Did everyone have a nice first night of Chanukah? Did you have lots of latkes? And sufganiyot? And do you now have a fried-foods hangover? Me too.
Post-latke salads are a nice idea I spotted recently. They're crisp and healthy and mercifully oil-free, full of things like romaine lettuce and apple slices, celery and jicama. Perfect for the next-day lunch except for one thing: they're salads. I don't want salads in winter. It's cold and grey outside, and I want warm cozy comfort food.
This is why we have borscht. Or, when I make it from my Polish cookbook, barszcz. Warm and savory without being heavy, the classic beet soup is perfect for cold winter days and nights. This version has a slight acidity that makes it a perfect counterpoint to the season's steady progression of rich dishes.
Many versions, including this one, are vegan, kosher, parve, and gluten-free; a plus when your dinner parties involve a venn diagram of food restrictions. Dried mushrooms and an assortment of vegetables give it plenty of richness.
This is a meatless version, barszcz wigilijny, traditionally served on Christmas Eve with uszka, little mushroom dumplings. (Uszka translates as "little ears," which is why a google image search of the term will also turn up lots of pictures of girls in costume.) Note that the uszka are made with an egg pasta — wheat and eggs, for the food-restricted — though you could certainly substitute a different version or leave them out entirely.
Beets are a constant, but the other ingredients vary. Traditional versions generally include whatever root vegetables were left in the ground or root cellar after weeks of frost and snow, while modern versions can contain anything from tamari and sesame oil to jalapeños.
Barszcz Wigilijny (Christmas Eve beet soup)
adapted from Polish Cookery, by Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa
1 large onion, chopped
2 leeks, sliced (white & light green part)
3 stalks celery
1 celery root
1 oz dried mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch lovage (optional)
1 T red wine vinegar (may sub other kinds)
(optional: 6 cups vegetable stock or beef stock)
Celeriac, or celery root, (Apium graveolens), unpeeled (above) and peeled (below). This is one of those vegetables I've seen a million times but never actually purchased before. It's got all the celery flavor, but the smooth, crispy texture of a root vegetable. You could get away without it, but it's worth trying sometime, raw or cooked.
Chop all the vegetables. If you're planning to leave them in the soup, you may want to peel them first. Note: Some people like their soup with beets, but no other vegetable pieces. If that's your style, chop everything else but leave the beets whole. Once the beets are tender, strain the soup, then cut up the beets and put them back in.
To prepare the leeks, slice them in half lengthwise, cut the white and light green parts into narrow slices, and rinse them well to remove the dirt and grit. I usually put them in a bowl of water, swish them around a lot, wait for the dirt to settle down, and then scoop the floating leek pieces off the top.
If you're making uszka as well, you can soak your dried mushrooms in 2 cups of hot water for 20 minutes or so to rehydrate them, then use the mushrooms in the uszka, and use the soaking water (now filled with delicious mushroom flavor) in the barszcz. (If you do this, add a bit less water or stock to the soup.)
Brown the onion in a little olive oil.
Add the other vegetables, dried mushrooms, the bay leaf, salt, and 6 cups of water or stock. (If using prepared stock, omit the salt.)
Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 1 hour.
Fish out the bay leaf, or just warn people that it's in there. If you want a thin broth-style soup, strain out the vegetables. If you left the beets whole, now's the time to peel them, chop them, and put them back into the strained broth.
Stir in 1 T red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
Top with chopped parsley and lovage leaves.
Serve with uszka or slices of rye bread.
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