Linda eating borshch in Kyiv

Borshch is the quintessential Ukrainian dish; it's not only the most popular dish in all Ukraine, it's uniquely Ukrainian. Other Slavic cultures and nations may have adopted borshch, but it originated in Ukraine.

Borshch is a mildly tart vegetable soup in which beets predominate. Generally, borshch contains many different ingredients, as many as 20, but the combinations and proportions vary according to region of Ukraine, the season, and family tradition. There are even more variations of borshch than political parties and movements in Ukraine. Some say that a true Ukrainian borshch contains beans, either fresh or dried, but Ukrainian individualism being what it is, there are undoubtedly many other opinions on what constitutes a true borshch.

Borshch is usually made from a base of rich meat stock. Pieces of meat, usually pork, may be cooked in the soup along with the vegetables, but there are meatless versions and these are especially served on fasting days. The tart flavor may come from any one of the following: beet kvas (fermented beet juice), lemon juice, strained rhubarb juice, sorrel leaves, vinegar, or pickle brine.

Besides having a slightly tart flavor, borshch also tastes of salt, pepper, dill, and garlic, according to the discretion of the cook. A good borshch should retain its deep red color; the ingredients should not be cooked to a mush, but should retain their texture. One way to guarantee this is to bake the beets in the oven until they are tender, remove their skins, chop them, and then add to the soup near the end of the cooking.

This recipe comes from the book Traditional Ukrainian Cooking by Savella Stechishin.

1 1/2 pounds soup meat with bone
10 to 12 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium beets, cut in thin strips*
1 medium carrot, cut in thin strips
1 medium potato, diced
1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup diced string beans or cooked white beans
2 to 3 cups shredded cabbage
3/4 cup strained tomatoes or tomato juice
1/2 clove garlic, crushed, if desired
1 tablespoon flour
beet kvas or lemon juice
salt and pepper
chopped dill
1/2 cup sour cream

Cover the meat with the cold water, add the salt, bring slowly to the boiling point, then skim. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. (It's a good idea to cook meat one day before adding vegetables, to allow broth to cool. Then skim off fat before adding vegetables). Add the onion and beets; cook 10 to 15 minutes or until the beets are almost done. If young beets are used, cook them together with the other vegetables. Add the carrot, potato, celery, and string beans; continue cooking for about 10 minutes. When cooked white beans are used, they should be added after the cabbage is cooked to retain their white color. Finally put in the cabbage and cook until it is tender. Do not overcook. Stir in the tomatoes or tomato juice and the crushed garlic.

Blend the flour with 3 tablespoons of cold water, spoon into it some soup liquid, and then stir into the BORSHCH. If a thickened BORSHCH is not desired, omit the flour.

Add a small quantity of the beet kvas or lemon juice or any other mild acid commonly used in BORSHCH, taking care not to use too much. Season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to the boiling point. Flavor it with the chopped dill.

Just before serving, add a dollop of sour cream.

* If fresh beets are not available, add canned beets last, just before serving.

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