The calling card of Russia: a magnificent purple soup like no other in color and taste; infinite in its manifestations, ecumenical in its ownership: served hot with potatoes in Ukraine by Orthodox Christians, and stone cold with sour cream on hot days in New York City by Jewish deli owners. As long as you have the essential ingredient of beets, which gives the soup its stunning color and unique taste, then regardless of what else you put in – it is still borscht. But this doesn’t stop people from passionately arguing the details.
A dramatic borscht war was waged in 1994, in preparation for a visit to Russia by Queen Elizabeth II, who graciously indicated she wished to try Russian food. St. Petersburg was absolutely “thrown into panic” A prominent European chef at the city’s only 5***** hotel slaved away on a nouvelle cuisine version of borscht: delicately poached new beets and baby carrots in a clear, light broth, which turned a delicate pink color when homemade crème fraiche was added. At a senior staff taste test, the Russians revolted. Someone produced his Russian babushka from a dacha with her famous version: thick, almost gelatinous with meat, a fine film of grease adding sheen to the purple broth, redolent with garlic and dill, with chunks of salted cabbage bobbing amongst the potatoes and carrots. The Chef threatened to quit on principle. Finally, an uneasy truce: the babushka’s broth was strained off, and the Chef’s baby beets and carrots were added. Or was it the other way around? No matter, Her Majesty sent compliments to the kitchen.
There is really only one secret to good “Babushka” borscht, and here it is: a cup of “rasol” or brine, which creates the tangy and sour zing, and also locks in the signature purple color. Be creative about your rasol: the juice from the sauerkraut will work, as will the brine from a jar of French cornishons. If you are stuck, use 1/3 of a cup of red wine or apple vinegar.
4 large beets, peeled and cooked whole until tender and julienned
Water from the beets
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, mashed
3 large tomatoes seeded and diced.
2 liters of beef, chicken or vegetable stock
300 grams of meat (lamb, pork, beef or a mixture of the three) cubed.
1 cup of sauerkraut, coarsely chopped
3 large carrots, julienned
1 cup of “rasol”
Salt, pepper to taste
½ cup fresh dill
½ cup fresh parsley
Chopped fresh dill and scallions
1. Prepare the beets ahead of time: place peeled beets in a large pot of cold salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until the beets are soft enough to pierce easily with a knife. Drain beets, retaining the water and let cool completely. Julienne the beets.
2. In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, sauté the diced onions and mashed garlic until translucent.
3. Add the diced and dried lamb, pork and beef, and brown gently.
4. Add the carrots, sauté briefly, and cook mixture covered for 10 minutes.
5. Add the stock, a liter of the retained beet water, beets, tomatoes, and sauerkraut. Bring to a gentle boil.
6. Simmer on low heat until the carrots are soft.
7. Add rasol and simmer for an additional 5 minutes
8. When ready to serve, taste, correct season and add dill and parsley
Borscht keeps for several days in the refrigerator, though it does not freeze well. Serve in a wide soup dish, garnish with sour cream or crème fraiche, chopped dill and scallions.