When all else fails, make borsch

Now. Although I promised* you all a lovely homemade chicken noodle soup recipe, I will not give it to you. It, sigh, did not turn out how I wanted. It’s certainly edible, but it wasn’t chickeny enough. You know when you taste a soup that’s supposed to taste like something, but then it doesn’t? It’s no fun. No fun at all.

And so, instead of wallowing in my lack of chicken-preparing abilities, I bring you something better. Something red. Something…Russian.

Before I go on, I must first briefly explain my obsession for Russia. I, well, I don’t really know why I’m so obsessed with this frost-bitten land. I just am. So taken am I that I majored in Russian language and spent my third year of college studying in Moscow. Oh, the stories I could tell. In fact, I did! If you care to read, I made a blog while over there to document my quirky insights. Enough of this shameless plugging for blogs of yore, and back to food:

Borsch (which for some reason in English is spelled with a ‘t’ on the end, which I refuse to do since adding the ‘t’ doesn’t make it any easier to pronounce, or make it sound more Russian – seriously, why did that happen? Why the ‘t’? Grr.) Ahem, borsch is the Russian soup. Interestingly enough, the borsch that many people seem to like the best is not actually Russian in origin, but Ukrainian. (Please note that my seemingly benign previous statement could quickly bring on a heated argument about Ukraine actually being Russian in origin, or vice versa, and so on, and so forth. No matter, back to borsch.) There are a large number of recipes and styles of borsch.  Some use beef as a base to build a broth, some use cow tongue, some use no meat at all. I’ve had all three, although the second one unwittingly, and they are all delicious.

The recipe I’m about to share is special. First, it’s vegetarian. Second, it was passed on to me from my dear friends Kelly and Phil, through their host mother and host grandmother. Their family would make variations of this soup every week.  Whenever anyone came to visit, they promptly took the pot out of the kholodil’nik, ladled a bowl full of their borsch, zapped it in the microwave for a bit, and spooned on a slop of smetana, or sour cream. This deliciousness was also, of course, served with tea and plenty of black bread covered in cheese or butter and homemade preserves. Da, it was great. It is in this spirit that I share their borsch recipe with you, although it’s really more guidelines than actual rules.

Vegetarian borsch

  • 1 small to medium onion
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, or to taste
  • 4 small potatoes (I used russets this time, but it doesn’t really matter)
  • 1/3 to 1/2 a head of green or red cabbage
  • 2 medium beets, or more if they’re small, or more if you are especially fond of beets
  • 3 or 4 medium to large carrots
  • a large handful of parsley, leaves only
  • a slightly smaller handful of dill, or to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • vegetable oil or, to be really authentic, sunflower seed oil
  • 8-10
  • Sour cream or crème fraîche and fresh dill, to serve
—Optional additions, which I’ve used before but didn’t have on hand this time: an apple, cored and roughly chopped; a tomato, roughly chopped; anything else you think would be good. It’s basically your “everything but” soup.

You can either prepare the ingredients as you go, adding them to the pot as you go, or you can chop everything before hand and then throw things in at the appropriate intervals. I prefer to chop as I go, but you really can’t go wrong.

First, roughly chop the onion and begin cooking it over medium heat in a glug of oil. Let the onion cook until it softens a bit, but don’t caramelize. In the mean time, peel and mince the garlic; set aside. Next, peel and chop the potatoes into small bite-sized pieces. The size doesn’t really matter, it will just affect cooking time. Once the potatoes are all prepped, add the garlic to the onions, let cook for a minute, then add the potatoes. Add 4 cups of the water, ensuring everything is covered.

Continue with the vegetable chopping and adding: it’s next to impossible to mess this soup up, as long as you keep enough water in the pot to cover the vegetables and stir it occasionally. Remove the core from the cabbage and thinly slice, cutting the longer slices in halves or thirds. You want the cabbage pieces small enough to be manageable to eat with a spoon, but don’t stress about having angel-hair thin slices. Add that to the pot, and again add enough water to cover.

At this point, your life will be easier if you have a food processor or an immersion blender that comes with a food processor-esque attachment. If you do, peel the beets, cut in chunks, and finely grate; add to pot. Do the same with the carrots. If you don’t have a food processor, simply peel the beets and the carrots and grate them by hand. Keep adding water to make sure the vegetables are covered. I ended up using about 10 cups of water.

If using apples or tomatoes, chop and add those now. The general guideline is to add the vegetables in order of its cooking time; since the potatoes need the most, you add them first, but an apple takes less time, so you add it last. Since the beets and carrots are grated, they take much less time to cook, etc.

Finally, chop up the bunch of parsley and dill then add those to the pot. Stir in some salt and pepper, cover the pot, and lower the heat to medium low. Let the whole glorious thing simmer for about 30 to 45 minutes. The vegetables will definitely be cooked by then; the extra time is just to make everything blend and become perfect.

Yield: A big pot of borsch. I can never scale this down even when I try, so be prepared to have a week’s worth of delicious soup.

To serve, I (and every Russian I’ve ever met) strongly suggest that you put a spoonful of sour cream and a sprinkling of more dill into your soup bowl, stirring everything in to mix. The sour cream adds just the right amount of creaminess and fat to make the borsch stick to your bones and keep you warm on a cold winter’s day. Also, you must eat this with bread. As a Russian proverb reads, “Don’t say you’re full if you haven’t touched the bread.”

There you have it! This soup has converted at least three non-beet eaters, and it might just convert you. Priyatnovo appetita! 


*While I’m at this whole breaking promises thing, I will still give you the recipe for the beet-feta tart. It was good, but I think I’d like it more with another root vegetable (maybe sweet potato?) in addition to the beets.

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