When I think of Eastern European cuisine I think of pierogi (coming later this week) and I think of barszcz (also spelled borscht). Barszcz is seen in many iterations throughout Poland, Russia, and Ukraine; sometimes it is thick with pieces of beet and shreds of beef, sometimes the soup blushes with sour cream, and other times it it served crystal clear.
The traditional Polish version in Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden's From A Polish Country House Kitchen is a third type. After simmering a multitudinous concoction of beets, carrots, celery root, leeks, onions, garlic, and beef bones in several cups of water until rich in color and deep in earthy flavor, the entire contents of the pot are strained out. The soup is then served simply with a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of sour cream.
Why I picked this recipe: Can you cook Polish food without simmering a pot of barszcz? I think not.
What worked: Brilliantly violet red and beguilingly fragrant, this clear soup is a beet-y winner. Be sure to include the dried marjoram; while its addition may seem strange, the herb's grassy notes contribute a pleasant savory note to the broth that brings the flavors in harmony.
What didn't: No problems here.
Suggested tweaks: If you must have pieces of beet in your barszcz, give the simmered a quick chop before returning them to the strained broth before serving.
Reprinted with permission from From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food By Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden, copyright 2012. Published by Chronicle Books. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- Yield:serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer, or 4 to 6 as a main course
- Active time: 15 minutes
- Total time:2 hours
- 4 large or 6 small beets, peeled and halved
- 1 lb (455 g) meaty veal or beef bones
- 1 medium carrot, trimmed and peeled
- 1 medium parsnip, trimmed and peeled
- 1 large onion, peeled and halved
- 1 leek (white and green parts), trimmed, halved lengthwise, and rinsed
- 1/4 celery root, peeled, or 1 long celery stalk
- 3 to 4 dried mushrooms or porcini, if you’ve got them
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole, plus 2 extra just in case
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large pinch of dried marjoram, plus more for seasoning
- 6 peppercorns (optional; throw them in if you like a spicier soup)
- About 12 cups (2.8 L) water (depending on the size of the pot)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) sour cream or plain Greek-style yogurt (optional)
Combine the beets, bones, carrot, parsnip, onion, leek, celery root, mushrooms, 8 garlic cloves, the bay leaf, marjoram, peppercorns (if using), and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. (There should be enough water to cover the other ingredients.) Remove any foam that has risen to the top, cover, and turn down the heat. Simmer gently until the meat falls off the bones and the vegetables are very soft, about 2 hours.
Strain the soup through a colander, pressing the solids to extract all the liquids. Taste: If it is too watery, then boil down, uncovered, for an additional 30 minutes or so. If it seems too dense, add water. When the soup is ready, stir in the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and, if you like, some more dried marjoram.
You might also ask yourself at this point whether the soup needs even more garlic, in which case peel a couple more cloves, crush them with a garlic press or the flat side of a knife, toss them in, and simmer for a minute or two. Make sure they don’t fall into anyone’s bowl when you serve (unless, like Anne, the person happens to like boiled garlic cloves). The flavor should be slightly sour and garlicky, yet with that beety hint of sweetness.
Serve clear, very hot, in small bowls or even large teacups, which you can pick up and drink. If you prefer yours bright pink, then serve in large soup plates with a spoonful of the sour cream or plain yogurt dropped into each one. This keeps in the refrigerator (covered) for days, and indeed grows slightly tangier with time, which is how it is supposed to be.