First - a caveat. While I use ‘Borsht’ in the title, no self-respecting Russian would either spell or pronounce it this way. It really should be “Borsh” and so that’s what I’m going to call it.
A few things first. I am not very good at most things domestic, but I do love to cook. That being said - I don’t tend to use recipes or measuring devices. Mostly, my cooking consists of going through the fridge, then pantry and grabbing what’s there, then throwing them into whatever nifty mix of edibles my mind conjures up in that moment. But there are those old meals that I crave, the few things from my childhood, that are somehow immutable in the way I make them. My Borsh is one of those. Here is how I make it:
Here’s what you’ll need. Please note that I always make the largest pot I own full of borsh, as it takes a long time and there is a lot of labor involved. Making a smaller portion just seems like a waste. So the below list is for a large pot/small cauldron of this yummy goodness. It’ll last for a week in your fridge. Or you can do what I do when I make it - invite everyone you know to come over and feed them. :-)
- Beets. Don’t go for those yuppy gold or white or whatever other color beets you might stumble on at your local Whole Foods. You’ll want a nifty bunch (2-3 beets depending on size) of regular old red beets. Try to get a bunch with greens still on them if you can. If the greens are healthy, you’ll add these to your borsh.
- One small-medium sized head of green cabbage.
- 2-3 medium sized carrots.
- One large onion (white or yellow)
- 5-6 potatoes. I like to use white or yellow ones for this, not reds, but whatever you have will work.
- One beefsteak tomato or a few smaller ones.
- A meaty soup bone. It can be beef or lamb, just needs to have marrow in it and some meat. If you can’t find a decent shank that won’t cost you an arm and a leg - get some short ribs.
- Lemon or lemon juice, but fresh squeezed is best.
- Salt (to taste)
- Bay leaves. (2-3)
- Herbs (dill goes into mine, generally, but you can substitute some parsley, if that’s what you have. Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT put in cilantro. You’re going to ruin the whole damn thing.)
- Sour cream (because Russians add that shit to everything. In all seriousness, must have sour cream).
- Black bread (if you can find it, because that stuff just makes your borsh consumption so much more authentic-looking and tasting).
- Unsalted whipped butter to put on said bread. (Because salted butter is basically margarine and gross).
Ok, so you shopped for stuff and you’re staring at this rather large (and likely, pricy) collection of shit I just had you buy to make something as simple as soup. If you don’t hate me yet, read on. Making an authentic borsh that doesn’t taste like over salted donkey’s ass is a journey.
So here’s what you’re going to do next. Find your beets and wash them. Cut the greens off and leave them in the sink for now. Turn your oven on to 375 or so. Make a pocket for your beets out of aluminium foil, squeeze a drop of olive oil inside said pocket and place your beets there. You want to close the foil around them all the way. Do NOT poke holes in your beets. They’re not baking potatoes. They don’t like being poked. Throw them in the oven (inside a baking dish of some kind, so you don’t make a mess).
Take out a heavy-bottomed frying pan (cast iron, if you’ve got it. If not, don’t use those wimpy coated light things that don’t burn stuff. You can’t sear something on a pan that refused to burn stuff.) Put it on the stove and turn it on. Pour a wee bit of oil on it (any kind of oil you normally use for cooking is fine, so long as it’s not something weird smelling, like sesame or some such. So use Vegetable, olive (not virgin), sunflower oil, whatever. Let the sucker heat up.
Grab a large (largest you have) pot and fill it up 3/4 ways to the top with cold water. Drop that on the stove and turn the sucker up.
Find that hunk of meat and bone stuff you bought. Dry on all sides with a paper towel, then sprinkle all sides with kosher salt. Your pan should be hot by now. Drop that meat thingie in and let it sear. Your pan should be hissing at you like an ill-behaved snake. Make sure you get all the sides of the hunk of meat nice and brown.
While it’s searing in the pan, you want to get on your veggies. Chop up the onions. Peel the carrots (don’t be lazy and skip this step. The skin has a bitterness to it and you don’t want that in your soup.) Your meat is done now, I promise. Move the hunk of nicely browned meaty goodness to that pot of water that’s on the stove, probably boiling now. Add a shit ton of salt to the pot. It’s a large pot. It needs to be plenty salty. Don’t be a wuss. A teaspoon or two wouldn’t cut it. You’ll probably dump a few tablespoons. Close the lid and turn the temp on it to where it’s at a very low boil, practically a simmer.
