Beet-cabbage-vegetable soup…also known as borscht. For years whenever I’d say how much I like beets, folks would then ask, “So, you make borscht?” And for years I would have to fess up that not only did I not make it, I’d never even tasted it. Borscht is a soup that I thought one needed a secret family recipe from your mama’s bubbie’s bubbie from deep in the Russian or Baltic or Ukrainian or, at the very least, Eastern European heartland. No such luck in our family. I vaguely remember my maternal Bubbie tossing together canned pickled beets and sourcream and sitting down to eat that scarily vibrant pink concoction after everyone else had left the table. Now that I think about it, that’s always when Bubbie ate, so maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the borscht. In any case, I assumed that neon pink stuff from a can was not of any interest.
Flash forward to this past summer when the garden and the farm share were yielding beets, beets, root veggies, beets and cabbage and more beets. While hungry and “complaining” about the bounty after playing ultimate one evening, a young guy (i.e. a guy younger than me) commenced eye-rolling, “Come one, just make borscht, it’s so easy. Even on a weeknight.” HUH? What did he say? He rattled off a generic recipe formula….”My wife and I love it in the summer; we just cook down some cabbage and onions, carrots or whatever else is around, add some water and beets; plop on some sourcream when the veggies are soft. It’s delicious hot, warm or cold.” WHAT? My head was spinning with challenges to my long held assumptions:
- Borscht is not just for Bubbies.
- Using canned beets is not required.
- Some long kept secret family recipe is not required.
- Some young, punky ultimate-playing guy can make this unusual old world soup.
- Same guy can whip it up on a weeknight in spite of having 2 young tots.
- It’s delicious. Really? OK, well I had to give it a try.
So now I am here to testify – borscht is delicious! You cook down some cabbage and onions slowly, almost caramelizing them; you add root veggies full of natural sugars. What’s not to like? OK, maybe this soup needs a better sounding name, however, even the ever skeptical chef Jeff was won over. Our summer’s bounty was transformed into various batches of borscht (or let’s call it veggie-beet soup), the leftovers now safely snuggled into the freezer for winter consumption. But don’t think of borscht as just a summer-time cold soup. Most of these ingredients are still available at the farmers market through the fall, and it’s a hearty, healthy vegetarian soup great served hot in this cold weather. I prefer it hot. Borscht is also a perfect use of frozen whole or stewed tomatoes too, putting back in a touch of that fresh summer flavor.
Instead of relying on Bubbie’s secret recipe I use Debra Madison’s the “The Ultimate Root Soup: Borscht” from Local Flavors as my guiding light. This soup is very amenable to substitutions – no leeks? Use extra white onion. No turnips? Use parsnips. Want a vegan version? Skip the sour cream. And on a weeknight…use canned broth. Full disclosure – I typically use canned broth, but for the Slow Food Huron Valley Harvest Cook-off a couple weeks ago, I made the stock from scratch. It was the soup/appetizer winner, so maybe I should call this particular version Blue Ribbon Borscht. Hard-core Ann Arbivores & Michivores will love this soup too, as you can source everything but the pepper and bay leaves from our local food shed. For this version all the vegetables except the celery came from Tantre Farm.
2 russet and 2 purple potatoes, peeled
4 carrots, peeled
5 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 large red onion
2 small white onions, one diced and one quartered
1 bunch baby turnips, scrubbed and trimmed
½ large green cabbage (equates to about 4 cups when shredded)
2 T butter
Salt and pepper
3 bay leaves
1 ¼ lbs of beets, peeled
1 package Locavorious frozen stewed tomatoes, or frozen whole tomatoes
1 T sugar
8 cups vegetable stock (recipe below), water, or some combination
6-10 sprigs parsley, half chopped, half whole
1 T red wine vinegar
½ cup sour cream
1 T horseradish
1 celery stalk
½ kohlrabi, chopped
2 Shiitake mushrooms
Vegetable stock: Wash/scrub the soup vegetables. Place peels from the carrots, beets, and two potatoes in a pot with three of the garlic cloves, two bay leaves, two teaspoons of salt, celery, kohlrabi, some parsley sprigs, the quartered white onion, and the Shiitake mushrooms. Other combinations of vegetable trimmings will work too. Cover with 10 cups of water; bring to a boil, then simmer while you prep the vegetables, ~ 45 minutes.
2. Chop these vegetables: onions, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, and the rest of the garlic.
3. Melt butter in a large soup pot. Add onions, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, and garlic. Toss with 1 T of salt, cover and cook over medium heat until the vegetables have wilted, ~ 25 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, dice the beets. Defrost the frozen stewed tomatoes enough to get them out of the container. If using frozen whole tomatoes, no need to defrost.
5. When the onions, cabbage, etc. are soft, add the beets, frozen tomatoes and 1 bay leaf. Keep the heat on medium and gently break up the tomatoes. Strain the stock and add it to the soup plus enough water to equal about 6 cups. Once the soup is boiling again, reduce heat to a simmer and cook an additional 25-30 minutes or just until the beets are tender.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and stir in 1 T vinegar. Sprinkle chopped parsley on top. Can also use chopped fresh dill.
7. Combine the sour cream and horseradish. Serve soup hot, warm or cold with a spoonful of the sour cream-horseradish on top.