FEASTS & FANCIES: Borsch for Easter

Easter brings back memories of my Armenian grandmother perhaps more than the other Christian Festivals.  The large bowl with the dough for the kulich resting on a warm hot water bottle on her bed, wrapped in her grey woollen shawl, until it had tripled in volume.  Later that day, the sweet fragrance of the tall kulich filling our flat as soon as she took it out of the oven.  I would watch her rub two sugar cubes over it, powdering the top of the dome-shaped cake.  I always thought it looked like snow falling on a mountain. Then there was the boiling, cooling and colouring of the eggs.  We would sit at the kitchen table with my water colours and paint swirls on the shells, trying to obtain a marble effect.  Sometimes, my grandmother would grow a plateful of grass by soaking lentils in wet cotton wool, to decorate the Easter table.  She would fast on Easter Saturday until dinner, when she’d traditionally serve herring marinated in oil, onion and mustard as a starter. The main course varied.  We did not go to church.  Instead, my grandmother would tell me about her early childhood memories of Russian Easters in Rostov-on-the-Don, before the Revolution outlawed religion.  She told me about the Orthodox priest chanting in a deep, stern bass and the congregation walking around the outside of the church, about the bells peeling joyfully after midnight, about how you wished happy Easter by saying Christ is risen.

Only once, so far, have I experienced this celebration in the Eastern Orthodox style: not in Russia, but in Athens, when I was nine years old.  I vaguely remember the tone of lament in the Orthodox plainchant, the sea of candles warming the air, the fog of fragrant incense, then, after midnight, all the church bells in the city ringing with unbridled cheer, children tapping red-dyed eggs together to see whose egg would crack, people exchanging good wishes in the night, fireworks lighting up the sky, their roaring explosion competing with the church bells.  What I remember clearly is my overwhelming sense of wonder.

I have never made marinated herring or kulich. My traditional Easter meal is often borsch.  It’s my way of honouring my grandmother, as it was her favourite dish.  She made it often.  It reminded her of the much-loved family she had lost in the Soviet Union, of her happy early childhood, of her roots.  In her nineties, in the nursing home, she was lucky enough to have borsch occasionally prepared for her by the resident Moldovian doctor, who was very fond of my grandmother and so spoilt her when she could.  When I think of my grandmother’s cooking, borsch is the first thing that comes to mind.

My Grandmother Yekaterina’s Borsch

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

You need:

❧  1 white cabbage (the leaves must be as tight as possible)

❧  Beetroots 

❧ Carrots

❧ 1 large onion

❧ Potatoes

❧ 1-2 bay leaves

❧ Water

❧ Vegetable oil (I use olive oil)

❧ Tomato purée

❧ Salt, black pepper

❧ Crème fraîche

Since I do not own a large enough frying pan, I tend to fry all the vegetables separately and put them into a large saucepan as I go along, then add the raw potatoes, water and bay leaves before bringing it all to boil and cooking.

Chop the cabbage as finely as your knife and patience allows.  Bear in mind that the intended dish is a soup to be eaten with a spoon, and not a stew.

Peel, wash and dice the carrots – I grate them, as it’s quicker.

Peel, wash and dice the beetroot – don’t grate it unless you want a Jackson Pollock effect on every surface in your kitchen including the walls.

Chop the onion(s) very finely.  Tears running down your cheeks comes with the territory.  Just think of it as a thorough eyewash.

Gently fry the cabbage, carrot, onion and beetroot (either separately or together) and transfer them into a large saucepan or stockpot.  Peel, wash and dice the potatoes, then add them to the cooked vegetables.  

Add enough water to make a soup of the consistency you prefer and bring to boil.  When you remember, add salt, pepper, a couple of bay leaves and a generous tablespoonful (or two, depending on your preference) of tomato purée.  The tomato is supposed to bring out the other flavours, not dominate them.  If you’re lucky enough to live in a country where fresh tomatoes are flavoursome, use those instead of the paste.

Simmer until the potatoes are soft.

When serving, you can add a dollop of crème fraîche or, if you prefer, some sour cream.

Tip: borscht tastes much, much better on the second day, so I recommend preparing it a good twenty-four hours before you plan to eat it.

Happy Easter!

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8 Responses to FEASTS & FANCIES: Borsch for Easter

  1. Anonymous says:

    Marvellous! Borsch is my favourite dish, too. No other soup can compare to it!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful story:-), as always…but I don’t like soup so I think I won’t prepare it this time, perhaps what I will do is to add some rice, farro or some “small eggy pasta” (I don’t know how you would call it in English:-) ) …perhaps it will work:-))
    Thanks, Katia!

  3. Sue Cumisky says:

    Wonderful memories and honouring your grandmother who had an interesting life. The way you speak of her is with great love. No grandmother could ask for more.

  4. Christine Hartelt says:

    What a beautiful essay and tribute to your grandmother. Your descriptions are so vivid that I can taste, smell, and see what you’ve described. Coincidentally, two of my female neighbors, T. and N., immigrated to the US from Rostov-on-Don. T.’s husband is also Russian, but I’m not sure where he is from. I also have a Ukrainian couple down the hall. The world is very small sometimes. It’s good to know that borsch should be soup-like rather than stew-like. The recipe I use always produces a stew. I will try your method next time. Thank you again for a lovely and inspriring essay. Happy Easter!

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