Russia's Soviet days are well behind it, but if you're headed to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, your dining options will still run deep red — as in borscht.
Organizers in Sochi expect to serve 70,000 gallons of this Russian staple — a hearty soup whose color comes from beets — to spectators. Borscht has graced both the high table of the Kremlin and the lowly tables of peasants across the former Soviet Union.
But not all borscht is created equal, says Anya von Bremzen, who considers herself something of an expert in cooking up a pot. She's the author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. She tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block that defining borscht is complicated.
For one thing, it can be served warm or cold, spelled "borscht" or "borshch." But at its most basic, it's made with beets, potatoes, tomatoes and often beef or pork.
The politics of borscht are also complex. The soup is the national dish of Ukraine — which adds some culinary geopolitical irony to the Sochi Olympics, Bremzen says.
"[At] the Russian Olympic Games, which are the pet project of Vladimir Putin, they're serving all these gallons and gallons of borscht," she says. "Whereas in the Ukraine ... as part of an anti-Moscow, anti-Putin protest, they were also serving borscht, affirming that it's Ukraine's national dish."
Growing up in the Soviet Union, Bremzen sampled many borscht varieties, which she says ranged from "vile" to delicious.
"It's such a symbolic dish that it has all these conflicting memories and associations, like everything we had in the Soviet Union," she says.
Many Americans might recognize a Jewish version of borscht that is cold and sweet. But Bremzen says a Ukrainian will insist that borscht include pork and have a dollop of sour cream on top.
"Pork and sour cream — it's as anti-Jewish as you can get," she says. "But both versions are correct."
She says the institutional borschts served in Soviet Union-era schools and prisons were flavorless and greasy. But she describes her mother's recipe — a frugal vegetarian version made with a can of tomato paste and a "forlorn" beet — as homey. Her father also prepared an "extravagant" borscht (that recipe is below).
"My father is a very meticulous cook. He actually made it by juicing the beets and carrots, and it was loaded with meat. And he added beans in the western Ukrainian manner. He got the recipe from a Ukrainian neighbor we had in the communal kitchen [back in the Soviet days], where 18 families shared one kitchen," she says.
Foodies who are Sochi-bound for the games, which begin Feb. 7, should look for a borscht that has a slightly sweet and sour aroma with earthy vegetable smells, Bremzen advises. Even so, she warns, finding a great bowl might prove quite the challenge, she says.
"How can you make a great borscht for that many people?" she muses. "I'm just wondering.
"It might be that institutional kind," she warns. "But maybe with a shot of vodka, [it's] not so bad."
Recipe: Dad's Uber-Borshch (Borscht with Beef, Mushrooms, Apples and Beans)
2 pounds beef chuck, shin or brisket in one piece, trimmed of excess fat
14 cups water
2 medium onions, left whole, plus 1 large onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, left whole, plus 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium beets, washed and stemmed
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed of grit, and soaked in 1 cup hot water for 1 hour
2 slices good smoky bacon, finely chopped
1 large green pepper, cored, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more as needed
2 cups chopped green cabbage
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes, with about half of their liquid
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
One 16-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
For serving: sour cream, chopped fresh dill and thinly sliced scallions
Combine beef and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim and reduce heat to low. Add the whole onions and carrots and the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer partially covered until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain the stock, removing the meat. You should have 11 to 12 cups of stock. Cut the beef into 1 1/2-inch chunks and reserve.
While the stock cooks, preheat the oven to 400 F. Wrap the beets separately in aluminum foil and bake until the tip of a small knife slides in easily, about 45 minutes. Unwrap the beets, plunge them into a bowl of cold water, then slip off the skins. Grate the beets on a four-sided box grater or shred in a food processor. Set aside. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid and save for another use. Chop the mushrooms.
In a large, heavy soup pot, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. To the bacon drippings, add the chopped onion, mushrooms, diced carrot and green pepper, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes, adding a little butter if the pot looks dry. Add the remaining butter and cabbage, and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds. Add the stock, potatoes, tomatoes, apple and the reserved beef, and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any froth, season with salt to taste, cover, and simmer over low heat until potatoes are almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in half of the reserved beets and the beans, and add a little water if the soup looks too thick. Continue cooking over medium-low heat until all the vegetables are soft and the flavors have melded, about 25 minutes more. (The borshch can be prepared a day ahead up to this point. Reheat it slowly, thinning it out with a little water if it thickens too much on standing.)
Before serving, use a mortar and pestle and pound the garlic and parsley with 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper to a coarse paste. Add to the simmering soup along with the reserved bacon, the remaining beets, vinegar and sugar. Adjust the seasoning and simmer for another 5 minutes. Let the borshch stand for 10 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into serving bowls, add a small dollop of sour cream to each portion, and sprinkle with dill and scallions. Invite the guests to mix the sour cream well into their soup.
Excerpted from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen. Copyright 2013 by Anya von Bremzen. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Among the many Olympic statistics we've seen, this one sure got our attention: 70,000 gallons of borscht are expected to be served up at the Sochi games. The hearty deep red soup based on beets has graced the high table of the Kremlin and was a staple peasant food across the former Soviet Union. Anya von Bremzen considers herself something of an expert in cooking up a pot of borscht. She's the author of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing," and she joins me now from New York. Anya, welcome to the program.
ANYA VON BREMZEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And why don't you explain to the uninitiated just what is borscht.
BREMZEN: It's a beet soup. It contains potatoes, tomatoes, usually beef, very often pork and it's a national dish of the Ukraine. So we have a little bit of a geopolitical irony here that at the Russian Olympic games, which are, you know, the pet project of Vladimir Putin, they're serving all those gallons and gallons of borscht. Whereas in the Ukraine, just recently in December, as part of, you know, anti-Moscow and anti-Putin protests, they were also serving borscht affirming that it's Ukraine's national dish.
BLOCK: It's just a cross-cultural thing we have going on here.
BREMZEN: It's fuzzier than that because Ukraine means border and all the bordering nations, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Romania, also have their own versions of borscht and they claim it for themselves.
BLOCK: So lots of variations from country to country and I imagine also from house to house, from one kitchen to another you could get a completely different version of borscht.
BREMZEN: Absolutely. And it's dictated by what you have available. For instance, I remember so fondly my mom's very frugal vegetarian borscht that she whipped up seemingly out of thin air, you know. Just a can of tomato paste, you know, a forlorn beet during the Soviet days when food was so scarce. Here in America, borscht is considered a Jewish dish because it was brought over when Jews were immigrating after the pilgrims in the early 20th century.
So you have the borscht belt borscht, which is often cold and sweet, whereas a Ukrainian woman says that, you know, the real Ukrainian borscht has to have pork and sallow, Pork fat back, and is eaten with sour cream. You know, pork and sour cream it's as anti-Jewish as you can get. But I think both versions are correct.
BLOCK: So if people listening are actually headed to Sochi for the Olympics, what would you tell them to look for or maybe smell for for a good bowl of borscht.
BREMZEN: Well, it has this kind of sweet and sour aroma and the earthy smells of vegetables, but, you know, how can you make a great borscht for that many people? I'm just wondering. It might be that institutional kind.
BLOCK: And that would turn them off forever.
BREMZEN: Or maybe with a shot of vodka, not so bad.
BLOCK: Anya Von Bremzen is the author of "Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing." Anya, thanks so much.
BREMZEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And we have Anya's father's luxurious borscht recipe. It's at our food blog, The Salt, at our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.