My Russian grandmother’s secret ingredient for the best borscht.
I come from a family whose members are known for longevity. We live full lives, touched by the necessary Jewish misery and misfortune, and the usual Russian characteristics of stubbornness and vivacity. So it should come as no surprise that I have met great-grandparents who lived well into their 80s and 90s and who to this day guide my parents through memories, made-up phrases and warnings. It seems that even after my relatives have passed away, they continue to live with us in our hearts.
My mother remembers her mother’s borscht. As a country that has lived in poverty for thousands of years, sprawling mother Russia has developed many ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, but few Russian dishes are as frugal as borscht. Borscht is mainly made up of any vegetables that soften in your fridge and the vinegar preservative balm, borscht is forgiving and open to interpretation. So my recipe is actually more of a recommendation. Do what you will with it, but do me a favor – don’t leave out Fruma’s secret ingredient, the sweet and sour plum jam.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
- 3 large beets or 6 medium, or 12 small – or a mix of these
- 3 large carrots
- 3 large potatoes
- 1 large onion
- 4 tbsp plum jam or another sweet-sour jam, such as rhubarb (I used rhubarb ketchup, because I had that at the time. Plum jam is really better)
- 1 tablespoon white sugar, to taste if needed
- 3 teaspoons salt or more, to taste
- 1 bay leaf
- ⅓ cup apple cider vinegar or more, to taste
- Vegan sour cream or regular whipped cream to serve (optional)
- Fresh chopped dill to serve (optional)
- Prepare your vegetables. Wash beets and potatoes carefully with soapy water. Peel the carrots.
- Place a large saucepan on the stove and heat to medium heat. Once warm, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the bottom.
- Finely chop the onion. Add to pan and cook until translucent, about 5-10 minutes.
- Grate, slice or grate the beets and carrots (you can use a food processor). This stage causes controversy and bitter arguments among many, but here’s my two cents: Grating really does get the best results, which is what most Russian babushkas would do. However, I am really lazy and prefer to shred my root vegetables in a food processor, but many delicious borscht recipes contain finely chopped vegetables. Each to their own, and I encourage you to try all three methods and pick your favorite.
- Chop potatoes finely (this also depends on your patience. Sometimes I grate the potatoes together with my beets and carrots, but this is definitely not ideal. In my opinion you get the best borscht texture with grated beets and carrots and small, firm potatoes where you can sink your teeth into).
- Add enough water to cover the vegetables two inches (about 8 cups). Add bay leaf and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook for an hour.
- Taste your soup after an hour. Add your plum jam and vinegar. Taste for a balance of mouth-puckering sourness, balanced by the natural sweetness of the beets. Correct flavors and add vinegar, salt, or white sugar as needed.
- When serving, garnish with a large, heaping tablespoon of vegan sour cream (or a tablespoon of heavy cream) and a dash of finely chopped dill (my family piles this up in ridiculous amounts, I don’t). While it is really good the way it is.