[Quick note: none of the photographs below are mine. They are all public domain/free-to-use; but if you’re wondering why not just take pictures of my own vegetables, the answer is simply that I don’t have the right conditions to take accurate, helpful photographs of things at the moment! Hopefully that’ll soon change, but for the situation of ‘making sure you can identify what I’m talking about’, sourced images will suffice.]
Hello all! It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these; truthfully, I got a bit tied up in trying to deliver ‘tested’ recipes and realized that that’s not really what I’m suited for at the moment. So instead, here’s a record of one of my culinary experiments; what worked, what didn’t, and what I’m planning on trying next.
First things first: Borscht. Borscht is ‘beetroot soup’ – a soup from Eastern/Southern Europe, particularly the Ukraine and Russia, with beets, red or green cabbage, tomatoes, and often beans or beef. There are all sorts of variations on borscht, but at the same time, there’s a lot of consistent elements to it, as well; it’s served with sour cream, almost always stays simple, and relies heavily on red wine vinegar, dill and paprika.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love borscht. But borscht is also, well… It’s either simple, or it is so strongly dill-y that you might as well have a dill pickle. It’s also a little exhausting how few things there ever seem to be to do with beets! Beetroots aren’t a rare enough vegetable to have borscht be the only thing that ever comes up. So, I set out to “jazz up” borscht, not because borscht isn’t good, but because I need more to do with beets in general.
I’m a subscriber to a community-shared agriculture box that I get biweekly, which means I always have a strange and fun assortment of vegetables on hand. On top of that, I’ve been slowly acquiring more and more dried ingredients, which are always pretty handy. Because of this, I decided to go vegetarian (well… mostly) for this one. The veg ingredients for this soup included:
Dried ingredients and seasonings included:
Crystallized ginger (in lieu of fresh)
Dried lime peel
Sugar, salt and black pepper
Method to the Madness
If you’re looking at this list going “what on earth? what kind of soup is this?” well, good news, I have no idea either! But the inspiration comes from multiple places. The mix of star anise, dried lime peel, cinnamon stick, ginger and chili comes from Woks of Life and their braised beef recipe, which I’ve been using as a stew base for a while now. The spice combination is delicious, and easily modifiable; it’s also delicious with Sichuan peppercorn, clove, bay leaf, and others, but I knew too much spice would overload this soup (as it was, actually, it was VERY strong.). The combination of celery, garlic, ginger, poblano and oregano is Caribbean; it’s a combination of the indispensable base ingredients of gumbo, sans okra, (celery, garlic, ginger and pepper) with some of the herbs found in green seasoning; this time just oregano, cumin and the dried chili, but thyme would also go extremely well in this. I cut down the spice list from each so that the soup wasn’t overwhelmed, and narrowed it to the ones that are common or at least complement each other – for example, there’s no sesame oil or soy sauce in this, and neither is there any coconut milk, although I do have that marked as a potential to try another time.
Finally, of course, dill and paprika are both essential to borscht and go very well with all of these! If I’d had cilantro on hand, I would have added some at the end to round it out with the tomatillos, but trying to keep cilantro on hand is a nightmare.
Next step: how was I going to cook it? I like beets a lot, but the process of boiling them is a hassle – and, plus, sometimes nailing the texture for boiled veg is a crapshoot. So I decided to roast the veggies first for roasted vegetable soup. The good news was I could do them all at once – AND because I was putting them in the soup afterwards, I didn’t have to season them.
2 beetroot, peeled, topped and tailed, chopped into 1/4 inch chunks
3 small carrots, peeled and chopped
4 tomatillos, husked and halved
2 bell peppers, roughly chopped
spread over a baking pan and tossed with olive oil, cooked on the top rack of a 375 degree oven for 50 minutes. The results will be slightly undercooked, which is what you want.
A little while later, just before the oven went off, I put a little bit of canola oil in the bottom of a stockpot over medium-low heat and gently fried:
2 small pieces of dried lime peel
1/2 stick of cinnamon
1 piece of star anise
2 pieces of crystallized ginger, snapped in half
2 dried chilies, snapped in half and deseeded
1 stalk of celery, sliced into small pieces
Once it was sizzling (about 1-2 minutes), I added a splash of red wine (maybe 1/8-1/4 cup?) and let the alcohol cook off for a minute more, then added 2 cups of hot water. (Note: While the end result was good, this is where I think I should have added more! If you’re cooking along with the instructions, this is a good point to take a look and consider if you want to add more liquid. You can add more later, too.) I also added 2 tsp of chicken bouillon powder, so if you have good chicken or beef stock, it should substitute in fine.
Once the oven went off, I took out my roasted veg, and once the stock was boiling, put them into the pot. The roasted tomatilloes in particular were already soft, and basically melted in the soup (delicious, by the way). I let them cook for about five more minutes, which made sure they were cooked through. Then I added about half a tin of tomato sauce, which thickened up the soup, and the rest of my spices – oregano, paprika, garlic powder, dill, cumin, sugar and a touch of salt. These are the kind of thing you’ll want to mostly do to taste, but roughly speaking, you’ll want a decent amount of sugar (tomatilloes are quite sour, and that plus the red wine + chilies means you want a bit more sweetness to help the beets balance it out); I put in 1/4 cup or so. I also used a decent amount of dill and paprika, probably about 1/2 tablespoon each, with the corollary that my dill is rather old and may be a bit lacking in kick. (My paprika isn’t. I just really like paprika.) For oregano and cumin you want to go a little lighter, maybe a teaspoon or half teaspoon each; garlic powder it really depends how much you like garlic. I have a shaker so I just went ‘shake shake shake’ and that was the end of it. I also, in retrospect, would have put some garlic cloves into the roasted veg tray for some roasted garlic cloves; that would be delicious, and next time I try this soup, I’ll definitely go for it. And salt, of course, relies on the tomato sauce you used, the bouillon, etc.
