Fun loving garnet coloured root veggie seeking succulent and warm beef broth.
Maybe if beets put out personal ads in weekly grocery ads there would be less of them on the shelf…
Americans love potatoes, carrots, and onions; those in the know might even appreciate a shallot or parsnip from time to time. But there is no respite for a beet. It’s a hard world for beets. No one really seems to appreciate them let alone no what to do with them. They grow in dirt, are a creepy shade of reddish-purple, and have a nondescript taste that the average colonial wouldn’t be able to tell you about (incidentally though plenty of Americans consume sugar produced from beets).
And yet in Russia and Ukraine the beet is king and the enticing ruby soup it makes is a staple of any diet. We speak of course of borscht. It’s the first thing that comes into any middle-class American’s mind when they think of Russian cuisine. In the West borscht carries connotations of creepy root vegetables. The soup is also notable in being a genuinely red food; it is excruciatingly red isn’t it.
I have fantasized about borscht for many years now. My first encounter with it was…unfortunate. I invite all of you to click on the word “unfortunate” in that last sentence to find out why…Pre-made borscht rears its ugly head around Hanukkah and Passover every year in big jars labeled “Manischewitz.” If you shop in some of the B-stores you can find it year round. Now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t absolutely terrible; it just tastes like they forgot to wash the dirt off of their beets…
No we if we want to get true blue…er…true red beets we have to go fresh. I suppose the grocery store varieties are adequate although I always opt for the finest if I am dealing with a center stage ingredient. Good borscht needs good beets! I originally intended to make it with beets picked from somewhat nearby Larriland Farms…those beets are still sliced up in my freezer with a substantial amount of freezer burn ingrained into them. No, I opted for even fresher beets…
From the Womb of the Earth: the Humble Beet
I attempted to start beets from seed; unfortunately business prevented me from getting them in soil before they grew moldy. Instead I opted for pre-started sprouts and I was not disappointed. A patch of several dozen beets cost only a few dollars making this a more rewarding investment than grocery store beets.
With seeds you have the advantage of spacing out your beets. You can stagger your planting in order to get multiple successive harvests from mid-summer until the bitter end of autumn. Since not all of the seeds germinate you are encouraged to plant some in a clumping fashion and then thin out the herd if too many grow. Pre-grown sprouts come in clumps and you have the option of either leaving them in clump formation or breaking them into individual sprouts. As an experiment I grew some in clumps and some solo; the clumps produced a large amount of small beets while the lone sprouts became behemoths that would win 3rd place at a local farmer’s market. Smaller beets are allegedly sweeter and have a more pleasing texture although my American palate failed to notice this. Smaller beets are most certainly better for pickling however.
Beets sprouts seem pretty hardy. Nearly every one that I planted ended up bearing a sweet ruby fairly quickly. I have not had time to pickle the little ones although I am fairly certain they are still alive and well. Beets can apparently survive some frosts fairly well which, combined with staggered planting, would make them a stable and reliable addition to any family diet. The leaves certainly wouldn’t survive a frost however and they faded fairly quickly under a barrage of hot sun and bugs which is a shame because beet greens are supposed to be healthy and delicious. Maybe next time…
For my borscht I used one large beet and three medium-small ones:
Beetiful aren’t they? Puns aside they looked great after being boiled for 45 minutes until fork tender, at which point they were blanched so that the skin could be easily removed. Remove the dirty purple exterior and you get a rich, regal purple interior that will dye every surface they come into contact with. Boiling beets, as I later found out, is not recommended. The water leaches out color, flavor, and nutrients, thereby rendering the beets less potent in culinary use. A better method of prepping beets is to roast them in the oven. Regardless of what method you use, nearly all of them call for leaving the long root and an inch of stalk on the beet so as to prevent too much seepage. The boiling method allows for easy removal of the tough skin through blanching, but a peeler will suffice for most applications.
I ended up using half of one of the smaller beets just as an appetizer to get me through the long process of making borscht. Describing the flavour of beets is a difficult prospect. They have a somewhat starchy texture evocative of a potato but are much smoother. Their flavour is…hrmmmmmmm…What does a beet taste like? Well…It tastes like…a BEET. I can’t think of anything close to directly compare it too. Beets have the sweetness of a carrot and manage to hit a few of the same notes as the aromatic, quasi-minty parsnip. Beets also have a decidedly earthy flavour to them as well; there is no mistaking that this is a child of the land and the taste of earth will occasionally overpower the other elements. How do we render such a difficult, variegated, and occasionally subdued flavour into a viable ingredient?
Union of Soviet Soupcialist Republics
Lets start with the beet’s traditional application…borscht! We must be careful to note that borscht isn’t a particularly Russian dish. It is still huge in Russia, but borscht is ultimately a Ukrainian dish. Whether or not Ukraine is interchangeable with Russia is a difficult and life-consuming question that is currently being fought over, but hopefully we can at least agree that borscht is more Ukrainian than Russian.
For the recipe I adapted a recipe found in Please to the Table. A James Beard award-winning cookbook that covers the cuisine of the Soviet sphere, this is the definitive cookbook for the Russophile. The book deserves its own post as a book review, but suffice it to say that it is a tour-de-force of culture, history, and cuisine. Anya Von Bremzen (the definitive celebrity chef specializing in Russian food) and John C. Welchman throw together a great presentation.
But enough talk…LET US MAKE BORSCHT!
Are you looking for a recipe? You can find some copycat recipes online. I will take a cue from the foodie bloggers I so often loath and just present the process as a series of artful photographs and informative captions!
And there you have it! Borscht! Now that wasn’t so bad. The whole thing can be prepared in a day and will yield at least a dozen servings. I prepared the broth in advance to shave off time for the final product.
Overall borscht is good, and much more approachable than the average American might think. It turned out much like a rich beef stew, although the vibrant reddish colour is a nice change of scenery, just as the minty-earthy notes from the beets are a nice change of pace. I can’t help but feel that my borscht is somehow…wrong. The borscht I see is usually thinner and has a greater emphasis on broth. My borscht likely took a few too many cues from the Hungarian goulash which is my default stew of choice. It probably didn’t have enough dill for the average Russian. But who knows, maybe this was an authentic borscht. This is manly full borscht that a muzhik might enjoy. Overall I was impressed. Borscht has a nice, full-bodied flavour with a decidedly sweeter tang. It works fairly well reheated and would warmly accommodate any cut of beef. Kielbasa? Hop on in! The Russians are a soulful people, and borscht is certainly a great soulful stew that will warm you whenever you need.
Epilogue: the Devil in the Details
After painstakingly enacting a modified vision of the borscht recipe presented in Please to the Table I read the short afterward which listed some cute folktales surrounding borscht. Apparently making borscht on a Thursday is discouraged as the devil will visit to bathe in the soup. I shrugged this off before realizing shortly after that it was Thursday…maybe that is why I feel like it didn’t turn out right…