In the years before World War I, social unrest was escalating in Belarus, Russia. The Bolsheviks (precursor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) were gaining traction, and the economy was failing.
My Grandfather, Simon, born and raised in Belarus, knew very little about life beyond this northwest corner of the Russian Empire. But he was afraid of the rising Bolshevik power and the economic and political upheaval that most certainly lie ahead. So, aged 18, Simon left Belarus on an arduous ocean passage for an unknown future half way around the world.
Simon had been right to worry about Belarus. After the travails of World War I, Belarus enjoyed a meager year of independence in 1918 before the Bolsheviks took it and then Lenin incorporated it into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Belarus would not see independence again until 1991 – more than 70 years later. This recent independence was, and still is, marred by the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko, otherwise known as “Europe’s Last Dictator”.
Simon did not regret leaving Belarus. He loved the United States, his adopted country, without reservation. But Grandfather Simon never forgot his heritage — the history, the culture and the food — all of which he eagerly shared with me.
His Belarusian Borscht is one of my favorites among his recipes. It is different from a traditional Borscht, which uses beef rather than pork as a base. It also has a bit more sweet/sour than many versions of this soup, which gives it a nice “kick”. And, instead of tomatoes or tomato paste, he substituted his all-time favorite ingredient: ketchup. This is definitely not traditional, but I think Grandfather Simon so loved the U.S. that he preferred anything that he viewed as American – even ketchup in his Borscht.
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC – adapted from my Grandfather’s recipe
3 pounds pork ribs, baby backs
2 tablespoons oil, olive
1 onion, cut in quarters
10 cups water
1 1/2 pounds beets
3/4 pound carrots
1 1/2 pounds cabbage, green or savoy, about 1/2 large head
3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons sugar, brown
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon dill, chopped, packed
6 tablespoons vinegar, cider
3 tablespoons ketchup
2 cups sour cream
salt, if needed
pepper, if needed
1. Cut pork spare ribs into 3-bone pieces. Salt and pepper the meat generously. Heat 2 T olive oil in large dutch oven and sear meat. Add onion, cut in half. Add sufficient water to cover bones/onion, about 10 cups.
Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Within a few minutes, skim any foam that rises to the surface. Let simmer for about 2 hours or until the meat is fork tender. Leave uncovered.
2. While meat is cooking, prepare vegetables. Peel and dice beets and carrots. I use a large dice as this is a rustic soup. Chop cabbage into pieces about the same size as the beet dice. Slice garlic thin.
(Reserve beet greens for another use. Cook as you would cook spinach. They make a great omelet; just sauté them with onions and add to an omelet along with a bit of sharp cheese.)
3. Strain the stock, reserving the broth. Discard onions. Discard bones.
If desired, you can remove meat from bones and add it to the stock. However, this is not essential as most of the meat flavor/nutrients has already been introduced into the stock. Also, I prefer the texture of the soup without the meat.
4. Place reserved stock in a clean stock pot. You will likely have less than 10 cups of liquid now unless you have added to the pot during cooking. Replenish up to 8 cups as needed with water. Add vegetables (beets, carrots, cabbage, garlic), salt, pepper and brown sugar to stock. Cook uncovered about 45 minutes or until vegetables are just tender. Exact timing will depend on how large you have diced your vegetables.
Season soup with dill, vinegar and ketchup. Cook an additional 10 minutes.
Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add additional sugar or vinegar if needed to balance the sweet/sour taste to your liking.
Serve with sour cream.
DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: This entire soup can be made a day ahead of time and refrigerated. If can also be made ahead and frozen. However, the texture of the vegetables will be best if simply refrigerated rather than frozen.