From what I understand, the wild beet which grew along the coasts of Eurasia and eaten for its greens wherever it grew, was eventually cultivated by the Romans and Greeks who produced the beet root, the seed stock that gave rise to our modern beet. Before that the root was used as medicine for which it still has a good reputation. I surmise the Roman beet, as it was known, migrated wherever the Roman and Greek cultures spread and became part of the cultural cuisine, expanding on its own throughout Europe as its popularity and seed production increased.
It would make common sense once it got into folk hands that the ingredients easy to grow or obtain in any one area would be largely responsible for Borscht’s development. I’m sure many cultures had their own variation on a beet soup and Borscht just became the most well-known and copied. My ancestry dates back to Wales and Finland so for me, I grew up with few embellishments in a beet soup other than apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper, beets, carrots, onions and perhaps some caraway seeds.
I’m delighted to have made my own variation, sampling as I went with traditional recipes, raw or cooked, bowls of it hot or cold or room temperature and finally settling on my latest one inspired by the large beets we recently gleaned at a local farm here in Sequim, WA at the base of the majestic Olympic Mountain range.
The Big Beet of this recipe refers to the huge beets that we dug and which are normally too big for commercial value but flavorful and tender, none the less. One of these humongous beets takes the place of the 3-4 beets in this recipe which calls for more normally sized ones. Our area’s glacial and river bottom soils are well-known for producing naturally sweet and tender root crops including beets and carrots.
This recipe does not contain potatoes nor beans which normally add a creamy thickness to a pot of Borscht although you’re welcome to include them. I do, however, add the water saved from my other potato boiling and steaming dishes for part of the stock used to cook this recipe. My favorite broth to make Borscht is home-made chicken stock; yet water adds another dimension, allowing the soup’s subtle flavors to play with my taste buds.
Big Beet and Sausage Borscht
Makes 6-8 servings
- 8 ounces sausage (your choice, raw or cured. I use Spicy Sweet Italian raw links or similar but plain is fine, too.)
- 2 Tbs. butter, melted
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 cup onion, peeled, sliced and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3-4 smashed garlic cloves, cut into slices
- 2 medium carrots, roughly julienne sliced into 1-inch pieces (washed well but peeling optional)
- 3 cups napa, red or sweet white cabbage or a combination, sliced into 1-inch pieces
- 3-4 large beets, roughly julienne sliced into 1-inch pieces (washed well but peeling optional)
- 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp. dried ginger or 1 Tbs. fresh
- 1/2 tsp. dried garden sage
- 1 tsp. dried tarragon
- 1/2 tsp. Hungarian paprika
- Pepper to taste
- 1 sweet apple, diced (peeling optional)
- 6 cups broth or water (I often use potato water.)
- Last minute freshies from the hedges or gardens
Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle surface with salt. Add the butter and olive oil and heat to the stage where the butter bubbles up but just before butter turns brown.
Remove the casing from the raw sausage and using a scissors, cut the meat into bite-sized pieces. Add to the hot butter/oil in the pan along with the onions and garlic; stir until sausage just turns barely brown and veggies are translucent. If using an already cured sausage that only needs warming up, go ahead and skip the browning stage unless you want extra flavor.
Add the spices and herbs into the sausage, butter, olive oil, garlic and onion mixture and stir well. I like to take this step so the spices and herbs absorb the flavors of the sautéed sausage and alliums before the rest of the vegetables are added.
Keep out the diced apple, while adding the remaining veggies to the saucepan. Thoroughly stir to blend all the ingredients. Add enough broth to cover the veggies and stir again. I don’t usually add all the broth at once unless I’m in a hurry, but like to add when I see a need for more. Taste broth and adjust seasonings realizing flavors will change over the cooking time. Cover and allow to slowly simmer.
When these veggies have reached the al dente stage, add the diced apple. Adjust the seasonings and liquid level. Here I’ll also add any extra fresh garden flowers, hedgerow greens or herbs for added zip and color. For this recipe I found some lovely calendula blossoms and the last fragrant maroon rose which I chopped loosely and added to the pot. Perhaps one last perusal of your garden or floral space will provide you with pansies, parsley, chickweed, dandelion blossoms, heartsease or violas, etc. On inspiration, I even added some hawthorn infused honey to this dish.
Stir well to incorporate the contents and simmer until all the veggies and the apple are tender and flavors have had a chance to meld. Serve with simple salad and warm biscuit or bread. I’ll added a dollop of my spicy slaw salad dressing but a cool spoonful of yogurt or sour cream is pleasant, too.
Enjoy your journey through the delights of autumn cooking and dining and we’ll catch up next time!