Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My grandmother's Borscht

As the child of Russian immigrants, beets played a big role in my culinary upbringing. Borscht is the king of all beet dishes, and no one makes it better than my maternal grandmother.

Borscht is beet soup.  Many Russians include meat in their borscht.  The kind that I grew up eating was vegetarian, and it is the kind I prefer.

My grandparents have very civilized meals.  Among other things, they begin every dinner with a bowl of soup. Borscht is in heavy rotation in a cycle of other great soups.

I have made borscht different ways.  I have also made non-borscht beet soups (creamy, with yogurt and dill). This recipe is the most classic version of this type of soup.  To me, it tastes like home and family. It tastes like sweet earth, bright with lemon and dill. A dollop of sour cream is an essential component. Extra fresh dill always helps. The soup does take a bit of work, but each step is easy.

To make this borscht especially good, I started by getting all of my ingredients at the Hollywood farmer's market.  I especially like going to the market when I have a specific recipe in mind; hunting for root veggies and cabbage couldn't be easier in February... even if you're not in agriculturally abundant California. These ingredients are also readily available at any grocery store.

From my experiences growing up bringing "weird" things to school in my lunchbox, I know this stuff isn't for everyone. But if you're into beets, and you're into soups, you'll probably enjoy Borscht.

Baba's Borscht
Serves 10-12

1 large onion, or 2 small onions, peeled and halved
3 stalks of celery
handful of fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3-4 medium sized beets, shredded
2 medium carrots, shredded
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
2 cups roughly shopped beet greens (optional)
1/4 cup freshly chopped dill
Juice of 1 lemon
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
Sour cream 

Fill a large pot with water.  Add your peeled and halved onions, celery stalks, flat leaf parsley, garlic and bay leaf to the pot.  Season the water with a generous amount of salt.  Bring the ingredients to a boil, lower to a simmer, and let the steep for 30 minutes.  

While your broth is simmering, peel your carrots and beets.  If you do not want beet-stained hands, use disposable gloves whilst peeling your beets.  To make life easy, you can shred your carrots and beets in a food processor.  If you don't have a food processor, or you want to work out your dominant arm's bicep, you can shred the beets and carrots with a box grater.  Add the olive oil to a large pan on medium high heat.  Add the shredded beets and carrots to the pan.  Season with salt and pepper. Sautee the vegetables until they are softened, about 15 minutes.

Once the beets and carrots have wilted and softened, and the broth has been simmering for a while, you can scoop out the onion, celery, parsley, garlic, etc. from the broth using a spider or slotted spoon.  Add the shredded cabbage and beet greens to the pot (I save the tops of the beets, wash them really well, and chop them up... if you didn't get your beets with greens, you can skip this ingredient).   Add the cooked beets and cabbage to the pot.  Bring the liquid to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.  

At this point, the flavors will come together, and the liquid will become a brilliant red color. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and fresh dill to the pot. Ladle and serve the borscht with a generous dollop of sour cream.  I like to serve this soup hot, but you can also eat it chilled.

Borscht is best eaten with a chunk of hearty crusty bread.  If you're feeling really Russian, you can also eat your borscht with a side of raw garlic cloves, seriously.  


  1. Great description of Baba's borscht:) And true about garlic (I guess I have never felt Russian enough to eat it raw, but many Russians rub raw garlic on dinner rolls called "pampushki"). Great pics.

  2. Do you remember when we used this as a prop for a presentation in Mr. Sherbrooke's class?

    1. I do! And I remember how strongly it smelled, and how grossed out everyone was! Hilarious.