[Originally published on August 26, 2014]
Two days ago (08-24-2014), Ukraine celebrated its Independence Day from the Soviet Union. I saw pictures and postings of Ukrainians from all over the world celebrating and supporting their country. Our family members and friends are still living there. Now we are far away from the country of our birth. We may have different opinions about the political and social situation there and what is the best for the country. We feel helpless in the face of violence and conflict ravaging the region. Many of us are driven to make symbolic gestures of solidarity — paint something yellow and blue, wear beautiful traditional Ukrainian clothing with handmade embroidery, or put a sticker that says “Glory to Ukraine!” on our car bumpers. Today, more than on any other day, those of us with roots deeply planted in Ukrainian soil feel connected and cannot help but find ways to express it.
I express my emotions and moods through the food that I prepare. I celebrated the Independence Day of Ukraine by cooking borsch. Partially, I wanted to write this down for my daughter. I wanted her to know how the borsch was cooked in our family in Kharkiv. I also wanted to share how I cook it today with local Texas ingredients.
To read about borsch:
Soup Called Borshch (by Volodymyr Suprunenko)
Borsch — A Quintessential Dish of Ukrainian Cuisine
When I was growing up, I never paid attention how it was cooked by my parents. I only remember the taste and the look of it. Rich, thick and dense, bright red, piping hot, always served with a dollop of a sour cream on top. My father and brother would say: “There is a borsch and there is red soup with beetroots and tomatoes. These are two very different things.”
I also remember a meatless summer version of borsch made by my mother-in-law. When they were younger, my in-laws had their own garden in the countryside. A proud owner of a green thumb, Mama Nina would grow incredible cucumber and tomato “jungles”. They are my one of the most vivid memories of their garden. She used freshly picked beans and young vegetables for her borsch. It was delicious hot or cold. When all the children and grandchildren were visiting, an enormous pot of it would disappear quickly.
The existence of borsch was something I took for granted. I never thought of it as my favorite dish. It was always there, a staple of home cooking, like pot roast or chili soup in America. Then I moved to the states and found myself craving it, like most Ukrainians do when they move abroad. It was then that I started cooking my own version of borsch. It was OK, but… it was, as my brother would say, just “a red soup with beetroots and tomatoes.” When my father and older brother came to visit us in 2005 I finally learned how to cook “The Real” borsch! I am being ironic and completely serious about that last part. My brother and I cooked our borsches side by side. When I tasted his, I realized that he had re-created the taste of my childhood, my homeland. I’ve never again cooked my version since that day. Normally I am very liberal with other ethnic recipes, but I am very serious about what makes red borsch “The Real” borsch. I am so serious about this that in culinary school I refused to follow the “incorrect” recipe provided by our chef instructor. Chef J and I cooked two versions of borsch in our kitchen lab and let the rest of the students taste it. Chef J’s presentation was beautiful, but my borsch won with the better flavor.
You can use any kind of meat or poultry stock for your red borsch. You can make it meatless and base the flavor on mushrooms, beans, or root vegetables. There are variations on how to cook potatoes for the borsch, and whether to use fresh or fermented cabbage. I wouldn’t argue about flavoring the borsch with hot red chilies or salo-n-garlic paste. I like it served with dark rye bread as much as I like with “galushky” dumplings, or garlicky dinner rolls. But I insist on building the flavor of the borsch by cooking beetroots, carrots, and tomatoes with herbs and spices into a concentrated sauce-like essence.
The following recipe is how I cooked my borsch for the Independence Day of Ukraine. It is not by definition traditional or authentic. I have never heard of a traditional borsch with a combination of meat and beans. Normally, they are not used together. I wanted to make a soup with fresh shelled beans from the local farm, and a borsch with beautiful beef shanks I found in HEB. This led to the combination in this particular recipe. They work nicely together, but if you wish to make a meatless version, go for it.