Veggiestan Borsch

For 4
Time for some soup, seeing as how we seem to have skipped Summer and gone straight to Autumn.

Suspect most of us have tried a version of this. I first tried it many years ago at someone’s Bar Mitzvah: sadly the slightly alarming range of head gear and the excellent borsch are the only things I recall of the occasion.

It is in origin a Ukrainian soup, but popular culinary myth has donated the recipe to Russia. It finds its way into Veggiestan as it is much beloved by Jews, who of course migrated with their cuisine to Israel. It is also popular in Armenia. The meat stock which is an integral part of the traditional recipe is replaced here by rich mushroom broth.

Although it can be enjoyed as a chilled soup, the wonderful combination of steaming vegetables, the hint of cream, and the rich pink purple colour to me seems the acme of soup hedonism.

You will need:

  • 4 medium beetroots, if possible with the green bits still attached (look, OK if you are in a real hurry, just buy a couple of packs of cooked, non-vinegared beetroot and use that together with its juice – just don’t tell anyone that I suggested it)
  • 20g porcini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • butter + oil for frying
  • 1 large red onion, chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, finely diced
  • 2 medium turnips, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 200g shredded green cabbage (about ¼ cabbage)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cider or apple vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • juice of ½ fresh lemon
  • a good handful each of fresh chopped dill and parsley
  • at least 200ml sour cream (or smetana, which is a very thick sour cream, if you can get it)(or thick yoghurt, if you prefer)

Cut the green tops from the beets; wash and chop them and set them to one side. Wash the beetroot, and then put them whole into a pan of water. Bring it to the boil and set to simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until they are cooked, whereupon you should put them to one side to cool slightly. Doing it this way ensures that the colour doesn’t leach and change*: we are aiming for deep purplitude remember.

In the meantime, pour about 750ml of boiling water on to the mushrooms, stir and allow to sit for around 15 minutes. At the end of this time, strain the resultant stock into a jug, and then rinse and chop the mushrooms.

Next fry the garlic in a knob of butter, and add the onion, celery, carrot and turnips. When the onion has softened, add in the spice, followed by the cabbage and the chopped mushroom: add around a litre of water together with the mushroom stock, and bring to the boil. Simmer the vegetables for around 20 minutes, before peeling and dicing the beetroot adding it to the pan together with the beet greens. At this stage you should also add the sugar, vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. Cook through for another 20 minutes and add the lemon juice. You could blend the soup at this stage (and I often do), especially if you are serving it up to small, fussy people – but this would detract from its authenticity.

Serve with swirls of sour cream, and sprinkle liberally with the fresh herbs. Don’t forget to wear a napkin, or at the very least pink clothes.

*Respect to the late and incredibly talented Arto der Haroutunian for this hint. He was the first to produce a book of vegetarian Middle Eastern cookery, way back in 1983. He was also a musician, painter and translator: I am in awe.

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