A red war has been stewing between Russia and Ukraine for hundreds of years, and in recent months the conflict seems to have come to a boil. Embittered elements on either side lay claim to ancestral territory and culture. Who made the first borscht? Was it Kiev, or Moscow? This deep red stew of beets and beef is such a subject of pride and honor that it remains contested territory after centuries of hostility. For all the buzz stirring about these two countries right now, it helps to have a little perspective. Ukraine is only about the size of Iowa, and has the richest black soil in the world, second only to us. It’s often called “the breadbasket of Europe.” Despite it’s tiny size, it has a third of the population of Russia, and Kiev used to be Russia’s capital. Compared to the United States, Ukraine is like California, Texas and Florida rolled into one.
Ironically, this argument over who made beet stew first, this really is nationalistic biased fake news. The first known beet stew recipe was translated in the 1980s from a 3,600-year-old Bablyonian clay tablet. The cuneiform tablet, unearthed in Iraq in the early 20th century, was originally thought to be a spellbook. They weren’t wrong. Beet stew is pure magic. Add beef and aromatic vegetables and even Pavlov himself would have slavered for this Slav stew.
Beets are one of those ingredients that people have strong opinions about. Canned beets are one of those abominations of nature that can leave a lifelong hangover of distaste for the vegetable. On the flip side, preparing fresh beets can be an ambitious experiment that can yield disastrous results. So let’s dig deep today and get back to the roots of the root at the root of the problem.
I don’t know about you, but when we start to get some weather this time of year, I start to crave dark greens and root vegetables. Yeah, I’m one of those odd fellows that loves turnips, parsnips, celeriac, rutabagas and beets. They all have a carrot-like texture that I love. Really they make my body feel good, which is especially nice as we head into the cloud covered months. Even if I didn’t know the science behind kerotenes and vitamin D, I’d still recognize that I felt better or worse after eating certain foods. These Midwest winters bring us back to our roots in every sense of that phrase.
The good news is that beets are actually rather easy to prepare with little fuss, little effort and little mess. The trick is to dry roast them. Don’t peel them first, don’t oil them.
A beet looks lumpy and dirty and utterly unrefined. Don’t worry about that. They clean up real good when presented to the family. This recipe is a bit tricky to understand because it’s entirely based on hitting the target you are shooting for. There is no “roast one hour” here. There is only “roast until it’s done.” Beets come in all sizes. Small beets cook faster than big ones. Big ones are easier to peel. Every beet is a unique little nugget of joy. They want to be tested individually. Some will get pulled from the oven early, some later.
To judge when a beet is fully cooked, pull it out of the oven and poke a butter knife through the part where the stem comes out. If you have trouble pushing the knife in, it’s not done. When you pull the knife out, look at it closely. If there’s a lot of red colored liquid sticking to that knife, it’s not done. If the liquid looks mostly transparent, with almost no red color clinging to the knife, you hit the sweet spot. That’s it. I told you it was easy.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
After the beets are cooked, let them cool to body temperature (98 degrees) so they are easy to handle. Then use a paring knife to cut the dry skin off them. I cut the skin off in a spiral, similar to peeling an orange. After that, you can slice or dice them into any size and shape you want. They are fully cooked at this point. Roasting and peeling the beets can be done a few days in advance of using them in a recipe. Rewarm them or add them cold to any dish. They are ready to go.
Beets and beef, that’s the basis of borscht. This is a very flexible recipe, so have fun and play around with it. You can go old school Babylonian and skip the beef, substitute vegetable broth. Chicken broth works very well. Substitute sauteed cabbage for sauerkraut. Add other root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips or kohlrabi. Tomatoes and zucchini will fit in just fine. I like to add a little creamed garlic at the end.
The important thing that distinguishes borscht from other soups is that all of the vegetables are fried or roasted first, Get some browning or char on them, cooked separately before going into the pot. If you put raw vegetables in the pot and just stew them together, there’s a different name for that. Borschok. Baby Borscht. Immature Borscht. The soup will mature further as it rests in the fridge overnight. All those individual flavors will marry together into something much greater than it’s parts. “The best soup is the soup that sets,” so the story goes.
ROASTED BEET BORSCHT
This recipe is best made in advance, up to a few days before you want it. I usually make a couple gallons at a time, then freeze it in pint containers for an instant home cooked meal later in the month.
Yield: About 2 quarts of soup
1 pound red beets (500 grams), if small or have green tops, get an extra half pound
1 pound beef chuck, sirloin or round (500 grams)
8 ounces, yellow onion (500 grams)
5 ounces celery stalk (300 grams), a couple ribs
5 ounces carrots (300 grams)
Oil or lard for frying, a few tablespoons
1 quart beef broth (1 liter); homemade is preferred, but store bought works fine; chicken or vegetable broth also works well
3 ounces sauerkraut (75 grams), optional; 5 ounces cabbage works well here if you don’t like the sour element
a pinch of dried dill
a pinch of ground allspice (optional)
a pinch ground caraway (optional)
4 ounces or more sour cream or creme fraiche (100 grams)
1 1/2 ounces scallions (42 grams)
Salt and black pepper
Crockpot, oven or other slow cooker
For the braised beef: This is a slow cooked beef braise. It will work in a crockpot on low, an oven set at 180 to 250 degrees, or on a very low flame in a stockpot on the stovetop. All these methods will work well. The key to getting it right is going low and slow, and having enough salt in the pot. The salt helps break down the connective tissues and gristle.
