Holiday food traditions. Nearly everybody has some, and I always want to try theirs. Who knows, maybe it will be so amazingly fantastic, I’ll want to incorporate it into one of my own celebrations.
One of my personal holiday favorites in this Russian-inspired Winter Borscht, which we usually have on Christmas Eve. My husband likes to call it “carnivore’s borscht” because it is chock full of tender, luscious brisket. The beets give it a beautiful, deep, reddish-purple color that is unmistakeable – in fact, up to the point where you add the beets, it just looks like any other hearty beef and vegetable soup. Then the beets go in, and suddenly, it’s all festive.
Previous to making this dish, I was utterly (and I might add, blissfully) unaware that quite a few people have mixed feelings about borscht and beets in general. Over the years, when first presented with the idea that these items would be on the menu, initial comments were tepid at best. And those were the good ones. Other random questions were just odd, as in…
Q: Borscht? Isn’t that, like, some sort of beet juice?
A: Yes, yes it is. Beet juice. Just plain beet juice. We’ll be having stale crackers, too.
Q: There are beets in it you say? I’ve only had those pickled. Is it pickle soup?
A: Bingo! Yes, I’m serving pickle soup. Please bring your favorite ice cream for garnish.
Q: Borscht? Who eats borscht?
A: Absolutely no one but us. We are eccentric weirdos. Let’s party!
Of course, although those questions are genuine, I didn’t really answer them that way (except in my head). Instead, I explained how beets are yummy and good for you and promised that if they didn’t like the borscht, there would be a host of other, quite lovely things to eat that they could have instead. I’m very pleased to report that not one single person has ever taken me up on it. Yes, this borscht is sooo good, it can convert even people who think they don’t like beets. Or borscht. If you already know you like beets and borscht, well, then, you, my friend, are golden. And invited to dinner.
This soup is so loaded with good stuff, that it easily stands as a meal on its own, along with a nice country loaf or a good pumpernickel (or both!). For the holidays, I like to mix things up a little bit and add in a few seafood appetizers like my favorite crab dip (more on this one, here) classic shrimp cocktail and chilled stone crab claws, and a crunchy, winter white salad. Occasionally, I’ll also throw in some mushroom piroshki, which are little mushroom and onion stuffed hand pies.
The very best part, aside from tasting great, is that the entire meal can be prepared in advance, so that the day of your festivities, you can lolygag about, chatting and sipping vodka or champagne cocktails or whatever else strikes your fancy, and just relax.
Yeah, I seriously need to do this more than once a year.
Winter Borscht with Brisket
Makes 10 servings. Adapted from Food & Wine, here.
3 1/2 – 4 pounds beef brisket
4 quarts plus three cups of water
3 large onions, 2 halved, 1 finely chopped
1 parsnip, halved
4 carrots, 2 halved, 2 finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
kosher salt, to taste
2 pounds beets (about 4-6), scrubbed
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 slices of thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large green bell pepper, diced
2 1/2 cups savoy cabbage, chopped
3 white potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoon celery leaves, finely chopped
sour cream, for garnish
additional chopped celery leaves, for garnish
Cut the brisket into four equal pieces and place them in a large stock pot. Add the water and bring to a boil on high heat, skimming fat as necessary. Add the halved onions, parsnip, halved carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt to taste. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover partially and cook until meat is tender, approximately three hours. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and cut into bite-sized pieces. Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the broth into a bowl and discard the vegetables. Drizzle a few tablespoons of broth over the reserved meat, toss to coat, and set aside the remaining broth and the brisket.
Preheat the oven to 375℉. Wrap the beets individually in foil and place on a baking sheet rimmed with foil. Bake for one hour, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Let cool slightly, then peel and dice into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
Wipe out the stock pot, add vegetable oil and heat. Add chopped bacon and cook over medium-high heat until crisp. Add the chopped onion, chopped carrot and green pepper and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the chopped cabbage and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the reserved broth and brisket, the tomatoes and the potatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook over medium heat until potatoes are just tender, about 15-20 minutes. Add the beets and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the vinegar.
In a mortar, pound the garlic, celery leaves and pepper with a pinch of salt into a paste and stir into the soup. Let cook for 5 more minutes, then stir again. Transfer soup to a tureen or bowls for serving, and garnish each bowl with a dollop of sour cream topped with celery leaves.
Note: Take care to peel the roasted beets over a bowl or covered surface, as this process can be a bit messy. Borscht can be made up to three days in advance. Refrigerate until ready to reheat. This recipe is easily doubled for a crowd. It also freezes very well.