I spent my early childhood in Shanghai, where my food tastes and preferences got an early jump start, thanks to my grandmothers — mom’s mother Granny, from Iraq; and Baba, my father’s Russian mother. Both were exceptionally fine cooks who knew how to bring out the best in vegetables.
Thanks to them, 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. Now that winter has declared itself to be most assuredly here, I had a sudden craving for beets, cabbage and members of the onion family. What’s the best way to savor them? In borscht! It’s a classic Georgian bright red beet soup, and a specialty of my Baba's.
I say Georgian, but borscht’s long history includes many Eastern European cultures, each claiming the soup as its own creation. Borscht is basically a sweet-sour soup. Purists may 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, and that’s what I do.
Borscht can also have a life in the summer, 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. My mother, who knew Baba’s cooking well, contributed to Luba’s recollections.
This soup is really packed with vegetables that you add sequentially so that each cooks to its best texture. I begin by cooking the beets. My favorite method is wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven. While the beets bake, I prep the other vegetables so they’ll be all ready to add to the soup when their time comes.
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 about 2 pounds of oxtail or beef shank in a large saucepan with a little oil, add water to cover by an inch or two, and cook at a simmer for a couple of hours (or more) until the meat is completely tender. Use the unseasoned stock in your borscht.
This recipe makes a big batch. Trust me, you’ll be glad to have it around for second helpings. Happy cooking!
Makes 10 to 12 servings
6 medium size beets (2 1/2 to 3 pounds total)
2 large leeks (about 1 pound total)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound total), peeled and chopped
2 large carrots (8 ounces), peeled, cut in half lengthwise, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (1 1/2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 large green bell peppers (about 1 pound total), cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 quarts beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups shredded green cabbage (about 1 pound)
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more if needed
Sour cream or unflavored yogurt, for garnish
Fresh parsley or dill sprigs, for garnish
1. Wash the beets and wrap them tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Set them on a baking sheet and bake in the center of a preheated 400 degree oven for about 1 1/2 hours, or until tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Cool the beets in the foil. When cool enough to handle them, peel the beets and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes.
2. Split the leeks lengthwise and rinse under cool running tap water to wash away the dirt. Shake off excess water and pat the leeks dry. Thinly slice the white part and about 1 inch of the tender green portion. Save the dark green portion to use in stock.
3. Heat the oil in a large, heavy, 6- to 8-quart stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the beets and cook them for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown a bit. Add the leeks and onions and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots and garlic and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Toss in the potatoes, stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Add the bell peppers and cook another 2 minutes. Add the broth and salt and pepper to taste. If your broth is unsalted, about 2 teaspoons 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.
5. 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. You can make the soup ahead and reheat it slowly until piping hot before serving.
6. To serve, ladle the soup — it will be thick with vegetables — into warmed bowls and place a dollop of sour cream or yogurt in the center. Garnish with the parsley or dill. Before eating, swirl the sour cream or yogurt into the soup. Accompany with crusty bread.
Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.