#1 – 48 recipes challenge – Recipe 24: Borscht

This month’s ‘something new’ is a new ingredient: beetroot.  I’ve been threatening to cook something with beetroot for ages and I’ve never been brave enough to buy it.  Memories of radioactive pickled beetroot sitting in a bowl on the tea table at my Nan’s on a Saturday were enough to put me off for life without even contemplating the likely mess resulting from such a strongly coloured ingredient!  Yet, several people recently have commented that I should give fresh beetroot a chance and that it’s very different from the 1980s pickled stuff.

I have eaten beetroot as an adult; once, 10 years ago, in Russia.  Whilst there, I felt obliged to try to a bowl of borscht (beetroot soup) as it’s a local dish and when travelling I generally believe in trying the local specialities at least once (and in many cases, only once!).  To my surprise I actually enjoyed it.   But despite that I have failed to think about beetroot again since.

I’ll admit now that I wasn’t actually brave enough to buy and prepare raw beetroot.  Instead I cheated and bought ready cooked ones from the supermarket.  Maybe I’ll wrestle with a raw one one day, but I’ve been told they’re incredibly messy and I just decided life is too short and the soup wouldn’t taste that much different just because someone else got their hands dirty with the beetroot.

As I had actually enjoyed eating borscht, that seemed a good place to start on my beetroot adventure.  It seems however, there are many, many, many ways to prepare borscht; with meat or without meat the principal variation but then with carrot/without carrot, with tomato/without tomato, with vinegar/without vinegar, with potato/without potato all comes into play.  And if you’re making it with meat, what sort of meat?  A stock?  Lard?  Bone marrow? Beef, pork, bacon?  There are hundreds of recipes out there and none of them are the same.  I suspect it’s one of those feed-the-family ‘if it’ recipes:  if it’s in the cupboard you put it in.

It’s not even certain where borscht originated.  That it is Eastern European is indisputable, but each region and country seems to have its own variations.  Poland and the Ukraine appear to have the strongest claims to having invented it but I suspect it’s really anyone’s guess.  What matters is that a good borscht is a hearty, tasty and filling meal.

Whichever variation you go for, the aim is to end up with a deliciously flavourful, complex, sweet and sour soup.  The version I used (from a ‘Spectacular Soups’ book in one of those miniature ‘cook’s libraries’ which were so popular a decade or so ago) included beetroot, onion, bacon, carrot, tomato, chicken stock, white wine vinegar and fresh dill and recommended serving it with sour cream.  I left out the celery and the cabbage as I didn’t have any in and felt like there were quite enough vegetables in it already.  But I’m sure if you put them in, they would only make it even better.

As with most soups, making it was easy.  Chop everything, cook it through a bit, add the liquid, season it, bring it to the boil, simmer it until it thickens and the veg is all cooked through.  Ladle into a bowl, top with soured cream and tuck in.

A bowl of Borscht

A bowl of Borscht

As you can see, I left the veg chunky rather than blending the soup smooth – it’s a peasant’s dish, it’s not meant to be elegant.

I loved it.  Genuinely tasty, super satisfying and filling.  The combination of soured cream, dill and the sourness of vinegar (or lemon juice) instantly transports me to the Balkans.  It’s simple, hearty food, filling you up on a cold day.  Rare it is that something so good for you tastes so good too!  A winner all round.

A big batch left me with several spare portions to enjoy for lunches afterwards – they didn’t even make it as far as the freezer.   I highly recommend giving it a go, especially if you use pre prepared beetroot to cut down on the preparation time and the mess.

Scores are:

Healthiness – 9/10 (There’s at least three of your five a day in one bowl, possibly more.  Take out the bacon and the soured cream and it’s practically angelic)

Ease of prep –10/10 (Using pre cooked beetroot, all you need to know to prepare this is how to use a knife)

Flavour/taste – 10/10 (Packed with flavour, this had me going back for more)

If you want to try this at home, this interesting article about borscht talks a little about its origins, the regional variations and also provides links to various recipes:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/apr/07/how-to-cook-perfect-borscht

 

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