A Siberian chill has gripped the nation. Its chill and dread fingers have held us in a vice as tight as any revolutionary fever gripped St Petersburg. I have channelled my inner Yuri Zhivago.
Sadly, I do not have an ice bound dacha in which to delight, instead in West London my stomach has roved over the chill steppes and dreamt of the warmth and succour of Borscht. The beetroot is the vegetable for winter. Hardy enough to suffer most winters and yet vivid with colour, it demands use in the cruellest months. The pleasing earthiness is also a welcome nourisher which can play a simple background to bolder flavours.
However, on its own in a pleasingly rustic and rural Borscht it is a delight. You should buy the freshest, firmest beets you can get, a bunch of four or five should be fine. They should not be over large, certainly no bigger than a tennis ball. They should still have their leaves and they should still be turgid, not limp nor flaccid.
Wash these quickly, you don’t need to be meticulously thorough, just get the worst off. Cut their foliage off and then put in a deep saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then simmer until the point of a knife can pierce to the heart of the matter with ease. This is ideal territory for the slow cooker. Alternatively, you could just roast them, which will bring a sweet nuttiness to the finished soup, but I want my borscht to have a plain clarity of flavour.
Once they’re cooked peel the impossibly bloody beets. It is best to do this in bowl of water, otherwise you will stain your hands and look as though you have committed unspeakable acts down dark alleys in the deepest night. Once peeled chop them into reasonably small chunks and put aside.
Now take an onion and slice it fine. Then, a stick or two of celery and slice it fine as well. In a suitably large pan sweat these together over a moderate heat. When they have cooked down and lost their rawness you should throw in a glass of white vermouth. It is an excellent thing to use in cooking, having a beautiful herbaceous edge, and, which outside of desperate measures, no one is going to drink away. You could use white wine instead.
Then put in the beetroot. Stir it about and let it just cook down a little. If you have some parsley, now would be an excellent time to put some of their stalks in. Once the wine has reduced down, add a large amount of stock. A good litre or thereabouts, chicken would be best. Bring to the boil and cook until the beetroot is very soft.
At this point blend the whole thing until it is as smooth as velvet. Taste for seasoning. Being a vegetable dish this will require a good doseage of salt. It will also need sharpening with lemon juice. The borscht should taste earthy but not musky and the lemon juice will bring a bright and necessary freshness. You should obviously eat this with soured cream, but it is as good warm as cold.
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