Borscht is infinite in its manifestations, ecumenical in its ownership: served hot with potatoes in Ukraine by Orthodox Christians, and stone cold with sour cream on hot days in New York City by Jewish deli owners. As long as you have the essential ingredient of beets, which gives the soup its stunning color and unique taste, then regardless of what else you put in – it is still borscht. This universality, however, does not stop people from passionately arguing the details.
The most dramatic borscht war was waged in 1994, in the run up to a visit to Russia by Queen Elizabeth II, who graciously indicated she wished to try Russian food during her visit. St. Petersburg was absolutely boulevarsee. A prominent European chef at the city’s only 5***** hotel slaved away on a nouvelle cuisine version of borscht: delicately poached new beets and baby carrots in a clear, light broth, which turned a delicate pink color when homemade crème fraiche was added. At a senior staff taste test, the Russians revolted. Someone produced his Russian babushka from a dacha with her famous version: thick, almost gelatinous with meat, a fine film of grease adding sheen to the purple broth, redolent with garlic and dill, with chunks of salted cabbage bobbing amongst the potatoes and carrots. The Chef threatened to quit on principle. Finally, an uneasy truce: the babushka’s broth was strained off, and the Chef’s baby beets and carrots were added. Or was it the other way around? No matter, Her Majesty sent compliments to the kitchen.
There is really only one secret to good “Babushka” borscht, and here it is: a cup of “rasol” or pickle brine, which creates the tangy and sour zing, and also locks in the signature purple color. Be creative about your rasol: the juice from the sauerkraut will work, as will the brine from a jar of dill pickles. If you are stuck, use 1/3 of a cup of red wine or apple vinegar.
4 large beets.
Water from the beets
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, mashed
3 large tomatoes seeded and diced.
2 liters (2 quarts) of beef, chicken or vegetable stock
¾ pound (300 grams) of meat (lamb, pork, beef or a mixture of the three) sliced into 1-inch matchsticks
1 cup (125 ml) of sauerkraut, coarsely chopped
3 large carrots, julienned into 1-inch matchsticks
1 cup (125 ml) of “rasol” (pickle or sauerkraut juice)
Salt, pepper to taste
1 bunch of fresh dill
1 bunch of fresh parsley
Chopped fresh dill and scallions
- Prepare the beets ahead of time: place peeled beets in a large pot of cold salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until the beets are soft enough to pierce easily with a knife. Drain beets, retaining the water and let cool completely. Julienne the beets into 1-inch matchsticks.
- In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, sauté the diced onions and mashed garlic until translucent.
- Add the diced and dried lamb, pork and beef, and brown gently.
- Add the carrots, sauté briefly, and cook mixture covered for 10 minutes.
- Add the stock, a litre of the retained beet water, beets, tomatoes, and sauerkraut. Bring to a gentle boil.
- Simmer on low heat until the carrots are soft.
- Add rasol and simmer for an additional 5 minutes
- When ready to serve, taste, correct season and add dill and parsley
Borscht keeps for several days in the refrigerator, though it does not freeze well. Serve in a wide soup dish, garnish with sour cream or crème fraiche, chopped dill and scallions. For best results, seek out the freshest ingredients: from the beets to the sour cream. Visit one of Moscow’s farmer’s markets to find what you need!