Eating. borsch. (take two).
I can never chop an onion without reflecting that I learned how to chop onions from Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake!, one of a series of books about Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, the smartest kid in Idaville. (And you thought I learned how to cook from the Food Network. Not so). His father is the town's police chief; the mysteries (each a short chapter) are divided between cases his father puzzles over at the dinner table and cases Encyclopedia takes on for his clients, who come to his garage-detective agency needing his help in finding stolen property or solving some mystery. Cake! is full of food-related mysteries, and each story comes with a menu and recipes, easy enough for Encyclopedia, his friends, and the curious reader to make in their own kitchen (with the occasional adult supervision). As I peel my onion, slice it in half lengthwise, lay each half flat side down on the cutting board, making parallel slices (again, lengthwise) through the onion without cutting through the root end, and then slicing crosswise perpendicular to the first series of cuts, watching the onion fall away in a perfectly even (well, almost) dice, I say a small thanks to Encyclopedia Brown as I gather everything together for tonight's borsch.
Usually the week after my parents leave town I find myself making borsch; it has become something of a routine, I don't know why. Perhaps because, like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes it is never something we never ate as a family, something that I pursued on my own when I had left home. (Although we sometimes went to Russian restaurants for the occasional dinner; there used to be one near the Pike Place Market that had good Beef Stroganoff and stuffed cabbage rolls and pelmeni, everything lavished with sour cream). I remember the first time I made borsch; my parents had gone out of town and left me home alone for the first time ever, with a family friend to supervise and make sure I didn't stay out all night or burn the house down. (I was fifteen or sixteen years old). Mrs. R. (my best friend's mother and carpool driver) kindly stopped at the grocery store on the way home from school so I could gather the ingredients together, beef stew meat and beets and other vegetables; dill and sour cream for the garnish. I don't remember how it turned out, but it must have been good, because I have been making it every since. (Then again, it is hard to make a truly terrible soup).
Time brought refinements; beef short ribs that stayed rich and tender instead of stew meat, which tended to become dry, gray, and flavorless. There were occasional flirtations with a food processor to shred the beets instead of an ordinary grater. (Now the old Cuisinart has met its end I have fallen back on a fearsomely shiny new six-sided stainless-steel grater, a Christmas present from a friend who looked at me as if I had gone insane when I said all I wanted for Christmas was a new cheese grater, the previous one having fallen apart in the dishwasher some months before). Tonight all I have to do is toss the vegetables I chopped this morning into the broth I made last night, neatly dice the meat (with which I made the broth) and grate the beets (which had been roasted the night before). As always I make a fuschia mess that runs the full length of my kitchen; as usual the smell of soup, warm soup, tasty soup, fills the air as I watch a movie, catch up on the day's news. And then it is ready, ready to season and taste, add lemon juice to sharpen the flavors, ready to sprinkle with fresh dill and dollop with sour cream and curl up with a hot bowl of soup. And then another.