Friday, May 26, 2006

Cooking. borsch.

One of my favorite soups is borsch. The sweetness of beets, balanced with a squeeze of lemon juice, rounded out with onions and cabbage and potatoes, made rich with beef broth and the cool tang of sour cream. I used to order it at this little Russian restaurant near the Pike Place Market (now it is a French café that makes the best onion soup I've ever had, but that's another story). Now I make my own when I have a craving, simmer some bones for broth the night before, roast the beets in a foil pouch in the oven, let them cool as I chop vegetables and throw them into the pot with the broth, slip the skins off the beets, chop them or shred them. Usually I wind up with lurid pink stains on my hands, bright pink fingerprints on my white countertops. I like to put mushrooms in my borsch, sometimes leeks or celery, whatever vegetables I have on hand. As with most soups, you don't need a recipe. I have made it with canned beef broth, homemade beef broth (made from beef soup bones), chicken stock (made from the leftover carcasses of roast chickens past), vegetable broth made from bouillon cubes (Marigold brand), or just plain water. I have even made it with canned beets. They have all been good. It's hard to make a bad borsch.

In winter I like to make borsch with beef short ribs, or oxtails, or both, the meat braising slowly during the long gentle simmering, falling off the bone in tender chunks, making a rich, beefy borsch, a hearty meal in a bowl. With some bread on the side it makes a comforting winter dinner. Chop some dill, sprinkle it over your steaming bowl, add a dollop of cool sour cream. In the summer I use vegetable broth or plain water, leave out the meat so I can eat the borsch cold, on nights when it is too hot to bother with the stove, an icy drink at my side. I love the taste of it, the beets, sweet and tender, the vegetables, every flavor concentrated, brought together by the sharp acidity of the lemon juice I've squeezed over everything, stirred in. And I love the clear, deep fuschia of the soup.

Tonight's pot of soup has onions, mushrooms, cabbage, beets, and broth made from a leftover prime rib bone. It smells heavenly, and it will taste even better tomorrow night at dinner. The perfect end to a long day.

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