Monday, June 7, 2010

A Borscht of a Meal

There is no such thing as a light borscht. Once that dollop of sour cream goes on, all pretensions of a simple soup supper are totally undermined. So, lets go with it - the chunky hearty kind of borscht that's not only a meal in itself, but an inspiration to embellish: I am thinking now about another Eastern European delicacy - the pierogi, or little noodle dumplings, usually served as a meal or appetizer on their own.
So I thought about a nice chunky borscht with wedges of the rubiest little fresh beets, baby new potatoes and carrots, and crinkly ribbons of young savoy cabbage, cooked til just tender in a sweet-sour tomatoey broth - almost perfect. But wait, little pierogis filled with a cinnamon spiced meat filling served on the side or to mix in would be a wonderful texture surprise - a perfect contrast to the vegetables - think of the soft noodle and warm richness of the filling. The pierogis were a great idea, and, as it turned out, very easy to make - with a little help from some ready made wonton wrappers and on-hand leftovers! Just before serving, I sauteed the dumplings in a little bubbling butter to lightly brown them - an extra touch well worth the extra pan!

A grandmother's flavors re-dressed! - The Borscht with Little (wanton) Pierogi Pockets

Let's get started, none too early - the beets need a little pre-cooking, so its best to prepare for this borscht bash well ahead: from a bunch of 4 beets, take three and remove the root tail. Set in a steamer and steam 15 - 20 minutes until just tender.
Cooking the beets ahead is a great way to avoid the unwelcome flat taste of overcooked beets in traditional deli borscht.

Soup Ingredients
1 bunch of 4 medium or 6 small beets, steamed (leave one medium or 2 small beets to grate into the soup near the end - peel first!)
1 large soup carrot, peeled and cut lengthwise, then diagonally into chunks
4 - 5 small new potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 a small savoy cabbage, cut into 1/4-inch ribbons
1 medium onion, diced
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes with juice
2-3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (best, but white wine vinegar is okay too)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 bayleaf
pinch of marjoram or savory
salt and fresh ground pepper
4 - 5 cups good vegetable broth
handful of fresh dill
sour cream for garnish

For the Dumplings:
1 generous cup minced leftover hamburger, brisket or pot roast
1 medium onion, finely diced
chicken fat or vegetable oil to saute onions
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper
16 wonton wrappers (available in most supermarkets)
2 tablespoons butter

Note on timing: The soup needs about 35 to 40 minutes to cook, and with vegetable prep, soup can be ready in just well under an hour. To have the pierogis ready to serve as well, be sure to start dumpling prep just as soon as the soup goes up.

The Method:
Have all vegetables prepped including pre-cooked beets, all except beet(s) reserved for grating.
For the pre-cooked beets, which should now be cool, slip off the skins, half lenghtwise and cut in quarter or third crescents. Put potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage and bay leaf in a soup pot, add broth and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer 15 minutes; potatoes will be almost tender. Add beets, and grate the reserved beet fresh into the soup (not good to let the grated beet sit around!). Season to taste with salt and pepper, and optionally, the marjoram and/or savory. Continue to simmer another 10 minutes. Then add in vinegar and sugar, 2 tablespoons to one. Taste, then correct by adding more vinegar or sugar. Let the soup continue to cook 5 to 10 minutes to absorb and fully integrate the sweet-sour. Serve each plate with a sprinkling of chopped dill and the proverbial dollop of sour cream.

And voila! Here's how pretty it will look:

For the Dumplings, start sauteeing the onion as soon as the vegetables are in the soup pot. My favorite onion method is borrowed from Elizabeth Ehrlich's poignant food and family memoir, In Miriam's Kitchen: heat up a heavy saute pan, sprinkle in fresh ground pepper and shake to heat up, then put in the onions and stir til they sizzle and begin to turn to a golden translucent - they'll start to release some of their liquid. Then add the oil or rendered chicken fat, lower heat, and continue to saute until soft and more golden.
While onions simmer to softness, mince the meat, warm the meat in the microwave so its not refrigerator cold, and top with the spices. Remove the wontons from the package and lay them out on a lightly dusted large cookie sheet or marble. Put up a large pot of salted water to boil.

When the onions are soft, add in the pressed garlic and stir until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the onions into meat mixture and press together to combine into a loose paste. Using a teaspoon or melon baller, measure a small amount into the center of each wonton. Fold over diagonally and press the edges edges together, using a moistened finger or fork to make a tight seal all the way around. Seal tightly around all the filling - any extra loose edges can be trimmed - not a good idea to leave the filling with any empty space. Drop the dumplings into rapidly boiling water, 6 at a time, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, max. Drain on a piece of parchment and finish the remaining batches in same way. Once ready to serve, heat a saute pan, then drop in the butter to sizzle (just like for an omelet). Quickly lift in the dumplings in two batches - don't crowd. Turn to coat and lightly brown on both sides and remove to serving plate.

Serve immediately with a garnish of parsley, with 16 dumplings, there even might be seconds!

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