A Mother and Her Son Make Ukrainian Red Borscht

A century is a long, long time, especially for a twenty something. When I sat in my great grandmother’s parlour as a preschooler, eating bridge mix by the fistful, I didn’t blink an eye at the concept of being born under the Tzar nearly a hundred years earlier. Now, as I worry my way through my quarter-life crisis, I go home to slurp my Dutch mother’s “noveau” borscht and imagine what it was like for my great-grandmother Rose to move from Imperial Russia, to Toronto, to LA, to live through the Great Depression, and to raise my paternal grandfather, her only child, as a mostly single mom. I don’t have much left of the Ukraine besides my Slavic features and a lingering interest in nuclear disasters. My mom Tilly’s cooking is more a mix of West Coast, kale-powered health food and Dutch frugality than the filling peasant fare of Eastern Europe. But she does make a few exceptions for the rainy, damp winter, and my father and I are both fans of this one.

Borscht is basically a beetroot soup made with long-simmered beef stock, and it can accommodate pretty much any sort of tailoring. As usual for my mom, the original concept for this recipe came from one of her well-loved, heavily dog-eared cookbooks, but we quickly deviated from it until the end result was probably largely unrecognizable. IMG_5090 The Silver Palate Cookbook recommends you boil the beets for a solid twenty minutes, “skim off any scum,” then boil everything else separately for another half hour, and then boil them all together for yet another half hour. My mother’s far more expedient path involves reducing all the ingredients to shreds using her Saladmaster machine, and then boiling everything together. Start by peeling the beets, and then using a mandolin, rotary slicer, or a herculean amount of knifework, shred them along with the red cabbage, onions and carrots. You want to try and ensure everything is a similar sort of strip, which makes it all cook more evenly and stops the soup from looking like Trix cereal in strawberry milk. IMG_5112 Tip all that into a pot; might as well make it a huge one, root veggies are cheap. Add water to cover. I had lit up the gas stove (such luxury!) but mom stopped me and moved the pot to her Eurodib electric induction burner. “It has really good heat transfer into the stainless,” said my electrical engineer dad. “It actually induces heat into the pot instead of just using convection. Much more efficient.” At this point the cookbook says to pour in a stock you’ve made by simmering beef shin for an hour and a half. My mother’s voluminous freezer supplies provided a foot-long frozen shard of chicken stock instead. We then realized we’d forgotten the tomatoes, so in went a puree of crushed tomatoes along with the remnants of a bottle of Pace chunky salsa. IMG_5119
While my father’s family of three was supported by my grandfather’s job as a production manager at Edmonton’s CFRN-TV, my mother’s family struggled through the war in austerity, with four kids and only a forester’s salary. “My mom saved and used everything,” said Tilly, “and I kind of picked up the habit. Except I’m a little more of an adventurous cook than my mom was. She just cooked the usual things, would never have made a borscht like this.” I’m not sure whether she means the foreign soup or just the bottle of Pace.
At this point you can basically just keep things cooking until it tastes good. The Silver Palate recipe asks that you add some chopped dill, and I’ve seen people use honey or caraway seeds. “If it doesn’t have enough of a bass note, we’ll add beef boullion,” says my mom, “and then dad is gonna taste it and decide whether or not it needs some more tartness to it, and we’ll add lemon.” I’ve always remembered my bowl as coming with a big dollop of sour cream — but knowing mom, it was probably non-fat yogurt. Either way: es gezunterheyt!

Photos: David Kauffman

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Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

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