Monday, October 3, 2011

Auntie's Borscht

I remember the parties my family used to have when I was a child. Every New Year’s Day, cousins, aunts and uncles would gather at my Auntie Helen’s house to celebrate the season.

My aunts were warm, generous women, and the Ukrainian culture is one of good food, hospitality, generosity, and love. The food in their homes was always incredible—homemade holubtsi (cabbage rolls), perogies, bread hot from the oven, and so many other delicacies.

Like most families with members that grew up during the depression, nothing was ever wasted. My aunts knew the value of a vegetable garden, and grew their own beets and cabbage and tomatoes. They visited each other’s kitchens and shared the work and the bounty by making huge batches of everything. What did Ukrainian aunties do before freezers were invented?

One of my favorite stories is about my aunts Vickie and Helen going for a walk in the woods. They found a patch of mushrooms that were simply too good to ignore. Not having a basket, they peeled off their slacks, tied the ankles shut, and used them to carry the mushrooms. As we ate the preserved mushrooms on the New Year’s Day that followed that summer outing, my uncle had everyone in stitches as he described the sight of two middle-aged ladies coming out of the woods under the weight of their mushroom-stuffed polyester slacks, racing for the car before anyone could see they were bottomless. Now that’s dedication to good cuisine!

One of the dishes we did not have at New Year’s was borscht, or beet soup. It was for every day, an ordinary thing, rather than something fit for a party. I disagree—it’s rich, earthy, and wonderful, a treat on a cold day, but times have changed, haven’t they? Fortunately, I was visiting my Auntie Ollie when there was a particularly good crop of beets to be dealt with, and I learned to make borscht from her.

My aunts are gone now, and the annual family reunions have come to an end, but there was a wonderful display of beets at the farmer’s market on Saturday, and a Ukrainian auntie was stocking up. How could I resist? So I made borscht yesterday, and remembered all the wonderful things about family, and traditions, and how good food brings people together.

I want to share the recipe with you, but my aunts didn’t use a cookbook, and I learned to cook like that, from the heart. Sometimes I make things up (how my family dreads those dinners!) and I almost never measure ingredients exactly. It still turns out…mostly. I always measure when I bake, which is where it counts, right? Thankfully, borscht is one of those recipes that somehow turns out well with very little help, no matter what you do to it.

Next weekend is Thanksgiving here in Canada, and while we’ll be having turkey and all the traditional side dishes, the holidays are still a month away in the United States. You’ll need something to eat until then, and there’s always something to be thankful for, so in honor of Thanksgiving, good food, family, and my wonderful aunts, here’s my recipe for Auntie’s Borscht:


•Stew beef or sirloin, cut into cubes (about 2 cups)
• 3 tbsp oil
•1 large can diced tomatoes
•2 onions, chopped
• Beef stock (enough to cover the vegetables in the pot—about 4 cups)
•2-3 cloves of fresh garlic, roughly chopped
• Beets, cut into cubes (about 3 cups)
• Carrots, cut into cubes (about 3 cups)
• Potatoes (peeled, or skin on as preferred, about 3 cups. I use baby potatoes and leave the skin on)
• Fresh dill
• Sour cream
• Green onions, chopped

Here’s how:

Add the oil to the pot and sear the meat over high heat in small batches until browned on the outside, about 2 minutes.

Remove the meat and set aside. 

Turn the heat down to medium, add the onions to the pot and cook until golden and softened.

Put the meat back into the pot, add the canned tomatoes with juice, and beef stock.

Add the beets, carrots and potatoes. Throw in a few tablespoons of chopped dill. Simmer until the meat is tender.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream, and some dill and green onions sprinkled on top. Swirl the sour cream into the soup (the color is incredible!) and enjoy.

Let me know how it turns out!