Ukrainian Borscht with Pancetta and Juniper
Many foods are evocative of one’s place of peasant origin, of one’s mother-tongue. When done properly, the mere smell of these foods has the power to bring a grown man to his blubbering knees, felled by memories of hiding shy behind grandma’s apron. Borscht is one such soulful food, instantly wending one to rugged Slavic hinterlands, all ruddy-cheeked and windswept. There are innumerable varieties depending on its maker’s region or family, but mine is really a variation on the standard: beets and cabbage in beef broth with potato, white beans (cannellini in this case) and, specific to the Ukraine, contains fatback (or lard) “pounded with garlic.” I’ve yet to surmise what exactly this means, so I used diced pancetta and bacon fat just to cover all of my bases (my homemade lardo is still curing, else I’d have used it instead). So my recipe is a derivation of the canon recipe, but a little fancier.
While I was headed down this dandy path, I also opted to add diced black trumpet mushrooms left over from last week. Russians love wild mushrooms even more than North American hippies, so this wasn’t terribly out of left field. And in the same neck of the woods, a little crushed juniper berry and caraway seed hearkened me to my own Volga German roots — a nod to the notion that my ancestors could have had their say about this carmine stew and inflected it with hints of the Vaterland, had they not so segregated themselves from Russian influences.
Many recipes I’ve seen call for everything to be boiled separately and then combined toward the end, but this is an inane waste of resources and dish-washing, and doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. Rather, I cut my beets into 1/8″ brunoise to expose maximum surface area (without having to shred them, which I feel subverts their wonderfully dense, rooty texture) and rinsed twice before adding to the simmering beef stock (homemade, of course; with sautéd mirepoi, bay and minced red bell pepper). This removed some of the betacyanins (though obviously, the soup remains the telltale maroon). I did cook the beans separately to avoid toughening them in the salt and acidity of the seasoned, tomato-enriched broth (pressure cooking unsoaked beans for 35 minutes was accomplished while things simmered).
Besides, simmering everything together allows every earth-note to root and meld, and imparts a one-pot simplicity to the soup that is much better aligned with the way your beloved old Baba would’ve done it, if you had one. Eating this with smetana, dill and freshly baked sourdough bread took me back to a special place that doesn’t even really exist — a fabricated memory— though I nonetheless imagined shedding a nostalgic tear and drinking icy vodka to my health.
For a complete recipe and the story of how I came to first learn about borscht at the age of 11, please read my piece Red Threat at The Farmer General.