was overly fussy.
It turns out that borscht is the sort of soup that is anything you want it to be, as long as it includes beets. There are versions that are (no exaggeration) beets and water, and there are versions with more than thirty ingredients. To help sort through the mess I checked in with a Ukrainian friend (though there is some debate regarding the origin of this soup that is eaten throughout eastern Europe and Russia, Ukraine makes a good case) and asked her how some sample recipes compared to what she grew up eating. She got a good chuckle out of the more elaborate ones, and informed me that in her house anyway, borscht was suitable for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and the whole point of it being a staple dish was that it was incredibly cheap to make and used whatever you had around. So according to her, you were definitely looking at beets, potatoes, cabbage, maybe some carrot, as the main ingredients. (Update: I spoke with another Ukrainian friend today who assured me that meat is absolutely ESSENTIAL. So again, there is more than one way to make a borscht, and apparently I’m not completely out in left field.)
Then there is the temperature question: I very often see references to borscht as a soup eaten cold. She said it depended on contents. Beet and water borscht was more likely to be a cold dish, whereas those involving meat for instance, would be more likely to be eaten hot. Makes sense.
Despite all this, and despite the fact that I have been known to eat roasted beets five nights in a row, the idea of a soup that was overly beet-centric sounded too sweet for me to enjoy, and this was a cold weekend in March: we were gonna need something hot, filling, and spicy. I also wanted to do something with a chipotle chicken chorizo sausage I had gotten at Savenor’s, a lovely butcher shop in Cambridge (Dad, this place was apparently frequented by Julia Child when she returned to America. How cool is that?). Savenor’s is crazy. They have duck fillets, whole rabbits (for when I finally get up the nerve to try an authentic paella), and every kind of sausage you can imagine. If I ever decide to have a turducken for Thanksgiving, I’m checking this place first (I’m actually serious, they really will make them to order. I checked. This place is great).
So anyway, here I was with two bunches of beets, a good portion of very interesting sausage, and a dream. A few more perusals of the recipe possibilities, and we’re off.
I always have carrots, onions, and garlic. Check, check, and check. Still working my way through the Strategic Potato Reserve that had built up over a few weeks. Check. For some reason I had celery sitting around. Awesome.
And…wonder of wonders, despite my well-documented cabbage travails, I actually found myself shopping for a small green cabbage to include.
I didn’t really think all this through, I just sort of decided the meat needed cooked and went from there. So right: brown the sausage. Throw in the diced carrots, celery, garlic, beets and let all that cook until the garlic starts to smell good. I threw the beets in raw rather than roasting them first. I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea. No oil necessary here, because even chicken sausage is has some fat in it.
At this point I should mention that it turns out I had two kinds of beets: normal, dark red beets, and what my CSA list referred to as Chioggia beets. Okay, sure why not. But wait, when I went to peel them, they were white!
As if that wasn’t weird enough, when I went to cut them into matchsticks, they were actually candy striped! These things are really really cool looking, but I wondered if I was about to radically change the flavor of the soup by including them. Nope. They tasted like normal beets. They were just crazy looking! Wonders of a CSA…
Seriously, Here’s another shot of them cut up. I just could not get over this.
Anyway, I went with the carrot/onion/celery cooking as my cue to add more things, as the beet would have plenty of time to cook through as the soup proceeded. Hang on, you may recall that I was looking for spice. Chorizo just wasn’t going to cut it as the sole flavor enhancer, so I went with the old standby:
Yes, salt and pepper happened too, but the pepper flakes gave the soup what I like to think of as my signature zippiness.
I went with beef broth for the liquid, though many recipes just use water or vegetable broth. Most recipes will inexplicably tell you to add four cups of whatever liquid it is you intend to use. That’s nice if you don’t actually want a) a soup that you can eat with a spoon instead of a fork; or b) enough for more than two servings. I put in 8-10 cups of whatever liquid I am using (in this case, something like 6-8 cups of broth, and the rest was water). Another thing I have learned in what shall be known as “The Winter Jackie Learned To Make Soup” is that potatoes don’t actually take that long to cook. Often recipes tell you to add potatoes right when you get the broth up to a simmer, let them cook 20 minutes, then add whatever faster ingredients you have, such as cabbage, and leave it for another 10-15 minutes. If you do that, you will have a nice thick soup courtesy of the completely disintegrated potatoes. If you want hunks of potato, you really only need to simmer them for 15 minutes or so. Therefore, on this, one of my last soup efforts of the year, I added 10 cups of liquid, brought it to a boil, chucked in the potatoes and the cabbage all at once, deployed the salt and pepper, threw in a bay leaf for good measure, and let it do its thing for 15 minutes, then served (and by “served”, I mean I got a bowl for myself and ate it while watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
And it came out delicious. Putting one in the win column with no qualifications, caveats, or asterisks. Borscht can be whatever you want it to be, and this one was exactly how I wanted mine to be. Can’t wait to try it again when the weather gets brisk and football season is in full swing!