In search of an heirloom recipe

This is a test. It is only a test. When I moved to Russia about two years ago, my sister entrusted me with a solemn mission: "Find a recipe for grandma's borscht."

You see, my grandmother guarded her formula for this most Ukrainian of soups with the secrecy of a KGB agent, preparing under cover of darkness when we were all asleep.

The crafting of the brew was a ritual conducted with the utmost confidentiality, a clandestine event that occurred each time grandma visited our small apartment in New York.

She would preside for two days at my mother's stove, boiling, chopping, stirring, stewing, and doing other mysterious things. The result was magnificent, sublime, and savory: a reddish brew with cabbage and shank bones and goodness knows what else, mopped up with dark black bread smothered in garlic butter.

Unfortunately, when my sister and I came of soup-making age it was too late. Grandma had left this world, without divulging her secret. We have since pored through Russian cookbooks, intent upon re-creating our childhood soup.

But alas, we could not duplicate it - which left a nagging doubt. Was grandmother's brew a real borscht?

Hers was meaty and tomatoey. She lopped in the cabbage obligatory to any self-respecting Eastern European soup. But her "borscht" wasn't purple or bright red like that in restaurants. This posed a question: Where were the famous beets?

Was grandmother a visionary, an inventress, or simply mistaken in her translation? This had to be cleared up. We needed to find out the truth - and get that recipe.

And so, for the past two years I have probed people's kitchens, interrogated their mothers, and contemplated myriad steaming bowls across the former Soviet Union.

None of these broths was identical to what we were raised on but I made the discovery that you rarely go wrong with soup in this part of the world.

It is not uncommon in restaurants and homes to suffer through gristly meat, greasy cutlets of dubious origins, and offerings of fish past its prime. There is a uniformity of gray on the plate, matching the dullness of the sky and slush outside.

But, invariably, the one thing you can gulp down with delight is the soup, that long-lasting dish that can be made in massive portions and will hang around for a few days without going bad. It's fine for all seasons, especially the eight-month-long winter.

For centuries here, pots have been simmering with these peasant soups, which are often so thick they are meals unto themselves: There is rassol'nik flavored with cucumber; okroshka served cold in summer; the clear ukha fish soup, made with anything that swims in a river or sea; the lapsha noodle soup introduced by the Mongols; and shchi fashioned of cabbage or sauerkraut.

None is more famous abroad or embraced so widely as borscht. But I divert. Did I uncover the enigma of Grandma's soup? Well, sort of.

The search to re-create her culinary genius took me to the heart of Ukraine, which experts insist is the true birthplace of borscht, although it is widely slurped across Eastern Europe.

There, I discovered a distinction between the Russian and Ukrainian varieties, the latter being closer to what my grandmother made - heavier on the meat, which can be spooned out and served on the side.

The varieties among borschts are endless. Some complicated versions demand two-dozen ingredients. Others can be whipped up in an hour.

Stocks can be made with vegetables, meat, or fowl. Some chefs toss in ham, ribs, or sausages. Others go completely vegetarian, stirring in apples, mushrooms, lemon, dill, or beans. Some like it sweet, others tart. Many serve it with dumplings.

The bottom line for traditionalists is that borscht should include beets and be served with a dollop of sour cream. But mavericks say that is not de rigueur.

Studying all sorts of recipes, I have come to the conclusion that my grandmother may have omitted the beets, whether out of convenience or taste.

Purists may choose not to call it borscht. But it was undeniably "vkusno" - delicious.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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