The biggest mistake that people make when it comes to Borscht is to believe that there is only one proper way to make it (or spell it, for that matter). There are borscht recipes hailing from dozens of countries and ethnic groups, each with their own unique ingredients, flavors, and color variations.
Originally, borscht was made from the fermented leaves, stalk, and umbrells of heracleum sphondylium (common hogweed), a relative of carrot, parsnip, chervil, etc. commonly found in cold marshy meadows, and named for it’s distinctive “pig smell”. Wow, that sounds horribly unappetizing, but it raises a very important point about borscht. This is winter survival food.
And because it’s survival food, the ingredients that you put into it are a direct reflection of your local environment. What is around you that you can eat? What did you preserve in the fall? How do you make it taste good?
We know from our Winter Gardening Guide that there are a lot of crops capable of surviving winter conditions in many regions, especially if you’re able to use greenhouses or even just frost covers. Other borscht ingredients are harvested in fall and preserved via fermentation, drying, and cellar/cave storage.
This is the borscht I make using ingredients harvested and foraged from my polyculture garden in December, in Zone 9, along with a few ingredients that are stored and preserved from previous harvests. At time of writing it is 29 degrees, and all of my sensitive annuals – the peppers and tomatoes, namely — have been dead for several weeks. Recently I weedwacked the entire area to create a thick winter mulch, and the shoulders of radishes, beets, and carrots are visible everywhere. My nearby polyculture culinary herb garden is completely unphased by the frigid conditions.
Ingredients – Garden Fresh
- Carrots (roots and stems, not greens)
- Beets (roots and greens)
- Daikon radish (roots and greens)
- Pea shoots
- Brussel Sprouts
Ingredients – Stored/Preserved
- Dried plums
- Tomato paste
- Sauerkraut with juice (usually made with beet kvass, but use what you have handy. If using beet kvass, include cabbage as a fresh ingredient)
Meat – Recommended
- Beef roast with bone
- Bacon (nitrate free)
Personally, I’m a conscientous omnivore so I make borscht with meat, but you definitely don’t have to. The trouble is, your choice on this point impacts how the soup is prepared, and the volume of each ingredient. As a stew, there is a presumption that there will, in fact, be a broth! Yes indeed, but will it be a beef bone and bacon fat broth, or will it be a wild and wonderful vegetable broth?
Directions – Beef Bone Bacon Broth Borscht
Dice a pound of bacon and brown in a skillet over medium-low heat, until crispy. Remove bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving bacon fat behind and increase the heat to medium-high.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Sear the beef in the bacon-fat skillet on all sides, approximately 90 seconds per side, then transfer to the roasting pan, along with the bacon fat.
Chop onions (3 large), garlic (6 large cloves), potatoes (2lbs), carrots (1lb), radishes (1lb), and beets (2lbs) to desired eating size and add to the roasting pan.
Top with finely chopped fresh herbs. Cover, and roast for 25 minutes.
Remove roast from oven, and when sufficiently cooled, transfer all ingredients to a large stockpot using tongs or a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid and fat behind in the roasting pan.
Sprinkle flour into the roasting pan and whisk until it forms a thick gravy, then scrape the gravy into the stockpot with everything else. Add the bacon pieces, 3 tbsp of tomato paste, and at least 1 cup of lactofermented sauerkraut with liquid (or kvass).
Add halved brussel sprouts (1/2lb) and/or cabbage, and dried plums (10 halves) to stockpot, then add enough water to almost cover the ingredients, stir well, and simmer on low for 1 hour, or until greens are tender and the beef shreds easily.
Garnish – Just before serving, soften a few leaves of beet greens, radish greens, pea shoots, and sorrel in the hot soup, and top each bowl with freshly grated ginger.
Directions – Vegan Variant
Peel 4 large onions and 8 cloves of garlic. Set peels aside.
Cut beets and radishes below the shoulders. Remove the leafy portion of the greens and set aside. Put stems and shoulders into large saucepan.
Discard carrot greens and put stems and shoulders into the saucepan
Finely chop 2 of the onions and 4 cloves of garlic (you can use a food processor), and add this to the stockpot, along with 3 tbsp of tomato paste, finely chopped herbs, and a few tbsp of avocado oil.
Cook vegetable stock mixture over medium heat until the onions are well browned, adding oil if needed. When mixture is browned, sprinkle small amounts of flour into the mixture until all of the oil is absorbed.
Add the onion and garlic peels to the stock mixture, and enough water to fully cover plus extra, and simmer on medium-low for 1 hour. Stir occasionally while continuing prep.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees, and drizzle the bottom of a large roasting pan with oil.
Chop potatoes (3lbs), carrots (1lb), radishes (1lb), beets (3lbs), and remaining garlic and onions to desired eating-size, and halve a 1/2lb of brussel sprouts. Potatoes cook fastest, beets slowest, so size accordingly. Add these to the roasting pan, and season with salt, pepper, and herbs. Roast for 25 minutes.
After broth has simmered, and veggies have roasted, strain the broth and combine with veggies and dried plums (10 halves) in a large stock pot and add just enough water to submerge the ingredients, and simmer on low for 1 hour. A few minutes before serving, add the beet and radish greens, a few leaves of sorrel, pea shoots, and 2 tsp of freshly grated ginger to the hot soup.