Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I'm often intimidated when I try cooking with certain ingredients for the first time. (Examples: eggplant, yeast, fish.) I'm positive that I'm going to under-or-overcook them, use them incorrectly, have no idea what the hell they should actually taste like, and so on. It's kind of a challenge, to take something relatively unknown and see if I can follow directions well enough to turn it into something at the very least edible and--in my best-case scenarios--delicious.
I've never been fond of beets. I know they're incredibly good for you, and I've always been kind of intrigued by the color, but they usually give me a stomachache. The only time I've ever been able to happily eat beets was when I was in Poland and I tried barszcz, the polish version of borscht. I'd always thought of borscht as cold and full of sour cream, pretty to look at but carrying the same threat of bellyache that all beet dishes do for me, but barszcz was absolutely delicious, hot and sweet and salty and savory and a beautiful clear red color.
This winter, I've been dreaming of making my own barszcz. And yesterday, a chilly blustery day following on the heels of an early spring snowstorm this weekend, seemed like the perfect chance to try. The recipe I chose actually differed quite a bit from the barszcz I remembered from Poland; instead of a clear broth with few ingredients, this one was chock full of veggies like potatoes, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and cabbage (another vegetable I don't often use). And, of course, beets.
When I was in my undergrad I took a general ed class called "Plants and Our World" where I'm pretty sure I was forced to give a brief oral presentation on beets, but aside from that I'd never looked too closely at them. The ones I bought were brown and red, slightly hairy, with long rodent-like root tails that kind of grossed me out. I read some instructions online about preparation and set about my work: I cut the leaves and most of the stems off, removed the tails (it didn't say to do that but I was glad to be rid of them), and put them in a pot with water and a little vinegar to preserve the color. As they boiled I prepared the rest of my vegetables, and as the beet water slowly turned pink I assembled all of the other ingredients (veggies, stock, and spices) in my big soup pot and waited. When I was able to stab a potato peeler all the way through one of the hairy roots I put on my rubber gloves and set to work. When beets have been boiled (or baked, or roasted, or microwaved) you can remove the skins by running them under cold water and rubbing them between your hands.
Beets are surprisingly heavy. They feel potent, dense, tightly packed. The bright reddish pink juice was something I knew about but it still surprised me, the amount of it. Holding these warm (almost too hot), heavy, dense, firm but slippery vegetables in my gloves under the water, I couldn't help but think of hearts, human hearts, organs and blood; I almost expected them to pulse. It's been a hard week or two here in so many ways: some friends of mine lost a family member this week and it had been on my mind, my personal life had been feeling chaotic, my alone time was starting to feel increasingly necessary and I was worried about its sustainability, and here I was at my kitchen sink holding these hearts, massaging them and rubbing them, sometimes scratching and sometimes gently rinsing. The beets in my hands felt a little bit like I felt inside: tender, bloody, raw and slippery. I was feeling a sense of loss and potential and sorrow for things that sometimes had nothing to do with me, sorrow for people I don't know and sorrow for myself and hope too, and then I'm holding what feels like a warm human heart. It's hard to describe how sad and sweet and beautiful, visceral, this moment was to me. I had no idea beets could be so poetic.
But of course they weren't hearts--too small, for one thing--they were beets. Even as I made up poetic metaphors in my non-creative-writing way, I was slicing the rest of the stems off and chopping the beets into chunks and throwing them into the pot. I mixed everything together, let it simmer for an hour, and lo and behold, I had barszcz. Sweet and salty and delicious, with lots of good vegetables. And it didn't give me a stomachache, much to my relief. (If it had, who could I possibly give so much barszcz to so it didn't go to waste? That had been on my mind too.) And so here is the recipe, modified slightly from this recipe, and now I'm going to go drink some more coffee.

Barszcz (pronounced "Bar-sh-ch")

1 Tbs butter
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped (I imagine peeling is optional)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 portabella mushroom caps, chopped (it helps to use a large knife to cut the stem and some of the gills off at the bottom of the cap before you chop)
4 cups veggie broth
4 large beets, cooked, peeled, and chopped (wear gloves and watch your countertops if you don't want stains)
1/2 head red cabbage, shredded
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp dried (1 tsp fresh) dill
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
4 whole peppercorns or ground pepper to taste
dried or chopped fresh parsley

In a large soup pot, saute the potatoes, onions, and mushrooms in the butter for 5-6 minutes. Add the veggie broth, beets, cabbage, tomatoes, and spices and simmer partially covered over medium heat for about an hour until the vegetables are tender.
You can add sour cream this way: beat some sour cream in a bowl until fluffy, add some soup broth and mix well, then add this back into the soup. Don't boil it again, but serve hot. I didn't have sour cream or I would have done this, but it's good without as well.
I also had to add considerably more salt to my finished product, but I also didn't measure the initial tsp so that might be why. But season to taste, at any rate.
Also, I think next time I'll find one of the strained recipes, where you end up with a clear broth at the end, as that is more what i remember from my experiences in Poland. And if I'm really ambitious, I'll try the more traditional kind where you allow the ingredients to sour and mix over the course of days instead of cooking them on the stove.

Incidentally, the last post brought my total count up to 600. Crazy! And I'm not doing too badly on my "200 posts this year" goal, although I'm not quite a quarter through right now. Thanks for reading.


Jesse said...

I know I'm repeating what I said on facebook, but yay for beets!

In my experience they're very forgiving to cook with -- much easier than eggplants or yeast, for sure. They are wonderful baked or roasted or cooked just a little and put into salad.

And the sensory experience of them is a big plus as well. I think they look like aliens when they have their stalks removed but the tail still on; and after you've chopped them up, your workspace looks like a murder scene. I guess that's not as poetic as your observations, but hey, I know I always enjoy it.

I love borscht but I'll have to try barszcz, if only to have an opportunity to try and pronounce it!

Lauren said...

I LOVE beets. And borscht. And I love the post you just wrote. So beautiful.

I think I became obsessed with beets after reading Tom Robbins's "Jitterbug Perfume," in which beets play a key part. I stopped at several roadside stands in the summer of 2004 and tried to make borscht. i was bad at cooking then and ended up with a watery brothy pink bowl. This was a week after I had tried your vegan pesto lasagna, forgetting to cook the lasagna noodles.

I love the beet/heart metaphor! Heartbeets. They are so earthy. yay beets! i'm glad you had such a successful poignant time with the roots.

ammie said...

Thanks! I had no idea beets were such a polarizing vegetable until I put up a facebook comment about how they kinda freaked me out and got like 12 comments back, mostly defending the hairy alien roots. (Although Lauren, one person did say that Jitterbug Perfume turned him off beets forever. Whoops.) I wish I could stomach beets more regularly, but perhaps I'll have to give them another shot. At any rate, I see many more different types of barszcz in my future.

Lauren said...

i wonder if there's something in beets that your body just is not happy with. all the iron, maybe? and gotta love facebook for enabling people to leap to the defense of pet foods. :)

ammie said...

Yeah, I have no idea. It makes me kind of sad, I'd rather like them than not. But I vividly remember the first time I tried them in the form of juice in Tucson; I could feel the sip I took sink into me and lodge in my stomach, and I felt extremely nauseous the whole bike ride home. Sigh. I don't know why the soup is okay, either.