After that, I let it cook down on very low heat for a while, then served it with brioche bread. It was so, so good! But – well, admittedly, it was very strong, and very sour. My roommate was not a fan, in that she loved the flavours but is very sensitive to sour tastes; and it was a little like hot and sour soup on speed. At the same time, especially with the bread, I ate a LOT of it. (And more in the morning. Nom nom nom. I didn’t even need to heat it up.)
Results and Changes
What would/will I change next time?
I didn’t precisely plan this recipe, and I didn’t have much in the way of prep room, but I would love to add some parsnips, radishes, and of course the borscht classics of cabbage and kidney beans. The cabbage would have to be cooked separately or at least parboiled, and cooking the kidney beans from dry is the same thing, but at the same time, the results would be worth it. (And for a faster version, I think canned kidney beans – well rinsed – would probably be fine.)
-Meat… definitely beef
This is a recipe that would adapt AMAZINGLY well to some beef chuck/stewing beef cubes. All that would need changing is that the beef cubes would go in just after the lime peel/other dry spices, get browned on each side in the olive oil, and then the red wine follows. It also adds some extra protein, which I’ll admit the soup very much needs. The soup would also adapt very well to some chopped sausage or meatballs, which could be fried in a separate pan and then tossed it at the same time as the roasted vegetables.
As mentioned above, instead of the garlic powder (or minced garlic, which would only go in slightly earlier), I would love to stick some garlic cloves into the oven with the rest of the vegetables, and have some whole roasted garlic cloves in the soup. …in fact, I keep thinking about it and getting hungry. Admittedly, I might just have a thing for roasted garlic.
I actually had onions on hand, I was just short on cutting space and lazy. Onions could either go into the oven with the rest of the vegetables, or be chopped and fried in the pot. If I did that, I would do that before putting in the rest of the spices; fry the onions until they were softening, then push them to the side and get the lime peel/cinnamon/etc. simmering. Red, yellow or green onions would work here, although green onions are admittedly the easiest to work with and wouldn’t need as careful a cooking process at the beginning; you’d just throw them in with the rest of the spices. (The same is true of something like leeks!)
-More broth and tomato sauce
Part of why the soup ended up so powerfully strong was because I had a lot of spices and flavour in a very concentrated soup. Next time, I’ll use the full tomato sauce tin and add probably 4 cups of water instead of 2; two cups of water, in retrospect, is not nearly enough for a soup!
The whole time I was eating the soup, I was thinking about the types of dumplings that come in both Irish Stew and metemgee; flour drop dumplings, which can also be made with cornmeal. As long as I had enough water in the soup, I’m pretty sure drop dumplings would work wonderfully, and probably turn a gorgeous shade of pink as well. I’ll definitely give them a shot next time.
And of course, what’s borscht without sour cream? I struggle very badly with keeping dairy in the house (I don’t eat it unless it’s with something specific like this) but for a version of borscht this strong, the sour cream goes from a nice extra to a perfect topping. The same is true of sauerkraut – which, curse me, I only now remembered I had in the fridge. A dollop of sour cream on top of a warm bowl of this, especially as winter starts to show up, and I will be happy as a clam.
Hot and Sour Borscht
- 2 large beetroots, peeled and chopped
- 3 small carrots, peeled and chopped
- 4 tomatillos, husked and halved
- 2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 2 piece kaffir lime peel (or lemon)
- 1/2 cinnamon stick (or 1/2-1 tsp ground cinnamon)
- 1 star anise
- 2 pieces crystallized ginger
- 2 dried red chilies
- 1 stalk of celery, diced
- 1/8-1/4 cup of red wine (or sherry or light beer)
- 2-3 cups hot water or chicken/beef stock
- 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (or half of a standard 680 ml tin)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/2 tbsp each dried dill and paprika
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- salt to taste
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Toss chopped beetroots, carrots, tomatillos and peppers with 1 tbsp olive oil; arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and roast in the oven for 50-60 minutes.
- Prepare everything else while waiting. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in the bottom of a stock pot over medium-low heat, then add lime peel, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, chilies and celery. Stir for 1-2 minutes or until sizzling.
- Add red wine and let it cook for another minute or so. Pour in 2-3 cups of hot water or stock, and bring to a boil while waiting for the roasted vegetables.
- Pull the vegetables out of the oven, and add directly to the pot. Bring back to a boil, and add tomato sauce, stirring to incorporate. Then add the sugar, dill, paprika, oregano, cumin, garlic and salt.
- Serve with fresh white bread or polenta, sour cream, and nice cheese if you have it.
Dietary: Vegetarian by default as long as you don’t use stock.
Vegan if you don’t serve with sour cream or cheese.
Gluten-free if you serve with rice or gluten-free bread/pasta; double-check your bouillon and tomato sauce.
NOT nightshade friendly. (Tomatoes, tomatilloes, bell pepper and chili pepper are all nightshades. Sorry, friends.)
MEDIUM for FODMAP; replace the beets with canned/picked beets and remove the garlic entirely.
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