Autumn is here, and that means making borsch again. As is often the case with iconic ethnic dishes, no recipe is definitive. Every Russian family believes their borsch is the only right borsch, and broaching the subject on Russian cooking message boards can lead to some spectacular showdowns. Truth is, the recipe varies — depending on the region, the season and personal preferences.

However, there are certain basics that define a true Russian borsch. To begin with, the term refers to a category, not a specific dish. Any soup made from a fresh leafy vegetable is a borsch. Without qualifiers, however, the word describes a specific kind of borsch that has three main ingredients: cabbage, tomatoes, and beets. Other ingredients, as I’ve said, vary greatly — although whatever the variation, the ingredient list is typically long.

Most Russians are Orthodox, and historically, the observance of Lent was of paramount importance. This means that, while borsch typically contains meat, vegetarian versions are not unheard of. Kidney beans and/or mushrooms are typically added to Lenten borsch to enhance its flavor.

So here is my family’s recipe. A couple of things: do not add any sour cream during the cooking. Sour cream is added to individual bowls only at the table. Also, use the palest green cabbage you can find, the kind whose color actually tends more towards white or yellowish. Truly green cabbage leaves are too bitter and have to be salted and drained before cooking.

1 beef shank, about 1,5 lbs in weight
1/3 lb slab smoked bacon, diced
1 small head of pale green cabbage, cored and shredded or julienned (about 3 cups)
2 large beets, peeled and shredded
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, diced
3 waxy potatoes, peeled
1 28-oz can crushed or strained tomatoes
3 tbsp tomato paste
2 dried cayenne peppers
1 tbsp crushed coriander seeds
5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup minced fresh dill
3 tbsp minced Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

Utensils: You will need a large soup pot and a deep skillet with a cover.

– Bring a large quantity of water (about 10 cups) to a boil. (Separately, heat additional water and keep on hand.) Add the beef shank and season with a pinch of salt. Reduce the flame and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Skim off scum, add the potatoes and the cayenne peppers and continue to simmer, covered, while you work on the other ingredients.

– Add the bacon to a hot skillet and fry on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 5-8 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and add to the soup.

– Add beets to the skillet and saute, stirring frequently, until softened, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the soup.

– Saute the bell peppers in a bit of oil until softened, and transfer to the soup.

– Heat about 1/4 cup oil in the skillet and add the onions. Saute on medium heat until just softened, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for about 35 minutes.

— Remove the potatoes from the soup and transfer to the skillet with the onions and carrots. Mash coarsely. Add the strained tomatoes and stir. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Transfer the mixture to the soup pot.

— Thin the tomato paste with about 1 cup of hot water and add to the soup.

— Add the cabbage to the soup. At this point, you will probably have ended up with something quite thick, so thin it out with about 5-6 cups hot water (or more, if needed), until it has a fairly thick, but still soupy consistency.

— Season the soup with salt and coriander, and add a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper. Adjust the seasonings to taste, and, if not sufficiently acidic, add a little more tomato paste (DO NOT try to increase acidity with lemon juice or vinegar). Cover the soup and let simmer for an additional 20 minutes.

— Take off heat. Add the dill, parsley and freshly squeezed garlic. Stir, cover, and let the borsch “sweat” in a small, enclosed space (such as an oven — unheated) for at least 2 hours.

— Rewarm the borsch until it reaches a simmer just before serving. Serve with sour cream on the side. Additional garnishes include rye bread, fresh garlic and minced dill and parsley.

— The beef shank is typically served to the head of the household. However, the meat can also be cut up into bite-sized chunks and incorporated into the soup before serving.

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