A bounty of borscht

There are myriad ways to prepare this soup of Russia and Eastern Europe

February 20, 2008|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

In St. Petersburg, Russia, on a late November day, it gets dark quite early. I'd entered the State Hermitage Museum's staggeringly vast art collection (4 million artifacts! 20,000 paintings!) in sunshine, but when I emerged at 4 p.m., it was night.

Trudging forth, through the gray snow, I felt nearly as weary as Napoleon, dragging himself back to Paris from Russia in defeat. Feeling peckish, I decided on a simple bowl of borscht.

Little did I realize, however, that there's nothing simple about this most Russian of soups. In fact, no sooner did I place my order at Davidoff, the Astoria Hotel's elegant restaurant, than complexities began. "Would you like your borscht hot or cold?" the waiter asked.

Hmmm. To my inexperienced ear, this seemed a bit like inquiring if I preferred my ice cream chilled or at room temperature. "Hot," I said, and a few minutes later, a fragrant bowl was set before me. Here was a clear broth, as brilliantly reddish-purple as raspberry puree, in which floated a few vegetables, cut julienne-style. A smaller dish, set alongside my soup bowl, held a dollop of sour cream.

Sweet and sour, this was so precisely the picture of borscht I had in my mind, I couldn't imagine any other. This led me to wonder about what seemed the waiter's silly question. There's only one way to eat borscht, right?

Nyet!

"Sometimes I think there are a million versions of borscht," said Tatyana Malyutin, a native of Lvov, Ukraine, who lives in Reisterstown.

"It depends on where you are from, even what family you were born into, what type of borscht you cook. The recipe is so forgiving, you can do whatever comes into your head, as long as there are beets in there. Well, beets and garlic. Without garlic, there is no borscht."

"It is a very `home-cooking' kind of soup," said Helena Williams, chef and co-owner of Smedly's in Fells Point, whose family originally hails from Bialystok, Poland. "In this part of the world, it is a nothing-goes-to-waste society. You boil a ham, or sausage in water, and then make borscht with the leftover liquid. Traditionally, though, borscht has to include kvass. It's the sour part that makes borscht." (We'll get to a kvass controversy in a moment.)

In my week's vacation, split between St. Petersburg and Moscow, I furthermore learned that Russia's most famous soup isn't even Russian, but Ukrainian in origin. In Ukraine alone, well over a hundred varieties of borscht exist, with many more recipes in Poland, Belarus, Slovenia and Slovakia.

Made with bacon or beef, chicken or frankfurters, it can be nearly a court bouillon ladled over a single boiled potato. Or, an old rule says good Ukrainian borscht should be so thick with vegetables that a wooden spoon will stand upright when stuck into the tureen.

Although it's sometimes believed the only consistent element in all borscht recipes is beets, there are beetless recipes, too, such as cold borscht made from apricots; "green" borscht with spinach and sorrel; and "white" borscht, whose basis is the brine of pickles. This last will be served at Smedly's during the Lenten season, as is customary in Poland.

Because I was enamored of the soup I ate at Davidoff in St. Petersburg, I made an appointment to meet the chef, Dimitri Vorobiov. "I know of at least 40 ways to make borscht," Vorobiov said with a chuckle as he welcomed me into his kitchen.

Spread out before him were ingredients for the version he'd decided on for that day: beets, cabbage, onions, carrots, tomato paste, peppercorns, bay leaves, dill, garlic, diced pork, butter, sugar and white vinegar.

Already at a simmer was a pot of beef stock. When I asked if canned broth was an acceptable substitute, Vorobiov's smile grew tight. "Most Russians don't even know what canned broth is," he said. "Soup making is so much a part of our culture, you see, just about every kitchen has a pot of boiling bones going right now."

Vorobiov's stock recipe is easy to remember. He uses a mix of half meat, half bones, all of which is washed, then covered with cold water. Just as the fluid starts to bubble, he lowers the heat. This process can't be sped up, Vorobiov said, because if stock boils too furiously, the soup will get cloudy and not produce a clear broth.

His other secret is cutting all the vegetables into uniformly sized strips and sauteing them in butter before dropping them into the broth. Tatyana Malyutin agrees that this step - she even recommends frying each vegetable separately - is of paramount importance.

"In Russia, this is called zapravka," she said. "You have to feel that one ingredient is done before you add another. It's an intuition that comes with experience."

What's also surprising is how much of the soup's flavor is imparted at the very end. Vorobiov adds a bay leaf for only a few minutes ("more than that, it can turn bitter"); raw garlic is stirred in just before serving; dill and parsley are sprinkled on, after the borscht is already in the bowl.

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