So it happened that a new but historical cookbook came across my way on one of my summery fleamarket rounds. The book is a cultural overview to a 20th century composer’s gourmand habits rather than a recipe book and goes by the name Dining with Sibelius (2015). Dining with a man to whom Churchill sent cigars and who was given doctoral honours in Yale. This man in question is Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) – one of the greatest symphonist of 20th century internationally. BUT this post is not about Sibelius. This post is about borscht.
My first memory of borscht soup is from my early twenties when my husband’s mother served it as a main dish in one of our family gatherings. Her side of the family come from the East of Finland and over the years she and her mother introduced me to the sweet and sour magic of beets, cabbage pies and pickled mushrooms. These ingredients and flavours are part of my husband’s roots and now they have grown to become traditions of our own. In this vein, one habit of ours is to enjoy borsch at end of harvest season.
There are so many versions of this Ukrainian soup. Meaty version, vegetarian version with beans, with potatos and without tomatos. My mother-in-law made it always with sausages and a lot of beets. Since grabbing Dining with Sibelius, I have wanted to prepare it all the way from scratch on a relaxed day. And so I did. This is a slow-cooked everyday soup with tender meat and spoonfuls of earthy quality comfort. The following recipe serves 10-12 people and the list shows the ingredients as in the book. To me recipes are always a starting point so I only reflect the instructions in relation to how the soup came to be.
LITTLE-RUSSIAN BORSCHT À LA ST. PETERSBURG
1 kg fatty soup beef
2-2 1/2 l water
root vegetables for broth
5 whole allspice
5 white peppercorns
450 g raw beetroots
250 g root vegetables (carrots, celery, turnips)
250 g white cabbage
2 tbs wheat flour
50 g butter
salt, whole allspice
5-10 tomatos or 50 g tomato puree
200 g soup ham bones
50 g cold-smoked ham or bacon
5 tbsp smetana
1 raw beet root and 1-2 tbsp cooking vinegar for colouring the soup
Now, now, don’t be angry about the name of the soup. Borscht originates from Ukraine and the debate of globalisation and glocalisation is indeed inherent part of food culture. The writes point this out and they’ve chosen to share a contextual borsch recipe that takes us to the cauldrons of St. Petersburg and around these pots Ukrainians were called Little Russians back in the day. I was interested in this recipe because it’s rather meaty version (50 meat/ 50 veggies) in comparison to what I’m used to and I wanted to prepare the soup from my own broth. And this is how it came to be.
For the bouillon, I went hunting in the freezer. Last spring we bought meat from a local Charolais cattle owner and I had a beef knuckle waiting for me. Knuckle is great in stews so I thought why not also in borscht. I cut the knuckle in three pieces and adjusted the amount of water to the meat weight. I then placed the pieces into cold salted water and slowly brought it to boil under a lid (about 30 minutes). Before adding the extras, I peeled the foam carefully from the surface. I gave the veggies a bit colour in a dry skillet before adding them to the broth – two big carrots and two clean onions unpeeled as well as a celery stick and a small piece of parsnip. I gathered parsley and sage for a simple garni. I let the broth simmer for three hours on a wooden stove until the meat pieces were tender and ready. Finally, I passed the broth through a strainer.
Unlike in this recipe, it is recommended to prepare the broth a day in advance so that you can peel congealed fat from the fridge-cold broth. However since knuckle is not the fattiest stew meat, I did not feel the need to do this. All in all it seems, I drew this meat bouillon from my own ways of boiling broths. Avoiding allspice and roasting the vegetables a bit.
Now for the soup. I washed, scrubbed, peeled sliced, shredded and striped all the vegetables to be ready. I sautéed the vegetables (carrots, celery and parsnip) in a pot. Added couple of spoonfuls of bouillon and continued to cook in low heat as instructed. When the vegetables were half done, I added the shredded cabbage. After few minutes, I added the wheat flour thickening allowing the mix to boil on low heat. When the vegetables were done, I added the rest of the broth followed by a one allspice, a bay leaf and tomato puree instead of tomatos. At this stage the ham bones are also mixed in but since I did not have any, I continued without them and let the soup boil for an hour (no lid).
While waiting for the soup, I shredded the meat and the extra beetroot used for colouring in the end. I prepared the podraska (add 2 tbsp of cooking vinegar on top of grated beetroots and let them rest for 20 minutes). I had bought a piece of cold-smoked ham out of curiosity for this dish. You can either add the ham stripes to the soup or mix them with smetana, I went for the first.
When the soup is ready, it’s recommended to add the meats 10 minutes before serving. The recipe instructions also mention adding separately boiled white beans at this stage but opted out because I figured there’s enough of protein already. I brought the soup to boil one more time as adviced and lastly added the colouring podraska through a siege.
For us borscht is a hearty meal that warms on a cold day when it’s wet and dark. It’s a perfect soup for end of the harvest season when one can pick the fresh ingredients straight from the garden. I also love this kind of relaxed days when slow-cooked food boils in the kitchen and the house feels like a big hug. All in all, it was a perfect time for this kind of soup making.
This really is a meaty version! 50-50! My husband loved it and called it a totally different dish. This is how much the texture and balance can vary from version to version. For me on the other hand, it was a bit early season for this as I would prefer a heavier version during winter after skating or other type of outdoor fun. Yet the shredded beef is so much better than sausages. Yum! Luckily our household of two does not feast like a group of 10 men so I have couple portions left of this deliciousness waiting in the freezer.
The flavours were on point but I felt there could be 0,5-1 litre more of the bouillon. For me dipping delicious bread into the broth is half of the fun & this soup fell short on that notion. Also the amount podraska was not enough to achieve the kind of colouring and sourness that I prefer. I adjusted this by adding a bit of pickled beetroots to the soup. Finally, the cold-smoked ham did not have almost any effect in the mix. I reckon bacon would be better.
Taste, adjust and repeat. There’s always flexibility in soup making. How do you prefer borscht soup and when?