If I had to choose one dish that embodied home for me it is my mother’s borscht, a traditional Eastern European beet soup. There is nothing like sitting down to a piping hot bowl of it, a dollop of thick sour cream slowly swirled in, and for the heck of it, another dollop (or two) smeared on a hearty chunk of bread. Just looking at its gemstone color warms my soul, but one bite—spicy, sweet, sour, rich and creamy—fills me with all sorts of cozy, comforting feelings.
Living so far away from my family, I crave this soup a lot and when I do return home, I always request that its made. Thankfully, when those visits home become few and far between, this recipe is pretty straight-forward and can be ready in no time—that is, if you don’t take in account all of the shredding, peeling, slicing, and chopping involved. But! It’s well worth it, as all the best family recipes are. For when you have your zazharka, the Russian version of mirepoix, slowly stewing away on the stove, your kitchen is filled with an irresistible, savory aroma that, for me, becomes more gratifying than the end product. All of a sudden I am my mother, shredding the beets and cabbage, chopping the herbs, stirring the big pot of soup—the way I watched her do so many countless times growing up. The scents fill the house and I picture myself in the other room, playing with my dolls or doing my homework. As much I crave the soup (or whatever family dish it may be), its the process itself, and the feelings of nostalgia that inevitably follow, that work to comfort and satiate my emotional hunger.
After all is said and done though, the real hunger kicks in and I can no longer control myself. A final taste and, as my mother would say: “Давай кушать!” Let’s eat!
Originally from Ukraine, it seems that every country in the former Soviet Union has adopted this beet soup as its own, each family claiming theirs is the best. With the addition of spicy Anaheim pepper, red pepper flakes, and pungent cilantro along with the classic dill, this one has some serious Georgian flair. I’ve tried many takes on the soup, and this one, shockingly is my favorite. It’s a bit of work, but it will last you for days, if not a week (yay for the never-ending pot of soup!). It’s as wholesome as it’s comforting, and you can make this vegetarian, as this recipe is, or with chicken, pork or beef broth. As tasty as it is fresh, its even better the next day.
4 medium potatoes, such as Russet, peeled
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
1 Anaheim (also called Italian) pepper, cut in half, seeded, and thinly sliced horizontally
3 medium beets, peeled and grated
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 ripe tomato, chopped
½ small cabbage head, or 4-5 cups, thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 bunch dill, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper
olive or sunflower oil
- Place potatoes in a large pot, add enough water to fill it ⅔ the way. Bring water to a boil on high. Then, lower heat and allow to simmer. Season with salt.
- Meanwhile, dice onion. In a large skillet, heat olive or sunflower oil over medium heat and add onions. While onions are cooking, grate carrots and slice pepper. Add to pan and stir. Season with salt. Allow the zazharka, to cook, frequently stirring, until the whole mixture is meltingly soft and is about to start caramelizing.
- Add the tomato paste and chopped tomato. Stir and a bit of room temp water to loosen up the mixture. Allow to cook for a few minutes on low heat and then add the beets, adding more water as needed to keep it moist.
- Remove the potatoes from the pot once they are fork tender and break them into pieces with a small fork or spoon. Put aside.
- Add the thinly sliced cabbage to the water and bring to a simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add the zazharka, spoonful at a time. Bring to a simmer and add the potatoes. While it simmers chop the herbs. Season soup with salt and red pepper flakes as needed and according to how spicy you want the soup to be. If the soup is too thick, add more water.
- Add herbs and after 2-3 minutes turn off heat. To serve, add a dollop of sour cream to the soup itself and eat with good hearty bread smeared with, also, some sour cream.