Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rebecca's Borscht

Even if you're not sure about beets, give this soup a try!

I am bad at eating vegetables. There are maybe four I actually enjoy eating, maybe ten or so if you really press me, but I'm one of those people who would much rather eat a cookie than celery sticks for a snack, and venturing outside of my vegetable comfort zone isn't something I do very often.

So basically, I was pretty content to not eat beets, just walk right by them at salad bars and such because they weren't something I'd tried or really wanted to try, just like how most kids assume they're going to hate brussel sprouts before they give them a fighting chance. (Which, yes, I don't like brussel sprouts either.) When my mom suggested making borscht for a Rebecca themed dinner this week, I was skeptical at best, and prepared to hate it at worst, but figured hey, might as well give it a shot. I mean, it doesn't get more Russian cuisine than borscht, right?

I am pleased to report that while I'm still probably going to be avoiding the beets at the salad bar, this soup was actually really tasty! It's sweet and sour, can be served hot or cold, and while I think I prefer it warm, it definitely tastes good chilled, too. Don't let the beets scare you! I promise this is actually a deceptively simple soup to make and might even convince you that this weird root vegetable isn't such a bad thing after all.

One thing I was surprised to discover while looking for a recipe to use was how many variations on borscht there were. It apparently got its start in the Ukraine, but it's popular throughout Eastern Europe, which means there is a fair amount of regional variation in recipes depending on where you're getting it from. That's common sense, obviously, but I was even more surprised to find out that even amongst the Russian variety, people have a pretty loose idea of what constitutes an authentic Russian borscht.

For example, the first recipe I wanted to use called for kidney beans, potatoes, ground beef and several other ingredients that my mom thought definitely did not belong in a traditional Russian borscht, despite that being the recipe author's family recipe brought to America unchanged by her mother's mother. I looked at a lot of different recipes, and while there is always beets, cabbage and onions in it, it's pretty incredible how many different ways people can define a traditional dish.

Eventually we turned to the trusty The American Century Cookbook, which I talked about when we made the beef stroganoff casserole. Actually, it was my mom's idea to look and see if they had one because we couldn't agree on a recipe we found online. Excitingly, it also had a couple really interesting tidbits about this specific recipe, which is one of the reasons I really love this cookbook.

The author explains that while borscht came to America with people like Rebecca's family - Russian immigrants who brought the dish over to pass down to their children and grandchildren - it took the rest of America much longer to be introduced to it. The author herself hadn't had the dish until the 1950's, and this recipe was one she developed is based off of the soup served at the Russian Tea Room that used to be on West 57th Street in New York City.

The recipe starts off instructing you to chop up your cabbage, onions and parsley. I have no idea what we're going to do with the rest of the cabbage, though. We don't eat it often and this recipe really only needed about a quarter of it, so we're left with quite a bit of cabbage that needs to find a home.

These all go in a saute pan with some cooking oil, which is pretty straightforward and easy to do.

The recipe called for canned beets, but we just bought some pre cooked beets. Half of these are chopped up and put in the saute pan, while the other half are set aside for later.

Beef broth, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, and tomato paste are also put in the saute pan, and then left to cook for about fifteen minutes. I'll admit this was my least favorite part of the recipe because I was missing a sous chef and kind of didn't prep everything before reaching that point in the recipe, which meant I felt kind of rushed and hurried to get everything in the pan at once. I don't like risking over cooking or wrecking a recipe by not getting everything in the pan at the right time, but apart from that, this was a pretty easy recipe.

The soup is pretty watery and not particularly soup...y until you add the other beets. I discovered that we do, in fact, have a small food processor, which I thought we didn't back in our first Lewis and Clark themed recipe. It's still definitely not big enough to do anything that would have saved me some time with the pastry cutter in that post, but it's nice to know that we've got it.

The beets and the juice go in, you pulverize them, and wind up with a beet paste that really thickens the soup.

That goes right in, and then after mixing it, you're basically ready to serve it. I ended up having to wait a while to serve it because my brother had a basketball game, but it heated up pretty quickly.

You could just serve it this way, but a dollop of sour cream and dill really brings it all together.

Overall, I was really impressed by this recipe. It's not my favorite thing I've ever made for this blog, but considering my expectations were pretty low and I'm still not a huge fan of beets, I really can't stress enough that this is something you should try, even if you don't think you'll enjoy it. It's a good balance between thick and watery, and the vinegar gives it a nice acidity. I'm glad I decided not to let my lack of enthusiasm about beets get in the way of giving this a try. It was definitely something different, and it definitely wasn't something I would ever have been adventurous enough to try at a restaurant before starting this blog.

We've got a lot of left overs, and I'm curious to try the chilled version of the soup tomorrow!

I'll try to remember to report back on how it goes.


  1. I'm happy to see you did this recipe! My mom and her side of the family are all Russian, so I've had this soup plenty of times growing up :) I can't remember exactly what my mom would put in, but I don't think we had any strange extras like beef or potatoes (though I don't think putting potatoes in borscht is too far out).

    Was pulverizing the beets part of the recipe? I don't think my mom ever did that; I think she just cut the beets into chunks (though I could be wrong; I haven't made the soup myself).

    1. It was! The recipe said to set half of your beets aside, chop up one half and cook them with everything else for a while, and then pulverize and add the remaining beets after about fifteen minutes on the stove. It really helped thicken the broth a little and make everything taste pretty beet-y, although I'm pretty sure this step was unique to this recipe and the other ones I looked at just wanted you to chop your beets up.

      Not going to lie, I think potatoes would be a good way to beef up the recipe a little if you were looking for something a little heartier, I might have to try it next time. :|a Although I like potatoes in everything so that might just be me being biased ahaha.