Friday, December 10, 2010

Grandma's Borscht

 Russian Grandma sits in a special place in my memory.
I feel like my life has been filled with amazing people,
people made up of many layers
etched by the lives they lived
and the people that they have journeyed with.

When I picture my Russian grandmother in my mind,
I see us pulling up to her old somewhat neglected Victorian house
(and by somewhat, I don't mean that her children didn't take care of things for her after Grandpa died,
who was notorious for thinking he was a carpenter but doing things...

let's just say he really wasn't.

By neglected I just mean that there was nothing fancy about the house.
Everything she owned was simple, scarce, and in it's place.
It was a grand house living a plain life.)

Grandma and Grandpa and their oldest two children came to America
back when my father was a boy.

They met at a type of holding camp
and left Russia, stopping at Belgium, where my father was born.
There they lived and worked to earn the money to continue their journey to America.

My father attended school in Belgium.  He learned a little English
so that when they arrived at the airport in America,
he was able to look through a phone book and identify a Russian name.
A call was placed, and my Grandparents made their plea that they had
nobody to go to,
nowhere to live,
had just come from across the sea to America.

They were taken in by Russian chicken farmers
until they could work to earn enough money to rent a house of their own.

My grandfather liked to drink and he became a very cruel man under it's influence.
I have never had any desire to touch alcohol because of the immense damage I have seen it produce in my families lives.  Hearing what she had to go through and watching my other grandparents drink themselves into ugliness wounded my childish heart forever into a supreme hatred of liquor.
I am thankful for this,
but sad for my grandmother and father and mother and their siblings that they have the scarring memories of lives tainted by alcohol.

My grandfather died when I was six years old, so my memories of him are few.
I mostly just remember Grandma.

She was always one of two places when we drove into her driveway in New Haven, Ct.  She was either bent over in her garden, picking what we would be eating,
or she was standing over her stove cooking what we would be eating.

Grandma had never had or been used to fancy things.  I have nothing that I inherited from her.  I don't even have any pictures of her except a framed copy of her passport that was displayed with all the other grandparents at my wedding.  I am a little sad that of all the things we have from all our relatives, all I have of her are my memories.

The tiles in her floor were chipped, there were stains in the cork tile ceilings.
The sink in the bathroom had a chain to hold the drain, and the enamel was chipped away where the water dripped.  She used Dove soap.  I think of her whenever I smell it.

The carpet in her living room was the old green variety that was very itchy on my bare childhood legs.
It was worn and stained, and she had funny coasters (did they say "Florida" on them?) on her long wooden coffee table.

I don't remember her shoes because she always had slippers on
with knee highs that were usually rolled down.
She was tiny and skinny and always wore simple dresses.
Her hands were small, but the veins and lines showed a woman who worked hard.

She was a soft-spoken woman, but wiry and feisty.

I seem to remember her hitting my father with her dish towel, which was always perched on her shoulder or tucked into her apron.  She did so half jesting, half out of the motherly instinct to discipline something he said or did that she didn't approve of.
Her gesture was always accompanied by a cascade of Russian.
I never knew what it was they were discussing.

I am sad that I could never really speak to my grandmother.  I could never ask her about her life:
her siblings, her childhood.

She only spoke broken English.
One phrase stands out to me of all that she said,

"Come inside.  You hungry?  What you like?  I fix you something."

Her Formica kitchen table with steel legs was always covered with all manner of foods and fruits.
If it happened to be cleaned off,
like the mornings when my sister and I spent the night,
just the sight of us stirring out of the bed set her to making preparations in the kitchen.

Sometimes she let me sleep with her,
when I was afraid of the shadows.
There's something about sleeping with your grandmother that is special and you never forget:
seeing her take the bobby pins out of her hair before bed,
listening to her pray in another language,
and then hearing her quiet snore.

When I brought a friend over to visit,
the greeting to her was no different,
"Come in.  You hungry?  What you like?  I fix something for you."



Below I will give you my Grandmother's recipe for Borscht.
I am forever grateful that my mother took the time and effort one day to go to Grandma's and ask her to make Borscht so that she could watch her and write down the recipe.
If she had not,
it would be gone forever.
And we would not have the luxury of this delicacy on cold winter nights;
the time of year it tastes the best.

This recipe makes a huge amount: a large stockpot full.
For your first time, you may want to cut this down to 1/3;

Yesterday we used out last frozen container from the batch I made back in October.
I will need to do another batch after Christmas when things slow down.

