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.
Impromptu Beet-and-Beef Borscht (serves 4)
Note: If you like a beet-ier borscht, you can double the quantity of beets here.
1 large or 2 small beets, peeled and chopped
Water for cooking the beets
2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1/2 lb (8 oz) beef stew meat (or any braise-able cut of beef), cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium red onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
Salt to taste
1 quart (4 cups) beef broth
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 2 cups chopped green or Savoy cabbage (about 1/4 of a head)
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar or white wine vinegar, or to taste
Sour cream or plain Greek yogurt for dolloping
Place the beets in a small saucepan. Add enough water to just barely cover the beets. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to keep the liquid at a steady simmer. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the beet pieces are easily pierced with a knife.
While the beets are simmering, heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add beef and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add onion, carrot, celery, and a large pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are starting to soften. Add broth, thyme sprigs, and black pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to keep the broth at a steady simmer. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the meat is starting to get tender.
Transfer the beets and their cooking liquid to a blender (or use an immersion blender) and blend completely smooth. Add the beet puree and chopped cabbage to the soup pot. Simmer, uncovered, for another 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender and the meat is just about falling apart.
Remove the soup from the heat. Pick out and discard thyme stems. Stir in dill and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt and a bit more fresh dill, if you like.
Make ahead/leftovers: As with so many soups, the flavor of this borscht gets better over time. It will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 4 months.