Ukrainian Borshch (Украинский борщ)

BorshchI lived in Moscow through the summer and fall of 1991, the last months of the Soviet Union, when food could only be reliably found in open-air farmers’ markets, at prices jacked up to market levels.  During these days, I spent many hours with my friend Sergei Maslov who, like me, was studying at the Moscow Energy Institute.  Often I would visit his family in their cozy apartment in the southeast corner of the city, and his mother Marina would make dinners for us.  One of my favorite dishes was her authentic Ukrainian borshch.  One day I took out my notebook and wrote down the recipe as Marina prepared the soup.  I have scanned the original handwritten page and included it below.

There are probably as many borshch recipes as there are Russian and Ukrainian mothers.  Anya von Bremzen, in her delightful new book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, reminisces about the various incarnations of Soviet borshch that she came to know in her youth:

There was the private borshch, such as Mom’s frugal vegetarian version, endearing in its monotony.  There was the vile institutional soup of canteens, afloat with reddish circles of fat.  In winter we warmed our bones with limp, hot borshch, the culinary equivalent of tired February snow.  In summer we chilled out with svekolnik, the cold, thin borshch popularized here in America by Eastern European Jews.

Parallel to all these but ever out of reach was another soup: the mythical “real” Ukrainian borshch we knew from descriptions in State-approved recipe booklets authored by hack “gastronomic historians.”  Apparently that borshch was everything ours wasn’t.  Thick enough to stand a spoon in, concocted in myriad regional permutations, and brimming with all manner of meats.

My original handwritten recipe.  Click to enlarge.

My original handwritten recipe. Click to enlarge.

Marina Maslova’s recipe, which I reproduce here, is that “mythical ‘real’ Ukrainian borshch,” which will always hold a special place in my heart.  Although most Americans think of borshch as beet soup, Marina told me that many Ukrainians don’t use beets.  So you may choose to use them or not, as you prefer.

When the soup was ready, we would sit around the table, the borshch always accompanied by delicate crystal shot glasses filled with vodka, and a bread basket overflowing with half-slices of dense, dark bread.  One evening I neglected to take a piece of bread with my soup, and Marina’s husband Adolf — yes, that was his real name — declared in his theatrical, stentorian voice: “Бери хлеб, мы не варвары!”  (“Take the bread — we’re not barbarians!”)

In addition, the Maslovs always served their borshch with raw garlic cloves on the side; each spoonful of soup was followed with a small bite of garlic.  Perhaps Marina was aware that garlic is a potent natural antibiotic, and eating raw garlic is an excellent way of warding off illness.

1 kilogram (about 2 lbs.) beef rib or other suitable cut of meat with a reasonable amount of fat and preferably including some bone
3 medium-size carrots, peeled and sliced into small bite-size pieces
5 or more medium-size potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
2-3 medium-size beets (optional), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
2 small sweet peppers (optional), seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces
1-2 bay leaves
1 small head of cabbage (about 2 lbs.), shredded
1 large onion, cut into ½-inch dice
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and black pepper to taste
sour cream as desired for garnish

Using a large (8 quart) stock pot, place the meat in boiling water and cook for 8-10 minutes, then pour off the water.  This initial step helps ensure a clearer broth.  Then refill the pot to ½ or more to cover the meat, and simmer for 1 hour or more.  While it cooks, prepare the vegetables.

Remove the meat from the pot and set aside.  Place carrots, potatoes, beets, and bay leaf into the broth.  Raise the heat to bring to a low boil, and cook for 10 minutes.

While vegetables are cooking, place onion in a small pan with oil and sauté until tender and golden, about 10 minutes.  Then stir in tomato paste and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Add onion to the soup.  Add cabbage until the soup is thick enough to stand a spoon in it.  (At this point the pot should be about 3/4 full, or slightly more.  If it is not, add water to bring it to that level.)  Simmer until the cabbage is tender, about 10 more minutes.  Remove bay leaf, and add dill and parsley.  Cut the cooled meat into bite-size chunks and stir into the soup.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  (Start with 2 tsp. salt and add more if needed.)

This soup tastes wonderful when freshly made.  But ideally, allow it to stand for 8-12 hours to allow flavors to combine before reheating and serving.  Serve with a dollop of thick sour cream in each bowl.

Serves 6-8.

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