Saturday, January 15, 2011

I made borsht

Never Done: I made borsht

I never liked borsht. I tried it hot, I tried it cold. I tried it home made, I tried it bottled. I tried it with sour cream, and without. I didn't like borsht. Then Sally, who is a spectacular cook, made it for dinner when I was in Portland, and I loved it. Loved it like it I wished I had a bigger appetite, so I could have had seconds. Loved it like I asked for the recipe. Which she gave me. Which I quadrupled. Which I made for Brooklyn Soup Swap. Which took forever. Which came out great. Which looks gorgeous in the glass jars. Which I served at a potluck with fellow swappers Mich, Abigail, and Melissa, and with guest slurpers Josh and Jane, who I've just met for the first time, who designs toys, and has an Etsy store called Hazel Village, and who brought a gaze of empty raccoon kits she had sewn, and stuffed them after dinner while I sewed some more flaxseed lavender bags. (Yes, I just wrote "a gaze of empty raccoon kits" -- a phrase for which I had to look up not one but two words. A group of raccoons is called either a nursery or a gaze, and baby raccoons are kits.) But this is about borsht.

Here's how I made it. I cleaned 16 beets, and rubbed them with oil, and put them into a roasting pan and baked them at 350 for what was supposed to be an hour. Only I left them in for 2 hours, because they were not at all soft after 1 hour. In a big soup pot, I melted two sticks of butter over high heat, and sautéed 8 diced onions until soft, and then added 20 cloves of diced garlic, 6 sliced carrots, and four sliced parsnips. I lowered the heat, and let those vegetables get soft. Then I added two 15 oz boxes of chopped tomatoes, 16 cups of vegetable broth, 8 tablespoons of honey, and I was supposed to add 8 bay leaves, 4 teaspoons of dry oregano, and 4 teaspoons of dry basil. Only I didn't have any bay leaf or basil, so I used 8 teaspoons of herbes de Provence instead, which means there was some rosemary in there too, and some thyme, and probably some savory as well. I brought all that to a boil, and then let it simmer while I peeled the cooled beets, and julienned them. Which is the part that took forever, and was also the most satisfying part -- knowing how well these little strips of beets would fit onto a spoon, and knowing how tender they would become. Then I added the beets to the soup, and was supposed to simmer it for 30 minutes, but mine needed about an hour to get the beets soft. Then I added a lot of salt, and waited for it to cool down enough to spoon into Ball Mason jars.

It came out great. As good as Sally's even, which is something of a full circle, because it was Sally's mother Lily who taught me how to make matse balls almost 20 years ago. Lily is a wonderful cook and seamstress from Japan, where she learned to make matse ball soup in her post-graduate home ec studies. It always delighted us both that my very authentic and fluffy matse balls are courtesy of the Japanese educational system. And now Sally's gone and taught me how to make borsht. What's next? Will Mayumi (Sally's daughter, who is also a good young cook who made lychee sorbet by simply blending lychees and ice) teach me how to make kreplakh, which I tried to make once, and which came out like with meat wrapped in in glue? (If she is going to, she's going to have to do it soon, because Mich and Abigail and I talked about having a kreplakh party, and I bet between us, we will unlock the secrets of the Jewish dumpling.) Or pickle my own herring?

But I think it's different. I don't think there's a trick to making borsht, the way there's a trick to getting matse balls light and fluffy, or ungummy kreplakh. I think my rite of passage isn't so much that I made borsht, but that I liked it. That I can hold my head up high now, proud and Jewy, and ask for seconds of the sweet red soup of the Slavs.


  1. Is the Russian version also sweet? I don't recall that flavor from my childhood? I don't have borscht often since it is so often beefy (in other Russian households) and I am pretty sure that my mother never put in honey.

  2. Well, if you think about the original recipe, which is one quarter this much, but still serves 8, then it only has 2 TBS honey, which divided by the 8 people eating, is only (I know you really want me to break this down for you) a 1/4 TBS, which is less than a teaspoon, per bowl. So it's not that much honey. I think the beets are sweeter, but the honey smoothes out the flavor a little. But I'd be curious to know if your mom throws in a little sugar or not. And when I called it sweet, I didn't really mean sweet sweet like Thai food. Just sweet from beets, carrots, parsnips, and onions.