What is your favorite Russian dish? Questions of the kind “what is your favorite something” have always puzzled me. Are you kidding? In my forties (just like in my thirties, twenties, but unlike in my teens, however) I cannot single out any particular writer, book, band, movie, restaurant or food that I would call my favorite. I do enjoy variety.
Surprisingly though, in Russian cuisine, with all its diversity and complexity, I can name one dish as my all-time number one favorite. Yes, it’s in the title of this post; it is borsch.
Beside beets and cabbage, lots of other ingredients can go in borsch - onions, carrots, potatoes, beet leaves, white or speckled kidney beans, tomatoes or tomato paste, Russian style sauerkraut, dill, parsley, mushrooms, and even prunes. You can use meat, chicken or fish stock or make borsch completely vegetarian or even vegan.
For Ilya and me, borsch is not a starter, but a meal in itself. So we enjoy thick multi-ingredient borsch made with beef and pork stock and containing lots of meat.
Here’s how we like it:
- 10-12 cups of meat stock with a piece of fork-tender chuck and pork shoulder (recipe follows)
- 1 medium onion
- 1 medium carrot or a 7-8 baby carrots
- 2 medium sized red beets
- 1 small tight head or half of a medium one
- 2 medium red or Yukon gold potatoes
- 2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 14oz can of cannellini beans or black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh dill
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)
- Table vinegar or sauerkraut brine, if needed, to taste
- Chopped garlic, about 1 small or half medium clove per serving
- Sour cream, a heaping teaspoon in each soup bowl
As a rule, Russian meat soups are based on a stock made with beef marrow bones. But since my borsch contains lots of meat, I consider it sufficient to give the broth good strong flavor. Though, occasionally I can add a marrow bone or two just because there are people, like my husband, who like to spoon out buttery marrow and eating it with a piece of crusty bread.
Bring water to a boil and add meats, rinsed and cut in several pieces for even cooking. Bring the water back to a simmer and skim the foam as it forms on the surface. Add a couple of bay leaves and a heaping teaspoon of black peppercorns (I put them in a spherical tea infuser on a chain and secure it on the rim of the pot). Reduce the heat to low so the surface of the stock is barely moving and cook for about 3 hours or until the meats get very tender.
Remove from the heat and discard the bay leaves and black peppercorns.
I prefer to cook the stock for soups the day before so in the refrigerator the fat from the meat can solidify in one layer and be easily removed from the surface. Don’t get overzealous though – broth for Russian soup should have some fat in it. It makes the taste richer. Plus, speckles of fat floating on the surface of borsch make it more pleasing to a hungry eye.
If you planning to make borsch the same day, remove the fat from the surface with a spoon or small sieve.
Now to the borsch itself:
Let’s start with beets since they take longer to cook. There are two different approaches to introducing beets into borsch. One is to put raw beets right into stock; the other one is to precook beets before adding them. I prefer the latter. Among the various ways to precook beets, I choose to roast them whole and unpeeled. Just wash your beets, pat dry with paper towels, wrap in foil and roast in 400F oven for about an hour, more or less depending on the size of the beets. Check the doneness with a small knife – it should easily pierce the cooked beet. Other precooking methods are simmering them whole and unpeeled in water; stewing cut beets with a bit of table vinegar or sautéing them together with onions, carrots, and tomato paste.
To my taste, roasting brings out more sugars in beets and make their taste richer. They also retain their taste and color better when added to the soup. However, don’t be surprised that after some time beets in borsch will lose their bright purpleness.
When beets are done, let them cool and then peel and cut into logs, about 1.5 inches long and a bit less that 0.25 inch thick. I usually use gloves when handling beets. It’s pain in the backside to wash out the beet juice from under the nails.
Peel and cut potatoes into 3/8 – 1/2 inch cubes. Keep them submerged in cold water or they will turn pink. Thinly slice the cabbage. Chop the onions and herbs. If you use baby carrots just slice them into pretty thin circles; larger carrots can be sliced lengthwise first and then cut widthwise into small logs.
Remove the meat chunks from the stock and cut them into bite size pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and keep aside.
Start heating the stock. Meanwhile, sauté carrots and onions until they become tender and slightly golden; stir in tomato paste and sauté several more minutes.
When the stock starts boiling add potatoes and cabbage; bring back to a boil, reduce the heat and cook for 4-5 minutes. Add meat, beans, onions and carrots, and when soup starts simmering again, in go the beets and herbs. Adjust salt and seasonings. I usually add about a tablespoon of table vinegar or half a cup of sauerkraut brine to balance put the sweetness of beets and carrots. If your veggies are not sweet, you may want to add a dash of sugar as well. Cook borsch on a medium heat for 2-3 more minutes and remove from the heat.
Let the soup rest for several hours or better overnight. You can eat it reheated the next day, and the day after next etc. It will hold in the refrigerator for a week. In fact, borsch is one of the dishes that get better with time. The last bowl is always the best.
Two finishing touches - garlic and sour cream. Some prefer to add minced garlic right into the pot at the end of cooking. I prefer to put it into individual serving bowls rather than the pot because not everyone enjoys garlic. Mince it with a knife, sprinkle on the bottom of a soup plate or bowl and pour the hot borsch over it. It will give its flavor to the soup, lose most of its sharpness, but still retain some bite.
Serve the borsch with a dollop of sour cream and, perhaps, a pinch of chopped dill. A generous slab of rye bread, warm pampushki (small Ukrainian buns) or freshly baked pirozhki are a great accompaniment for borsch and make it a complete meal. Almost complete. Don’t forget a shot or two of ice-cold vodka, a perfect contrast to a blazing hot soup!