The sky is an odious yellowy grey hue, spitting our fluffy snowflakes the size of walnuts which fall to the ground in slow motion, covering our garden in a thin, goose down like layer of new snow that I know won’t last a few hours. Yet at the moment it seems quite biblical, that bit where Israelites discover manna, not the flood bit – although I’m sure that as temperatures rise this snow storm will turn into something significantly less pleasant. I’m sat at the dining table in my bay window, enjoying the elements from a safe distance, icy cold feet wedged inside my little space heater and hands cupping a steaming hot bowl of borscht accompanied by a slice of home made sourdough bread and a slab of butter. This could well be happiness, were it not for the bitter cold that winter brings.
Borscht was something of a treat when I was growing up. Every now and then my mum would rustle up her bastardised version made with pickled beetroots and ham hock – we did not eat beef for years and years owing to my mother’s susceptibility to health scare horror stories. Moving out of my parents house and discovering the adventure that is cooking put an end to silly culinary prejudices. However, my peculiar nature unfortunately also brought on an obsession with authenticity and a compulsion to follow recipes to a t or not leave out a single ingredient. Both blessing and curse, this means I am on a constant quest for perfection, especially when it comes to good old classics. And I dare say I have perfected my beloved borscht.
I have scoured the Internet for borscht recipes and a large majority are vegetarian recipes. This one isn’t one of them. To me, strong beef stock and the cheapest cut of stewing beef you can get your hands on is an indispensable basis of this hearty soup. Beetroot, obviously, goes in – but not the pickled variety please! My grandmother thickens every soup with a roux, however I’m not convinced this is always necessary or good, and here floury potatoes fall apart as they cook, providing body to the soup. When it comes to vegetables I like to keep it simple with Eastern European staples such as cabbage and carrots. I have seen recipes suggest parsnips and even celeriac, however I would worry that the strong aromas would overpower the humble beets. Tinned tomatoes are often used to bulk up the stock and I would advise against such an unseasonal addition. As for flavourings, vinegar or lemon juice is unnecessary and will render the soup overpoweringly sour in combination with the soured cream.
I tend to make this soup in bulk and help myself to a bowl whenever I’m feeling a bit under the weather. I often notice how food of cheerful colours tends to improve my mood (see daal and polenta cake) and this garishly pink dish is no exception. I especially enjoy the compliments and bemused faces when I bring borscht to work for lunch. The pleasures of borscht are indeed plentiful!
Borscht (serves 6)
2 onions, chopped
1kg any cheap beef stewing cut, preferably on the bone
whole black peppercorns (4-5 each)
2 bay leaves
4 carrots, sliced
500g beetroot, halved and sliced
1/2 cabbage, coarsely shredded
4 floury potatoes, diced
small bunch of parsley tied with a string
chopped dill and soured cream to serve
A word of warning: this takes ages. Begin well ahead of serving. In a very large pot gently soften the onions in the butter, then pour in the water and place the meat in the pot as well, along with the spices. Clamp a lid on the pot, bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and let it all simmer for about 2 hours – you will know it’s ready when the meat is tender, falling off the bone if applicable and the stock tastes pleasantly strong and meaty. Fish out the meat and cut into bite sized chunks.
Next, add the beetroots, carrots and potatoes to the pot along with the parsley and return the meat to the pot as well. Carry on cooking for about 30 minutes, or until the beets are cooked. The final addition will be cabbage, which will only need up to 10 minutes as it is criminal to overcook it. The soup is now ready, serve with a large dollop of soured cream and a generous sprinkling of chopped dill. I also recommend tucking into a slice of crusty sourdough bread.