a winter warmer: felicity cloake's perfect borscht

borscht soup
In a bizarre reversal of the Goldilocks story, a couple in Siberia, spending a night in their holiday cottage, were disturbed by the sounds of breaking glass and the pitter-patter of enormous clawed feet. A bear was breaking and entering, encouraged by the smell of a pan of borscht that had been left on the stove to cool.

The owners alerted the police. What they expected the police to do when confronted with a hungry bear, I am not entirely sure. But by the time the police arrived, the ursine Goldilocks had fled into the forest, leaving behind a trail of damage, some large paw prints and splatters of dried soup all over the cooker. Perhaps the police could have arrested the bear for poor housekeeping skills or for being a messy eater. Personally, there was a time that I would have left the bear in peace to get on with it, such used to be my dislike of borscht. But that was once-upon-a-time ago.

borscht soup
As I have mentioned, I have been cooking for a friend who is recovering from a serious illness. Since he is the one that needs to eat, I started my soup programme by asking him what he actually wanted or craved. After blowing my mind with seafood chowder, next on Chris' list was borscht, another one of his well-travelled soup experiences.

Seriously? Oh just kill me now.

As I was about to trudge disconsolately down to fruit 'n veg stall on my local high street, Chris added "Don't forget the cabbage. There has to be cabbage." Really? I am pretty sure that the few versions of borscht I had eaten before had been just beetroot. I cheered up. Perhaps the cabbage might make all the difference? Actually, I knew it probably wouldn't but it gave me an excuse to go and do some cookbook and internet research. Besides, the beetroot rasam I had made last autumn was rather nice (admittedly improved by half-a-hundred weight of Indian spices), so it was possible that I was going to enjoy tasting the borscht after all.

Chris was right. It would seem that proper Eastern European borscht should have crunchy cabbage in it. And a souring agent such as vinegar (to counterbalance all that muddy sweetness which used to so revolt me). I can tell you that my hopes were rising by the minute.
As to which recipe to use, well I turned to Felicity Cloake and her "The Perfect . . . " column in The Guardian newspaper. Frankly, she does all the work, so that we don't have to, by researching and testing recipes by a wide variety of well- and some less-well-known authors, in order to find "the perfect" version of classic dishes. Her columns are always a fascinating, funny and entertaining read, even if you have no intention of ever cooking that week's "perfect" dish. For me, Felicity’s weekly columns are required reading.

Felicity's borscht is a case-in-point. At the time that her recipe and research were published, I was still wallowing in my hatred of borscht. However, in my time of need, the recipe was well-worth a revisit. I am so glad I did.

Felicity's research had taken her around the Baltic, from Poland to Russia, via the Ukraine to discover all the regional variations of the perfect beetroot soup. "How to cook the perfect borscht" really did live up to its name. I cannot begin to tell you how fabulous it was; gently spiced with black peppercorns, allspice and bay leaves, and tangy with cider vinegar. I loved the crunch of the cabbage too.

Felicity Cloake's gorgeous borscht soup was a bit of a revelation. But more importantly, my hungry bear, Chris, adored several gallons of this winter warmer; he said it tasted just how he remembered, (bless the man). So thank you, Felicity, from both me and Chris!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Borshch has many regional varieties. The biggest contrast, IMO, is btw. the Warsaw version, a pure beetroot puree served with a side of mashed potato and the Odessan borsch of my late mother: using, in order of launch, a whole onion, stewing steak, sliced carrots, shredded cabbage, julienned beetroot, diced potatoes, chopped (with skin on) tomatoes and sour cream (did I forget something? And there is beet-less variant called shchi). A really interesting variant is botwinka, using beet roots (julienned, launched first), the beet stalks cut into 5cm segments and finally coarsely shredded beet leaves.