Unbeatable Borscht!

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See what I did there? Sorry if it was too cornball for you, but I couldn’t resist.

I hated beets as a child, but only by proxy. You see, my mother detests beets. I’m not sure “detests” is a strong enough word to describe the way her whole face screws up in disgust just to utter the word “beets”. So you can understand why the wretched root was never served to me as a child, and I assumed I would hate beets just as much as my mother did.

But time passes, and we grow up, and move out into the wider world, and begin to discover which of the things our parents told us were right, and which were fundamentally wrong, wrong, wrong.

The beet revelation was in college, while employed at one of my many food service jobs that paid just enough to make the rent and keep the ramen on the table. The salad bar featured canned pickled shoestring beets (I know, not their best showing), and one day I decided it was time to find out how bad they could possibly be. To my surprise and totally perverse joy, I found I liked them. They added a sweet-tangy flavor and pleasantly different texture to my customary lunch salad. I soon discovered they were lovely when paired with a blue cheese (not bleu cheese, you know the kind of food I’m talking about here) dressing.

When I approached my mother with these revelations, she reacted much the same way as when I informed her that some Cubans actually thought Fidel Castro was not such a bad guy. Complete horror. Now, I have always been the black sheep of the family, but it may have been this moment that I understood just how far off the family-beaten path I had strayed, and had reached the point of no return, at least culinarily (a word, I checked).

Fast forward many (many) years, into the midst of my quest for real, local, seasonal food. The first time I saw beets in my weekly share of our local CSA, I knew just what to do with the tender, flavorful greens, but the roots themselves had still not made their way into my kitchen. The guinea pigs Husband and Boy had enthusiastically embraced every new vegetable I had presented them with so far, but were beets a deal-breaker? There was only one way to find out.

Roasted beets are very sweet, very earthy, and all by themselves, not overly successful with the family. I, of course, loved them prepared this new way, as we all love a new adventure from time to time, but must admit their flavor is pretty outspoken. However, I simply could not turn my back on this delicious, colorful, long-keeping autumn/winter vegetable (the pickings are slim at this time of year!), so I went to Joy of Cooking for help. I found Borscht.

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Borscht – inspired by Joy of Cooking, by Rombauer/Becker

1 1/4 lb beef sirloin tips, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 onion, 1/2 inch dice (about 1 C)
2 carrots, 1/4 inch slices (about 1 C)
2 celery ribs, 1/4 inch slices (about 1 C)
3 C shredded cabbage
1 T minced garlic
1 T all-purpose flour
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, and the juice, tomatoes crushed with your hands (look out, they’ll squirt ya!)
4 C beef broth, or water
3 beets, roasted, peeled, and cut into matchsticks
Beet greens from said beets
2 T red wine vinegar
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
olive oil
salt and pepper

The observant among you may have noticed the ingredients on the list do not match the photo, but never fear. All in good time. First, I occasionally use Better Than Bouillon when short on stock/broth, so you see that in the photo at the bottom. The organic version is not all that bad, and I try to use it sparingly. But, what’s that plastic bag there got in it? That’s for later.

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Brown the sirloin bits in 2 T olive oil heated over medium-high heat in a 7-quart Dutch oven. Give them a stir now and then, let them get good and brown, and let any juice cook away and leave great brown fond on the bottom of the Dutch oven. Remove the meat to a bowl, add 1 T olive oil, and the onions, carrots, and celery. Cook until slightly softened, stir and lower the heat if needed to prevent scorching.

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Add the cabbage, stirring well, and allow to wilt a bit. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, then add the flour and cook for a minute or so, stirring to prevent scorching. Add the tomatoes and juice, the browned meat, and the broth or water, bring it to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook until the meat and vegetables are tender, about 30-45 minutes.

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The soup is at this point a perfectly lovely vegetable beef soup, and you could just stop here if you’ve lost your nerve, slice yourself some bread, and serve up a warm, comforting meal. But, why, when you’ve already come this far? The plastic bag contains the beets and greens, frozen together in early fall, when soup wasn’t quite yet on the radar.

To roast beets, trim off the greens, leaving about 1 inch of stem on top, and only trim the little tail if it’s super long. Keeping the stem and tail on keeps them from leaking so much while they cook (you’ll thank me later). Scrub them, wrap them together in foil, and place in 400 deg. oven on a cookie sheet for about 1 hour, until they are tender when pierced with a paring knife. While that’s happening, simply chop your washed, trimmed beet greens, blanch them in boiling water, stop them cooking in ice water, and lay them on a clean kitchen towel to dry.

To peel your cooled beets, put on a really big apron or clothes you don’t care about (you’ll thank me later). Cut off the stem and tail ends. The peel should just slip right off with a bit of rubbing, but you can use a paring knife to trim off the stubborn bits. Now, slice, and cut your beets into matchsticks, and allow to completely cool on paper towels. Wash all your cutting boards, knives, and hands immediately. It might take a few tries to get all the beet coloring off. You’re Welcome.

To freeze the two together, simply dry them very well, and pack them into a freezer bag, label, and that’s it. You’re all set to make borscht sometime in the future.

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When you add the beets and greens to the pot and begin to stir, the soup undergoes this astonishing color change. Add the vinegar and lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. It may seem like a lot of acid, but the beets add a great deal of depth and sweetness which needs to be balanced. Add it a bit at a time if you’re still skeptical, and taste in between additions. Serve with sour cream and fresh dill, or Greek yogurt works well too.

Try a new vegetable-heck, try beets! I’ll see you soon, somewhere on down the Road.

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6 comments

  1. This is the time I’ve encountered that beets aren’t foul. In any other preparation I’ve tried, they taste like sweetened dirt. Borscht, however, is quite tasty. Go figure!

    A cautionary note: Don’t overfill you’re soup container when microwaving Borscht at work. The resultant bloody red paper towels can lead to awkward questions.

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  2. Love this blog! You had me laughing out loud as you described your mom’s feelings about beets. Perfect! So interesting how our mothers’ (and fathers) likes in food can influence our tastes growing up. My mother doesn’t really like veggies, so we didn’t grow up with much in the way of salads…and now, though I love salad, I still see it as a pain to prepare and not something I put on the table as regularly as I should. I’ve never made borscht, but your pictures are so gorgeous, I’ll have to try it myself…just for the color alone!!! Thanks for another fantastic recipe…keep them coming!

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  3. You’ve gone over to the beet side I see.

    I initially loved beets only because my mother served canned beets, and after eating them we were allowed to fingerpaint with that gorgeous fuschia beet goo on our dinner plates. Now I love beets for many more reasons. They’re easy to grow, easy to store, and add an unexpected depth to dishes. I will admit, occasionally I’ve cooked with a horribly dirt tasting beet. I don’t know how to tell in advance they’ll be awful. Any ideas?

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    • Well, I didn’t have an answer. So I Googled. According to Wikipedia, the dirt odor and taste is caused by the organic compound geosmin. In acidic conditions, it decomposes into odorless compounds. So I am just guessing here, that beets grown in more acidic soil would be less dirt-tasting. The article also mentions using vinegar or other acidic ingredients to temper the geosmin’s effects. Probably why the beets are acceptable to The Husband in the borscht.

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