Moscow-style beet soup
If you say that like beets, you were likely raised in the U.S. This is not because beets are exceptionally popular in the U.S., but rather because Americans are the only people who call them beets. Everyone else calls them beetroots. So if you’re traveling overseas and see beetroot on the menu, you now know what to expect.
Beta vulgaris is a widespread vegetable with a variety of forms and functions. The familiar roundish, red-rooted variety is known as a table beet. It is raised primarily for its root, though the leaves are edible, especially when the plant is young. The delightful variety of beet grown for its leaves is commonly known as chard or Swiss chard. The sugar beet can be eaten, but is cultivated primarily for obtaining sugar. Finally, the mangel-wurzel, also called the forage beet or field beet, is grown as food for cattle.
Beets most probably originated in Italy, but spread to other parts of the Mediterranean region in prehistoric times, so it’s difficult to place their point of origin precisely. In the earliest days of the Roman empire, only the leaves were consumed, though beetroots had been added to the Roman menu by the beginning of the Christian era. Beets spread unevenly, primarily moving north, where they throve in the cooler temperatures. Though Charlemagne knew of beets and wanted to see them grown in his domains, there was no real beet presence in France until their introduction (or reintroduction) during the Renaissance. Because beets tolerate fairly high degrees of salinity, they also became popular in countries near salt seas or, more especially, that were reclaiming land from the sea.
The rise of the sugar beet is easier to trace, because it occurred after sugar started to increase in importance. The process for extracting sugar from beets was developed by a German chemist in the mid-1700s. It was easier to extract sugar from cane, but cane only grew in tropical climates, and beets liked it cool. Even so, the beet sugar industry didn’t explode until Britain blockaded Napoleon’s France, cutting off access to imported sugar. Napoleon ordered that 70,000 acres be planted with sugar beets, and French financier Benjamin Delessert opened a processing plant, and soon France was independent of outside sugar sources.
Even now, about one third of the sugar in Europe is beet sugar. However, it is still the table beet that is the more familiar and widely grown beet variety, especially in colder or saltier regions.
Russia is among the cold places where beets are quite happy to grow. Borsch, Russia’s most widely known soup, features beets. There are numerous variations of the soup throughout Russia. It may have a base of beef or chicken, or be completely vegetarian. Beets are about the only consistent ingredient, though cabbage appears in most versions, too. However, many recipes include a wider variety of vegetables. The modification that makes a borsch Moscow-style is the addition of ham or slab bacon. If you don’t want ham, leaving it out of the recipe below won’t make it inauthentic, it just won’t be Muscovite. This is a hearty, delicious soup with a slight sweet-sour taste. Enjoy.
(Moscow-style beet soup)
1 quart beef broth
2 quarts water
2 - 2½ lb. beef brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1½ lb. beets, peeled and cut into strips approximately ⅛ inch wide by 2 inches long
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 - 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into strips
2 carrots, peeled and cut into strips
½ head white or green cabbage, cored and coarsely shredded
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ lb. boiled ham, cut into 1-inch cubes
½ cup chopped parsley
1 cup sour cream
Put the broth, water, beef, bay leaves, garlic, 1 tsp. salt, and a generous grind of black pepper in an 8- to 10-quart pot. Bring to the boil, skimming scum as it rises. Reduce heat, and simmer for 40 minutes. Set aside.
In a large, deep frying pan that has a cover, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirringly frequently. Onion should be soft but not brown. Add 1 cup of the broth from the cooking meat to the onions. Stir in the beets, wine vinegar, sugar, tomatoes, 1 tsp. salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the parsnips and carrots and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Add the contents of the frying pan to the pot of stock and meat. Stir in the potatoes and cabbage. Bring the broth to a boil, then stir in the ham. Return to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 40 minutes.
Garnish the soup with the chopped parsley (after the soup has been transferred to a serving tureen or individual bowls). Pass the sour cream, which is added as desired by diners.
Serves 8‑12 (depending on whether it’s a first course or the main event).
You want to pick beets that are young and fairly small (about 2 inches in diameter). If beets are too large and old, cooking time can be two or three times as long.
The carrot and parsnip strips should match approximately the size of the beet strips.
The sour cream is authentic, and is a lovely addition, but you can just skip this garnish if fat or dairy are issues.
This soup is great hot, but is also mighty good cold.