Borscht: An Alaska Autumn Treat Recipe

The grass is covered in scarlet and gold and the crabapples are starting to fall from the tree in my back yard. A few days ago, a moose wandered in and ate half a dozen apples before we could shoo him away. After a busy and full Alaska summer, I’m personally thankful to see darkness again.

Gardening, farming, and farmer’s markets are all beginning to wind down for the season. I took advantage of a little free time this week to peruse late-summer open market offerings. Bushels of beets and cabbages caught my eye, and as I stood in line to buy my bounty, I realized I wasn’t dressed quite warm enough. I felt cold for the first time in months. With beets, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes in hand, I had most of the makings for a hearty and warming fall soup.

Borscht, the iconic Russian beet soup, seems to be one of those personal family recipes that people have strong opinions about. It wasn’t a part of my family food heritage so I don’t have any grandmother memories of beet soup simmering on the stove.  But, since I’ve lived now in Alaska for nearly all of my adult life, beets have become a big part of my children’s food memories. We make beet cake, roasted, salted and buttered beets served in a big bowl in the winter, pickled beets, even beet chips as snacks. It’s a vegetable that grows well here.

Borscht has been documented in culinary literature since medieval times. Although perhaps we think of borscht as a Russian or Jewish soup, it’s widely accepted to be Ukrainian in origin. It has become an important family staple for diverse cultures and ethnic groups around the world. There are as many variations of borscht as there are kitchens it is found in. Almost all recipes include beets, cabbage and beef stock. The rest is open to interpretation. Onions, apples, beans, carrots, the spice coriander, a soup comprised mostly of broth, a soup made up mostly of chunky vegetables, a soup loaded with meats and garlic — these are all variations that are perfectly acceptable as far as tradition goes. Also, how many beets you put into the soup can be adjusted according to the beet lovers at your table.

For my soup, I first wrapped unpeeled beets into aluminum foil. I baked them for one hour at 375 degrees. I have found over the years that this is the easiest way to cook beets, no matter what their end purpose might be. Keeping beets unpeeled beforehand eliminates bleeding. I used deep ruby-red beets for my soup but golden beets are in the market now also. Golden beets are beloved by chefs because they taste just like other beets but they don’t bleed red all over a dinner plate.

Next, I used a beef stock I already had prepared. I know if I had a Ukrainian grandma, she would start the recipe out with a knuckle of beef to make the stock. But, I heated my prepared stock to a boil and added in a handful of small garden potatoes from the market. I prefer small potatoes in almost any kind of cooking, and Alaska Red “B” (the letter B indicates the size) is the potato used most often in my kitchen. I dropped in some chopped tomatoes.

As the potatoes and tomatoes simmered in the beef broth, I chopped up and sautéed some carrots, onion, shredded cabbage, and green pepper. I wonder what a Ukrainian granny would say if I told her one green bell pepper cost me $2 in Alaska. I am sure she’d probably say to leave it out. These all went into the soup.

I took the beets out of the oven and rubbed the skin off with a small kitchen towel. I have a dedicated “OK to stain” towel I keep for this job. I diced up the beets and mixed them with some fresh-squeezed lemon juice. I added the beets and lemon juice into the soup.  The color of the soup turned deep claret. The color of the soup is almost as luxurious and warming as the soup itself. The lemons brighten the flavor and they help keep that red beet color of the soup.

I added in a small handful of diced dried prunes. That’s the first time for me to include prunes into a savory soup but I like the idea. The prunes add a little sweetness without adding sugar.

I decided not to add in any beef or ham into my borscht. I think I have a friend with some moose meat hanging in his garage. Perhaps I’ll ask for some and make my soup a true Alaska version of borscht. Why not?

Recipe type: Soup
Serves: Makes 4 main-course servings or 8 first-course servings.
For inspiration for the following recipe, I turned to the cookbook "Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook" by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman. I love their stories and annotations. This is a loose adaptation of their Classic Ukrainian Borscht.
  • 4 small beets
  • 6 cups beef stock
  • 6 small potatoes, quartered
  • 1 pound Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ½ an onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
  • ½ small head green cabbage, shredded
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 5 pitted dried prunes, chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sour cream (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wrap the beets into aluminum foil and bake for one hour or until they are soft and the skin comes away easily.
  2. Heat the beef stock in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and add in the potatoes. Reduce the heat to a low simmer.
  3. Heat the oil in a nonstick large sauté pan. Add in the carrots, onion and bell pepper. Cook the vegetables over medium heat for about five minutes or until they begin to soften. Add in the cabbage. Cook for an additional ten minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Add the vegetables to the soup.
  4. Peel the beets and dice them. In a small bowl, combine the beets and lemon juice and toss well. Add the beets and juice to the soup. Add in the prunes. Simmer the soup for about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sour cream and moose meat optional.