Few Russian dishes are more iconic than borscht, Russian beet soup. Typically made with beef and beef broth, borscht is a gift to the palate. I fell in love with it the first time our Tatar Babushka made it for us. We were fortunate when our family arrived in Kazan to have a built in family. Two years prior, a young student from Kazan State University came to study at the University of Nevada, Reno where I taught. Kazan State University is famous or infamous, depending on your point of view because it is the university that expelled revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin when he was a student. It was also the third largest university in Russia and home to the renowned Russian mathematician, Nikolai Lobachevsky.
To make a long story short, we adopted Albert through a university program designed to give international students a local family to help their transition and expose them to U.S. culture. Our family never does anything halfway, so before you knew it, Albert was having dinner with us regularly, going on picnics, inviting us to his dorm for dinner (not the most tasty option, but it meant a lot to him to share with us). My children Stefan, age 6 and Alyssa, age 1, fell in love with Albert as he did with them. They were delighted to have a big brother. He often spent weekends and breaks traveling around the area with us or simply staying at our home. He became family.
Originally I was supposed to be posted in Kaluga, a small industrial city 90 miles south of Moscow for my Fulbright. Albert was going to live in our Reno house and find roommates to cover the mortgage payment. Shortly before we were to leave, my posting changed. We would be heading to Kazan and a built in family, Albert’s mother Zainob, Zainob’s father who we called Großvater (grandfather in German – to this day I don’t know why we referred to him in German), and Zainob’s mother who we called Babushka, a delightfully sweet and strong woman who was also a marvelous cook and a loving person. It was wonderful to travel half way around the world and find family.
As I said, Babushka loved to cook and her food was delicious. Her borscht had shredded beef, cabbage, beets, garlic, and was never complete without a dollop of Smetana (village sour cream) and some chopped green onions on top. It was one of my favorites.
For our purposes, Mary and I decided to make a vegetarian, gluten-free borscht. As I noted in my prior post, we used Olga’s recipe from her Fablunch.com site as our starting point. Again, you can find her original recipe here:
Here’s our version:
2 medium beets (peeled and shredded)
1 large carrot (peeled and shredded)
1 tomato (diced – Olga recommends peeling it. We didn’t.)
3 cloves garlic (smashed and chopped)
Saute above in 1 1/2 tbsp of olive oil plus 2 tbsp of water and the juice of 1/2 of a lemon in the stock pot in which you will make the soup. (5 minutes on medium/high heat)
Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes
Boil 1/2 gallon veggie stock in a separate pan; add 1 tbsp salt (Note: we did not season the stock at all as we prepared it.) ((See recipe in prior post)), or you can just use 1/2 gallon of water or store bought veggie stock.)) (((Note: the veggie stock really adds dimension, though. We think it’s well worth it.))). Add to veggies and stir in after they simmer for 20 minutes.
Add 5 potatoes (peeled and diced) ((For a heartier soup, you could forego peeling the potatoes.))
Add 1/2 head of green cabbage, finely sliced.
Stir to mix ingredients thoroughly. Cook for 10 minutes.
Sauté 1 large finely chopped red onion and 3 smashed, then chopped, cloves of garlic in 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat. Cook until onions are translucent and turning golden. Stir into soup.
Add 2 handfuls of chopped fresh parsley
4 bay leaves
Juice from the other 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp black pepper
Cook for 5-10 more minutes until diced potatoes are cooked, yet firm.
Garnish with sour cream, dill, parsley, chopped radishes, and/or chopped green onions. We stirred some of the dill and green onions into the sour cream, then added more as garnish.
This version of veggie borscht is flavorful, yet delicate. Mary and I think the dill and sour cream really set it off. We served it with European rye bread we’d picked up at the Saturday Central Phoenix Farmer’s Market (It wasn’t gluten free. It was delicious!!!) and a lovely bottle of Conundrum Red Wine.
If you try this, let us know what you think. As I noted in the last post, we ate it hot first and it was delicious. The next night we took it to a gathering of Mary’s friends and enjoyed it cold. Cold, it makes a perfect, refreshing summer soup. This soup made me smile with memories as we made new ones. I think Babushka would have been pleased.