Borscht! Comrades, we have missed our window of opportunity for to kill Doug!
-Svetlana Rootski, 'Neath the Elms (If you don't get the reference, don't worry... it's not worth explaining.)
Lately, my procrastination/relaxation method of choice has been cooking, and surprisingly, my recent experiments have mostly been in the realm of soup. (I've spent most of my life hating all soups except plain Campbell's tomato.) So far I've made a decent but too-thick split pea glop, a tragically overspiced pumpkin lentil soup, and some vegetable stock, and today I decided to try out borscht, a Ukrainian soup that's a standard of the Russian diet. It's delicious, and it contains two vegetables – beets and cabbage – that I think are underutilized in the U.S. (Note: I have no idea why the word "borscht" usually has a -t on the end, since the Russian word, борщ/borsch, doesn't. Maybe the word was borrowed through Yiddish.)
I've had a recipe for borscht for more than a year now, written out for me by a friend and sometime student in Vladivostok, but I've put off trying it because 1) like many Russian recipes, no amounts are given; and 2) it requires making beef stock, which I never really felt prepared to do (I don't even know how to buy red meat, much less cook it, and canned broth isn't available here). But now that I've become acquainted with the art of soup-making and have seen a few other borscht recipes that did give amounts, I decided I could try it out. I replaced the beef stock with vegetable stock, because I still don't know how to make beef stock, and I don't really do meat in general nowadays. That doesn't make it inauthentic – meaty borscht is much more common (and quite tasty), but some Russians do make it without meat.
Although I feel like borscht is usually identified by its beetiness, you actually only need one medium beet, julienned. Boil it in 3 cups of water with a quarter cup of vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt until it's tender. I boiled it for about half an hour and it was still a little too firm for my taste. Drain.
While the beet is boiling, cook three medium-sized carrots, cubed, and two small onions, chopped, in a tablespoon of oil. Set all this aside.
Boil one third of a head of green cabbage, shredded, and three smallish potatoes, julienned, in 2 quarts of vegetable stock for 10-15 minutes; add the beet and sautéed vegetables and some spices and cook another 10 minutes or so. I used a spice blend called "spices for Ukrainian borscht," which contains dill, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, celery seed and dried onion – I think the dill is the most important part for making it authentically borschty. I also added about 2 tablespoons of vinegar because I didn't think it tasted quite as sour as it should. Also, my vegetables-to-stock ratio was really high, and I would probably add another half liter (=1 pint) of liquid if I had a bigger pot.
Before serving, add chopped fresh garlic (I skipped this part because I don't like raw garlic), and top each bowl of soup with a dollop of sour cream and fresh chopped parsley and dill if you have them. Voila!
(After making this beautiful pot of more or less authentic borscht, I completely bastardized it by adding two cups of cooked kidney beans to make it more filling. Russians usually eat soup as the first part of a meal, but I eat it (with some bread) as a whole meal, so without the meat I felt like beans were a good addition. Plus I just really like the combination of cabbage and kidney beans.)