16 June 2009

Pressured state of mind

Past days saw me under pressure – I was busy orchestrating a Russian-themed dinner for my friends Cortney and Martijn. She is Australian, he is Dutch, together they are a vibrant married couple who love to spend their weekends lazing in hammocks, tossing around a frisbee and blowcarting -- that is, when the local weather is the bee’s knees, which is not a frequent occasion, but anyway…What I was trying to say is that last time as we met, I was asked to give a floor about traditional Russian dishes; the ambiance was fitting and inspiring, what with the silky scoops of chocolate and hazelnut praline gelatos and strong crowblack espressos we were relishing. Did I ever mention that home-made gelato loosens my tongue so I blurt things out without giving them much thought in the first place? Because this is exactly what happened: three bites into the cool goodness, and I was claiming to be capable of making borscht, an Eastern European soup starring beetroots, tomatoes and cabbage as main ingredients. At first sight, you’d say this is no big deal to cook that. But this is only at first sight, Dear Reader. Borscht as an (almost) Russian national dish is so lionized and high-standardized that the likelihood of my cooking it not exactly the right way was monstrously high.

On a historical note: Borscht, to the astonishment of many, is not Russian born-and-bred (is it appropriate to say so about food?); originally it’s Ukrainian, yet somewhere along the line borsht crossed a few borders, took many nationalities and became an iconic dish almost in every Slavic country. So by my borscht I mean a Russian variety which, besides beetroots, cabbage and tomatoes, also includes potatoes. Although I remember I once ate Ukrainian borsht with potatoes in it too, from which we can only deduce things are seriously complicated. Potatoes or no, tomatoes are indispensable here (fresh, canned or as a paste), otherwise you can’t call it borscht, but only a beetroot soup. In addition to all that, I learnt that borsht as a topic for conversation is explosive enough to undermine long-lasting marriages and to cause heated family disputes. When I called my mother to ask for the borscht ABC’s, my father chipped in with a stingy remark:

‘Anya, don’t listen to your mother – she can’t cook it properly’.

‘You are an ungrateful pig’, my mother, a woman of verbal dexterity, fired back.

Did I need to hear that? No.

To revert to the present day, I found myself in a situation that can only be described as tricky. And to be honest, that would be a mild description.

It is not a self-flattering confession, Dear Reader, but I am willing to go that far as to say that when I am expected to deliver something palatable and delicious, I usually fail. Fail hard, miserably and irreversibly, that is. Hence this pressure lately. Luckily for me, not necessarily for them, though, but neither Cortney nor Martijn had tasted any Russian dish before. Although the expectations were high, none of them would know if the final product was bastardized, or botched. I made the call that I would do my skillfullest in the kitchen, and come what may.

I’m not sure if I told you but not always do I show grace under pressure. In other words, I don’t seem focused enough to watch my mouth when my mind is preoccupied with things as important as a list of ingredients for borscht. Take this as an instance: I needed chicken bones to make my own chicken stock for the soup – traditionally it is the beef stock that’s used in this dish, but I am not yet well-versed to scout for a marrow bone in the Dutch butcher’s; they don’t happen to have any when I am there and canned stock as a possible substitution is a slash at tradition -- so I headed off to the meat man and told him I need kitchen bones. The butcher did not seem to get it. I kept expressing my wish for kitchen bones.

At first the elderly man smiled, then his brows furrowed, finally he gave me a startled look, his mouth half-open and eyes wide as saucepans. It took me a while to figure out what caused the man such a stir. I apologized for the slips of my tongue, paraphrased ‘kitchen’ into ‘chicken’, and still did not get any – apparently chicken bones were a rare commodity over the weekend. I gasped with horror and felt my heart was in my mouth. This had to stop – I mean my pressured state of mind. I bought for myself a bottle of red.

Dear Reader, this is stunning how simple things turn out to be after a mere glass of libation. I felt there was nothing I could not do in my kitchenette. Everything seemed to be a breeze, even the fact that I had to sink low as to ask my guests to bring along their plates and cutlery for dinner did not rob me of my dignity. How would you do that without a boozy fillip, I wonder?

Past Monday was the Big Tasting Day. Cortney and Martijn arrived loaded with the requisite tableware, and a few bottles of wine for good measure -- monday nights are meant for tipsy-ness.

