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.
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.