I almost called this a couple of borschts, because that’s what I’m going to make here. Now before I get started I want to do a brief bit of clarification. There are almost as many variations of borscht as there are of beef stew. In fact, a lot of them use cabbage instead of beet as the primary ingredient. (A few don’t use any beets at all. So much for what “everyone knows”.)
I did a bit of research years ago and discovered that the one that is in my grandmother’s cookbook is usually considered Polish. I think I’ll avoid boring you with the genealogy involved despite my tendency to meander. It’s just… if you use this recipe and don’t like it, don’t swear off all borscht. But I’ve digressed when I want to take you to the fun of this. See, we start by making a … if we used cabbage it would be sauerkraut. Instead we’re using beets.
I have a glass jar with a gallon capacity. I wish I had a ceramic crock, but since I don’t this is my making dish. Now before I get started I slice up a couple of onions then split the rings so they’re all strings. I’m also going to need a dozen beets and about four cloves of garlic.
I shred a dozen or so beets (grate them, actually). As each is grated, it gets sprinkled with salt and put into the jar. I toss in a handful of the onion strings, and go to the next beet. Every other set of onions also gets a clove of garlic that’s been mashed. Once this is all in the jar I add an expandable strainer pointed downward, and put a large can of veggies from which I’ve removed the label. I press down firmly to squeeze out as much moisture as I can, then set it in a dark corner of the house. About 6-8 hours later I check this. If this were sauerkraut there’d be enough water released from the cabbage to completely cover everything. Beets don’t always have as much juice, though. So if the beets aren’t completely covered by this point, I add some salted brine (about a teaspoon of salt per cup of water) till it’s covered by about half an inch. Oh – cover with a clean cloth (I use a large handkerchief and hold it on with a large rubber band). Then it’s left to ferment for at least three days and up to a week. I check it daily both for appearance and taste starting the third day.
I need to digress briefly to talk about making sauerkraut. It’s literally that easy. Shred cabbage. Toss a layer in a non-reactive container, sprinkle with salt (and any other herbs you want to use), repeat till done with the cabbage or out of room. Add a presser and a weight, push down to extract liquids, repeat till the liquids cover the cabbage, cover to keep out the dust, and let it go. Check every couple of days for taste. Be aware that it may form a mold on top of the liquid – that’s fine, the salt water provides a barrier against the mold getting to the cabbage. Just scoop out what you can, remove the weight and the press plate, wash them thoroughly, and put them back to continue. Three days to three weeks of fermenting depending on how you like your kraut. But I digressed, again.
Unlike sauerkraut, I’m going to use the liquid. Strain it off the sauerbeet (yeah, I’m making that up). Give the beets themselves a taste keeping in mind you’ve made a sorta sauerkraut. I like them in places I use sauerkraut, but be advised there is a difference in taste (and it will still turn things red), and even I don’t like lots of it. However, we’re working with the liquid. It’s time to make borscht. Two borschts, actually.
Borscht one is a clear soup that can be served hot or cold. It’s equal parts fermented beet juice and a rich beef broth. (Note that the beet juice will break up the beef broth’s gelatin state.) I serve it with a dollop of sour cream. Serve it in a drinking vessel (glass or cup) to show off the beautiful color. I suppose I should point out that I’ve read of this being served with a boiled potato or a hard-boiled egg – either in the bowl or (if it’s in a drinking vessel) on the side.
Borscht two is yet another beef stew. I could use my earlier beef stew recipe, but swap out half the beef broth for the beet juice. However, since I’m going to this effort anyway, I like to take the about two pounds of meat that I’ve cubed and browned, a head of cabbage that I’ve cored and very rough-chopped, half a dozen parsnips (peeled and cubed to bite-sized), and a trio of turnips (again peeled and cubed). The spices for the dish are going to be dill seed and caraway seed, plus salt and pepper to finish. About half an hour before the end I add cubes of rye bread from a loaf that’s roughly half the size of a head of cabbage. (Make sure you get rye, not wheat darkened with molasses.) Once more I like a dollop of sour cream to go on top of a serving as a garnish/finish.
Just for a last comment, I personally prefer the clear soup most of the time. Oh, the borscht stew is filling and delightful, but the clear soup is marvelous as both a thirst quencher and as a stimulating meal opener, regardless of whether it’s hot or cold.