“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.”
So wrote the brilliant Tom Robbins in his book Jitterbug Perfume. It is one of my favorite pieces of writing on the planet and I think of it every time I make my favorite soup on the planet: beet borscht.
Wait, wait! I can hear what you’re saying: “Yeah, I’m not reading a column about beets, thanks anyways.”
But don’t leave me.
I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t dig on beets. I mean, not everyone likes the taste of freshly plowed field, right? Add their sugary sweetness to the mud and you have a hard sell on your hands.
But beet borscht is a different ball game, people. I promise.
I was just a little (picky) kid when I had my first taste of borscht. It was Christmas and we were at my grandma’s steamy apartment above her ladies’ fashion store The Original Shop. She was wearing a cheerful, pressed apron and didn’t look the least bit frazzled, even though she had just prepared 12 meatless dishes according to Ukrainian Christmas Eve tradition. The sweetheart of these was, of course, perogies. But the most formal and most beautiful course was borscht.
She served it in white, shallow bowls with a silver band on their rim. Frilled dumplings floated in the blood red broth, looking exactly like the cow eye soup from Indiana Jones. I immediately started dreaming up a way to tell my parents I’d developed an elaborate stomachache, one that would lift come perogy time.
But my grandma beat me to it: “Try just one bite,” she said, preparing it for me. She cut into the dumpling, and cream, caramelized onion and chopped mushrooms spilled from it into the broth. She scooped some dumpling and a teaspoon of broth into the spoon and, cupping her hand underneath it to save the white lace tablecloth, tilted it toward me like a baby.
It was the only time I almost complained about having to eat beet borscht.
When my little brother Matthew and I were in our teens, my dad started making borscht as well. His was a vastly different and, frankly, much less refined version than my grandma’s, but it still had its charm. He did it outside on the barbecue in a huge pot that would normally be used for water-bath canning, and it had everything to do with developing a rich broth using scads and scads of pork ribs. He would always do it in the fall and it would simmer out there all weekend, until, satisfied, he’d strain it and throw all of the meat away.
Later, when he was in his 20s and had moved away to Edmonton, Matthew asked my dad to show him how to make his borscht. Matthew called me afterward and admitted he hadn’t planned on spending $100 on beef stock.
I started making borscht after I moved to Kentucky. My version isn’t as expensive as my dad’s (I use beef chuck) and it isn’t as refined as my grandmother’s either. Instead it starts with boiling beets until they’re tender and saving the water they boiled in. I brown three pounds of beef, fry up leeks and carrots, add the beet water, a can of tomatoes, hunks of cabbage, tomato paste, return the beef to the pot and let it simmer for a few hours. When the beef is tender, I add the peeled, chopped beets and a whole garden of dill.
Then I add my secret ingredients: brown sugar and quite a bit of red wine vinegar.
Unlike my dad and grandma, I don’t strain anything, making it, possibly, the healthiest, most peasanty soup there is until you add a big dollop of sour cream in the center of your bowl. Then, suddenly, it’s luscious. And with a hunk of pumpernickel bread slathered in butter? So delicious.
Even if you hate beets, you’ll probably like beet borscht. And for Tom Robbins’s sake, they at least deserve another try, don’t you think? I’m deadly serious.