I don’t like beets. I never cook with them. But somehow, a few weeks ago, two little beets made their way into my kitchen. They needed using, and there’s only one way I will willingly eat beets. This was a job for borscht.
My first encounters with Russian beet borscht came during my summer abroad in St. Petersburg. Despite the constant sunlight of the White Nights, it was chilly and cloudy for most of the summer, and sometimes rain came lashing in off the Gulf of Finland. For this California girl, the weather was a bit of a trial. I had borscht a few times that summer, and even as I struggled with the beets, I was grateful for a warm bowl of soup on a not-warm day.
Toward the end of the summer, I ran into a woman I knew from home, who was in St. Petersburg visiting her mother. On my last evening in Russia, I had dinner in their home. It was one of the memorable meals of my life, just hours of talking and talking and eating good food. There was borscht, of course, and I was surprised that I genuinely enjoyed it. Maybe it was the company, or maybe it was that particular batch of soup. Whatever it was, I’ve had a lingering fondness for borscht ever since.
Here’s a rough recipe for the borscht I made recently with those two little beets. I disguised the beets by boiling and then blending them, so they fade right into the broth with a whisper of color and sweetness. With chunks of carrot, cabbage, and slow-cooked beef, this hit the same spot for me as a nice hearty minestrone. If you’re a beet-hater like me, give this a try.
It’s a new year, and a lot of people are eating their greens. Even if you’ve already had your traditional New Year’s Day greens for luck, we’re now in the health-conscious days of January, and winter vegetables are the order of the day. Of course, my favorite way to eat greens is to mix them with cheese and sandwich them between layers of buttery pastry, but hey. You do what you can.
Spanakopita, or Greek spinach pie, is one of my absolute favorite foods. If it’s on a restaurant menu, I order it. If it’s in the freezer case at the grocery store, I buy it. And whenever I end up with a glut of greens in the fridge, I make it myself. The filling is simple–a boatload of cooked greens, some sauteed onions or scallions, cubes of feta cheese, fresh herbs, nutmeg, and an egg to hold it all together. And the crust involves frozen phyllo dough, which thaws quickly on the counter and bakes up golden and flaky-crisp like you wouldn’t believe.
I’d be lying if I said making spanakopita was quick. I’ve done this on a weeknight, but you probably won’t want to. Phyllo is fussy stuff–you have to lay it out one gauze-thin sheet at a time and brush each sheet all over with melted butter or olive oil. But I’ve found ways to make it easier on myself, and the biggest one is simply to make smaller pies. Most recipes call for a 9×13 pan, which involves lots of jigsaw-puzzling of phyllo sheets to make sure everything is covered. I make my spanakopita in an 8-inch square pan, which is much closer to the size of a single sheet of phyllo, meaning more flaky layers with less work. I also don’t worry about the phyllo sheets cracking and tearing, which they inevitably do; that just means more crunchy flaky goodness later!
If you have the gumption to tackle phyllo–and I really think you should–then this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket. The filling is super-adaptable and uses up a lot of greens, which is great if you’re drowning in kale. You can serve it as an appetizer or as a showy vegetarian main course. The pie tastes great warm, but I also love it at room temperature. It even makes great (if slightly less-crunchy) leftovers.