February 17, 2005

Borscht 4.0  

Last Saturday we had our fourth annual borscht party. Every year I worry that we're over-hyping the event, because I always feel like cooking the soup is amateur hour -- I've never found a recipe that's excited me, and in general I don't think of borscht as a soup to thrill (a problem compounded by the dietary restrictions of our more, well, vegetarian guests).

The whole affair has its genesis in two experiences I had in college. One was a small dinner party with a vegetarian borscht whipped up by one of my friends (she ended up with a PhD in slavics, naturally) and some nice thick ribeye steaks grilled well beyond perfection by another -- there was nothing to do but chop up the steak and put it in the borscht. The other experience was with the parents of a Russian friend; his step-father taught me to eat the stuff in a very particular way: first, a bite out of a raw garlic clove dipped in salt; second, a bite of black bread thickly slathered with warm butter; third, a spoonful of borscht with plenty of sour cream mixed in; fourth, a shot of vodka, apparently as a chaser. This is, of course, the regimen we impose on our guests at the annual party. And if I ever get a grill, we'll be charring ribeyes as a garnish.

Anyway, the real point of this post isn't to tell stories, but to publish the recipe we used and comment a little on how it might be improved for next year. I must warn you that it's a work in progress, but for those who have asked (and for me, reading sometime next winter) here's a loose approximation of what we did this year:

4 medium yellow onions finely chopped
10 medium beets, peeled and cubed
10 medium carrots, peeled and cubed
1 bunch of celery, chopped
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium heads of cabbage, shredded
1/2 gallon vegetable stock
caraway seeds
sherry vinegar
white wine
safflower oil

1. Saute the onions in a large skillet over high heat with plenty of butter until translucent; place in a large stock pot. Deglaze the skillet with white wine and reduce; add the liquid to the pot with the onions.

2. Sweat the celery in a small amount of butter; add them to the pot.

3. Lightly salt the cabbage and saute it in butter, probably in batches (depending on the size of your skillet). Add the cabbage to the pot and deglaze the skillet with white wine as before.

4. Toss the cubed carrots and beets in a couple tablespoons of safflower oil and spread them evenly on a cookie sheet or two (we lined the cookie sheet with foil). Roast them at 350F for about 30 minutes, or until slightly caramelized. Add these to the pot as well.

5. Add the vegetable stock, 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar, 1-2 cups white wine, salt and pepper to taste, and maybe 1/4 tsp caraway seeds; bring to a light boil and then simmer. (At this point we refrigerated the soup overnight.)

6. About 90 minutes before serving, add the potatoes and continue to simmer. Serve with raw garlic cloves (peeled!), salt, black bread and butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and vodka as described above. This recipe made enough for maybe 16 people as a main course.

The real departure here was the roasted beets and carrots; we were looking for a way to bring out the sweetness of the beets in this soup. It didn't really work -- the soup ended up being dominated (as usual) by the cabbage and wasn't nearly as sweet as we were hoping. Moreover, the beets lost their color to an extent I don't remember from years past -- in the final presentation they were almost indistinguishable from the potatoes! I don't know if this was the result of the roasting, the long simmering, or both.

It may sound extravagant, but next year we'll probably do steps 1-5 without the roasting or the caraway seeds, simmer for awhile, discard the vegetables, reduce the liquid, and call that the stock. Then on the day the borscht is to be eaten we'll start over, same vegetables, maybe with less cabbage, and do it all again. No need, I think, to roast the carrots, but we'll roast the beets as described above and add them near the end, so they retain their color and their sweetness in the final presentation. Or at least, that's what we'll do unless we think of something more interesting.

(By the way, borscht may not be the preferred spelling. My friend -- the one with the PhD -- writes it as borshch, which is a standard transliteration; I believe borsch would also be acceptable, but under a different system. I used borscht because that's what I've always done, and also because that seems to be the spelling in widest use -- it dominates the others, if only just, in Google hits.)


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