When life gives you beets, make borscht!

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The weather changes quickly here in New England in the Fall. A month or so ago it was hot and humid, and now we are having regular killing frosts and frigid mornings. Which means that the time has arrived for soups and stews and braises.

At the farmers’ market the green things have all been replaced by root vegetables. The other day Martha came home with five lovely beets, and some beautiful carrots. So it was time to make borscht.

There are innumerable recipes for borscht and endless debates about whether it should have meat in it, and whether it should be served hot or cold. There is no right answer to these questions, and I think it depends on the season, but when it gets cold outside I want my borscht hot and with meat.

So here’s my take on a hot, meaty borscht. Our moms would have used a shin bone or a short rib, let it cool, and skimmed the fat off it, but I just use lean chuck. You could buy it already cut up for stew, but I prefer to buy a small roast and cut my own.

5 beets
1 lb. beef chuck, trimmed of fat, and cut in 1and 1/2 inch cubes
All-purpose flour for dredging meat
3 Tbs vegetable oil
1 32 oz. container of good beef broth or your own stock
1 28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
½ small head of cabbage (I used green but red is nice, too) shredded.
1 bay leaf
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream for garnish
Snipped fresh dill for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Trim and scrub (but don’t peel) the beets. Wrap them each in aluminum foil, place them on a cookie sheet (they’ll leak), and cook in the oven for 70 minutes.

While the beets are roasting prepare the rest of the soup. I make this in my big cast-iron Dutch oven, but any heavy-bottomed pot big enough to hold the soup will do. Heat the pot over medium high heat. Add the oil. Dredge the beef cubes in flour and add and stir, watching the heat so you don’t burn the flour, until the cubes are all nice and brown. Add the stock or broth and the tomatoes and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Break up the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to gentle simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in carrots, celery, onion, cabbage and bay leaf to the pot, cover and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

When the beets are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them, slice them, and quarter the slices, saving a few whole slices to put on the top of each serving bowl. I should warn you to wear an apron, and do this over the sink, since these beets will give off a lot of juice and you’ll be having a Lady Macbeth caught “red-handed” kind of experience.

Stir the beets into the pot with the vinegar and cook for 30 minutes or until the beets are tender, but still have some firmness to them. You may have to add some more stock or water to thin it out.

When the beets are tender, remove bay leaf, taste for salt and pepper, then put the borscht into bowls, add a generous dollop of sour cream, and garnish with snipped fresh dill. My friend Bev Langeveld, who with her husband Martin, once years ago ran a country inn here in the Berkshires told me that they made borscht once there and stirred in the sour cream and nobody would eat it because it came out the color of Pepto Bismol. So with that cautionary tale in mind let each diner stir in his or her own. Serve with crusty bread, and enjoy!

(Photos: R.L. Floyd)

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