You want to add a wee bit more oil to your frying pan, which if you were smart - you didn’t wash. You want that meat-browning, juicy, flavorful stuff on the bottom to stick to your veggies. Throw in your onions and let them cook, stirring occasionally.
While you wait, you want to shred your carrots. Not on the tiniest shredder but the one slightly larger than that. Flip your onions. Chop your tomato. Your onions are now done. Scoop them into the pot with the meat in it, drop in your bay leaves, close the lid and make sure it gets back to low boil.
Take the frying pan off the heat but do NOT wash it. Go take your dog for a twenty minute walk. Or pet your cat. Or wife. Or husband. Or make yourself a drink and drink it. Kill twenty minutes without touching anything.
Put your frying pan back on heat, medium to high. Add a bit of oil. Let it heat up.
Cut your lemon into wedges, and get rid of the seeds. Throw in your carrots and tomatoes, and immediately squeeze the juice out of one or two lemon wedges all over the veggies. Stir. This will keep the veggies the color they’re supposed to be. Neat trick for those Asian Stir-fries you’ll likely attempt someday.
You want to stir that mix occasionally and let it cook for about 8-10 minutes. While it’s doing that, grab your cabbage and wash it. You might need to take off the outer leaves. Don’t get rid of those. Throw them outside, in the yard or whatever you have. Deer and rabbits or whatever lived there before you moved in will love you.
Grab your very heavy and very sharp chef’s knife and slice the cabbage head in half. Then lay the half cut side down on your cutting board and slice that sucker as if you’re auditioning for one of them cooking shows. You should end up with thin, long slivers of cabbage. Repeat with the other half. That cost you about four minutes. Now peel those potatoes.
Your carrots and tomatoes are ready. Dump them into the soup pot. You’ll probably want to turn it up some now to get it to boiling again.
Take the frying pan off the heat. Do NOT rinse. You’re not done with it yet.
Your beets should be done now. Take a sharp skinny knife and poke the largest one. It should let the knife in without trying to fight it. Take the beets out of the oven and turn it off. You need to let the beets cool enough to where you can peel them. I generally dump a few cupfuls of ice over mine to accomplish that goal. If you live in Antarctica or elsewhere cold, throw them outside for a few minutes. Whatever. Just cool them a bit. Do NOT soak them in cold water. You’ll kill all the good that was ever in them.
Wash and chop your beet greens–stalks and all. Add to the pot. Stir. Add your sliced cabbage to the soup pot and stir. It is now safe to taste your almost borsh for salt content. Go ahead, taste it. Add more salt. Cover and let it simmer for a few minutes. Cut up your potatoes. I usually go for somewhat larger quarter chunks. You don’t want them small. You’re not making Campbells here. Drop the potatoes in and stir. Cover and let it low boil. Your place should be smelling rather amazing at this point, by the way. You’re welcome.
Clean your cutting board and chef’s knife. Your beets are now cool enough to handle. You want to turn your frying pan on and add a little oil to it if there isn’t any. Take your beets out of the sink, one at a time. You should be able to peel the outer skin off without much trouble by simply applying a bit of pressure. You shouldn’t need a knife for this. But, and this is important: beets have that intense, ridiculous purple stuff oozing out of them without warning. So unless you want your whole kitchen to look like a scene of a grizzly murder, you want to handle peeling of the beets with care. And preferably, just use your sink. You’ll still splatter some beet ink in places, it’s unavoidable. Just don’t rub your face with those hands, or you’ll look like a whore of Babylon.
Slice each beet in half and then into much smaller slices - kind of like what you did with that cabbage. Your pan should be nice and hot. Throw the beets into it and immediately squeeze whatever wedges of lemon you have left over them. Stir this mess for a few minutes.
Scoop them into the soup and watch it turn bright, shiny purple. Let it simmer for another 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are done.
Invite everybody you know.
Serve with a dollop (fuck that, a tablespoon) of sour cream and some dill. Pull out that black bread and non-margarine-like butter. Enjoy the hell out of it, because if you did what I told you to above - this stuff is gloriously good.
Goes well with chilled vodka, if you’re into that sort of thing.
PS: I ordinarily write fiction and an occasional bit of poetry. I'm a proud member and one of the founders of the Isle of Write group on Discord.
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