If you open a Russian restaurant, be prepared to have borsch on the menu—people assume it’s part of the contract. And if you (like us) don’t want to have it on your menu year-round, be prepared for a lot of furrowed brows (by the way, “There’s more to Russia than borsch” is not always deemed an acceptable explanation). Also, be prepared for a lot of opinions about what makes for a good borsch. Then, be ready for those who are shocked that borsch has meat in it (aka Americans).
As everyone at Kachka can attest, borsch is a dish that people have quite a few strong feelings about. Like every good Russian, I learned to make borsch from my mom—and, with just a few tweaks, this recipe is pretty much hers. So, of course in my opinion, it’s the best version out there.
*Borsch does not have a “t” at the end—somehow the “t” got added on in German (as did a few other unnecessary consonants—borschtsch), so if you want to pass with the Brighton Beach babushkas, lose the “t.”
- Heat a large stockpot over high heat, and add the oil. While the pot is heating up, season the short ribs with salt on all sides. When the pot is hot, carefully add the short ribs, and brown to a nice dark sear on all sides (a few minutes per side), using tongs to flip (you may need to do this in batches). The sear on the bottom of the pot will give your soup flavor, so make sure it doesn’t burn—turn the heat down if needed. When the ribs are browned, remove them from the pot and set aside on a plate. Discard the excess grease from the pot.
- Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onion. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until caramelized (about 30 minutes), adjusting the heat as needed so that it doesn’t burn. When the onion has softened and browned, add the beets and beef stock.
- Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat until it’s just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer until the beets are about half cooked—a knife will go in with some resistance—about 1 hour.
- When the beets are half cooked, carefully remove them from the pot with a ladle and set them aside in a bowl to cool—this may seem fussy, but it allows you to get the beet flavor in the pot early on without overcooking the beets themselves. Add the browned short ribs back to the pot, and cook at the gentlest simmer, uncovered, for 3 to 4 hours, or until short ribs are totally falling-apart fork-tender (and going longer won’t hurt). Taste about halfway through cooking, and add salt as needed.
- When the reserved beets are cool enough to handle, peel away the skin using a paring knife (if it doesn’t just rub off on its own), and coarsely grate them on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor. When the short ribs have fully cooked, taste the soup, and add more salt as needed. Use a large slotted spoon to remove the short ribs. Add the potatoes, and continue to simmer until they are just cooked through, another 10 minutes or so. While the potatoes cook, pull the short rib meat off the bones, removing any bits of connective tissue. Discard the bones and connective tissue, and chop the meat into bite-sized chunks. When the potatoes are cooked, stir the meat back into the pot, along with the grated beets and carrots. Turn off the heat, and let cool— the pot will take a few hours to cool enough to go in the refrigerator, and the vegetables will cook in the residual heat. Refrigerate overnight.* The next day, discard the hardened fat from off the top. Reheat before serving.
- Ladle the borsch into bowls, and garnish with a dollop of smetana and sprinkling of scallions and dill. Serve with slices of dark bread and spicy mustard. If you want the full Russian approach, try stirring some of the spicy mustard directly into your soup—to me, it’s not borsch without this finishing touch.
- * If you want to serve the soup the same day it’s made, simply keep it simmering after adding in the beets and carrots. The borsch will be ready as soon as the beets are cooked through. Be careful not to let the soup cook any longer, or else you will drain the beets of all of their color and flavor.
Excerpted from the book KACHKA by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Copyright © 2017 by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Leela Cyd.