When I was working at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, two housekeepers who didn't speak English but giggled a lot brought in a pot of their family's borscht for the employee meal. In the dark basement hall where the employees ate, I tasted serious family-secret-cooking. The broth was clear, like liquid ruby, and it tasted as good and deep as gems are beautiful. There were fresh herbs in there, including dill. The broth was not sweet at all from beets, but rich. And every third bite you'd get a tender, piece of beef. Even though I was a cook, I had no idea how they did it. It was better than any soup I'd ever made. But get this. Before I could get the housekeepers' recipe, they'd moved away!
RUSSIAN BORSCHT The perfect soup for when you're freezing your butt off.
Unbeknownst to me, that pot of borscht was their goodbye. "Had a great summer washing and ironing sheets in America," it said, "Bye everyone!"
Ah, the devastation. Like I'd met the love of my life, but never got a name and number.
You can imagine my thrill three years later when I bumped into a former co-worker, and his wife's accent sounded like the housekeepers'. Of course I started blabbing about my underground kiss with an unknown borscht the color of rubies. But before I could go on and on, she stopped me. Her borscht would not be the same. She thinks the housekeepers might have been Ukrainian.
Her soup, the one she was taught to make in Volgograd, Russia, is orange — the result of sautûing carrots and tomatoes. "My family wouldn't add beets because they weren't readily available." But borscht can be anything your family wants it to be, she says. Add more potato, less tomato, a lot or a little cabbage, beets or no beets, make it with goat, lamb, or chicken.
"From area to area, you get really creative with it. All the recipes are in everybody's heads. It's all approximation." Here's to finding that special soup in your life — and creating your own family secret.
Lindsay Sterling can be reached at email@example.com.
Borscht with no beets
from Volgograd, Russia
4.5 quarts water
1.5 medium carrots, cleaned
3 bay leaves
1 onion, cut in half
three-quarters of a pound of pork (with bone and a lot of fat) cut into 6 large pieces
two-thirds of a tablespoon of Kosher salt
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
half a head cabbage, sliced thinly
two tablespoons of oil (she uses olive, but in Russia, they'd use sunflower)
half a yellow onion, diced large
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into quarter-inch rounds
2 small cloves of garlic, quartered lengthwise
2 medium tomatoes, diced large
2 tablespoons of tomato paste, mixed with 2 cups of water
Bring the first six ingredients to a boil and skim the foam off the top. Turn down and simmer for an hour and 45 minutes. Discard the carrots and onion halves with a slotted spoon. Add 1 quart of water to the pot. Turn up the heat to bring it back to a boil. In a separate large sautû pan, sautû the onion, carrots, and garlic in oil until soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the tomato paste-water mixture, and simmer for another 20. Meanwhile, add the potatoes to the boiling broth, and bring to a boil again; add cabbage, return to a boil, and turn off the heat. Mix the carrot and tomato sautû into the soup. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sour cream and raw-garlic-rubbed bread (scuff up the end of a garlic clove with a paring knife, and rub it all over the crust).