If you relish cooking what’s in season, spring is the happiest time! Nothing beats the optimistic, upbeat tone of the farmer’s markets in May when winter is firmly behind us, and each day sees the reappearance of half-forgotten friends such as young beets, fresh sorrel, and the parade of seasonal berries. Then there are those fleeting ingredients such as rhubarb that are doubly welcome because their time is so short.
With all this springtime bounty, it’s the perfect time to enjoy a pot of spring borshch.
The precise origins of borshch are lost in the mists of time and the fluctuating borders of Eastern Europe. Each Slavic nation claims ownership and revels in its own interpretation. Thank goodness for Nikolai Burlakoff’s exhaustive and authoritative work, “The World of Russian Borshch,” which contains a staggering 77 different recipes for borshch as well as a comprehensive historical guide. Burlakoff traces the beet from Byzantium to the lands of Rus sometime around the tenth century, giving credence to the theory that borshch is more Ukrainian than Russian. But after that, borshch myth and lore splinters into a million different versions. My favorite is a charming legend that borshch was honed by Don Cossacks, foraging during the sixteenth century Siege of Azov. I love the idea of Cossacks riding at full gallop, leaning in their stirrups to spear up a bunch of beets with their razor-sharp sabers. Since Cossacks are back in fashion, we’ll stick with this one.
When people try to pin me down on an exact borshch recipe, I become very uncomfortable. For every pot, there is a different borshch, and no two pots are the same. Some schools of thought insist that the essential ingredient is beets, those impossibly sweet vegetables that give borshch its signature pink color, but “shav’” the Jewish sorrel soup is also considered part of the borshch family. Does borshch need meat? My Russian mother-in-law certainly thinks so, though my American vegan nieces beg to differ. Should borshch be served ice cold, as they do in New York delis, or piping hot as is customary in Eastern Europe, with a garnish of hard-boiled eggs and sour cream? Which spices augment the flavor of borshch best? Apple, horseradish, or maybe both? And then there is the texture issue: do you grate the vegetables or dice them? And where do you stand on the beans versus potato question?