Saturday, October 2, 2010

Humble beginnings.

Borscht meez. © Ryan Schierling
I didn't learn to cook until I had to. 

Which is to say, I didn't learn to cook until I moved away from home at the tender age of 19. I had a flimsy aluminum stock pot, a hand-me-down cutting board the size of a postcard, and a dangerously dull chef's knife I bought at a secondhand store. What I didn't have was any money. Groceries were budgeted to a paltry $25 a week, which quickly made a thin vegetarian out of me. Meat was far more expensive per pound, and I needed cheap ingredients that would stretch meals through the next payday. Soups were the easiest to make, reheat, and reheat again. I could get half a week's meals out of one pot full of vegetable stew, or 13-bean soup, or the very first thing I ever scratch-cooked after moving out on my own – borscht. 

I'd purchased a used, entirely nondescript, plain yellow-jacketed cookbook called "Ann Seranne's Good Food Without Meat" at a flea market for a dollar. It looked like a bad school textbook, with no photographs and a tiny, squinty font. Originally published in 1973, Seranne had been a food consultant and former editor at Gourmet magazine, and was primarily known for her dessert cookbooks. I had no interest in dessert. I could barely afford a proper main course. 

Chapter one of "Ann Seranne's Good Food Without Meat" was soups, so I figured I'd start there. The first three recipes were Potage bonne femme maigre, Soup a l'aoignon maigre, and Minestrone di verdura, all very much out of my league. I certainly couldn't cook what I couldn't pronounce, and anyway, didn't "Potage bonne femme maigre" mean something like "Soup made from the juices of a good woman?"

On page 17 was "Vegetarian Borscht," which I could definitely pronounce, having grown up eating my grandma Schierling's recipe for a distinctly different, though equally satisfying German-Russian Mennonite komst borscht. This recipe was easy, and it was cheap. I could make this recipe. I could make this recipe my own Schierling borscht recipe. 

Nearly 20 years have gone by, and I still make this traditional Russian vegetable soup every fall, the same way, every time. I have never once cooked the beef-based komst borscht that I grew up with, despite the fact that it was delicious (and my vegetarianism eventually fell to the wayside). This is a hearty, meatless, amazingly simple and shockingly bright red soup that is even better when reheated the next day. 

And the day after that. 

Five dollars worth of vegetables goes a long way. © Ryan Schierling
Vegetarian Borscht 

Serves 8 to 10 

1 small green cabbage, chopped fine
3 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
3 medium beets, peeled and julienned
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and julienned
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. can tomato paste 

salt and pepper
bay leaves
sour cream
a nice, hearty, crusty bread 

1. Peel and chop the onion. Remove any discolored outer leaves from the cabbage; quarter, and discard the core. Chop into 1/4" thick strips. Peel the carrots, parsnip and beets and cut into thin julienne strips. Peel two large cloves garlic and mince. Peel and dice the potatoes. (In all honesty, the first time I made this way back when, I'm pretty sure I used a turnip instead of the parsnip. I didn't know the difference, and the grocer didn't know the difference either because the shelf labels were wrong. If you're partial to turnips and not parsnips or vice versa, by all means, skin it and chop it thin. It's all root veg between you and me and the corner store.) 

2. In a heavy stockpot, heat 4 tbs. oil. Add the prepared onion, carrots, parsnip and beets, and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes, until the onion is golden, stirring frequently. Add 6 cups water, the garlic, 2 bay leaves, potatoes, and the tomato paste. Bring liquid to a boil, season to taste with salt (4-6 hearty pinches kosher salt) and pepper (8 grinds from the mill), and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until vegetables are soft. Add cabbage (and an additional 4 cups water... if you stick to the original recipe quantities, your borscht will look like bloody coleslaw) and simmer for 15 minutes longer. Adjust seasonings to taste. 

3. Serve with hot crusty bread and top each serving with a big dollop of sour cream.

1 comment:

  1. my first cookbook was a 1962 "House Wife's Companion". One of the first recipes in it was peanut butter and raisins on celery sticks(ants on a log). Not quite sure who would need a cookbook for that, but when you drink gin, pop Valium, and wear your apron cinched tight enuf to snap a rib, I guess things get pretty cloudy...


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