Thanks to the twentieth century’s political upheaval of Eastern Europe, the rise of Communism and the Soviet influence, and the subsequent independence of the former Eastern Bloc nations, there has been a lot of mutual influence between Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish culture. Ukraine’s most famous dish, the purple vitamin powerhouse borscht (recipe follows), a filling main course soup that gets its signature color from its main ingredient, beets, could be reasonably claimed by its neighbors, and in fact many nations in the region have their own versions. The Ukrainians would tell you theirs is the best, and we are inclined to believe them.
Ukraine quick facts:
- Capital: Kiev
- Population: 44,573,205 (2013 estimate)
- Notable Ukrainians: Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, Andriy Shevchenko, Milla Jovovich, Mila Kunis
Ukrainians seek sustenance from the ingredients available to them, which has resulted in a rich, hearty cuisine capable of fueling a hardworking people. Pork and beef are the most popular meats. Wild mushrooms abound in Ukraine and are featured fresh in fried omelets in the fall mushroom season or are pickled for year-round snacking. Vegetables play a prominent role in the cuisine as well. Cabbage is the most popular above-ground vegetable in the country, and the cold climate is particularly well-suited to a bounty of root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, and celeriac.
In Eastern Europe, the term borscht can be used to describe any sour soup, served either hot or cold. In Ukraine they are typically described by color; orange borscht has more carrots and green borscht has spinach or sorrel leaves and no beets, for example. The vegetables can be either shredded or diced and the soup base can be as simple as salted water or can be a rich stock from beef ribs. However it is made, borscht is one of our favorite soups and a primary reason that Ukraine was included in The World Cup of Food in the first place.
Adapted from Olga Drozd’s recipe featured on Ukrainian Classic Kitchen
SERVES 6 TO 8
- 3 beets, roasted, peeled, and diced
- 2 quarts beef stock, made with beef short ribs and simmered only 90 minutes, meat reserved and finely chopped
- 1 medium head of cabbage, shredded
- 4 red potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 red onion, diced
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 1 Tbs dried dill
- 1 lb tomatoes, diced
- 3 Tbs tomato paste
- juice of 1 lemon
The day before making our borscht, we prepared our beef short rib stock and roasted our beets to simplify the process the next evening. The beets were washed and trimmed of their root and stem ends:
Next our beets were wrapped tightly in foil and put into an available baking vessel (to catch any otherwise messy beet juice that might leak through the foil wrapper):
The dish went into a 350 degree oven for about an hour. After roasting the beets were tender and dripping with blood-red juice:
The skins were peeled away with a table knife and our beets were refrigerated until needed the next day.
When we were ready to begin putting together our borscht the next day, we started with our stock and our shredded cabbage, which were brought to a simmer over medium heat:
Once simmering, the cabbage was left to cook, covered, for fifteen minutes until completely wilted. Next, we added the potatoes, onion, carrot, and dill:
Again, the soup was brought back to a simmer and covered. Twenty minutes later we added the remaining ingredients: beets, tomatoes, tomato paste, lemon juice, and reserved beef short rib meat:
The soup was stirred thoroughly to distribute the tomato paste while being brought back to a simmer, then covered and cooked another fifteen minutes until the tomatoes were softened and cooked through.
Earthy and sweet and deep red, the flavor and color of the beets dominated our borscht. The remaining ingredients, even the rich and flavorful beef rib meat, served only to add nuance and complexity to the dish without distracting from its star performer. Like most Americans, beets are not an everyday vegetable for us, and every time we have them we are reminded of just how delicious they can be. Join us in our commitment to enjoy beets (and other root vegetables, for that matter) a little more often, be it in a borscht, as pickles, or sliced on to a salad with mixed greens and Chèvre.