Friday, December 10, 2010

3 Recipe #212: Beet Borscht

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Beet borscht is a traditional Russian or Eastern Europe soup, which originated in the Ukraine. It's also popular in various parts of Central Europe, and is likewise enjoyed around the world, most commonly by various transplanted communities from these aforementioned areas.

Borscht was initially introduced to North America through its immigrant communities. The Russian, Eastern European, & Central European immigrants who came here -- particularly the Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews who'd emigrated around the turn of the century -- brought their culinary customs with them, and of course, borscht played a part in these traditions. These family recipes were preserved & passed down through the generations; and so not surprisingly, their descendants continue to make borscht until this very day.

Of course, you don't have to be from these regions or share this particular background/heritage to enjoy beet borscht. For those who didn't grow up eating it, it might take some getting used to at first, as it can be unexpectedly tart tasting. Its flavor combinations might seem a tad bit unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Also, borscht isn't something that's really part of the typical American palate. However, like any other type of as-yet unencountered cuisine, if you eat it more than once or twice, it'll soon seem familiar. :)

There are, in fact, many different versions of this soup, including both vegetarian and meat preparations, and it can be served either hot or cold. Some versions are savory, some are sweet, while yet others are a little bit of both. Regardless, all versions are usually a bit tart. :) Of course, depending upon the exact region, family traditions, & individual preferences, the ingredients of this soup can vary widely.

The primary ingredients of beet borscht are of course, beets &/or beet greens, and either water or vegetable stock. Some people make it using just beets, while others make it with a combination of beets & beet greens. I personally prefer to make it with just beets as the texture is a bit more uniform that way.

In addition to beets &/or beet greens, vegetarian versions of this soup also can contain any number of other ingredients: carrots, celery, (red or green) cabbage, spinach, lovage, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggs, garlic, onions, dill, parsnips, root parsley, horseradish, and even dried mushrooms. Some also contain beet kvas, a slightly alcoholic beverage (only 0.05% - 1.0% abv) made from fermented beet juice, which is often drunk for health-related or medicinal purposes. I know, it sounds hideous. ;) That's why many people would rather add it to borscht rather than drink it outright. :) The kvas adds a tart flavor to the borscht, but this effect can be imitated (or rather, approximated) by adding lemon juice instead.

If I'm not mistaken, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Doukhobor, Armenian, and Jewish cusines primarily serve vegetarian versions of this soup. Speaking of which, please note that the Jewish version of borscht very different from most other versions of this soup, as it's typically served cold, is almost always vegetarian, doesn't usually contain kvas, and traditionally has a minimal amount of ingredients.

Meat versions typically contain beef &/or beef stock, and/or any of the above vegetables. Meat is most commonly added to borscht in Polish, Russian, East Prussian, Azerbaijani, Mennonite, and Ukrainian cuisines.

Believe it or not, there are also Chinese versions of borscht! Surprise, surprise. :) So how did the Chinese start drinking borscht? Through contact with Eastern and Central European cultures, but of course. Bet you'll never think of the Silk Road trade routes in quite the same way ever again. ;) There are two distinctly different Chinese varieties: In the first version, tomatoes are used instead of beets, & it contains beef as well as a variety of different vegetables. The most strikingly unusual ingredient is the addition bell peppers, which is not common to any of the European and Russian varieties. (After all, we all like to experiment & put our own unique stamp on things, right?! :) ) The second kind is made primarily from red cabbage, instead of beets, and is from Harbin in the Heilongjiang province of Northern China, an area which has had a long history of trading with Eastern Russia (i.e., along its border). So, I guess it's not surprising that the tradition of borscht-eating rubbed off on them as well. :) So long, and thanks for all the borscht. ;)

As you can see, there are so many different ways to make this soup. And, as you can see from the above examples, borscht doesn't necessarily have to be made with beets as its primary ingredient. In fact, you'll find some of those other borscht recipes right here on this blog. :) You can check them out here.

Most types of borscht are typically garnished with dill and either sour cream or plain yoghurt. For beet borscht, sometimes the sour cream is stirred into the soup before it's served, usually until it turns a light purplish color. Others prefer to add a dollop to each individual bowl immediately before serving.

