I come from a family whose members are known for their longevity. We live full lives, touched by the requisite iota of Jewish misery and misfortune, and the customary Russian characteristics of stubbornness and spiritedness. So it should come as no surprise that I have met great-grandparents who lived well into their 80s and 90s, and who continue to this day to guide my parents through memories, coined phrases, and warnings. It seems that even after my family members pass, they continue to live with us in our hearts.
My maternal great-grandmother Fruma was the rock of our family. My memories of her consist of rooms filled with books, a big gramophone, and strange exercise devices I was to use only when her third husband was far from sight. We would share secrets and games of a nature I can no longer recall, but which fill me with warmth whenever I think of her. But above all else, I remember her chin hair and warm, crinkly eyes.
My mother remembers her borscht. As a country that has been mired in poverty for many millennia, the vast mother Russia has developed many ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, but few Russian dishes are as economical as borscht. Consisting mainly of whatever vegetables are going soft in your fridge and the preserving balm of vinegar, borscht is forgiving and open to interpretation. So my recipe is really more of a recommendation. Do with it as you like, but do me a favour – don’t omit Fruma’s secret ingredient, the sweet-and-sour plum jam.
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Sweet and sour borscht
- 3 large beets or 6 medium ones, or 12 small - or a mix thereof
- 3 large carrots
- 3 large potatoes
- 1 large onion
- 4 tablespoons plum jam or another jam that is sour-sweet, like rhubarb (I used rhubarb ketchup, because that’s what I had at the time. Plum jam really is better)
- 1 tablespoon of white sugar 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 heavy 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 pot on the stovetop and heat to medium-high heat. Once warm, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the bottom.
- Chop onion finely. Add to pot and sauté until translucent, about 5-10 minutes.
- Grate, finely dice or shred the beets and carrots (you can use a food processor). This stage sparks controversy and bitter arguments among many, but here are my two cents: grating really does produce the best results, and it’s what most Russian babushkas would do. However, I really am lazy and prefer to shred my root vegetables in a food processor, while as many a fine borscht contains finely diced vegetables. To each their own, and I encourage you to try all three methods and pick your favourite.
- Dice potatoes finely (this, too, depends on your patience. Sometimes I shred the potatoes along with my beets and carrots, but this definitely isn’t the ideal. In my eyes, the best borscht texture is achieved with grated beets and carrots and small, chunky potatoes you can sink your teeth into).
- Add enough water to cover vegetables by two inches (about 8 cups). Add bay leaf and 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and cook for one hour.
- After an hour, taste your soup. Add your plum jam and vinegar. Taste for a balance of mouth-puckering sourness, balanced by the natural sweetness of the beets. Correct flavours and add vinegar, salt or white sugar, as needed.
- When serving, garnish with a large, heaping tablespoon of vegan sour cream (or one tablespoon of heavy cream) and a sprinkling of finely chopped dill (my family heaps this on in ludicrous quantities. I don’t). Though it really is fine as it is.