Borscht is an Eastern European dish that translates as “sour soup” in Yiddish. The popular beet root variety is associated with Ukrainian cuisine, but variations of “sour soup” come from all over Eastern Europe, and can be ascribed to multiple ethnic groups.
My grandfather was a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, and my grandmother was a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, and one of the many stories I heard about my Grandmother (who I was named after) was her delicious borscht. She served it cold, and without meat, in keeping with Jewish tradition.
I never knew my grandparents— they passed before I was born. But perhaps because of this, I treasure the traditions they practiced, especially if these traditions didn’t get passed on by my parents, except only through storytelling.
It’s taken years for me to gather the courage to attempt my own pot of borscht. I have wanted to make the meat variety— a hearty beef and pork stew, thick with beets and cabbage, but it always seemed daunting. Finally, I took my ingredients list to the store, and spoke with the butcher about how I could still get the necessary proteins without the bones, and without the hassle.
Following a recipe in Saveur Magazine simply titled Borscht, I substituted the pork shoulder and ham hock for simple, lean pork loins, and the beef chuck for stew-cut beef. I julienned the beets, added a tablespoon of horseradish, and substituted Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. Because I prefer more broth to my soups, I added 2-3 tall glasses of water to the pot once all the ingredients were added. Otherwise, I followed this classic, beet, meaty borscht recipe as its described on Saveur, and ended up with a delicious, hearty, sour stew that was convenient and nutritious!
Borscht is supposed to be thick enough for a spoon to stand up straight in it, and even with the added water, I’m able to achieve that! I love the sourness of this soup— a full cup of white wine vinegar offers a vibrant tang on the back of the tongue. More horseradish can be added to give some heat to the sinuses, if you desire.
I love reading about the history of food, and borscht provides plenty of fodder for the culinary-historian! It’s origins can be traced back thousands of years, though the Ukrainian beet version we know of today is on record as early as the mid-1600s. This particular dish gained popularity in the 19th century, as the Soviet Union expanded, and Eastern Europeans migrated throughout Europe and North America to escape persecution.
The version I made is a wonderful, comforting soup during cold winter months, but the chilled vegetarian version sounds perfect for spring and summer, and of course, for serving at Passover!
My Classic Ukrainian Borscht
1.5 lbs stew-cut beef
1.5 lbs pork loin
(3 sprigs of parsley, 3 sprigs of thyme, 3 sprigs of marjoram, 1 celery stalk, 1 small leek)
3 large or 6 small beets, skins removed and julienned
4 leeks, whites only, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 sweet onion, finely chopped
8 cups of beef broth
1 Savoy cabbage, cored and shredded
1 spoonful of Greek yogurt to serve
3 sprigs of dill, chopped to serve
Freshly ground black pepper to serve