This recipe was entirely inspired by the beef and beetroot soup known as borsch, borscht or any one of a number of other potential spelling variations of essentially the same dish. Just as the spelling of the dish's title varies, so too do the claims made regarding its origins with countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and more all claiming credit for its creation and development. My own first experience of eating borscht was actually in itself - and in keeping with this spirit - a pretty international affair. I was a British visitor to Germany and I found myself invited to lunch at the home of an American friend and she served her personal, delicious interpretation this Eastern European dish as our first course. It was at that point in the 1990's that I first began experimenting with the concept and this is but my latest version.
The root vegetables used in this recipe are almost infinitely variable and quite simple experimentation may well pay excellent results. Parsnips and rutabaga (Swede turnip) for example could be used instead of - or even as well as - the potatoes and carrots. The simple fact is that like so many rustic and traditional recipes, the ingredients originally used would be those which were in season and locally available at the time of year to the cooks of the particular day.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
- ¾ pound shin of beef or other stewing suitable cut of meat
- 2 or 3 of tablespoons of vegetable oil
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 medium white onion
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 pint fresh beef stock
- ¼ medium white cabbage
- 6 to 8 small new potatoes
- 2 medium carrots
- 4 pre-cooked baby beetroots
- 4 basil leaves to garnish
It is important to buy a piece of beef that is pretty fatty with some sinew clearly running through the meat. These parts will render down during cooking and keep the meat moist and tender. It is also the fat which provides most of the flavor in the cooked dish. For this reason, you should not cut off any of the fat, however tempting this may be in the name of healthy eating, when you are preparing the beef.
Start by dicing the shin in to approximately one inch pieces with a very sharp knife.
Pour the vegetable oil in to a large stew pot and put the pot on to a medium setting on your stove top to come up to a medium heat. Add the beef and season with reasonable amounts of salt and black pepper. Use a wooden spoon to stir the beef around in the oil until all the pieces are evenly browned and visibly sealed.
Peel the onion and cut it in half down through the center. Moderately finely slice each half and add all the slices to the pot with the beef. Stir around for a further minute or so until the onion pieces are starting to soften and glisten.
Add the dried thyme to the pot and pour in the fresh beef stock. Turn up the heat until the stock just reaches a simmer. Reduce the heat as necessary to maintain a gentle but steady simmer. Cover the pot and continue to cook in this way for an initial hour.
When the hour is almost up, you should take the time to prepare the vegetables. Wash the potatoes but leave them unpeeled. Cut them in half. Wash the carrots thoroughly but there's no need to peel them either unless the skin is particularly badly damaged. Cut off and discard the tops before cutting in to chunks of a similar size to the potato halves. Wash the cabbage and shred with a sharp knife.
Put the prepared vegetables in to the pot with the stew, stir well and bring back to a simmer for another hour. Check the liquid level every so often, stir well and if required, add a little bit of boiling water. This shouldn't really be necessary if you've maintained a low enough simmer but don't ignore the possibility, as you risk burning both your stew and your pot.
It is because the baby beets have already been cooked that they are added to the stew only at the latter stages. Cut each beet in to chunks the same size as the potatoes and carrots. They should be added to the stew and stirred through at the end of the two hours' simmering for a final half hour's cooking in the same way.
If like me you have to buy the precooked beets in a pack size larger than you require for preparing this recipe, the remainder can be kept in your fridge for up to three days. It's important to know however that storing the beets simply in a plastic container will stain the plastic beyond redemption, no matter for how long you steep or scrub it. An easy way to get round this problem is to begin by lining your plastic dish with a couple of layers of aluminum foil before adding the beets.
When the stew's cooking time is up, give it a careful taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper as may be required. Cover and leave it to rest for ten minutes before ladling it in to serving bowls or deep plates. Roll the basil leaves together, finely slice and scatter over the tops of the stew portions as a final garnish before serving.