The first time I ever had borscht, it was at Veselka in New York City, it was 2am, and it was snowing. Veselka is a downtown institution, a Ukrainian restaurant that’s been serving NYU students and drunks and New Yorkers of every stripe since 1954 (even if, slightly tragically, it’s currently no longer open for 24 hours).
I’d ordered a plate of pierogi on the side, and I was definitely a little bit tipsy – the bowl when it arrived was the same bruised shade as my impending hangover. But when I brought it to my lips it was deep and soulful and alive, meaty and earthy and warming to my marrow.
It was my first borscht and it will always be the best borscht, the one all other bowls aspire to. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to try making it myself – why risk sullying a perfect memory? But I’m glad I did. Cooking borscht requires dedication and takes hours; it is ideal for long February weekends when standing by the stove and stirring a steaming pot feels close to therapy.
It is also a process that engages your whole senses: scrubbing the earth from the beetroots and removing their little beards, watching as they dye anything they touch a shade of magenta so electric it feels impossible that it could exist in nature (it is wise to wear all black when making this recipe). I confess that the beetroot broth – a component that sets Veselka’s recipe apart from the competition, and which helps make the finished borscht so intensely flavourful – was vivid enough that it made my eyes start to cross, just like standing in front of a Bridget Riley painting for too long. In this way, borscht is a humble dish, one with myriad variations and styles, but also a transcendent one.
While some borschts – the more lean, chilled versions – might go better with a bracing Riesling, this one leans rustic, chunky with vegetables and big, melting pieces of pork shoulder; it needs a wine that can bring a bit more heft (not to mention a matching colour scheme). I think Tenuta Foresto’s La Ideale is perfect for the job.
In recent years, Barbera has become one of my favourite grapes. It is at once juicy with sour cherry and floral notes, and refreshingly high-acid, but also full-bodied, with a persistent richness and earthiness that make it a killer alongside so many different dishes. Pasta with ragu is a classic option, but I think borscht, with its own blend of deep meatiness and acid brightness, really works. And while they don’t serve it that way at Veselka, sometimes it’s worth deviating just a little bit from tradition.
Adapted from Veselka
For the beetroot broth:
1 kilo (approx. 10-12 medium) beetroots
2 ¼ litres water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the borscht:
1 kilo boneless pork shoulder, cut into two pieces
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
6-8 cloves garlic, smashed
3 tablespoons tomato purée
2 litres beef or chicken stock
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon allspice berries
500g (approx. 5-6 medium) beetroots
4 large carrots, peeled and diced
4 stalks celery, peeled and diced
1 small head savoy cabbage, shredded
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 400g tin butter beans, drained and rinsed
6-8 tablespoons white vinegar
Sour cream, to garnish
Dill, to garnish
1. First, make the beetroot broth. Rinse and scrub the beetroots well. Quarter and then transfer the beetroots to a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped. Transfer to a Dutch oven/casserole dish or other large, lidded pot and add the water and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover and simmer for 2 hours, or until the beetroot pieces are very soft and the liquid is intensely red and flavourful. Strain, reserving the liquid and discarding the beetroot pieces (or saving for another purpose).
2. Meanwhile, start the borscht. Season the pork shoulder pieces all over with a generous amount of salt and pepper and set aside. In another large, lidded pot, add the vegetable oil and place over medium heat. Once hot, add the onions and garlic, and cook until softened; season with salt and pepper. Next, add the tomato purée and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring through the onion mixture, until it has darkened to a brick-red colour.
3. Add the pork shoulder pieces to the pot, as well as the beef or chicken stock, the bay leaves and the allspice berries. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for approximately 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and starting to fall apart, stirring and skimming the surface occasionally.
4. While the pork cooks, wash and scrub the remaining beetroots. Add to a small pot and top with water until covered. Bring to a boil before turning the heat down to a simmer. Cook for approximately 40 minutes, or until they’re fork-tender but still quite firm. Drain and leave to cool; once cool enough to handle, peel the beetroots and grate with a box grater. Set aside.
5. When the pork pieces are done cooking, remove from the pot and leave to cool for 5-10 minutes. Cut into roughly ½-inch pieces.
6. Skim and discard the bay leaves and allspice berries from the broth. Return the chopped pork pieces to the liquid and add the carrots, celery, cabbage and the reserved grated beetroots. Cook on medium-low heat for 10 minutes before adding the potatoes and butter beans, as well as the reserved beetroot broth. Cook for 10-15 minutes more, or until the carrot and potato pieces are fork-tender but not falling apart. Add the vinegar and taste; adjust seasoning if needed.
7. To serve, divide the borscht between bowls, and top each with a generous dollop of sour cream and fresh dill.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription box.