Borscht is one of the iconic dishes from Russia and it's neighbors, but you can know it as a deliciously warming, comforting bowl of soup. It gets much of its color from beets, but there's a whole lot more to this bright bowl.
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I've grown to love beets (in case my beetroot tarte tatin, golden beet and avocado toast, winter beet salad and various others things didn't give it away). However that's not always been the case. In fairness, we didn't have them when I was a child as my mum didn't like them. So my introduction was only rarely elsewhere.
I think it was when I spent a semester in Russia as a student that I started cooking with them, especially in borscht.
I had already been to Russia a few years before as part of a community service project which is partly what interested me in studying Russian. But I should probably have thought a bit more about going there in the winter before I did.
In fairness, we got there in early February so you would think winter was about coming to an end. But it certainly didn't appear to be that way and even when it warmed up, it still took forever before we got any variety in produce.
I remember that we all got quite ecstatic when we saw spinach on the market. We hadn't seen anything fresh and green in weeks, if not months. Before then, our diet had been based around potatoes, carrots and cabbage alongside dried goods like rice and beans. Going out for a meal rather than cooking didn't yield that much more variety either.
At that time, there was hardly any imported produce outside unless you were in Moscow or St Petersburg, and there it was expensive. I was based in the rural South where food was incredibly seasonal. However a beacon of joy in all that was this deliciously tasty soup, that is also very good for you.
We were actually shown how to make borscht by our teacher and it was something we then made relatively regularly. However as with many things, when I came home I didn't make it again for years.
Typically, any notes I took on making it were lost. So, this version is a combination of what I remember and what I have taken from other borscht recipes I have seen.
When I was shown how to make it, we diced or julienned all the vegetables. But to be honest, coarsely grating them is not so far different in the end result and is a lot quicker from a preparation point of view. Plus, I quite like how the vegetables end up a little more limp and easy to eat. It feels less like you're constantly trying not to splash everything red as you eat.
What vegetables go in borscht?
The exact vegetables you put in can vary and are not necessarily that important. It's pretty common to put cabbage in, and some people think of borscht as cabbage soup. However it's not necessarily needed in my opinion. It's the mixed root vegetables, and beetroot in particular, that are core.
That said, I would definitely put some in if I had some, but otherwise I might put in some chard stalks, for example (since I more often have some leftover that I haven't quite got round to using).
Is borscht vegetarian?
Traditionally, this is not a vegetarian soup, though you can make a vegetarian version by simply omitting the lamb bones used in cooking. However, unless you are vegetarian, I really would strongly suggest you use the lamb bone. It makes a huge difference in terms of giving depth of flavor and it goes so well with the root vegetables. If you don't have lamb bones, bought lamb stock would also be an option though be aware it will add salt.
On more recent visits to Russia, I have seen the huge number of changes in availability of just about everything from when I was there as a student. The need to rely on root veg in winter is much less the case.
However I think borscht will remain a staple of the colder weather, not just due to tradition, but because it's such a great soup. It's delicious, with a wonderfully warming depth of flavor, while still feeling relatively light. I hope you'll soon find out for yourself.
Try these other comforting soups:
- Brussel sprout soup with bacon and chestnuts
- Scotch broth (made with stock, barley and vegetables)
- Avgolemono soup (Greek lemon chicken soup)
- Plus get more lunch recipes in the archives.
- 4 cups water 900ml
- a few lamb bones
- 10 oz beetroot 285g, peeled and grated
- 8 oz carrots 220g, peeled and grated
- 4 ½ oz turnip 125g, peeled and grated
- ½ onion thinly sliced and larger slices halved
- 4 oz cabbage 100g, white or red, or if you don't have any chard stalks are also good
- 1 handful parsley leaves roughly chopped
- ½ tbsp red wine vinegar
- 4 tsp sour cream approx, to serve
- Bring the lamb bones to a boil in the water then reduce to a simmer. As you are waiting for the water to boil, prepare the vegetables.
- Gradually add the vegetables as they are ready, beetroot first to allow it a little longer to cook.
- Once all the vegetables are in, cook for approx 20min then remove the lamb bones from the soup.
- Finally, add parsley and vinegar, stir and cook a minute more then serve with a dollop of sour cream on top of each bowl.
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This post was originally published October 2015, republished with a couple updates, primarily new photos.