I was in Nicaragua recently, eating rice and beans and dreaming of borscht.
Nothing against rice and beans. In those parts it’s called gallo pinto and is served pretty much with every meal that can be described as local cuisine. I can honestly say that I never tired of it. That’s the nature of foods that sustain.
Which brings me back to borscht. Catching up on back issues of the New Yorker while in Central America, I read a short essay in Nov. 22’s food-themed issue by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon on the subject of borscht.
Hemon, like me, is of Ukrainian descent, from a family that left Galicia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now in western Ukraine. His family went to Bosnia, while mine fetched up in Saskatchewan. I would say that the Demchinskys got the better deal, emigration wise. (Hemon eventually ended up in the U.S. where he lives today.)
But one thing both families have in common is the beet soup that is as much a sacrament as it is it a culinary staple.
For Hemon and me, borscht produces powerful associations – deeply etched memories of grandmas, mothers and other providers of nourishment – women all.
The how-to of borscht has traditionally been transmitted through female lineage. It meant that I never learned my mother’s recipe from her. Not that there is an actual recipe. The knowledge simply exists in the DNA of the people who make it. Or as Hemon so eloquently says, it is like a song you learn by singing.
There are probably as many ways to prepare borscht as there are people who’ve made it. Hemon’s family puts meat and vinegar in theirs, something my mother and grandmothers would never do. In our family, borscht was the first course, the introduction to delights yet to come, so it couldn’t be too heavy.
Many people put sour cream in their borscht. For us, it was always sweet cream. Since my grandparents were farming folk, it was abundantly available, probably in the cow on the morning of the day we consumed the soup, just as the vegetables were still in the ground if it was summer.
With these thoughts in mind, I flew back to Canada looking forward to my next bowl of borscht. Happily, my sister had years ago in a long distance phone call revealed the secrets of how she made it based on how our mother taught her. I scribbled down a few notes and since have become fairly adept at the making borscht.
Not that it’s as good as hers or my mother’s. Perhaps something is lost in each iteration of the knowledge. Or maybe how much you like it depends on who is making it. But mine is still pretty good, and so I’m willing to break the tradition of female transmission.
You start with a good homemade beef broth. Use bouillon if you must, but it’s really worth boiling up some bones and defatting the liquid.
Then your you fry up some onions, shredded savoy cabbage – not too much – and add some tomato paste.
Toss the mixture into the broth along with some cut up beets, carrots, green beans, peas, salt and pepper. When the veg has started to get tender, throw in some potatoes, cubed small. Simmer till the ‘taters are done. Just before serving, add an important ingredient – a handful of fresh dill.
Serve with fresh cream, the richer the better, 3 or 4 tablespoons per bowl, or sour cream if it pleases you more.
Sublimely simple and simply sublime.
Bryan Demchinsky is a Montreal writer and editor.