Eating Maine: Perfect Borscht

borscht ready to goEating local is a fine idea. It gives you fresher food, it supports local farms and the local landscape, it is generally a feel-good way to fill your pantry shelves, and it very likely provides a much tastier diet than you can get from all those supermarket produce bins filled with eggplants from Australia, tomatoes from Mexico, and cucumbers from Lord-knows-where.

But here in the frigid northeastern corner of the U.S., winter presents peculiar obstacles for locavores. Fact is that from January through March, precious little grows in our fields and gardens. Even the occasional green salad derived from an Eliot Coleman unheated hoop house [for more information check out Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook—], while deeply gratifying in its freshness, comes at a cost most household budgets can’t afford more than a few times a month. So, just like our 19th century forebears, we fall back on the store left over from fall harvests–potatoes, onions, garlic, root vegetables, squashes, all those dull everyday vegetables that are pantry staples but quite uninspiring to the average cook.

Unless we look a little farther afield for inspiration. Yesterday was the first real snowstorm of the winter, and I went back to an old favorite that I haven’t made in years: beetroot borscht, the great winter soup of Eastern Europe. Poles, Ukrainians and Russians contest the contents of this soup just as vigorously and dogmatically as Italian cooks arguing about various ragus. There’s even a cold version of borscht but we’ll save that for summertime and fresh beets and beet greens in the garden. For now, here’s a heart- and belly-warming version that is welcome on chilly winter nights. It makes enough for about eight servings.

mise en placeEvery single thing in this soup, including the meats, came from Maine gardens and purveyors, with the exception of the celery and the bay leaves (I don’t count salt and black pepper actually). The bay Ieaves were brought back from Tuscany, from the big bay tree that grows just outside our kitchen door. As for the celery—I could have left that out but what I had was so fresh, with good dark green stalks on the outside, just what you want to flavor a soup, that I could not resist adding a bit.

Note that you will first have to make a beef broth, but that can be done way in advance and either refrigerated or frozen until you’re ready to use it.

For the beef broth:

  •             About 2 ½ pounds beef shin, cut in pieces at least an inch thick
  •             1 medium onion
  •             1 fat garlic clove
  •             2 medium carrots
  •             1 leek
  •             1 dried red chili pepper
  •             2 bay leaves
  •             Sea salt and black pepper

Put the meat in a heavy stock pot and add the whole onion and garlic clove, both peeled. Cut up the carrots and the leek, rinsing the leek carefully to get rid of any sand, and add, along with the chili pepper and the bay leaves. Now add 8 or 9 cups of cold water, enough to cover all the ingredients and set the pot, uncovered, over medium-low heat. Bring the liquid slowly to a simmer, skimming frequently to get rid of the scum that rises to the top. You will simmer the broth for 3 hours or more, adding more cold water (2 cups at a time) as the liquid cooks down, and skimming regularly. The solid ingredients should always be covered with liquid. You will probably add at least another 6 cups, maybe even 8.

When the broth is ready and full of flavor, remove the pot from the heat and let it cool down a bit, then remove the vegetables and discard them. Remove the meats and set aside. When the broth is quite cool, strain it through a very fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. You should have 6 to 8 cups of broth. At this point, you could put the broth in the refrigerator and wait for any fat to congeal on the top, when it can be easily removed. Now the broth can be refrigerated or frozen until you’re ready to use it.

Pull the meat off the beef bones and chop it, then set aside to be added to the borscht during cooking (refrigerating, obviously, if you’re not going to make the borscht right away).

Now make the borscht:

  •             2 pounds fresh beets
  •             1 small onion, chopped fine
  •             2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
  •             2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  •             2 medium carrots, cut in small bite-sized dice
  •             1 fat leek, cut in half and sliced thin
  •             2 celery stalks, cut in half and sliced thin
  •             6 to 8 cups beef broth
  •             2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  •             1 teaspoon sugar
  •             1 pound russet potatoes, cut in small bite-sized dice
  •             ½ pound parsnips, cut in small bite-sized dice
  •             ½ pound white turnips, cut in small bite-sized dice
  •             Sea salt and black pepper
  •             2 cups chopped beef, left over from preparing beef broth
  •             ½ pound kielbasa, preferably smoked, sliced thin
  •             ¼ small green cabbage, shredded
  •             Garnishes: Thick Greek yogurt or sour cream and minced fresh dill

raw beetsSet aside the smallest beet to be added later. Peel the rest of the beets and cut in small bite-sized dice.

Combine the chopped onion and garlic with the olive oil in the bottom of a heavy soup kettle. Set over medium-low heat and cook gently until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the beets, then the carrots, leek and celery, stir into the onions, and cook for about 10 minutes, adding a cup of beef broth if the vegetables start to brown.

While the vegetables are cooking, peel the remaining beet and grate it on the large holes of a grater into a bowl. Mix with the vinegar and sugar and set aside.

Add the potatoes, parsnips, and turnips along with the remaining broth and cook gently, covered, until the vegetables are soft. If the soup is too thick, add boiling water. Stir in the grated beet. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Stir in the chopped beef and kielbasa and when the soup returns to a simmer, add the cabbage, stirring to mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or vinegar if you wish.borscht coming together

Serve the soup, garnishing each plate with a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkle of fresh dill.

NB: The vegetables may be varied, depending on what’s in season and available, as long as beets dominate. One variation I particularly like: substituting delicious Morse’s sauerkraut (from Waldoboro, Maine; for the cabbage. As you’ll see in the  photo above, a few coin-shaped slices of fresh radish make a nice addition to the garnish too.

borscht ready to go



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