05 March 2008

Bortsch, borscht, or borshtsh

Borscht. That's the American spelling I know. I have found recipes for the same dish in three of my French cookbooks. Ginette Mathiot, author of the 1970 classic Je sais cuisiner ("I know how to cook") French book for the home cook, and the Larousse Gastronomique, both call it bortsch, pronounced [bortch]. That's how I heard it pronounced back then in Paris. Monique Maine, author of my favorite Cuisine pour toute l'année (1969), spells it borsch.

The vegetables cooked for my borscht pot au feu

However you spell it, it's a kind of soup or pot roast (pot au feu) made with red beets, carrots, onions, cabbage, and aromatics and spices. What I made yesterday was the pot roast version, which is the recipe Ginette Mathiot gives in her book. Monique Maine's version is fairly similar.

My borscht doesn't resemble the soups that friends Claude and Cheryl have described to me. Maybe it's a completely Frenchified version.

Boneless beef shank after its four-hour simmer

I say all this because it turns out that the three people I've talked to about borscht (including Walt) told me that for them it is a vegetable soup with beets in it. The borscht I had in Paris back in the early 1980s was a pot roast with beets in it, which the Joy of Cooking describes as Russian Borscht, as opposed to the soup-style New York deli borscht.

The Ginette Mathiot recipe that I posted yesterday and that my 85-year-old friend in Paris made for us more than 25 years ago, says: « Servir ensemble légumes et bouillon, additionné de crème aigre. La viande se sert à part. » That is, serve the vegetables and bouillon together, adding sour cream. Serve the meat separately. That's kind of what I did.

The cooked vegetables sitting in
the tomato-and-beet-colored borscht broth

One of the hardest things about buying and cooking with meat, especially beef, in France, when you are an American used to the way meet is butchered in the U.S., is figuring out what the names of different cuts of meat are as it is butchered in France.

The Joy of Cooking says to get a piece of boneless beef chuck to make Russian borscht. I'm not sure what "chuck" is in French. Writing this topic just made me finally look it up, and the Robert-Collins dictionary says beef chuck is " un morceau dans le paleron " — I know paleron and have bought it, but it doesn't resemble anything I would have called a chuck roast in America. Chuck roast is something my mother made when I was growing up and it's very good. It's beef roasted with carrots, celery, and potatoes, in my experience.

Noodles in borscht broth and the meat and cabbage too

Mathiot's recipe says to choose " de la belle viande un peu grasse, dans le gîte " — a pretty cut of meat, well marbled... So I just looked up gîte, and it says that there are two kinds. Gîte à la noix seems to be what we call bottom round, and gîte-gîte is shank, aka jarret in French.

It just so happened that the piece of meat I had bought was jarret sans os, or boneless shank. Perfect. I was in luck. It weighed about 2½ lbs./1.25 kg.

At the table

To make the borscht the way I made it, first I cooked the beef in liquid at a low simmer for four hours. With it, I cooked some green leek tops and some fennel trimmings that I had in the freezer, as well as an onion, two carrots, and, contained in a spice ball, half a dozen allspice berries, a dozen black peppercorns, two cloves of garlic, a dozen fennel seeds, two bay leaves, a sprig of thyme, and a sprig of rosemary. That made a good beef broth and also gave some flavor to the meat.

I left the beef in the broth overnight and put it down in the cellar to cool. That keeps the meat from drying out and makes it more flavorful too.

The noodles and the vegetables

The next morning, I trimmed up a couple of carrots, a big onion, a celery heart, two turnips, and four beets. I took the beef out of the broth and cooked the vegetables in it. Toward the end of the cooking, I added about 1½ cups of tomato puree, for color and a little flavor. I also had some cooked cabbage in the freezer, so I added that to the pot too. When the vegetables were cooked, I took them out of the broth and put the meat back in, just to heat it through. Then I served it all with a generous ladle of both over it all and some egg noodles on the side. Potatoes would have been good too.

I used the liquid out of a can of whole cooked tomatoes to flavor
and color the broth. With the tomatoes themselves and
some onions, chiles, and cilantro, I made a batch of salsa
to enjoy as an appetizer with some corn chips we have.

One essential ingredient gets added at the table: a big spoonful of sour cream or, in our case, crème fraîche. I don't know where I would get sour cream in Saint-Aignan. Plain yogurt would also be good.

One thing that surprised me is that the beets I used, which were cooked and ready to cut up and serve as salad, stayed fairly crunchy after an hour of cooking in simmering broth. They were good, but I thought they would be softer.

We have a lot of leftovers, some of which will go into the freezer. That's the way I cook. Some for today, some for tomorrow or the day after, and some in the freezer for next month.

Here's a translation of Mathiot's recipe. I obviously didn't follow it to the letter. I didn't have a soup bone and I substituted noodles for potatoes. I also didn't have raw beets; they are almost always sold pre-cooked here in France. I cooked it for about 6 hours all told. If you add up the cooking times in Mathiot's recipe, you get about three hours maximum, not five to six. Go figure.

Preparation time: 40 mins. — Cooking time: 5 to 6 hrs.

3 liters water
1 kg of beef
1 marrow bone
150 g raw beets
1 cabbage
1 kg carrots
¼ liter tomato puree
2 onions stuck with cloves
2 shallots
1 clove garlic
250 g sour cream
500 g potatoes
herb bouquet
black peppercorns

Choose a top-quality cut of meat with good fat marbling, bottom round or shank. Put the meat and the marrow bone in a big pot; cover with water. Bring slowly to the boil. Add salt. Let it boil 10 to 15 minutes, skimming the surface carefully. Peel, wash the beets, cup them into thin slices, add them to the boiling pot roast. After an hour, add the peeled carrots, washed and cut into pieces, the cabbage cup into thin strips, the onion, garlic, shallots, parsley, black peppercorns. Continue cooking for another hour. Then add the potatoes, whole but peeled and washed, and the tomato puree. Serve the vegetables and bouillon together, adding sour cream. Serve the meat separately.


  1. Claudia in Toronto06 March, 2008 17:29

    It was a happy bortsch for a Happy Day!

    Yesterday your sky pictures made me feel I could walk on clouds. Today I nearly get a taste of your Birthday meal.

    Sky is a bit high to try a walk but the store is not too far to get the food. Thanks for the recipe and the every-step pictures. I'm on my way...

  2. Ooohhh, yummmmm. I'm going to make this.


  3. Well, you missed my feature on your chicken stew and I guess I missed out on your birthday! Happy Belated One! I haven't been keeping up with my Google reader too well lately -- Sunday is catch-up day.

    I've made borscht (I prefer that spelling somehow) a few times and think it's a lovely, colorful dish. Your pictures really bring the process to life.


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