beautiful borscht

I may be reading too much - looking outside at the falling snow I feel all War-and-Peace-ish and Dr Zhivago-y - and everybody is writing about detoxing and healthy livers and resolutions to eat healthy forevermore. Of course when I went to the market the bin of beets was both homely and beautiful. It was too perfect a storm; I could feel romantic and virtuous at the same time if I made a pot of borscht.

Beautiful borscht (has to be just about the prettiest soup) always makes me think of two things. Russian winter and Merin. The Russian connection is fairly obvious but I should perhaps explain Merin. Mike's paternal grandparents came to Canada from Poland and his Baba made borscht. I know this because after one trip to visit her in-laws Merin came home with a few Mason jars filled with the pretty soup and shared it with me. Prior to this sharing I was not a fan of the beet soup but Baba's soup opened the door. After that shared lunch I tried my hand at beet soup once but I was not impressed and didn't revisit the idea until the other day. I had been reading about the myriad health advantages of wonderful beets (an important source of betaine and folate, loaded with potassium, some magnesium and even a little vitamin C - beets are believed to be an excellent liver tonic and blood purifier) and, to be sure, we love beets whether cooked or raw. Soup is an easy answer to a fast, healthy lunch and absolutely obvious in the cold, cold, snowy winter. And so, borscht.

Some years we have a pretty bare and very brown winter. Other years it snows often - snowflakes falling for hours and hours in a thick curtain. This is one of the years when if one counted wealth in terms of centimetres of snow, Calgary would have to be acknowledged as having an absolute embarrassment of riches. It is snowing yet again today. Beautiful, big flakes drifting down and piling up, adding to an already abundant blanket and deep drifts everywhere. My little vegetable garden has a two foot fence around it (to keep the rabbits out) and today the top of the fence is officially buried. There is a lot of snow. I have never been to Russia - unless reading counts (doesn't) - but I imagine it to be beautifully snowy in winter and (thankfully) ever so much colder than it is here today. 

Having concluded that borscht had to be made I searched my cookbook collection and my favourite spots online for a likely-looking recipe. I read reviews and made my own calculations. But really there wasn't much of a contest - who wouldn't be won over by "Dr Zhivago Borscht"? It was a very wise choice. I may not be a borscht connoisseur but I do know good soup and this is good soup. If you don't have a good recipe for borscht - or even if you do - you really ought to give this one a try. I found the recipe on Food 52 - always a good bet - and made a very few, small modifications.

The soup has a wonderful fresh, slightly sweet taste (as one would expect from beets). I like to add a tsp or so (to taste) of apple cider vinegar to my bowl along with another sprinkle of fresh dill. Sometimes I add a tablespoon of sour cream as well. David likes some chopped smoked sausage in his bowl. Many recipes for borscht include shredded cabbage. I dislike overly cooked cabbage but cabbage is very highly thought of in the detox circles, so I decided to shred some very finely and added it to the hot soup the second day we had it. It cooked just enough but not too much. This recipe makes a generous large pot of soup. Enough for several lunches and even a jar or two to share.

Virtuous new year food. Romance. Merin and Russia. Who knew all that could be in a simple bowl of ruby soup?

beautiful borscht
(adapted very lightly from Food 52)

10 cups water
1 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
3 large beets
3 medium carrots
2 medium-large red potatoes
1 large celery stalk, sliced into thin moons
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2-3 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Optional add-ins:
apple cider vinegar
sour cream
finely shredded green cabbage
chopped smoked sausage
finely chopped fresh dill

Add the water to a large heavy pot and set over low heat. Add the oil, chopped onion, and bay leaf. Peel the beets and cut into quarters. Add the beets gently to the water and continue to prepare the other vegetables.

Cut the carrots into rounds and the potatoes into 1/2" cubes, adding each to the pot as they are ready. Add the celery slices and lemon juice. Increase the heat a bit (to a medium-low) and cook until the beet pieces can be pierced easily with the tip of a knife.

Carefully scoop the beets out of the cooking pot and let them cool slightly - about 2 minutes for easier handling. Use a box grater if you must but if you have a food processor this is a good time to pull it out. Using a large hole on your grater or attachment shred the beets, returning the shredded beets to the pot. Cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the dill and season to taste with salt and pepper. 


gingerbread cake

I had determined during the Christmas frenzy that there was little or no point in posting any of my modest efforts - the whole "coals to Newcastle" thing - and then I remembered gingerbread cake. I made some several times during the month of December, each time vowing to post the recipe and each time being defeated by an utter lack of time. A sorry excuse I know, but there you are. I offer it now because eating gingerbread cake should not be confined to the festive season. When I was a child it was a favourite winter treat in our house, served with a generous helping of whipped cream and some of our Nanking Cherry jelly to make it pretty. I think I must have been married before I realized that most people ate it once a year if that (such a shame!) 

Gingerbread cake is comfort food dessert. Simple, homely, warm, and absolutely unpretentious it is the food equivalent of a warm throw. In my mind the picture that always accompanies thoughts of gingerbread cake is softly falling snow seen through the window with a fire burning brightly in our big stone fireplace, nary a Christmas tree in sight. If you try it I think you will see the merits of regular cold-weather gingerbread consumption. I cannot understand why the comforting warmth of cinnamon-y, spicy delights must cruelly stop dead on January 1 - January is the coldest, dreariest month of the year and openly begs for every morsel of warmth we can scrounge. Right now most of North America would heartily agree!

For years I have made the same recipe for gingerbread cake that my mother made but this year I wanted to make a gingerbread cake that everyone in the family could enjoy - in other words, gluten-free and hopefully refined sugar-free. The refined sugar-free wish was a good idea and the gluten-free option was better than any gingerbread that came before. I added three kinds of ginger (ground, candied, and fresh), used Alice Medrich's method (in a food processor), and made the best gingerbread of my life. No hyperbole. Just the plain, simple, homely truth.

gingerbread cake
(adapted from the recipe we made at home)

2 cups whole grain gluten-free flour mix*
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
4" piece of fresh ginger, grated
1/4 cup of finely chopped candied ginger
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp cloves
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup coconut palm sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 cup hot water

Cut the fresh ginger into 1/4"slices and add to the bowl of a food processor, pulse until finely minced. Add the remaining ingredients to the food processor bowl and process for 10 seconds. Scrape the bowl and process again for 5 seconds. The batter will be thin. Pour into a 9x9" baking pan that has been buttered.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, until the cake springs back when you touch it lightly.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with a nice pillow of fresh whipped cream and a pretty spoonful of your favourite jelly on top. (We like to split the cake and add a little more cream between the layers.)

*If you prefer to use regular unbleached white flour simply substitute it cup for cup.