Whenever I think of winter, I remember my Bubby Rose’s beet and cabbage borscht. Beets, along with cabbage and lemony sorrel (schav), were basic foodstuffs in my grandmother’s Ukrainian diet, and among Russian, Lithuanian and Polish Jews as well.
Easily stored, beets were grown in home gardens, harvested in autumn and stored in a cold, root cellar for use throughout the winter months. More often than not, they were made into borscht, a thick and satisfying virtual meal-in-a-bowl, with beets, cabbage, beef bones and a shtikele fleisch (small piece of meat) when they had one, but also brined into russel (a vinegar substitute for Passover) and made into eingemacht, a sweet jam-like preserve that graced the Passover table.
Hot, satisfying and nourishing, my Bubby’s borscht was made with beef marrow bones and a cut of meat known as flanken, trimmed of fat, or boneless beef chuck, (from the chuck end of the short ribs). My mother, who leaned towards vegetarianism for most of her 95 years, made her own meatless version, which is far quicker and easier to make, yet has a rich taste and fragrance.
And if you’re out buying beets, buy some extra knobs of the dark purplish root vegetable to make some eingemacht. This Ukrainian beet spread was used as a condiment to accompany roasted meats, or spread on bread, like jam. A specialty of Ukrainian Jews, it is part and parcel of Jewish culinary traditions that were almost lost in the Holocaust, and are up to us to preserve.
My Mom’s Vegetarian Borscht (serves 6-8)
- 3 medium potatoes, cut into small cubes (unpeeled)
- 1 large (or 2 medium) beets, peeled and cut into small cubes
- 5 cups water
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 level teaspoon caraway seeds (kimmel)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 large carrot, chopped
- 3 cups cabbage, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, optional
- 1½ teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 1½ teaspoons honey (or more to taste)
- 1 liter tomato juice
- Sour cream or yogurt
- Fresh dill, chopped
- Butter or oil for sautéeing
- In a large pot, place the potatoes, beets and water. Bring to a boil and cook about 20 minutes until almost done.
- Heat the butter or oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the caraway, salt, carrot and cabbage and cook a few more minutes.
- Add the onion mixture, along with the rest of the ingredients, to the pot. Partially cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes or until ready to eat.
- Serve each bowlful garnished with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt and some chopped dill.
Beet Eingemacht (makes 2-3 small jars)
- 2 cups peeled and shredded or finely cubed fresh beets
- ½ cup each of sugar and honey
- ½ lemon, very thinly sliced and seeded
- ½ tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- ½ cup blanched, slivered almonds
- 12 tablespoons water (=½ cup + 2 tablespoons water)
- Bring sugar and water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Add beets, lower heat to a simmer, partially cover and cook for 45-60 minutes, stirring and checking to avoid burning.
- Separate the rind from the lemon and cut into thin strips, with as little pith as possible. Add to the beets and simmer, covered, until jellied, and beets are transparent, about 45-60 minutes.
- Add almonds and ginger; stir well and cook 15 minutes longer.
- Cool and store in sterilized jars in the refrigerator.