Borscht - how can a word have so many consonants and just one vowel? Go ahead, say it, "Borscht". Doesn't it resonate with Central and Eastern European food flavors? For me it calls up two competing soup memories. Is borscht a cool and silky strained beet broth, presented in a clear-glass cup to celebrate its vibrant, neon-red color. Or is it the surprisingly pink peasant soup, meaty and full of chunks of vegetables, potatoes and assertive spices? Borscht can be both of these, and more.
I don’t remember eating borscht as a child. It really became a dine-out treat for me during our early-married years, after we discovered BarneyBagel and Susie CreamCheese, a tiny restaurant on one of Seattle’s downtown piers. We lingered over those steaming bowls of soup, warming up after wet and windy walks along Alaskan Way/Elliot Ave. I can still picture the trifecta of budget-friendly restaurants in that waterfront neighborhood - Barney Bagel, Shakey’s Pizza and The Old Spaghetti Factory. In visit after visit I pestered the Barney cook to share his borscht recipe. He finally granted me a quick peek inside his binder of secrets, but whisked it away when I began to take notes. There began my ongoing search for a Best-of-Borscht recipe. The search continues today, decades later.
During a past boat trip we found borscht featured on the menu of the BayView Restaurant in Sitka, Alaska. The harbor view from that second floor eatery was captivating, but it was the borscht that brought us back repeatedly. And then the BayView sold, the menu changed, the soup disappeared... drat! Sitka has a strong Russian heritage; wouldn’t you think borscht would be easy to find in local restaurants? Not so. But I digress.
My current borscht recipe has a varied history, leaning heavily on The Good Cook: Soups by Time Life (1979), and The Best Recipe: Soups and Stews by Cook’s Illustrated (2001). More recently Seattle chef Greg Atkinson published a more modern version of borscht (here and here). We differ in some ingredients and procedures, but his text is interesting and his directions clear.
I don't mind spending two days to prepare the soup, but there are shortcuts that can simplify the process.
- Homemade beef stock takes 3 to 4 hours, from start to cooled finish. Canned beef broth, or jarred beef base can substitute, but you don't get the same full-bodied flavor punch from a can.
- "Authentic" recipes call for raw beets and fermented beet liquid, but I happily substitute canned beets with their
juices, then add lemon juice and red wine vinegar.
- For a more pronounced sweet/sour flavor dried cranberries and/or raisins join the mix.
- Dill weed is traditional, but fennel and caraway seed add interesting back notes to the broth as well.
After all these years, borscht development is still a work in progress.
Beet and Beef Borscht
from The Best Recipe: Soups and Stews
For the beef stock:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 pounds of bone-in chuck roast , cut into fist-sized pieces
1 large onion, halved
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 quarts boiling water
2 teaspoons salt
- Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat. Brown the meat, bones and onion halves on all sides in 3 or 4 batches. Do NOT crowd the pan or the meat will steam instead of brown. It will take 15 to 20 minutes to brown all the meat. Set all aside on a platter.
- Deglaze the empty pot with red wine, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon, and reduce to a syrup, about 2 minutes.
- Return the browned meat, bones and onion to the pot. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook until the meat has released its dark juices, about 20 minutes.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and add the boiling water and salt. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, partially cover and simmer gently until the meat is tender, about 2 hours.
- Strain the stock, discarding the solids. Set the meat aside, reserving half for other uses. Cool the remaining meat to be used in the soup, then shred it into bite-sized pieces.
- Before using, cool and defat the stock. The stock and meat to be used in the soup can be refrigerated separately in air-tight containers for up to 3 days. This recipe makes a scant 2 quarts of stock.
For the soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped in medium dice
2 medium carrots, chopped in medium dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 quarts homemade flavor-rich beef stock, strained and skimmed of fat
2 cups cooked beef, shredded into bite-sized pieces
1/2 head small head green or red cabbage, shredded (about 5 cups)
OR substitute equivalent quantity of preshredded coleslaw in a bag
1 3/4 pounds beets, peeled and grated (about 5 cups)
OR 6 cans beets (but use the juice of 4 cans only)
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup dried orange or regular cranberries
1 bay leaf
a pinch each of caraway seed and fennel seed (optional)
2 teaspoons salt, more to taste
3/4 pound small red potatoes (or larger ones quartered), scrubbed
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped dill (divided)
1 cup sour cream
- Heat butter in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and carrots; cook, stirring occasionally until softened but now browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
- Add tomato paste; stir in 1/2 cup of stock to dissolve the tomato paste.* Add the remaining stock, cabbage, beets, vinegar, sugar, caraway and fennel seed if used, 2 teaspoons salt and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, simmer until vegetables are soft and tender, about 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place potatoes in a saucepan, cover with cold water and add 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer about 10 minutes, until soft in the middle when pierced with a thin paring knife.
- Drain potatoes, cool slightly, and quarter or cut into 1 inch chunks.
- Stir the meat into the pot and remove the bay leaf. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding pepper, additional vinegar as needed and 1/4 cup dill.
- Add half of the potato chunks to the individual soup bowls and ladle some soup over the potatoes. Top with additional potatoes, a large dollop of sour cream and a generous sprinkling of dill. Serve immediately.
*Note: if you prefer a thicker broth, use cornstarch or flour to thicken.