Winter Borscht with Brisket

winter borscht with brisket

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.


bowl of winter borscht

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.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Pancetta

Ah, soup.  I’m a big fan.

What’s not to like?  You throw everything in a pot, and whether it simmers slowly all day or is done in an hour, you still only have that one pot to clean.  So easy.

This soup is one of my favorites –  butternut squash is draped with pancetta and roasted in the oven, then pureed.  Its hearty and flavorful, and practically screams autumn.  Plus, it so deliciously, gloriously golden-orange – there is some serious beta-carotene going on here.

A word about how much squash to buy – you’ll need about 6 pounds of the flesh for the recipe, and you won’t be using the stem, seeds, or skin.  I find it best to buy by weight, rather than number of squash.  Approximately six and a half pounds of whole squash on the grocer’s scale will yield the proper amount, usually four small or two medium-sized butternuts.  I usually make the soup with homemade stock, but purchased low-sodium chicken broth from the market is a good stand-in.

The original recipe indicated it would serve twelve, but in reality, even with sides or served as a a starter, ten servings is the maximum.  I’ve served it as the soup course for a traditional thanksgiving meal, and for a starter with practically everything (from a crown roast of pork to stuffed cornish game hens) – all with fantastic results.  The soup is also terrific starring as the main attraction, with a mixed platter of sandwiches, a spinach salad, or a simple kale tart on the side.  Served in a big tureen, it is a warm, welcome addition to any fall or winter buffet.

If you happen to have leftovers, mix any remaining pancetta crumbles right into the soup and pop it in the freezer – it will last for up to two months.


Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Pancetta
Makes 10 servings.  Slightly adapted from Food and Wine, here.

6 pounds butternut squash (about 2 medium-sized or 4 small)
6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces (dependent upon number of squash used)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 ounces of thinly sliced pancetta*
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 1/2  tablespoons dried thyme, crushed
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken broth or stock
3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400℉.  Line rimmed baking trays with parchment. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and place on prepared baking trays, cut side up.  Place a piece of butter in each squash cavity, season with salt and pepper, and drape evenly with sliced pancetta.  Roast in the oven for 50-60 minutes, or until tender (squash should pierce easily through with a fork).

Transfer crisped pancetta to a paper towel to drain, then crumble and set aside.  Scoop the squash flesh from the skins into a large bowl.  Set aside.

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat the oil until shimmering.  Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook on medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until softened.  Add garlic and thyme, and heat for 2 minutes more.  Stir in the reserved squash, the chicken stock or broth, and the bay leaf and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Reduce heat to low and remove the bay leaf.  With an immersion blender, puree soup in pot until completely smooth. Alternately, carefully transfer soup to a heatproof bowl with a pouring spout and, working in batches, puree in a blender or food processor until smooth, then return to pot.  Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer on low until heated through.

Transfer soup to bowl and garnish with reserved crisped pancetta crumbles.  Serve immediately.

* Pancetta:  If you don’t have pancetta on hand, bacon is a fine substitute.

Note:  Soup can be made up to two days ahead.  Reheat the soup on medium temperature, covered.  Reheat pancetta separately.  If soup has become too thick, thin with a tablespoon or two of stock or water while reheating.

Tip:  Poured into a jar, individually-sized portions make great thinking-of-you gifts for friends and family, especially during cold and flu season.

Corn Chowder with Bacon

My good friend, Mike, has a t-shirt that reads “Bacon Makes Everything Better”. He wears it frequently, especially when our group goes out for breakfast. Every so often, whatever restaurant we happen to be eating in brings him an extra side of bacon, gratis, usually with a big smile and a compliment for his shirt.  Whenever this happens, we are all ecstatic, because there is more bacon, free bacon, which Mike graciously shares with us (one of the many reasons we all love Mike).

I think his tee resonates because it’s true – practically everything is better with bacon. Yes, I said practically, because I never could jump on that bacon-in-desserts bandwagon.  I’ll take a pass on that bacon and chocolate ice cream.  I don’t want meat in my trifle, pudding, or cake.  But bacon on everything else, everything savory?  Yes, please.

This creamy chowder marries the salty smokiness of bacon with fresh, sweet corn. Although it contains bacon fat, butter, milk and cream, which makes it sound as though it would be heavy, it is surprisingly quite light.  In a pinch, you can substitute frozen corn for the fresh – just add it straight from the freezer without thawing.  I often use two large jalapeños or one jalapeño and one serrano, but you can easily adjust the spiciness to your taste by using milder or hotter peppers.  For helpful information on choosing peppers, check out this graphic Scoville Heat Index (via Greg Emerson Bocquet), here.

This soup can stand alone as a meal, but if you want to up your bacon ante (and really, who doesn’t?) it is terrific paired with the classic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.  For those over their bacon limit, the chowder is also great with a simple grilled cheese.

Corn Chowder with Bacon
Makes four servings.  Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, here.

6 ounces bacon, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup shallot, finely chopped
3/4 cup celery, finely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
3 cups chicken stock or broth
2 1/2 cups fresh yellow corn (kernels from about 3 ears)
1 1/2 cups small white potatoes, diced
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup whole milk

In a medium stockpot, cook bacon over medium-high heat until fully crisped.  Remove bacon with tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.  Set aside.

Discard all but two tablespoons of the bacon drippings.  Add the butter, onion, shallot, celery and thyme to the stockpot.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook over medium-low heat for four to five minutes.  Stir in garlic and jalapeño pepper and cook about three to four minutes more.  Add chicken broth or stock, increase heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer for an additional 15 minutes.

Add corn and potatoes and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.  Stir in cream and milk until incorporated, and simmer, stirring frequently, until soup is heated through.  Ladle into bowls and serve hot, garnished with the reserved crisped bacon pieces.