A Taste of My Heritage

October 11, 2011

By Ann Waterman

I grew up eating borscht, a beet soup popular in many Eastern European countries. I’ll admit it was a bit of an acquired taste — beets can be intimidating to adults, let alone kids — but now I can’t imagine letting fall pass without making a batch.

This bright, flavorful soup is one of  the few links I have to my Ukrainian heritage. I never had the chance to meet my grandfather (he died in a tragic accident when my mom was in her teens), and I can’t remember meeting my grandmother, who passed away when I was young — though I could tell you the names of all the flowers that grew in her village, thanks to the stories my mother shared with me.

I do know that my life would be very different if they hadn’t taken a risk and tried for a new beginning in a new country, enduring ten years of separation while my grandfather worked and saved enough money to bring my grandmother to Canada to join him. Borscht reminds me of their simple, humble way of life that was filled with hard work and suffering — but also hope.

Borscht is the perfect fall food —  it’s warm and keeps the autumn chill at bay, the ingredients are in season, and it has the most beautiful deep ruby color. Swirl in some sour cream for a pretty pop of pink and an additional layer of flavor, and then pair it with some perogies and sausage, and you’ve got yourself a wonderfully hearty meal.

My favorite borscht recipe is adapted from Alycia’s restaurant in Winnipeg, Manitoba, my home town. (It was one of John Candy‘s favorite restaurants; it’s rumored that he used to fly their perogies into Los Angeles.) Here it is:

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 medium potatoes, grated
  • 1/4 head of cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 3 or 4 meduim beets, grated
  • 1 small can of pork and beans
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 can french-style green beans
  • 1 can consomme soup
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • fresh dill to taste

You’ll want to don an apron for this recipe — beet juice stains. In fact, I normally wear an apron when I eat it, as well. I always regret it when I don’t.

Wash and trim the beets before roasting them in a 375-degree oven for about an hour. Let them cool, then peel off the rough outer skin. You can use them straight away or put them in an airtight container for a few days until you need them.

You can hand grate the beets and potatoes, but if you’ve got a food processor, use the grating disc on them — you’ll save time (and your knuckles). Grate the beets and potatoes separately, as they are introduced at different points in the recipe.

Alright: Disclaimers issued, we’re ready to start. Get yourself a big stock pot (hint: bigger pot means less splashing, and consequently less mess to clean up); toss in the onion, potatoes, and cabbage; and add enough water to the pot so that the vegetables  are completely covered. Bring to a simmer on medium heat and cook until vegetables are just tender — not mushy.

Add in grated beets, sugar, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Bring back to simmer and cook for a few minutes before adding pork and beans, tomatoes, green beans, consomme, and dill. Continue simmering for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. You don’t want to over boil borscht — it will lose color, taste, and texture.  Taste and adjust seasoning. Personally, I like to a little more vinegar in my borscht.

Sour cream makes almost anything tastier, and that’s particularly true of borscht — so be sure to add a dollop (or two) to your soup bowl.

Eating this stuff instantly makes me feel more connected to faraway people and places. What foods remind you of your roots?

Images: Ann Waterman

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