Thanks to my two grandmothers, I grew up eating lots of vegetables from different parts of the world. Granny cooked with Middle Eastern and Indian ones, and Baba with those that grew in Russian Georgia and Siberia.
I spent my first childhood in Shanghai, and my food tastes and preferences got an early jump start because my grandmothers truly were excellent cooks. Now that it’s winter, my food wants lean toward beets, cabbage and members of the onion family. So I make borscht, the classic Georgian bright red beet soup that was a specialty of my Baba. I say Georgian, but borscht has a long history and many Eastern European cultures claim it as their own. It’s basically a sweet-sour soup, and purists will want to slice and ferment raw beets to make kvass, the sour liquid added to borscht just before serving. Lemon juice does the job very nicely too.
Borscht also can be made in the summer and served chilled. But hot is the way I like it best. I can’t claim this to be Baba’s recipe, but my Aunt Luba, Baba’s daughter, helped me reconstruct it from her memories.
This soup is really packed with vegetables, and you add them sequentially so that each cooks to its best texture. I begin by cooking the beets first, and my favorite way of doing that is wrapping the beets in foil and baking them in the oven. While the beets bake, get the other vegetables prepped, and you’ll be all set to cook.
Some cooks include meat by making a stock first and cutting the cooked meat into pieces to add to the soup close to serving time. If you want to do that, brown some oxtail or beef shank in a saucepan with a little oil, add water to cover by an inch or two, and cook at a simmer until the meat is completely tender. Use the unseasoned stock in your borscht.
Makes 6 or more servings
3 medium size beets (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds total)
1 large leek (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces), peeled and chopped
1 large carrot (4 ounces), peeled, cut in half lengthwise, and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (3/4 pound total), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 large green bell pepper (about 8 ounces), cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 quarts beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups shredded green cabbage (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more if needed
Sour cream, for garnish
Fresh dill sprigs, for garnish
Wash the beets and wrap them tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bake in the center of a preheated 400 degree oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Cool the beets in the foil. When you can handle them, peel the beets and cut them into 1/4-inch cubes.
Split the leek lengthwise and rinse under cool running tap water to wash away the dirt. Shake off excess water and pat the leek dry on paper towels. Thinly slice the white part and about 1 inch of the tender green portion. Save the dark green portion to use in stock.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy 4- to 6-quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the beets and cook them for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown a bit. Add the leek and onion and stir and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the carrot and garlic and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Toss in the potatoes, stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper and cook another 2 minutes. Add the broth and salt and pepper to taste. If your broth is unsalted, about 1 teaspoon salt should be enough. Bring the soup to the boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat. Stir in the cabbage and bring borscht back to the boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer the borscht, uncovered, until the cabbage and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Adjust the seasoning carefully with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
To serve, ladle the soup — it will be thick with vegetables — into warmed bowls and place a dollop of sour cream in the center. Garnish with the dill. Before eating, swirl the sour cream into the soup.