Beware the Azerbaijani tomato!
At Dorogomilovsky, one of the many indoor farmers’ markets in Moscow, my friend Lana is glaring imperiously, like Catherine the Great, at a guy selling tomatoes. We are making borscht tonight and she is haggling for ingredients.
"You see," she says to me, "tomatoes from Azerbaijan are very fashionable, so vendors buy Azerbaijani newspapers and wrap up tomatoes that are from, well, anywhere."
She goes through our checklist as she throws ingredients into her shopping bag. "Onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, cabbage, beets, dill, also this lovely dark red leaf, how do you say, basilica?"
Eventually Lana finds suitable non-Azerbaijani tomatoes.
We cruise the market, past acres of stalls filled with every type of produce imaginable. Russia is a continental-scale country with 11 time zones and every conceivable climate. Everything grows. (In Soviet times it wasn’t for lack of food that people went without—it was lack of transportation. Tons of vegetables are said to have rotted by the roadside because there were no spare tires.)
"No meat?" I ask, continuing the Socratic exchange about the soul of a great soup.
"Classic borscht, which is Ukrainian, is prepared with meat, but this makes it greasy, which I do not like, so we will cook a modern borscht: a vegetarian borscht," Lana replies.
We finish shopping and head over to the kitchen of a friend of Lana’s; he has the job of pouring us wine while we cook.
"What are you making?" her friend asks, looking at the pot on the stove and handing us glasses of red wine.
"I call this Borscht Lite," Lana says. "And why not? We have Coca-Cola Light, we have Democracy Lite, Fascism Lite—now we have Borscht Lite." She turns to me. "I will boil water in a big pot. We are serving four to six people, right? So we’ll need approximately one to two liters of water. Nothing is exact," Lana says. And then, "We will use a mushroom stock instead. Here, scrape." She hands me four enormous beetroots, hard as rocks, and a cheese grater. The beet juice turns my hands deep purple as I start scraping. "The finer you make it, the more color," Lana tells me. "This is the secret to a beautiful borscht."
The stock set to boiling, she chops three cloves of garlic very fine and sautés them in a skillet with olive oil, pepper, and sea salt. Then she adds chopped onions.
"Your mother made this dish?" I ask her.
"Yes, and also my grandmother, who was a real borscht person," Lana replies. "She passed on some tips, like using the cheese grater." She picks up her glass. "Drinking wine also helps. You drink, you stir with a big old wooden spoon."
We slice carrots into eighths, dice a red pepper very small, chop half a head of cabbage. "Even more important than, say, the size of the carrots is to cook in a good mood," Lana informs me. "I am always thinking about my mother’s mother, who was a nice, laid-back sort of person. I adapted her recipe. She was a great cook."
"Do you ever use a cookbook?" I ask, still slaving away on the beets, my hands now the color of the blood of revolution.
"They were useless in Soviet times," Lana answers. "They’d have fabulous pictures. The recipe would say ’Buy one whole leg of lamb.’ But the shops were empty and no one had ever seen a whole leg of lamb. I think these cookery writers were sadists. But we adapted. We are people who learned to make do."
Periods of plenty in the USSR alternated with times of desperate shortages. It drove people nuts, not knowing when there would be food. When Lana was little—she’s 46 now—there was enough so that her mother offered her a choice of black or red caviar with her boiled eggs. By the time she was a grown woman and a cultural reporter for Russian TV in Moscow, she often waited three hours in line for a scrawny chicken or a loaf of bread.
Like many Russians, Lana learned to work with what she could get. It was the only way to survive with style. (When I met her in 1987, she was wearing a Gianfranco Ferre suit she’d found in a flea market and had altered to fit her.) So she taught herself to cook a mean garlic chicken and this vegetarian borscht.
"More scraping," she orders. "You know what it is, a Stakhanovka? This is a worker with the best production record, so you must be a Stakhanovka with beets."
"Can you prepare borscht ahead of time?" I ask.
"As long as it stays in a cool place. It gets better as you reheat."
She then instructs me: "The main thing is to put the vegetables in the pot in order of the time they take to cook—first sautéed garlic and onions, then potatoes. You sauté red pepper and carrots in olive oil and add them, too, then the cabbage."
I ask how long it takes for each vegetable to cook as she adds them to the boiling stock. Lana says, "You just look to see when each is cooked; you must adapt."
She de-skins the tomatoes in boiling stock, sautés them in a little olive oil, and then adds them to the pot.
Everything is boiling. She turns down the heat to let the soup simmer. "Now," she says, "for sophisticated borscht, you add a few mushrooms, parsley, a stalk of chopped celery, and another leaf, just something you like the smell of. And then some lemon juice."
"And the beets?" I ask.
Gently, I drop a huge pile—four grated beetroots—into the soup. It turns a lovely purple-red.
"Oh, and chop up a few big green sour olives and add them," Lana tells me. "And that’s it. We will pour it into bowls and put sour cream on top, a sprig of dill."
And even before it simmers for another half hour, which it will, the borscht tastes surprisingly rich despite the lack of meat. It tastes of the beets, which evokes in my mind an image of a long line of Russian women making up recipes as they went along.
"So if I follow your directions at home, it will work?"
"Ah," says Lana. "You must adapt, you must taste it, make it your own. There are no rules for borscht. This is the poetry of soup."
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 cups of water (or chicken, vegetable, or mushroom stock)
3 extra-large tomatoes, cored
2–4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
sea salt fresh ground pepper
1/2 lb potatoes, cut into chunks
2 large carrots, each chopped crosswise into eight pieces
1 red pepper, diced finely
10 oz white cabbage, chopped
1 bunch dill and parsley, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped finely
2 bay leaves
sugar to taste (about 1 tbsp)
juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
10–20 mixed peppercorns
14 oz beets, peeled and grated
1 1/4 cups of sour cream
1. In a large pot, bring the water or stock to a boil. Dip the tomatoes until skins are loosened, about 10 seconds. Cool the tomatoes briefly; peel, coarsely chop, and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic, season with salt and pepper and sauté until tender. Add the potatoes and sauté until tender. Transfer the onions, garlic, and potatoes to the pot of boiling water. Add the red peppers and carrots to the skillet and sauté until tender and transfer to the pot. Add the tomatoes to the skillet and sauté until soft, then transfer to the pot. Add the cabbage directly to the pot and simmer the soup until flavors meld, about 20 to 30 minutes.
3. Add the dill, parsley, celery, bay leaves, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, and peppercorns to your taste. Add the grated beets and simmer the soup for another 10 minutes or until the mixture turns a lovely red. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Optional: Add mushrooms or chop up a few green sour olives.
5. Ladle the soup into bowls, add a blob of sour cream and a dill sprig to each, and serve with vodka and black bread.