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Officially, it isn’t winter quite yet. That seems difficult to believe in view of the fact that a light snow is falling as I write. Normally, falling snow quiets the landscape considerably, and that has been one of the reasons I like winter - and snow - so much. However, this morning, the snow has brought a most irritating sound to my ears – tires squealing against the slippery surface of the road. I moved in July to a location in central Toronto. My new home is located on a major artery of the city. During the summer months, I was treated to the sounds of traffic whizzing past my windows, so much so that when I answered the telephone shortly after moving in, the caller inquired if I was using a cell phone while driving! I did not expect to hear this new sound in winter. Duh! Welcome to the real world, Janet! As well as the squealing of tires against the slippery road, I’ve been treated to several sirens early in the morning as there was an accident a block away, shortly after the snow started falling. Traffic has slowed to a snail’s pace, making me wonder anew why people think they need to travel in cars in a large city with a good public transportation system, and especially one person to a car, in adverse weather conditions.
Ah well, I must have known that winter was just around the corner, for yesterday I made a big pot of borshcht, which warms the cockles of my heart. My Ukrainian peasant parents made borshcht very, very regularly when I was young. I used to hate it, waiting for the too-large pot to finally be empty, relieved when it was, and then watching my father with a sinking feeling in my stomach as he made another pot of it. I probably could have enjoyed it as a child if I wasn’t such a poor eater, which made life at mealtimes miserable for all concerned. I was hungry, and I ate, but I just didn’t eat enough to satisfy my parents, whose standard for healthy children was slightly on the plump side. I wasn’t healthy, particularly (now I know it was probably because of my non-secretor status), and I was scrawny. So there was a good-sized portion on my plate at every meal which I was expected to consume, and it was just too much for me to eat. We won’t go into the tug-of-war games that went on endlessly about eating and appetites.
A few years ago, I mentioned to my brother that I had a big problem when I made borshcht. What was it, he wanted to know. The problem is that whenever I make borshcht, the pot is too small, no matter the size I start out with. He grinned as he said that he had the exact same problem. Yesterday’s batch was no exception. The borshcht had to be transferred into a bigger pot in order to finish adding all the vegetables.
I will try to tell you here how to make borshcht. I don’t measure anything, so it’s difficult to describe it, but here’s what I did:
Sauté a large onion in a little olive oil, adding thinly sliced celery to the mix. I usually buy the leafiest celery I can find in the store (a challenge, to be sure!) because the leaves give a huge amount of flavour to any soup. Chop them small if you can get them.
In the meantime, pick over a goodly amount of white beans, culling the broken and discoloured ones (and any little stones or clumps of dirt) and wash them well. Remember to stir the onion/celery mix from time to time while you do this. Add these to the cooked onion/celery mix, and cover with water.
Now the work begins! Borshcht is a vegetable soup, mostly the hardy type of root vegetables. I cannot make it without using rutabaga and carrot. I have an A blood type housemate, so I can’t use the traditional tomatoes and cabbage, even though, as a B non-secretor, I can eat borshcht with these ingredients. It tastes just fine without them. If you can use them safely for your blood type, throw them in. The cabbage should be sautéed with the onion and celery, if you use it.
The borshcht I made yesterday included the lovely sweet white and purple turnip, parsnip, collard greens (with stems) chopped very fine, parsley, garlic, a couple of bay leaves, rutabaga and carrot. At the end, I peeled and chopped 3 large beets. This is the main and most important ingredient for borshcht. The water must be a deep red when you finish putting the vegetables into the pot. Keep adding water as you add vegetables, and make sure it is an inch or two above the top of the vegetables in the end. If it’s not already boiling, bring it to a boil, cover the pot and keep it on a low simmer for the rest of the day – partly to make sure the beans are cooked well, and partly to bring the flavours of all the vegetables into one homogenous delicious mass.
When you are ready to serve the borshcht, it should be a dark pinkish colour, red if you’ve added enough beets. The mixture I made yesterday tasted quite sweet, so it needed a fair amount of salt, which I usually add just before serving, tasting to make sure it’s right.
The two main ingredients that make vegetable soup into Ukrainian borshcht are a lot of beets, and dill weed. It is not borshcht if it doesn’t have dill weed in it, and if it isn’t red in colour. The dill weed will lose flavour if you add it too early, so I usually throw it in at the end, before serving. I added two handfuls of it, dry, grinding it between my hands to create more flavour. The last thing to add as you serve your borshcht is a dollop of sour cream, which really adds a lot. Yogurt can also be used, but it’s not as nice a flavour (says she who grew up eating sour cream on almost everything from the kitchen). If sour cream is really not to your taste, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice will add a bit of zing and is an acceptable substitute.
It is very nice if you have fresh dill growing in your garden, to snip some of the weed into the pot at the last minute, or if you remember to buy it when out shopping if it’s not garden season. I always keep a jar of dry dill weed in my kitchen in case I don’t have either of the above options. You can also use other beans or barley, another specifically Ukrainian ingredient, and my parents would use a large soup bone with shreds of meat clinging to it. If I’d had a bunch of beets with greens on top, I would have used the beet greens and stems as well, instead of the collard greens.
While borshcht is a vegetable soup of the clean-out-the-refrigerator type, not all vegetables are good for it. Avoid soft types of vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli. Peppers are also a no-no. I have never used squash – winter or summer varieties - for the same reason.
In the end yesterday, I fed my housemate and his friend with my borshcht, the main item on the menu. Traditionally, borshcht is eaten with heavy dark rye bread, generously spread with soft butter. Instead, we had rice pilaf, because my housemate is Turkish, and he likes rice. I’ll give the recipe in another blog. The others ate two large bowls of borshcht, and I ate one. The servings were probably at least 2 cups in capacity each, maybe a little more. This decimated only half of what was in my pot! The rest is in my refrigerator, waiting for another mealtime to roll around. My housemate promised that it would not last very long. I believe him.