The first Nor’easter of the season blew up the coast yesterday, leaving behind about 1 ¼” of rain and a lot of gusty wind. Had it been cold enough, it would have been about a foot of snow that would have come down sideways. As it was, with highs earlier in the week being closer to 80 and 95% humidity, but not raining, the contrast was sharp and bone-chilling. When my husband first moved here from Minnesota, he didn’t quite understand the Mid-Atlantic winter. Now I am not saying that winter in New Jersey is as brutal as winter in Maine, or even Minnesota, but it does have it’s own characteristic not-very-charming quirks, like storms that leave behind 2 inches of rain instead of 20 inches of snow because it was 34ºF, not 30ºF. His observation was this: At least in Minnesota, the snow stays frozen on your frozen coat. Here this just soaks through everything. And how does one get warm again? Hot showers and soup. Homemade traditional soups are easy to make.
Growing up, there were three kinds of soup: condensed in a can, powered in an envelope, or frozen in “containers.” The containers are of particular importance because the soup within came from my grandmother’s kitchen. It was highly prized in the family and highly sought after. We all had our favorites: mine was mushroom-barley. I think there may have been treaties more easily negotiated than the division of soup in my grandmother’s kitchen. But all of it was null and void if someone did not return “the container.” You could stand at the stove, make your move toward the pot, but if you hadn’t returned your container, my grandmother was loath to give you another. What were these prized possessions? These tickets to soup euphoria? Sherbet containers. Yes, you read that right. Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, sherbet came in these plastic containers and my family reused them for adopting leftover soup. Tupperware was too expensive.
As my grandmother got older, I kept trying to get the soup secrets out of her. I tried and tried to replicate her soup and could never quite get it. There was always something missing. When she broke her hip and was in a rehabilitation facility, I called her to say hello and we got started talking about soup. She finally confessed parts of recipes. The underlying problem I would have was that I didn’t have her soup pot. It was this huge enamel pot that had all kinds of cracks and stains. Her recipes went something like this: “You put a soup bone in the bottom and then fill the pot with water up to the black chip that looks like an eye.” Not especially helpful in recipe replication.
Over the years, with much trial and error, I have come up with reasonable versions of my grandmother’s soups. I researched recipes, experimented and ate quite a bit of mediocre soup. In my research, I found that many of the sweet/sour soups quintessential to Eastern Europe called for lemon juice or vinegar to create the sour component. It occurred to me that a peasant in Poland would probably not have lemons, so I let go of any recipe that used lemon juice. One day, as I was pounding down some cabbage for kraut, I had an epiphany: peasants in Eastern Europe did not have lemons. But they more than likely had fermented vegetables like cabbage and beets. The resulting soups were remarkable!
Easy Beet Borscht (Sweet and Sour Beet Soup)
1 T fat for sauté
1 medium onion, rough chop
¼ C apple cider
2 lbs. of raw beets, peeled and cubed
1 quart of stock (any type will do)
1 C fermented beets
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the fat in the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and sauté until it is translucent. Add the apple cider and scrape up any brown bits form the bottom of the pot. Add the beets the stock and let this simmer until the beets are cooked (about an hour, depending upon how small your cubes are).
Take the soup off the heat and mash the vegetables, or run an immersion (wand) blender through them. Add the fermented beets. Taste for salt and pepper.
Because the fermented beets are salty, do not add any salt until after you add the beets.