When far away from home, one sometimes feels homesick. One of the best ways to reconnect with your home country is by cooking your favorite childhood dish.
Picking the ingredients, the process of cooking, the taste, and the scent that fills your space. These can be meditative and multidimensional sensory experiences which transport you back home.
In my case, my home is Ukraine. Like all Ukrainians, I grew up eating borscht. Borscht is a beet soup that originated in Ukraine, and is a popular dish in the Slavic countries – Russia, Poland, Belarus, etc. – especially during the cold winter months.
It has a lot of vegetables in it and is considered to be very healthy. We usually eat it at lunchtime as the first course, but it’s not uncommon to have a bowl of borscht for dinner as well, if you’re very hungry.
Typical Ukrainian borscht is traditionally made from meat or bone stock, sautéed vegetables, and beets. Depending on the recipe, some of these components may be omitted or substituted. Nowadays, a vegetarian version of borscht is very popular as well and is cooked with vegetable stock.
In Ukraine, each household has its own borscht recipe secrets and preferences, some of which are passed from generation to generation. Some examples include: adding beets or not, using fresh cabbage or sauerkraut, fresh tomatoes or tomato paste, serving it with a dollop of sour cream or not. The list goes on and on.
Living in New York City, I am lucky to be able to get my ‘borscht fix’ at local restaurants that specialize in Ukrainian, Russian or Polish cuisines. (Thanks, cultural diversity!) My favorite is Veselka on the Lower East Side.
However, the best borscht is the one you make on your own. I started first by trying to imitate my mom’s way of cooking it. Eventually, after some trial and error, I mastered the art of cooking my very own version of borscht.
I love to cook a big pot at the beginning of the week and enjoy a hot bowl for lunch during the week, just like I did at home.
I like to share my culture in the U.S. by cooking borscht for my American and international friends here. So far, all of them loved it, despite the bright red color, which is very unusual for dishes in the U.S.
I hope you will enjoy this recipe!
- 187 mL warm water (use vegetable stock for vegetarian version)
- 3-4 medium potatoes
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 medium-sized beet
- 1 medium-sized onion
- 1 cup (128 g) sliced chicken (or any other type of meat; omit if you’re cooking a vegetarian option)
- 3 six-ounce cans of tomato paste
- ½ head of cabbage
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 2 bay leaves
Heat a large soup pot over medium/high heat. Cut the meat and all the vegetables.
Add the meat and, after it cooks for 5-7 minutes, add potatoes.
While the meat and potatoes are cooking, place a large skillet over medium/high heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add chopped onion and carrots. Saute stirring occasionally until softened and lightly golden (7-8 minutes). Add tomato paste and stir fry 2-3 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and sugar while sauteing. Then transfer to the soup pot to continue cooking with the potatoes and the meat.
Using the same skillet, add 2 tablespoons of oil and the beets. Sauté, stirring occasionally until softened. Add a little bit of lemon juice and a pinch of salt and sugar. Let the beets caramelize for a couple of minutes and transfer to the pot.
When potatoes reach desired softness and the meat is cooked through, add 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and a little bit of sugar to taste.
Now for the cabbage. The secret here is to squish it with your hands in a bowl in advance, to make it juicier and softer.
Simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes and add the chopped cabbage.
Cover with the lid. Let it simmer for an additional 5-7 minutes.
Serve hot with fresh bread.
Smachnogo! (“Bon appetit” in Ukrainian 😂)
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