Recipe by Julia Zouev. Photography and styling by Tanya Zouev.
This story was originally put together for Lucy Leonardi who is a hugely talented Sydney photographer and who has a fabulous blog called Who Does The Dishes. Lucy came to my home recently to photograph my mother and I cooking borscht for her story, and me subsequently styling and photographing it. I decided this should really be Lucy’s feature so I’m discussing the historical aspect of the dish whilst Lucy goes in depth further with her gorgeous photography here.
For as long as I can remember my mother has been making borscht. Years ago when I was a child she would make it in a huge white Le Creuset cast iron pot, which was purchased specifically for this purpose. When she got older and found it too heavy she gave it to me, and it is one of my favourite pieces of cookware, particularly as it has so many memories associated with it.
(Pic: my mother’s borscht pot, a vintage Enzo Mari for Le Creuset.)
Though sometimes referred to as a Russian dish, borscht is in fact a recipe from the Ukraine with some even arguing it originated in Poland. There are several different explanations for its origins. The name allegedly comes from the old Slavic word borshchevik which is hogweed, a plant from the same family as fennel. Historical texts state that hogweed was an important food in the Ukraine and Poland until at least the 16th Century and borscht was originally made from the young shoots of this plant. Somewhere along the way the original ingredient was dropped and the name shortened and it became the dish we know it to be today.
There are more kinds of borscht in the Ukraine than anywhere else and it can be made with a wide range of vegetables. The star ingredient however is beetroot, giving the soup it’s characteristic vivid colour. It is a versatile recipe which appeals to vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike. It can be made vegan consisting only of vegetables and vegetable stock, vegetarian with the inclusion of sour cream prior to serving, and it can also be made with meat and meat stocks, namely beef. My mum’s version is cooked with beef stock yet contains no actual meat pieces. Just gorgeous vegetables and a dollop of sour cream at the end.
I recall as a child my mum would painstakingly chop and julienne all her vegetables and add them to the Le Creuset, which would simmer away on the stove on a cold Melbourne winters day, ready to be served with sour cream and fresh dill. Funnily enough borscht wasn’t a dish I ever really cared for as a kid. The flavour was just a little too strong for my immature palate which preferred Heinz tomato soup out of a can. But as I grew older I came to adore borscht. Perhaps it was the alluring jewel-like hue, or the light flavoursome broth with the al-dente julienned vegetables. Whichever it was, I’m glad my taste buds changed their mind and came to appreciate this gorgeous soup.
Prep time: approximately 45 minutes, cooking time: approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Serves 4-6.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 medium to large beetroots, julienned
2 medium carrots, julienned
1 medium parsnip, julienned
2 cups savoy cabbage, finely shredded
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 small red chilli *
2 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns
4 cups beef, chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups water **
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup sauerkraut, rinsed under water then further finely chopped
2 small potatoes, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon sugar (or natural sweetener of your choice)
salt to taste
sour cream and fresh dill to serve
* though not a traditional ingredient, I often use one small red chilli when cooking borscht as I love the little bit of heat it creates against the sweetness of the beets.
** if you prefer a stronger flavour use six cups of stock and omit the water.
1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large heavy based pot such as a Le Creuset and add the onion, carrots, beets, parsnip, savoy cabbage, bay leaves, peppercorns and garlic. Cook for approximately 5-10 minutes until vegetables have softened and cooked down.
2. Add stock and tomato paste and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down to low and simmer for half an hour.
3. Add potato and sauerkraut and cook for a further half hour. Also add the teaspoon sugar/natural sweetener of your choice. The borscht should be very slightly sweet.
4. Serve in large bowls with a dollop of sour cream and finely chopped fresh dill if desired. (Though to get the full Ukraine/Russian experience of borscht you really should!)
Photography & styling notes:
My favourite rescued-out-of-hard-rubbish timber table top was used for this shoot. The ladle was also pulled out of a hard rubbish council clean-up and the vintage aluminium pan, the cloth and little dishes are from local op shops. I actually had to buy the two bowls new, they came from Target because I was unable to find anything else just right for this shot second hand. The vintage spoon is rather special as it is a vintage silver plated piece from Russia and belonged to a close family friend.