Having lived in a number of countries and having dabbled in various cuisines, I came to think of myself as a bit of a culinary (and cultural, for that matter) chameleon. Whenever I make a vat of borscht, however, there is no mistaking me for anything other than a native Russian. Coincidentally, borscht also happens to be one of my husband’s favorite dishes, and, as luck would have it, his foreign wife came with built-in borscht-making skills (although, due to the number of steps involved, I only make it once or twice per year).
Since, as I said, I think of borscht as relatively labor-intensive, I always make about eight quarts at a time – it keeps wonderfully in the fridge for up to a week and freezes well too.
To properly enjoy borscht, you need to make it a day ahead, so all the flavors have a chance to meld and mellow out.
I always start my borscht with making beef stock using either marrow bones or roasts, or a combination of both. You can find a step-by-step bone-broth tutorial here:
In this particular case, I made my stock using two kinds of roasts – a chuck roast, which was perhaps a tad gristly for the job, and the so-called arm roast, which comes from the front of a steer and includes a cross-section of a marrow bone. Arm roast is my favorite in many applications (including pot roast), because it cooks up tender and has very little gristle or connective tissue throughout (and then, of course, there is that marrow bone – a prized Old-Country delicacy, exalted in many a work of Russian literature).
As far as the ratio goes, I usually use between 4 and 6 lb of beef to approximately 8 quarts (2 gallons) of water to get a gallon or so of stock by the time it is done in two to three hours. Note that I don’t simmer my stock an entire day, as I want the meat to retain some of its juiciness and flavor so I can cube it and add it to the soup later. Because I don’t often measure when I cook, I sometimes end up with borscht that is a little too thick, in which case I pour in extra water to get it to the right consistency. I then make up for diluting the beef flavor by adding a little bit of this nifty product towards the end (and since this particular concentrate tends to be really salty, I hold off on salting my borscht until I’ve added the beef base).
Whether you use packaged broth (which, by the way, did not exist in the old country) or homemade stock, ultimately it is beets that make borscht what it is, and I like mine roasted rather than boiled or sauteed (roasting directions, as well as all proportions, will be given in the recipe below).
Notice how smart I am, lining my cookie sheet with parchment paper to avoid beet-juice chiseling afterwards.
Next, we are going to be needing a few more root vegetables. I like to use carrots, parsnips, turnips, and celeriac, which I grate and saute in butter along with chopped onions prior to adding to the soup. With the exception of onions and celeriac, I leave these vegetables unpeeled.
Saute them until they look like this.
Next, stir about 2/3 to 1 can of tomato paste into the veggies you just sauteed while keeping your pan over low heat to help the paste melt. Please don’t be tempted to use fresh tomatoes instead, as they won’t give you the same robust flavor and throw off the texture.
Next, shred the cabbage (a sharp chef’s knife works really good for this).
Now grab your cooled beets and grate them.
Finally, cube the meat from the stock. Here I actually made a mistake of tearing it apart along the grain rather than slicing it across the grain, which would make the meat tender rather than chewy.
Note the marrow bone section at right. Back in the Old Country, bone marrow is considered a precious commodity worth fighting for, and I certainly don’t share mine with anyone. This, my friends, is the treat for the cook – I scoop it out with a spoon, sprinkle it with salt, and eat it with a piece of bread.
Once these preparations are complete, you can begin putting all parts together. Here is the complete recipe:
Meaty, Garlicky Russian Borscht
Makes approximately 7 to 8 quarts
For the stock:
- 2 roasts, such as chuck or arm, 2 to 3 lbs each, or 4 to 6 lbs soup bones (or some combination of both)
- 2 gallons cold water
- 1 whole turnip, unpeeled
- 1 whole large onion, peeled and studded with 10-12 cloves
- 2 large carrots, unpeeled
- 1/2 celeriac, peeled
- 2 large bay leaves
- 10 dried allspice berries
For the soup:
- 12 medium beets
- 1 medium head of cabbage, shredded (do not use the core)
- 2 small to medium unpeeled turnips, grated
- 2 medium to large unpeeled parsnips, grated
- 4-6 unpeeled carrots, grated
- 1/2 celeriac, peeled and grated
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 2 potatoes, cubed
- 3 sticks of butter, for sauteing the vegetables
- 2/3 to 1 whole 8-oz can tomato paste
- meat reserved from making the stock, cubed
- 1 whole head of garlic, cloves peeled and minced
- organic beef base, or an equivalent
- additional water or stock, as needed
- lemon juice, to taste
- salt and black pepper, to taste
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped
- sour cream and extra parsley, for serving
Place meat and vegetables in cold water and bring to a simmer. Skim off the scum that will rise to the top just before the simmering point. Once the stock is simmering, add bay leaf and allspice. Cover partially and simmer for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fork-tender and the liquid had been reduced by at least half. Let cool and strain, reserving the meat and discarding the vegetables and spices. Note that I don’t degrease my stock, but if you’d like to do it, chill it in the fridge overnight and use a slotted spoon to remove solidified fat from the surface in the morning.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Wrap the beets tightly in foil and pierce the packages (the foil and the beets) with a fork in several places to allow some of the steam to escape, thus preventing them from exploding in your oven. Place on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast for for 1 to 1.5 hours, or until a knife can be slid easily in and out. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and unwrap. To peel them easily, hold each beet under warm running water while rubbing it with your hands – the skins will slip right off. Grate cooled beets and set aside.
Melt butter in a large stainless steel saute pan or a dutch oven (don’t be taken aback by the amount of butter – it will all be absorbed by the veggies before you know it). When the butter begins to foam, add grated parsnips, turnips, carrots, celeriac, and chopped onion and saute until the onions are translucent and the root vegetables begin to soften. Reduce the heat to low and stir in tomato paste. Set aside.
Bring strained stock to a boil and add the cabbage and the cubed potatoes. Reduce to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes. Add sauteed root vegetables and 3/4 of grated beets (we’ll be adding the rest towards the end for additional color boost). Continue simmering gently, partially covered, for 40 minutes. If your soup appears too thick at this point, feel free to add more water or extra stock until the consistency is right. If using homemade stock, add beef base (do not add extra salt until you are done adding beef base as it tends to be very salty on its own). Stir in the remaining beets, cubed meat, minced garlic, pepper, lemon juice, and more salt if needed (the exact amount of lemon juice will depend on your taste, but the goal is to strike a perfect balance between sweetness and acidity so your borscht is neither too sour, nor too sweet). Simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the beets are no longer dark-red and the garlic has mellowed out. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley.
Let cool and refrigerate overnight before serving the next day.
And this is what it will look like. Serve borscht with sour cream, more parsley, and some fresh, crusty bread.