Borscht beets all for winter warmth
Few dishes are more aptly suited to counter the effects of the bracing February wind than hot borscht. I remember the first time it was served to me as a young child. My family was in Chicago for the weekend, and it was a typically frigid winter day. After seeking refuge in the Art Institute for most of the morning, we made the short but freezing walk down the block to the Russian Tea Time restaurant for lunch.
I remember walking into a huge wood-paneled restaurant, tables set with white linen and vintage Soviet-era posters lining the walls, and feeling the greatest sense of relief as warm, dark rye bread studded with sweet bites of onion and a mug of strong sweet tea was served. Soon to follow was a hot bowl of borscht, though at the time I had no idea what it was. Crimson red and steaming, I eagerly consumed the sweet-sour soup, laced with dill and sour cream.
Although often thought of as a Russian dish, and eagerly claimed by most other Slavic countries as one of their own, borscht is most strongly associated with the Ukraine, probably originating there around the 14th century. There are as many variations of the recipe as there are cooks in the former Soviet Republic. Beets are typically included in the dish now, and are responsible for its signature taste and color. The dish likely began as a stew made from the stems and leaves of common hogweed, a vegetable that was once widely used in Slavic cooking. Indeed, the word borscht is derived from the Slav “borshchevik” meaning “hogweed.” Likely beet and other wild or cultivated greens initially made up the bulk of this dish. Only years later would the beetroot come to be featured as the dish’s signature ingredient.
For most Ukrainian families, borscht constituted the mainstay of their diet. A proper borscht is often made up of 20 or so different ingredients and should be thick enough to stand up a spoon in it. Like so many hearty stews, borscht tastes better the next day, and it was usually prepared in vast quantities to sustain the family in the weeks ahead. The capacious borscht pot took center place in the middle of the table around which the family would assemble, often accompanied only by bread or boiled kasha (buckwheat) if meager circumstances resulted in a particularly thin soup.
Last weekend I returned to the Russian Tea Time restaurant – my husband and I were treating ourselves to a weekend in Chicago – and for nostalgia’s sake, I had planned to spend Saturday morning at the Art Institute. It was the day of the Women’s March, and the temperature outside was a freakishly warm 66 degrees. I shed my layers until I was down to a tank top, and was still sweating as we made our way to the museum through the crowd that had converged in Grant Park.
This time, when I walked into the restaurant I was struck by how small it seemed; the grand, old-world establishment dwarfed by my adulthood. It had been about 20 years since my last visit and, except for the scale of the room, it was exactly as I remembered, right down to the flowers on the tables and Soviet memorabilia on the walls. This time the restaurant was packed full of women in pink hats, faces flushed by fine weather and activism (and maybe a little vodka).
We were quickly seated at a small corner table and once again a basket of warm, dark bread was placed before me. We opted to try a flight of house-flavored vodkas in lieu of tea, and diligently tried to follow our waiter’s instructions for the proper consumption of Russian vodka. Our lunch came. My husband had ordered a delectable duck strudel with dried fruits, a dish that promised to give the diner a taste of the cuisine enjoyed by the Imperial Russian Court aristocracy. I had the borscht, of course, and I enjoyed it as much as I had that first time 20 years ago, though I have since learned to make it at home. As we ate our lunch I was struck by the layers of irony wrapped around this experience. Between bites of succulent duck fit for a czar and mouthfuls of a soup that sustained generations of Slavic peasants, I thought about all the women, fresh out of a march advocating for human rights, sitting in a restaurant celebrating the cuisine of a country with such a complicated humanitarian history. On that day at least the old Ukrainian proverb, “Borscht: the center of everything,” seemed to ring more true than ever.
Classic Ukrainian Borscht
Adapted from Please to the Table: A Russian Cookbook, by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman
• 12 cups beef stock, homemade or low-sodium
• 1 ½ pounds beef chuck
• 1 meaty ham hock
• 8 medium beets
• 4 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
• 2 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped
• ¼ cup vegetable oil or unhydrogenated lard
• 1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
• 2 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
• 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
• ¼ head cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
• ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
• 6 pitted prunes, chopped
• 3 tbsp. tomato paste
• 1 tsp. sugar
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Sour cream and chopped fresh dill, to serve
Brown beef chuck in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add stock and ham hock and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer partially covered for about one hour, until meat is tender. While the meat is simmering, wash and dry the beets and wrap in aluminum foil. Bake at 375 degrees until tender, about 1 hour. When cool enough to handle, peel the beets, cut them into ½-inch dice and set aside.
When the meat is done, remove it from the pot and set aside. Add potatoes and tomatoes, season to taste with salt, reduce heat to medium and simmer until potatoes are just soft, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil or lard in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots and peppers and cook, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add cabbage and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until cabbage wilts, 6-8 minutes. Add vegetable mixture, beets and lemon juice to stock in pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add prunes, tomato paste, sugar and salt and pepper to taste and continue to simmer until prunes soften and begin to dissolve, about 10 minutes more.
Shred reserved beef chuck into large pieces and add to soup. Pick meat off reserved ham hock, discarding fat, skin and bones, and add to soup. Simmer 15 minutes more. Remove pot from heat, add garlic, parsley and dill, then set soup aside to rest for 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Serve with sour cream and dill on the side.
Contact Ashley Glatz at Ashley@realcuisine.net.