Borscht

Traditions are acts of jealous keeping. I’ve wanted to make borscht (or borsch, depending who you’re asking) for some time now, and have never encountered such a battlefield of opinions over a recipe until this red bowl of soup! Do I put in meat? No, never! says my Polish co-worker, who also advises that borsch takes a long time to make, so leave it for a weekend. But, I quipped in, a book I read says you can use beef bone as a soup base. She firmly shook her head and wrote a name on the piece of paper I was scrawling recipe notes on. Vegeta, it read. Use this instead for flavour, but add it near the end of the cooking, she instructed. How about potatoes? Hmm, she ruminates, you can have it on the side, boiled, and with some sour cream and fresh dill. Dimples appear when she says dill, because this little Polish friend of mine lavishes most–if not all–of her summer dishes with dill. I also asked about tomato soup, and a look of horror flashed across her face. Soup? No, use beets!

Even online, you’d be hard-pressed to find an agreement on a borsch recipe. Originally I wanted to make cold borsch for the summer–an alternative to gazpacho, if you will–but the only agreement I could find was that I should try the hot version instead of the cold one. There also seemed to be an implied consensus that cold borsch wasn’t really borsch since it relies on vegetable juice instead of fresh tomatoes, beets and herbs. So be it. The last thing I’d want to make is a fake borsch on the first attempt!

Then this weekend I had the opportunity to visit a writing friend in Peterborough, who also has her version of borscht that she swears by. It’s Mennonite, Natasha proudly wrote in our email correspondence leading up this visit, which would also allow for cabbage harvest, cherry tomato jewels and ruddy roots she saved un-troved from her garden. And Mennonite borscht is spelled with a “t”, my second borscht expert told me.

With a jotted recipe on the inside flap of her family cookbook, her borscht recipe has more ingredients than steps. On our knees and peering into bushes for the edible treasures, we harvested several ingredients from her garden (yes, Natasha has that many vegetables growing back there to consider it harvesting … Check out the photos on my Flickr). Multiple trips back into the kitchen and out to the yard for more bowls, I felt like the lucky stranger that came just at the right night of a bumper crop. Then we drove around town prowling three grocery stores after 6pm in the middle of Labour Day weekend, in vain pursuit of a soup bone. Believe it or not, there was none except for some questionable oxtail. Oxtail, Natasha said with a crumpled expression, is not the same as beef soup bone. I insisted it was used for many a stew, but the crosswise presentation of a halal tail segments doesn’t really help the cause. I just can’t bring myself to think we’re adding tails to the borscht, she said. We came back with strips of short rib with some solid bone, which made for great stewed meat in the end product.

Chop, chop, chop in the kitchen. Natasha said the sound of vegetables is something she loves when making borscht. True enough, the squishy squeeze of compacted cabbage layers coming undone at the running blade of a knife is something you don’t notice or hear everyday. My favourite part about her borscht is the subtle taste of dill, which we also foraged from her house and neatly packed into tea infuser balls. Ornaments of parsley and peppercorn; parsley and dill seed endowed their flavours into the giant pot of stew. You can’t have borscht without the dill, my friend says. Before I associated dill with popcorn, but now my eyes have been opened!

So there you have it–real borscht, though not quite borsch. Disagree with the recipe or method? Join the coterie of traditionalists, but let’s have a bowl first.

Natasha’s Mennonite borscht recipe

  • 1 beef soup bone
  • 2 quarts water, or half a pot
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 potatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 cabbage (red or green), chopped
  • 1 tsp, each dill seed and/or dill
  • 1 tsp black peppercorn
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley
  • 2 cans tomato soup
  • salt, to taste
  • Put water in a large pot, and add the beef bone and onions. Let the water boil.
  • Add the rest of the vegetables. Let the pot continue boiling for about an hour, with the lid off.
  • In the meantime, prepare the herbs. We placed them in two tea infusers: one filled with peppercorns and dill, another filled with parsley and dill seed, but you can also tie them together with stringe. Suspend the herbs in the pot, ensuring that they are beneath water level.
  • After the first hour, add the tomato soup. Add salt to taste. Let the soup simmer for another 45 minutes to one hour.
  • Serve with a good loaf of bread and butter. Or ever better, Natasha tells me, homemade biscuits or buns if you have the energy!
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