In the dining car at the very end of the train, techno music was pumping as the train rocked its way through the Siberian darkness. The car was half-full of cardboard boxes. At the foot of these boxes, two babes in bright red lipstick sat at a table playing cards and smoking. They didn't seem to notice when the waiter threatened to break my leg.
"Mafia," he said, as he moved his hand in a slicing motion across his leg. I noticed the cook standing in the doorway of the kitchen, fondling his cleaver. If anyone's leg should have been broken, it was that cook's, thanks to the miserable excuse for borscht he'd just prepared. That lousy bowl of borscht was at the root of my problem that night.
I should have listened to my gut when I first sat down, and the large waitress took my order for a bowl of borscht with a smile that was both sympathetic and scary. I never saw her again. A stone-faced man with short blond hair brought me a bowl of faintly purple water, in which pieces of sliced hot dog floated among a few shards of cabbage. I barely touched it. Then he brought the bill, for the equivalent of about 25 U.S. dollars.
I pointed out that the menu had advertised borscht for about $3 a bowl. The man, with gestures and broken English, explained that I also owed for the use of the silverware, plates, salt, pepper, and napkins. When I protested, he mimed the leg break, as the chef double-checked the sharpness of his knife in the galley door. I caved to the borscht ultimatum, paid the money, and bailed. The next morning the dining car at the end of the train was gone.
At the time, I wasn't very many bowls into my borscht-eating career, but I'd had enough to know that this was the worst borscht ever. The only reason it even qualified as borscht was because the term is so general, and refers to a broad category of Eastern European soups made with beet, tomato, cabbage, or all three.
Supposedly, borscht is derived from a soup that was once made with the Russian plant known as "borshch," which means cow parsnip, a plant widely distributed in the United States as well, where it goes by the name "hogweed." While often considered to be synonymous with "beet soup," borscht can be made with cabbage, tomato, or sorrel as the main ingredients, to name a few. In The Gold Cook Book, Chef Louis P. De Gouy describes a Polish borscht (bortsch Polonaise) made from duck, leeks, beets, egg whites, and crushed eggshells.
Borscht is served either hot or cold, and often with a dollop of sour cream. And — as I learned a few days after I got off the train on the shore of Lake Baikal — a dollop of mayo makes a fine substitute for that sour cream.
Whatever it's made of or served with, at the end of the day, borscht remains an all-star comfort food. Like many other regional comfort foods, such ratatouille, polenta, and coq au vin, borscht comes from bucolic origins, and wears the "peasant food" banner with dignity and grace. Borscht is proof that a culinary masterpiece can be made from the humblest of ingredients.
My mom, born of Russian immigrants, makes a fantastic cabbage borscht, which has sentimental value. But my favorite borscht (sorry, Mom) is a variation I've developed that's loosely based on a recipe in Joy of Cooking, and uses both beets and cabbage. It's a great fall recipe, as many of the ingredients are in season. Like many borscht recipes, this one contains meat. The best meat to use is something tough, preferably with bone attached, that you can braise for hours until soft. Doing so will yield a tasty broth as a byproduct that can be added to the soup.
1 pound meat (beef or venison)
1 pound tomatoes, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound beets
4 cups grated cabbage
3 stalks celery, sliced
3 large carrots, sliced
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 lemon or lime
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 quarts stock or bullion
If using a tough cut of meat, gloriously crisscrossed with gristle and sinew, brown it under the broiler and braise it in a covered baking dish at 350 until spoon-tender, minding the water level and never letting it drop below half-filled. Reserve the jus and add it to the soup when the time comes. When the meat has cooled, pull it apart into small pieces.
If using a softer cut of meat, cut it into cubes, and brown the meat in oil in the bottom of a soup pot or Dutch oven.
Then turn your attention to the beets. Trim a pound, slice or cut them into quarters, and place them in a baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, put them in the oven with the meat until they're soft. Let them cool and set them aside. Pull off the skins if you wish.
If you braised tough meat, add it to a thick-bottomed pan along with a few tablespoons of olive oil, and cook a few minutes on medium heat. If you pan-browned tender meat, you're already there. Add the chopped onion and cook it with the meat. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook a few more minutes.
Add quart of stock. I like chicken stock — if not homemade then "Better Than Bouillon" brand. If using braised meat, the jus you created is the best option of all.
Add the carrots and celery, and cook for a half-hour. As it simmers, adjust the water to maintain your desired proportion of broth to chunks. Then add the beets, cabbage, lemon (or lime) juice, garlic powder, and vinegar.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, simmer for 15 minutes, and garnish with dill or chervil.
Now open a jar of mayo, ceremoniously throwing the cap over your shoulder like they do in Siberia (where they do the same thing with vodka caps). Add a spoonful of mayo (or, I suppose, sour cream) to your bowl, but don't mix it in. Rather, allow the white dollop to float like an iceberg in your bowl, with soft corners occasionally breaking off and drifting onto your spoon, while slowly turning the contents of the bowl from red to pink.
This is borscht worth $25 a bowl. But if you disagree, at least nobody will break your legs.