Flash in the Pan: The borscht adventure

The borscht runs strong in my family. My Ukrainian ancestors spoke Yiddish, from which the word “borscht” is derived, even if the Russians take credit for it. I learned at an early age that borscht need not even contain beets to be authentic. What it does need is some humble, earthy vegetables, and it should be sour enough to cover any bitterness.

The first borscht was probably made with the root of the cow parsnip, a wild plant that often goes by Indian rhubarb in North America. These days, while root-based borschts are common, so too are leafy versions, which are called green borschts, and are built around the likes of cabbage, spinach, chard and nettle. Sorrel, prized among green borscht makers, is so sour and lemony that you don’t even have to add lemon juice. In Polish white borscht, the sourness comes from fermented oatmeal, and it is served with boiled sausage and eggs. My mom recalls cold borscht with potato, sweet and sour borscht with beets, lemon and sugar, and many other meaty and vegetarian versions.

At its best, eating borscht is a celebration, as much an event as a meal, and the dish is lavished with garnishes, sauces and sides, like a feijoada completa in Brazil. At its worst, well, that would probably be the bowl I suffered on my first day in Mother Russia.

It was on a northbound train that had, hours earlier, entered Siberia from Mongolia. At that border crossing, the Chinese-run dining car near our berth, and its fantastic Chinese food, had been replaced with a Russian-run dining car staffed with a crew that projected the distinct vibe that they didn’t want us to be there. Indeed, there wasn’t much space for dining, as the car was packed floor to ceiling with boxes. Techno music was thumping along with the rocking train. One table, near the edge of the boxes, was occupied by two women in bright red lipstick, who played cards and smoked.

We sat down at the other table.

The waitress arrived. She was large and cold, but with a flicker of pity in her eyes, like someone about to cook a lobster. As she took our orders, in broken English, the cook glared at us from the galley.

Eventually a stocky man with short blond hair brought us bowls of faintly purple water, in which fragments of purple cabbage and sliced hot dog floated.

At the time I couldn’t believe that this miserable excuse for food might actually qualify as borscht. Now that I’m older, wiser, and have access to Wikipedia I realize that Moscow-style borscht can in fact have slices of Vienna sausage, aka hot dogs.

Our dining experience turned out to be “Moscow style” in more ways than one, we realized, when the bill arrived. While the menu priced the borscht at about three dollars a bowl, our bill for two bowls came to $25.

In response to our protests the man, who didn’t speak English, pointed to various items on the table, the implication of his grunts and gestures being that in addition to the borscht we had to pay for the use of the silverware, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, etc.

We resisted. He pointed to my leg, mimed a karate chop, and dropped the only English word I ever heard him say.

“Mafia,” he said.

Maybe Mafia isn’t an English word, but I got it.

We caved to the borscht ultimatum, choosing to pay the money and live to eat a bowl of borscht another day. Preferably somewhere else. Luckily, the creepy train car was gone by morning.

The borscht may not have been with us that night, but I’ve made many batches since, each one sweetened by that dangerously sour memory. I’ve messed around with green borscht, which is worth making if you can get sorrel. Otherwise, I stick to red, with red meat. Preferably a tough piece that’s still on the bone, like shank, neck, hock, or really meaty soup bones. It takes a while for such meat to soften, however, so if you’re in a rush it can be made with more tender pieces of meat, or none at all.

Ultimate Borscht

1 or more lbs. meat on the bone (beef, venison, pork…)

1 15-oz. can of cubed tomatoes

1 large onion, chopped

1 lb. beets, trimmed and cut into ½-inch slices

4 cups grated or chopped cabbage

3 stalks celery, minced

3 large carrots, sliced

1 large or several small potatoes, cut

4 cloves garlic, chopped or mashed

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

1 lemon or lime

2 Tbsp. cider vinegar

2 quarts stock (if not using meat on a bone).

Brown the meat under the broiler until crispy, but not burned, all around. Transfer the meat to a lidded baking pan. Cover with water, add a bay leaf or two, and braise at 350, with the lid on, until spoon-tender. While the meat braises, make sure the water level doesn’t drop below half-covering the meat. Remove when the meat is soft, allow to cool, pull the meat apart into small pieces, and add to a thick-bottomed soup pot.

Turn the heat to medium, add onions and fry with the meat in olive oil. (If using a softer cut of meat, cut into chunks and brown in olive oil, and then proceed).

Add the potato, tomatoes, carrots, celery and the braising juice (or pre-made stock), and cook for half an hour. Meanwhile, place the beet slices on a baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake until soft. Remove.

As it simmers, adjust the water to maintain your desired proportion of broth to chunks, and season with salt and pepper. When nearly done, add the beets, cabbage, lemon/lime juice, garlic powder, garlic and vinegar.

Season again, simmer for 15 minutes, and turn off heat. Let it sit at least an hour before serving. Or overnight. Garnish with dill or chervil, and serve. Make sure sour cream or mayo are available. Where my ancestors come from, there needs to be a dollop of one or the other in there, turning the borscht pink. Otherwise they send you to Siberia, where, as I mentioned, the borscht sucks.