On a recent trip to Poland, a friend and I, looking to get a sense of the culture, stepped into one of the country’s ubiquitous “milk bars” for lunch. Contrary to what you may be thinking, these aren’t establishments in which you can drink drug-infused milk, à la A Clockwork Orange, but canteens where you can purchase cheap, nourishing, traditional Polish food, such as stuffed cabbage and pierogi, both of which we ordered. I also got, for myself, the richest, chunkiest bowl of deep red borscht I have ever had in my life.
The bowl of sour beet soup was so nourishing on that cold afternoon in Poland that I wondered why I don’t eat it more often back here in the States. So, this winter, I am trying to change that. Borscht is the perfect cold-weather comfort food, I’ve come to think, but I seldom come across it. Which is understandable: It’s intense. It’s made from beets. It stains everything. It’s soup from the old world, which isn’t all that sexy.
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But the truth is that it’s delicious, it isn’t that difficult to make, and it’s worth your time. Why not make this your winter of borscht! This recipe from Barbara Kafka—including mushrooms and celery root—will serve you well, but if you aren’t in the mood to use a food processor, which is required here, you can also make a thinner borscht by simply boiling chopped-up beets in water and vinegar, straining the liquid after the beets are soft—the broth turns dark red very quickly—and then adding some chicken stock that has been simmering with vegetables including carrots and celery and onion. It’s like a hearty beet consommé.
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This is the approach I opted for recently, and I was not disappointed, though it was not quite as enriching as the borscht I ate in Poland (which may be my personal Proustian madeleine). Then again, how could it have been? Anyway, each slurp was bracing, which may not be the word one normally goes for when describing the experience of eating beet liquid. However, it is an accurate description. The white vinegar snaps against the somewhat flat but boldly sweet beet flavor, creating a most vivid taste.
This is a soup that comforts you but is vibrant enough that it wakes you up at the same time. Which is exactly what most of us need during the cold months.
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