Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Polish Beet Soup: Simple Borscht

Bowl of Beet Soup with Spoon
The Real Polish Thing

Recipe Adapted from The Art of Polish Cooking

It’s strange that the things that we scorned in childhood can become objects of our quests as adults. Take my grandmother’s beet soup, for example. As a kid, I had a strong notion that I’d dislike it, though I don’t remember any of us grandkids ever trying it. Yet, when our CSA supplied beets week after week, I went on a mission to recreate it using sparse memories from years past.

Picture of Bopcha as a young woman
Young Innocent from the Old Country
My grandmother brought very little besides her survival skills when she immigrated to the US as a teenager a hundred years ago. She traveled from Poland with a brother, or perhaps alone. She didn’t talk about the past, nor speak much about her life, nor even speak much English. I knew that she had lost two husbands, but knew nothing of the physical abuse she’d endured in a third, loveless marriage so that her children could have food and shelter. She was quiet, prayed a lot, and did what she had to do to get by. Her happiest moments were when she was cooking and sharing food from what she called the Old Country.

As part of exploring my Polish (family) cooking roots, I’ve tried to get ideas about Bopcha’s recipe by looking at classic borscht recipes. Most contain sour cream, cabbage, celery, carrots, beet greens, or other ingredients. Bopcha’s was simpler, in fact she called it just “beet soup.” Finally hubby Bruce found a similar recipe in The Art of Polish Cooking, published in 1968. This is the simplest of eight “barscht” recipes in the book. Bopcha might have used a little more vinegar, and I added ¼ tsp. to my first bowl with good results. As simple as this soup is, it's surprisingly delicious, sweet, and filling. Now why was it that I never tried Bopcha's beet soup when I was a kid?

Beets in Roasting Pan
Beets Before Roasting
Do save yourself the aggravation, red hands, and possible injury of grating the almost-raw beets by hand; use a food processor if at all possible. You may want to use an extra teaspoon or so of vinegar. Or substitute apple cider vinegar for white vinegar. You could use a vegan broth, though beef is traditional. Add more pepper and garlic powder if you like. According to The Art of Polish Cooking, traditional accompaniments are (meat) patties, crackers, or kulibiak (pastry stuffed with cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms and/or meat). You could also serve steamed beet greens on the side, as their slightly bitter taste compliments the sweet beets.

Bowl of Beet Soup
Pleasing in Color and Flavor
Polish Red Beet Soup
serves about 4

3 medium-large beets (1 bunch)
3 cups beef broth
1 ½ tsp. white vinegar
½ tsp. sugar
3 large pinches black pepper
2 large pinches garlic powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a baking pan with no-stick spray. Scrub beets and roast in oven ½ hour. If any of your beets are large, roast these another 15 or 20 minutes. Cool beets till they can be handled. Peel beets and grate coarsely, preferably using a food processor.

Heat the broth to a boil. Add shredded beets. Simmer for 5 minutes and test. If beets are too raw for your taste, simmer another 3 – 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar, sugar, pepper, and garlic powder. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with salt, pepper, and extra vinegar if desired. 

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