Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Rossl Borscht
A chilled bowl of old-school rossl borscht with traditional garnishes of scallion, dill, and sour cream.

Back in my Snot-Nose Days, our table would occasionally be graced by oddball soups, relics of our Eastern European heritage. Foremost among these were borscht and schav.

Borscht is a sort of catch-all term for several kinds of soup. There are versions that are served hot, others cold. Most use beets as a base, but many rely instead on cabbage, tomatoes, et alia. Some are vegetarian, others (typically hot varieties) contain meat. Given its down-to-earth nature - it is the quintessential Peasant Food, made using inexpensive ingredients - borscht is synonymous with frugality. “Cheap as borscht” is an Ashkenazic descriptor interchangeable with “a dime a dozen.”

The borscht I was familiar with as a child was beet borscht. Most of the time, we’d use the store-bought, bottled kind... but our Grandma Shirley (z’’l) would sometimes make hers from scratch. You could always tell her borscht by the chunks of meat floating in it; the bottled stuff had, at the most, a few shreds of beet in clear liquid.

Ah, that bottled stuff. It was sweet, with a mildly tart undertone... perfect served cold with a dollop of sour cream and, occasionally, with a boiled potato sitting in it like a fat man in a bathtub. One day my mother discovered that you could throw some cold beet borscht in the blender with a golf ball-sized lump of sour cream; the result was a bright magenta Borscht Milkshake - a fine apéritif for a summer meal.

Weird as that Pepto Bismol-colored concoction looked, though, it was relatively accessible. Easy to like. Hell, I was a kid, and I liked it enough. But there were other mysterious Eastern European decoctions that were a little more sinister. Like, for example, schav - a great favorite of Eli, hizzownself.

Schav, a cold soup of sorrel leaves, is a dull green - a sharp contrast to the deep red of beet borscht. And while borscht is mildly sweet with a subtle acidic undertone, schav is assertively sour... an acquired taste. Back in the day, I thought of it as borscht’s Evil Twin.

Eli, the schav connoisseur, would enjoy a bowl with a spoonful of sour cream or a boiled potato... the same garnishes we’d use for borscht... and sometimes he’d throw in a hard-boiled egg. Mom’s blender trick worked as well for schav as it did for borscht, creating a bright green, foamy Schav-Shake that looked downright horrifying in a tall, frosty glass. But, as my taste buds matured, I learned to appreciate the astringent qualities of this unusual soup.

When I moved to Texas and became acquainted with SWMBO’s family, I learned about the glories of hot cabbage borscht. With nary a beet to be found in it, it didn’t mesh with my idea of borscht - but borscht it was, nonetheless. A hearty, satisfying brew of cabbage, tomatoes, and beef flanken, it had a sweet-and-sour tanginess that was altogether different from that of beet borscht. SWMBO’s Nanny (z’’l) made a cabbage borscht that could make the angels weep with pleasure... and SWMBO still makes it to this very day. It is very much a “taste and adjust” sort of dish, and never has she written down anything but the sketchiest outline of a recipe.

When I visited Brighton Beach - “Little Odessa” - recently, I had cold green borscht that was made with spinach. Instead of the puckery overtones of schav, it had a springlike, vegetal flavor that was enhanced with a sprig of dill and a few sliced scallions. Perfect Luncheon-Food on a day that was hotter than the hubs of hell outside the shaded confines of our boardwalk restaurant.

There’s a jar of commercial borscht sitting in the back of the fridge, but I haven’t done much more than look at it from time to time. It did, however, provide inspiration: Just for shits ’n’ grins, I decided to make my own beet borscht.

Simply boiling up a mess of beetroots just wouldn’t do. No, this was going to be an attempt to replicate the old-school recipe for the Real Thing. The Shiznit. I was going to make rossl.

Rossl is nothing more, nothing less, than fermented beets. Ashkenazic Jewish housewives would set aside a crock of sliced-up beets submerged in water that had been boiled, then cooled. They’d cover it with a clean dishtowel and just let it sit there on the kitchen counter and ferment. Every day or so, they would remove the whitish membrane that would appear on the surface of the liquid and stir the contents of the crock. After a month, they would have a pungent, deep red brew with an assertive, acidic pong. This was rossl.

Fermentational filigree: the delicate whitish membrane, or “veil,” that forms on rossl as it ripens. [Click to embiggen.]

To make old-school beet borscht, you simply take the necessary amount of rossl from the crock, along with some of those fermented beets. Stick it all in a pot with half an onion and simmer it for fifteen minutes - then, remove the onion. Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice (if desired), and enough sugar to take the acid edge off... then serve ice-cold with garnishes of a liberal spoonful of sour cream, a scallion, perhaps a sprig of fresh dill, and - if you like - a boiled new potato.

Rossl borscht is as far removed from store-bought, bottled borscht as Mario Batali’s culinary creations are from a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. It has a depth of flavor that is really hard to describe... and even if I could describe it, I’m not sure I would. Some things are meant to be experienced, not simply talked about.

Have you been washed in the blood of the Beet-Root?


Kevin Kim said...

Ever read Tom Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume? It's a novel about many things-- the quest for immortality among them-- but it's also a wacky tribute to the beet.

BobG said...

I remember eating borscht as a kid at one of our neighbor's house, and I think it was the cabbage and beef type.
Never used sorrel in a soup; I raise it in my garden, but I use it as a green in salads and sandwiches.

Cowtown Pattie said...

You Beet me to a great punchline.

Sweet pickled beets as an adornment to a nice bowl of pinto beans and cornbread is as beety as I get. I like to watch my cornbread soak up some of the juice from the pickled beets and get a nice pretty pink edge around it.

Your stomach should be willed to the Smithsonian...

Carole said...

Great to see you. Cheers