But I digress, I digress...

I gently warmed up the borscht, toasted the bread, clinked some more pots and pans in the kitchenette, and finally introduced my guests to the anticipated dish served in mismatched soup bowls.

‘It smells gorgeous’, was the first culinary compliment of the evening.

The borscht was delicious and opulent, a smidge sweet and earthy from the beetroot and somewhat nutty from the relaxed, cooked cabbage; savoury and a touch acidic from the tomato paste and vinegar; fragrant from the spices and herbs; with a zip from the spunky aromatic garlic; packed with potato chunks and cabbage ribbons; rusty red in colour. I feel ashamed to have impugned my own ability to not bastardize it, because I absolutely did not. And this is even after I ended up using vegetable stock as the base for the soup. I can only imagine how unbelievably good it will taste with something reminiscent of meat in it.

That said, I am going to call my parents now to see if things are all right.

Borscht (Russian Cabbage and Beet Soup, one of the many varieties)
Yield: 4-6 servings

Borscht is always better as it sits a while, say overnight, so if you can, make it in advance.
1 large beetroot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 medium carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp tomato paste, divided use
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided use
2/4 cups water, divided use
1/2 head small green cabbage, finely shredded
2 large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 3-cm (1-inch) cubes
2 L (8 cups) beef (chicken or vegetable) stock
2 medium cloves of garlic, pressed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill (or flat-leaf parsley)
Sour cream, to serve (optional)

The order in which the vegetables parade in a simmering stock is crucial, for each vegetable has their own cooking time. But first, sauté the beetroot – in a large skillet and over medium heat -- in 2 Tbsp olive oil along with the red wine vinegar and 1 Tbsp tomato paste, until soft (3-5 mins). Add ¼ cup water, scale the heat down to medium-low and keep cooking until the water is evaporated, another 3-4 mins. Set aside.

In the same skillet and over medium heat, sweat the onion, carrot and the other tablespoon of the tomato paste in the rest of the olive oil (2 Tbsp). When the vegetables are soft, add another ¼ cup water, lower the heat a little, and, again, cook until the water is evaporated. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a gentle simmer. Add the bouquet garni (if using), bay leaves and whole onion to invigorate the stock with more aromatics. Fold in the potatoes and cabbage and simmer, covered, for 20-25 mins. Add the beetroot and the carrot mixtures and continue to simmer, also covered, for another 20-25 mins. A few minutes before the end of cooking time, add the garlic. Turn the heat off and throw in the dill. Discard the whole onion, bouquet garni (if using), and bay leaves. Season to taste.

Serve warm with a dollop of sour cream (optional) and more dill for garnish.


Toni said...

I love, love, love borscht!! I grew up eating it. My grandfather was from the Ukraine, but we didn't eat the traditional Ukranian kind for some reason. I only learned about that later in life. So what I call borscht now is very much like what you describe here.

And yes, a glass of libation makes anything simple - cooking, speaking a foreign language - anything!

anya said...

Toni - I didn't know you have Slavic background! That's so amazing!!

As a kid, I under-appreciated borscht a smidge too much. I am glad I've grown up. Now it is much more than food for me, it's the memory of times long-forgotten but coming alive anew. And I love this.

Cinnamonda said...

I must admit I'm not a fan of borscht or borssi as we call it here, but yours looks absolutely gorgeous! Beautiful picture!


Julia (alias Yulinka Cooks) said...

That's a great story and delicious-looking borsch. Nice to find another Russian food blog (written in English)!

anya said...

Tiina, thank you!! How about you come over to Amsterdam again, this time for a bowl of Russian borscht? :)

Julia - welcome!! And long live English-writing, food-loving Russians!! Yay! :)

Karen said...

Anya, I wanted you to know that I made this borscht (well... a version, based on what I had in the kitchen) as a last-minute decision on what to do with farmers market beets. Jerry and I both LOVED it. Unfortunately, I had no cabbage, so it wasn't exactly an authentic borscht. And I used homemade chicken broth, as that was what I had in the fridge. But still, it was wonderfully delicious, topped with dollops of creme fraiche. Thank you for the recipe!