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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Borshch and Co.

I am still trying to figure out the whole thing with the beginning of a season on the 21st of the first month of that season. Where I come from things started on the first - so, winter started on December 1, spring started on March 1 and summer started on... Well, theoretically summer started on June 1, but in my family it started when we made the first batch of cold borshch.

At least three nations (that I know of) claim borshch to be their national dish - Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Borshch is a vegetable soup that can be made four different ways - hot or cold, green or red. The basic ingredients of borshch include potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions and whatever other stray vegetables you may want to get rid of that day. Some people put tomatoes into their borshch, but I don't, because I am not fond of soggy tomatoes. Hot borshch is made with beef (or with some kind of big bone left over from cooking of some manner of beast), cold borshch is the meatless kind. Green borshch includes spinach and hard-boiled egg (in addition to the other ingredients). Red borshch is made with beets. All four kinds of borshch (red hot, red cold, green hot and green cold) are served with a spoon of sour cream. Some cooks consider it a matter of distinction to make a batch of borshch so thick that if you stick a spoon into it, the spoon remains standing.

Red cold borshch is definitely my favorite kind. It's an awesome way to get your liquids in the summer with a whole lot of fiber thrown in for good measure. You can make a large batch of it, stick it in the fridge and feed your whole family at least for a week. And it's pretty! The beets (shredded and added at the very end of the cooking process) color the liquid portion of the borshch a very pretty hue of red, and turn all the other vegetables a shade of pink. Ruby-red borshch served in a white soup bowl with a dollop of white sour cream on top is one of the prettiest things you'll ever see.

I know a lot of people don't like beets for some reason. I suppose a beet is considered too common a vegetable, too boring, too plain. To those people I can only say - your loss. Beets used to be among the primary Ukrainian crops, and were as plentiful, easy to store and fairly inexpensive as potatoes - very important in a country where access to fresh vegetables is highly seasonal. Our family table had always included at least one beet dish: beet salad - essentially a water-less version of borshch, including pre-cooked cubed potatoes, carrots, peas, onions and beets with oil and vinegar dressing; "herring in a fur coat" - smoked or canned herring covered with a layer of shredded beets and onions, spiced with black pepper; sauteed beets - shredded beets sauteed with garlic and/or onions in butter or olive oil, served - of course - with a dollop of sour cream on top; and - naturally - a big pot of thick, beautiful, delicious summer borshch!

Cold Red Borshch

(For a large pot about 1 gallon in capacity)

- 2 large potatoes
- 3 decent-size carrots
- 1 small head of cabbage (not lettuce - not the same thing!)
- 1 large raw beet or (for speed purposes) 2 cans of small whole beets<
- 1/2 large onion (I use Vidalia)
- your favorite herbs and spices (I use rosemary, basil, one or two bay leaves, ground black pepper, regular salt and onion salt)
- sour cream

Making a borshch is a fairly labor-intensive and messy process. So, wear an apron and engage some friends and femily to help you peel and chop everything.

Fill the pot with water about 2/3 of the way and put on low-to-medium heat. Peel the potatoes, chop into 1/2" cubes and drop into the pot. Peel the carrots, chop into circles about 1/8" thick, drop into the pot. (Notice - we are adding vegetables gradually, because some of them take longer to cook. Potatos and carrots are the hardest of the lot, so we add them first.) Wash the cabbage and peel off and discard the wilted leaves. Slice it into large pieces first, then chop finely and add to the pot. (I usually can't resist eating a few cabbage leaves raw - they are good for you!) Chop up the onion and add to the mix.

Potatos, carrots, onions and cabbage make up the bulk of your borshch. This is a good time to start adding your herbs and spices and mixing everything up thoroughtly. Make sure to taste the liquid in the pan - potatos and carrots do absorb salt, so you may need to add a little more salt gradually to make sure your borshch doesn't taste flat. Increase the heat to medium, but don't let it boil - it has to cook slowly to ensure all the flavors seep into the mix and combine.

If you are using a raw beet, peel and shred it. Or, pop your two cans of whole beets and shred them. Add the shredded beets to the borshch. If you are using canned beets, feel free to add the beet juice to the mix as well - it will make the color that much prettier. Add a few pinches of onion salt. (Yes, we do already have some onions in there, but onion salt really enhances the flavor of the beets.)

By this time, your pan has been simmering for 45 minutes to an hour. Grab a fork, fish out a few pieces of potato and/or carrot and taste them to see whether they are cooked. Taste the liquid and add more herbs and spices if you are not completely satisfied with the flavor. If the potatos and carrots are cooked and the flavor is to your satisfaction, turn off the stove, cover the pot and let it sit for a couple of hours. Then put it in the fridge to cool. Serve cold with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of parsley on top.

Sauteed beets

(Use as a side when you don't feel like making a salad. These quantities serve 2 people - just do the math if you need more.)

- 1 can of whole beets
- 1/4 stick of butter or 2-3 spoons of olive oil
- Onion salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Sharp cheese or sour cream to taste

Shred the beets. Heat up the butter or olive oil in a small pan (I use the small cast iron pan, but if you want to cheat and use non-stick, it's up to you) on low heat. Add the beets and 1/4 cup of the beet juice from the can. Sautee on low-to-medium heat, stirring constantly. As the juice start boiling out, add onion salt and black pepper and mix thoroughly. Put the heat back on low, cover the pan and cook for a couple more minutes.

If you are using sharp cheese, use this time to shred the cheese. If not, just sit on your hands.

Remove the cover from the pan and make sure most of the juice is gone. Add a little bit more onion salt and stir. Don't let the beets get scorched - it really ruins the taste!

Serve as a side with whatever else you are having for dinner. Either put the beets into one large dish and cover with shredded cheese or with sour cream on top or put on individual plates and garnish with cheese or with a dollop of sour cream. Enjoy!

P.S. Beets are also very good sauteed with raisins or prunes and walnuts with a touch of brown sugar. That way, you can even get your kids to eat them. :-)

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