Thursday, January 21, 2016

From Russia, with Love

A month or so ago, my son requested that we learn about France as part of homeschool. So we had “French Day.” We found the country on a map, we talked about what people wear in France, what the weather is like there, what kids study in school, what kind of games they play, and what kind of food they eat. We even found some recipes and planned out a meal that would be similar to what people in France would eat.

Yesterday, my son requested that we have another day like that, so I suggested a few countries he might choose from: Australia, Russia, Mexico, and Zimbabwe were all choices. He opted for Russia, so today we spent the morning studying what kind of clothes people in Russia wear (mostly the same as us, except traditional costumes for festivals and warm furry hats up north), what’s different about school (they start at age 6 or 7 and finish at age 16 or 17), what kinds of homes people live in (mostly high-rise apartments, sometimes with a shared kitchen or bathroom), and what people in Russia eat. I found dozens and dozens of delicious-looking recipes, several of which we’ll be trying later, but it seemed appropriate that for our first attempt at Russian cooking, we would make borscht.

Borscht is, of course, beet soup, sometimes made with beef and often made with cabbage and carrots, which is often served with a dollop of sour cream and a side of dark rye bread. I searched out a recipe that touted itself as being “easy,” and I went to the store for supplies.

Left to right: Russian rye bread, beets, cabbage, beef broth, carrots. Not pictured: an onion, salt, butter. I wasn’t sure if “real” borscht used red cabbage, smooth-leaf cabbage, or the “ruffled” cabbage shown, but I thought the ruffled cabbage would look the nicest, so that’s what I bought.

The first task was to peel and shred the beets and carrots. My assistant learned to use both a peeler and a grater during this lesson – and without bloodshed (although while shredding the beets, who would know?). 

We discovered that leaving the greens attached to the beet give it a nice handle to grab onto while peeling. Three beets gave us more than enough for the 2 cups of shredded beets called for in our recipe. 

We tried grating the carrots both end-wise and sideways. End-wise turned out to be more effective, although you have to be very careful not to grate your fingers!! We lost count of how many carrots we needed to make the 1 cup called for, because a certain assistant kept eating them before we finished shredding them. (This is most definitely NOT a bad thing.) But it was probably around 3 or 4 medium-sized carrots.

Mom took charge of chopping up the onion – the white discs looked very artistic against the remaining beet and carrot shreds on the cutting board. We didn’t bother to measure one cup – one medium-sized onion, chopped, is reasonably close to one cup. See? This is why I love making soup: approximations are king. 

Pour two cups of water and ½ teaspoon salt into a large saucepan and add the shredded beets, carrots, and onion. 

It doesn’t seem like enough water, but that’s okay. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat, covered, for 20 minutes. While this is simmering, shred the cabbage. It’s pretty difficult to shred cabbage on a grater, so I simply chopped it. I did it the same way I chiffonade basil: wrap two or three leaves together to form a tight tube, then chop along the length. In this case, I went back and chopped again at an angle so the pieces weren’t too big. 

I only used two leaves, but I got way more than the needed one cup. I used it all anyway. Cabbage is good for you, right? (See also: approximation comment, above.)

When the 20 minutes was up, I uncovered my simmering broth to find it nicely thickened and a gorgeous, deep purplish-red. 

I had a large box of beef broth rather than the two cans called for in the recipe, so once again, I approximated, and just used most of the box. I also dumped in the cabbage, and a tablespoon of butter. 

I realized at this point that I probably should have shredded the cabbage a lot finer, but oh well. That’s why I leave space at the bottom of all my recipes to make notes for next time!

Next we simmered for 15 minutes, but uncovered this time. The recipe called for adding a tablespoon of lemon juice right before serving, but I read in a number of comments that this is NOT traditional Russian, so I left it out (and didn’t miss it). I did, of course, top each bowl with a dollop of sour cream. 

I could not convince either my 4-year-old daughter or my husband to try it, and my 6-year-old (whose project it was to begin with) took one taste and made a face. I, however, was surprised at how delicious it was, especially considering that I dislike cabbage and am only “meh” on carrots and beets. My main objection to all three is their tendency toward bitterness, but apparently the cooking changed the chemistry in such a way that the sweetness of the onion and the hint of saltiness from the broth come forward in a very pleasant way.

If you’d like to try it for yourself, here’s the complete recipe (based on a recipe from Taste of Home)!

2 cups shredded fresh beets (about 3)
1 cup shredded carrots (about 3-4)
1 cup chopped onion (1 medium)
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cans (14-1/2 ounces each) beef broth (about 3-1/2 cups)
1 cup shredded cabbage
1 tablespoon butter
Sour cream, optional

In a saucepan, bring the beets, carrots, onion, water and salt to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add broth, cabbage and butter; simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream if desired. 

Prijatnovo appetita!

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