No, borscht is not an Irish food. I actually made this for my Potluck Book Club, which was meeting to discuss the Ukranian-set, fairly Jewish novel "Everything is Illuminated." We tried to stick to the cultural themes with our culinary selections, and despite my longing for blinis and latkes I decided I would tackle that neon hallmark of Eastern Europe: beet soup.
Oddly enough, while I was concocting my soup I couldn't help notice the similarities between Irish and Ukranian cuisine. Potatoes, cabbage, beef, onions...is your mouth watering yet? Well, mine wasn't. I had a hard time believing beets belonged in soup, particularly as I surveyed the rather drab-looking assortment of ingredients. However, I must say this soup turned out to be quite delectable. The vegetables were tender yet textured, and although my house still smells like vinegar the flavor lent a pleasantly refreshing acidity to the broth. Furthermore, the sour cream provides a creamy balance, and I couldn't resist adding a handful of micro-greens for an Americanized crunch -- not to mention some St Patrick's Day green.
Although I always pictured it pureed, borscht is in fact traditionally served as a chunky, broth-based soup. The main seasonings are usually caraway seeds (think rye bread) and dill, but since I couldn't find fresh dill I substituted chervil. Furthermore, most borscht recipes call for beef stock and a few beef bones, neither of which interested me. A few vegetarian recipes recommend a handful of porcini mushrooms to provide the missing meatiness (why are mushrooms the universal meat substitute?), but I instead opted for the remainder of the Harpoon Munich Dark Ale I enjoyed during my prep work. After tinkering with a few recipes, including this one from the Food Network's web site, here's what I ended up with:
5 fresh beets, unpeeled
1 parsnip, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons white or red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
2 small onions, quartered and thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, cored, cut into 1-inch wedges, and shredded
A small handful fresh chervil
3 bay leaves
One 16-ounce can diced tomatoes (with liquid)
12-15 small fingerling potatoes, cut in halves or thirds
10-11 cups water
1/2 bottle stout beer
6 cubes vegetable bouillon
Sour cream and micro-greens, for garnish
In a large saucepan, cover the beets with cold water by l inch. Stir in 1/4 cup of the vinegar and 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until very tender, about 40 minutes. Remove from liquid, cool, and peel the beets. Cut into 1/4" thick medium-sized rectangles, and set aside.
Add potatoes to the same pot/liquid and boil until very soft. Set aside, reserving one cup of cooking liquid.
Heat the oil in a very, very large pot over medium heat. Add the celery, onion, carrots, parsnip, garlic, and caraway seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the cabbage and beer and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 3 minutes.
Tie the chervil and bay leaves together with a rubber band and add to the pot with the beets, tomatoes, bouillon, and water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes to bring the flavors together. Stir in the beet liquid, potatoes, remaining 3 tablespoons vinegar, and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Season heavily with pepper. Chill.
Serve topped with dollops of the sour cream and handfuls of micro-greens. Pass additional vinegar at the table.
Serves enough to end the Irish Famine. Or at least 12 hungry people.
NB: You can serve borscht warm, too. But I like pretending spring is here, and thus cold soups are more appropriate.
And did you know borscht is considered a classic hangover cure? Try it. Maybe tomorrow, for all the Irish out there.