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I never considered myself the kind of person who’d spend almost a whole day in the kitchen making borscht. I didn’t even like beet soup. But that’s what I’ve just done, and I loved it.
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My change of heart came about, improbably, because I attended a pierogi making event for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, held at Veselka, a venerable and venerated local Ukrainian restaurant. In its basement, more than 3,000 of these traditional stuffed dumplings are made by hand every day. Early one evening, 20 GVSHP members trooped downstairs, watched a demonstration, and then were invited to make some pierogi ourselves. That’s me in the purple sweater.

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After our lesson, we all climbed back up to the dining room and sat down to what turned out to be almost a full meal: cups of the restaurant’s signature borscht, its homemade bread, three kinds of pierogi – potato and farmer cheese, goat cheese and arugula, and beef short rib – plus sour cream, applesauce, and fried onions.

Everything was good, but what blew Tom and me away was the borscht. It was brilliant: rich and meaty, thick with vegetables, and with an intriguing interplay of beet sweetness and vinegar sourness. Like no borscht either of us had ever tasted before.

As we left the restaurant, everyone received a copy of The Veselka Cookbook, of which the dust-jacket picture and very first recipe was that borscht. I had to try making it.

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When, out of curiosity, I compared Veselka’s borscht recipe to others, it was clear that this was the borscht to end all borschts. The soup is made in two major stages, each with multiple preparation steps. Here are the components of the first stage:

  • On the left, 2 pounds of beets to be shredded and simmered in 10 cups of vinegared water for 2 hours to produce what Veselka calls “beet water.”
  • In the middle, 1 pound of beets to be boiled whole in plain water until tender-firm.
  • On the right, 2 pounds of boneless fresh pork butt, to be simmered in 8 cups of beef stock, 1 tablespoon of peppercorns, 1 teaspoon of allspice berries, and 1 bay leaf, for 2 hours or until the meat is beginning to fall apart.
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When all that was done and everything cooled down, the second stage began with more preparation of ingredients:
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  • In the rear 1 pound of shredded green cabbage, 4 cups of strained beef and pork stock, 3 large celery stalks, sliced, and 3 large carrots, sliced.
  • In the middle, 1 can of lima beans, rinsed and drained, and 2 russet potatoes, cubed.
  • In the front, 4 cups of beet water, the whole boiled beets, peeled and grated, and the pork butt, shredded.

All those ingredients began to come together in a single stockpot: first the carrots and celery, simmered in the broth for 8 minutes; next the cabbage and potatoes, stirred in and simmered for 20 minutes; then the lima beans, for 5 minutes more. Finally I had to taste the soup and add up to 7 tablespoons of white vinegar.
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At this point I was able to set the soup aside and start washing the many pots and dishes I’d used! As dinner time approached, I stirred the beet water, grated beets, and shredded pork into the soup and heated it all together. It certainly made a lurid concoction.
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But it was a truly delicious one, as we discovered when we sat down to our bowlfuls. The meaty broth and shredded pork gave heft and depth to the soup, the flavor of each tender vegetable could just be distinguished in the medley, and it had the same overall tangy sweetness – or sweet tanginess – that we’d marveled at in the restaurant’s version.
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(I didn’t top my borscht with sour cream and bits of fresh herbs, as is shown in the picture on the cookbook’s cover. Those were apparently a food stylist’s trick – they aren’t in the recipe.)

By the way, the recipe says it makes “about two quarts” of soup. Something went wrong there, because I measured my quantity at four quarts. But I’m not complaining, because my freezer  now has containers of luscious borscht to carry us through the ragged end of winter and the damp chills of early spring. Thank you, GVSHP and Veselka!

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