You will need:
  • a big tub of sour cream
  • meat (stewing beef or soup bone or chuck roast)(I used about a 3 lb. roast in this recipe but the quantity is totally up to you)
  • 2 Tbs. butter for meat
  • 2 Tbs. butter for onions  (4 Tbs. butter between the two)
  • 2 onions in large chunks
  • please, don't forget the big tub of sour cream
  • 4 large cloves of garlic finely chopped
  • 2 Tbs. parsley
  • 1 Tbs. lemon juice
  • 6 oz. can of tomato paste
  • 1/2 medium head of cabbage cut in bite-size chunks
  • if you forget the big tub of sour cream, this recipe cannot be eaten
  • 5 carrots cut in bite-size chunks
  • 12 potatoes
  • 15 beets sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces (canned beets may also be used, but they will not need as long to cook)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 3-4 beef bouillon cubes
  • and a really big tub of sour cream.  The sour cream is important.

Drop butter into a large stockpot on medium-low.
(This pot was too small and eventually I had to dig out my other the same size and do two of these.)

 Place your meat into the heated butter.
I love this meat.  If meat could be called pretty, it was pretty.
Yes, it's our cow meat.
No, I have no problems eating our cows
when I see this coming out of the freezer paper.

I'm sorry.

 Saute on both side and then remove to a plate.

 Chop the onions...

 select the garlic
(and if you're like me,
well, I just have to ad a couple extra)...

and chop them up.

At this point, if you have a son like mine,
he will enter the kitchen and want to know what is cooking.

 Ad the second 2 Tbs. of butter to the pot the meat came out of and saute the onions and garlic.
(I must tell you that this is an alteration from the original recipe.  In my mother's recipe, she says to saute the onions and garlic in butter in a separate frying pan.  The juice from searing the meat gets strained and then put into the freezer to separate the fat from the juice and then the juice is just used;
but I have a funny feeling this is my mother's adaptation as she has an intense aversion to fat.
I am happy she is so health conscious.
Good job, Mom.

But our cows have healthy fat.

Yep, it's been proven.

Well, okay, maybe not.
Let's move on.)

Saute until the onions are softened and the aroma makes your son demand an answer to his question.

 While your meat was sauteing,
you could have used the time to chop up half the cabbage head...

 and the carrots and raw beets
unless you are like me and tend to be interrupted by little people
and kittens,
and phone calls,
and misplacing the knife you were just using.

 Go ahead and ad the meat back into the stock pot and fill halfway up with water.

The salt, pepper, bouillon cubes, parsley, lemon juice, tomato paste, and bay leafs can
join the simmering crew in the stockpot.

(Then if you haven't done them yet, you can prepare the vegetables
while this simmers.)

Pour in the cabbage,
and carrots,
and raw beets
(and onions, if you prepared them in the frying pan)
and let it all boil and then simmer for 1 hour.

During this time, you can dig some potatoes
 or fish them from your storage bin...

and then roughly peel them
and then set them aside in water.
(Sorry, I must have taken the picture before adding the water.
Taking pictures while cooking ads a dangerous element to a person like me).

(Skins are very nutritious, you know:
another great healthy Mom tip.
Just don't eat the green on potatoes.
and don't be afraid to cut deep and get it all!)

After the hour has passed,
drop in the potatoes...
 (and the beets, if you are using canned ones, like I did.
Go ahead and pour all the juice in as well.  It's super good for you!)

 While these new elements are simmering,
fish out the beef piece...

and cut it off the bone.
Removing the fat and gristle is great to do as well,
although I remember those in my grandmother's soup.
This could have bee the result of her cooking 18 different things all at the same time,
but more likely her just not wanting to waste any speck of meat.

 Return the meat to the pot...
 and smell the glorious concoction of healthy nuggets floating in the reddish broth bliss.

 After 45 minutes,
the extremely important step of fishing out the potatoes commences.
Cooking them whole and then cutting them up like this gives a moist chunky taste to the potatoes
an important element of Borscht.

 The incredible soup is then ready to be enjoyed


you MUST have this last ingredient or it is all for naught:

Plop a nice lump of sour cream into your serving and stir it up to mix it in.

This serving was poured into a rye bread bowl.  It is beyond description served this way.

My grandmother always had several choices of bread cut up on her table:
I remember rye and pumpernickel.  Dipping bread into it ads to the "amazing" feature of it.

Although a bit of work, this soup is worth it.

(You know it must be if I'm willing to do all this for it).
It's healthy,
and even my baby loves it.

So, even though I don't have any knick-knacks or memorials from my Grandmother
I have her soup.

And I think of her every time I eat it.

"Come inside and I fix you something to eat."

For the condensed (printable) version, click here.


  1. Tonya, Grandma would have loved seeing this. The beet juice IS supposed to be poured in. Grandma told me that was important. I also don't fry the onions and garlic in butter anymore. I use coconut oil. But that sure looks delicious. I just brought some up to Tammy's over Thanksgiving but now I want to make more. Right after Christmas. It looks real good in the bread bowls. Where did you get rye ones? Are they sour dough?

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. I can't wait to try your grandmother's recipe; we LOVE borscht!! :)


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