Now that you've learned all that you ever wanted to know about borscht and more, let's talk about the below recipe: My own particular version is sweet and tart, and is meant to be served cold. If you've ever tasted Manischewitz's beet borscht, it tastes a lot like that, except without all of the refined sugar. :-D

It's fairly uncomplicated to make, and the ingredients are very basic and simple. In other words, you don't have to go on a mad quest to find unusual ingredients. :)

Beet Borscht 

2 large uncooked & unpeeled, fresh whole beets with tops still attached, washed, & well-scrubbed
8 c. water
1 bay leaf
1/8 - 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper, or to to taste
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
6 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
4 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste (juice of about 1 1/2 large lemons)
1/4 c. Tbsp. fresh dill, minced (garnish)
1/4 c. plain, nonfat Greek yoghurt or lowfat sour cream (garnish)
1/4 c. cucumbers, diced or sliced into thin rounds (optional garnish)

Directions: Trim tops (i.e., beet greens) off beets, leaving approximately 1" of stalk. (Reserve beet greens for use in future recipes.) Add (unpeeled) beets & water to a large pot, & bring to a rolling boil, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, cover, & simmer until tender, about 20-25 minutes.

When the beets are done cooking, remove them from the water using heat-proof tongs & transfer them to a medium-sized bowl. Strain the beet water, i.e., the "beet juice," into a separate, large, deep bowl or pot, using a sieve with a very fine mesh, (or if unavailable, just use a cheese cloth lined sieve).

Allow beets to cool for several minutes. When beets have become cool enough to handle, remove the skins from the beets; either peel or rub off skins with a paper towel while wearing latex/rubber gloves. Cut off tips & remaining attached stalks. Quarter them into wedges and toss into a food processor fitted with the shredder blade attachment. (Or if you prefer, you can dice the beets instead. I personally would rather shred them because I like the texture better. Shredded beets go down the gullet much more easily. ;) )

Thoroughly wash out the pot you used for cooking the beets. Then transfer the shredded beets and the strained beet juice back into this pot. (Or, if you strained the beet juice into another pot, you can just use that pot instead.) Add bay leaf, ground black pepper, & salt to this pot, and once more bring to a rolling boil, about 8 minutes. Then reduce heat to low, add honey & tomato paste, stir to combine, & cover, simmering until honey has dissolved, about 8-10 minutes. Allow to stand for 10 minutes. Skim off any film or residue appearing on the soup's surface after cooking. Discard bay leaf.

Replace cover & place in the fridge to chill. (Borscht tastes better if allowed to sit for a few hours or overnight before serving.) Just before serving, remove from fridge, stir in lemon juice, ladle into bowls, & top each bowl with minced dill and a dollop of sour cream or nonfat plain yoghurt. Garnish with optional cucumber slices (or diced wedges). Serve cold, with a side of boiled, baby red-skinned potatoes, if desired.

Yield: Serves 4-6.

Chef's Notes: When handling beets, wear latex/rubber gloves. Also, be sure to wear an apron. Wear old clothes that you don't care too much about (if they were to get stained!) & also don't wear white or light colors. ;) Be sure to clean anything that touches the beets right away; otherwise it'll be harder to get out the beet stains. To remove beet stains, try pouring some salt over the stain & let it rest for about 15 minutes. Then take a lemon half and rub it over the stain until it dissolves.

This soup freezes well if you'd like to save the remainder for future meals.


Farida said...

First i come to your site and i found the great recipe, so i hope can to trying this recipe, thanks for sharing your recipe.


Judee said...

My grandmother was from Russia and often made a meat borscht, but in the US it was always cold. I love the addition of dill in yours. I will have to add it..
here's my version

Unknown said...

Let me begin by saying, I have never met a beet I didn't like. My grandparents were from the Ukraine and Poland and there is nothing better than a cold bowl of borscht(or Shav) on a hot summer day. I am in the military and I have people from all over around me. One day, a friend from Texas (who happens to be of Mexican descent) was giving my bowl " the look". I got him to taste it and now he is my borscht buddy! Love the recipe, it's perfect!

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