Start cooking the beef a day before you want to make the rest of the soup. Cut it into 1-inch steaks. Fry streaks in a cast iron pan on the stovetop over medium heat until it turns a rich, dark brown color. If you don’t want to set off the smoke alarms in your house, keep an ear to the sounds it makes as it cooks. When it starts to go quiet, flip your steaks. Keep flipping them until they are a nice brown all over — not gray. Brown is where the flavor is.
Once brown, pull your steaks out and let them cool to the touch.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Pour some of your broth into the pan and use a spatula to scrape up the flavor crystals stuck to the bottom of the pan. We want those.
Dice the seared steaks into smaller cubes. Something small enough to fit on a soup spoon, but large enough to give a nice, beefy punch. Trim away any excessive fat or gristle. It’s OK to leave a little of that on, it will dissolve as it cooks overnight.
Place the beef cubes in your crockpot, baking dish, or stockpot, then cover with broth. Add a teaspoon of salt and taste the brine. It should taste distinctly salty — almost like seawater. If it doesn’t have that salty tang, add a little more salt and taste it again. Don’t worry, once the beef is added to the rest of the dish, that salinity will balance out and disappear.
Add any spices or herbs you like. For borscht, a pinch of allspice, black pepper and caraway will do wonders.
Cook the beef slowly overnight, or start it before work and check it when you get home again. When it’s done, it should be very tender and almost fall apart when pressed with a fork. I do this in a very slow oven at 180 degrees, and often find that it needs another hour at 250 degrees to properly finish.
Once it’s done, let it cool down in it’s own juices, to reabsorb all that flavor that went into the broth.
For the roasted beets: Beets come in all different sizes. Smaller beets might take an hour to cook. Larger beets might take several hours. Cut the long stalks off the beets and arrange on a baking sheet. No need to peel, oil or wash them. Save the stalks if you have them. The green leaves can be cooked like spinach. The stalks can be used like celery. Turn oven to 350 degrees, no need to preheat. Dry roast the beets.
After half an hour, start checking the beets for doneness. Your first clue that the beets are getting close is the smell. You should be able to smell an earthy, sweet corn aroma when you get near the oven, before you even open the door. Second clue: squeeze a couple beets gently. Are they still very hard like rocks? Not done. If you can feel them starting to soften, it’s time to test them with a butter knife. Third clue is the knife test: Poke the beet where the stem attaches with a butter knife. If it’s hard to poke the knife in, they aren’t done yet. If the knife slides in easily, you are getting closer.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Final target: Pull the knife out and look at the blade. Red juices will be on the knife. As it cooks more, these juices turn more transparent until they are almost clear. If you are in doubt, wipe a little of that juice on your finger. Let it sit for a few seconds and then rinse your finger in the sink. If all the red rinses off, then that beet is good to go.
If all your beets are very different sizes, you will want to test each one separately. If they are all roughly the same size, you can get away with testing just a couple. After you are sure your beets are done, let them cool on the counter to body temperature.
Peel them with a small paring knife. I usually peel them in a spiral, like how my mom used to oranges. Discard the peels. At this point the beet should be perfectly cooked and ready to use in any recipe. They can now be sliced for salads, diced for a hash or soup, or blended into a puree for sauces or cocktails.
For the borscht: Put the beef in a stockpot or Dutch oven large enough to hold the rest of the ingredients. A 3 quart or one gallon pot will accommodate this recipe batch size.
Leave the scallions and sour cream in the fridge. Those are cold garnishes for the table.
Dice the onions, carrots and other vegetables. Fry each ingredient separately on medium heat with a little oil or lard until you get nice brown spots on them and they are cooked through. Have an ear on the food and move it around in the pan when it gets quiet. Keep it talking. When you get some nice spotting, transfer the food to the pot with the beef and the broth in it. Fry your next vegetable and repeat the process.
If using green to beets, separate the greens from the stems. Chop the greens finely and add directly to the stock pot. Dice up the stalks very small and fry them the same way as the other vegetables.
Dice up your roasted, peeled beets. Place two-thirds of them in the pot with the rest of the soup.
Place the rest of the beets in the blender with some of the broth and puree until very smooth. Add beet puree to the soup.
Add dried dill and roasted garlic directly to the soup, if desired.
It should look fairly robust. The liquids should cover the solids by about an inch or so.
Now that everything is in the pot together, warm it up until it is almost, but not quite, simmering. 175 degrees is the target temperature, if using a thermometer. Let it steep for an hour to marry the flavors together. Taste it. Does it want a little more salt, a little more spices? I usually know it tastes right when I find that I can’t stop tasting it, and realize that I’m just having a meal by myself in the kitchen.
Transfer the borscht to pint- or quart-size containers, and cool in the fridge.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
To serve, warm up gently on the stovetop or microwave, and serve with sour cream and sliced scallions on the table. A slice of crusty rye bread is a great way to sop up the last bits sticking to the bottom of the bowl.
Source: Joshua Tibbetts