The Borscht of Baba Yaga ‡

While still in my twenties, I was enrolled in an opera workshop in Los Angeles, where amazingly skilled amateurs convened every Thursday night to learn and perform excerpts from their favorite works. Afterward, a group of us would motor up to the Balalaika Restaurant, a nearby* Russian cafe that was open late. We often snacked on pirojki or a bowl of borscht while listening to songs played proficiently on the namesake instrument. The staff appeared to be from the old country, and told us tales of Russian folklore, one of which was about the House of Baba Yaga. Now Baba Yaga was a witch who dwelt in the woods in a hut on chicken feet. Whenever she went out flying in her mortar (not broomstick!) she had to search for the house when she returned, because it would roam around. The penultimate movement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a composition on this theme.

Boys from Elida, NM don’t eat borscht when growing up, so it was a welcome introduction when I did find it. I don’t have the Balalaika recipe, but I have concocted my own from memories and some help from the internet, where I found it also called just borsh. I think you will enjoy it.

  • 3 red beets, boiled, peeled, ½” dice, water reserved
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb stewing beef, in ¾” cubes
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 heaping tsp garlic, minced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 (10½-oz) can condensed beef or 10½ oz homemade consommé
  • 10 oz water
  • 2 cups of the beet boiling water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp tomato bouillon powder
  • 2 tsp powdered onion soup mix
  • 3 oz tomato paste
  • 1 cup red cabbage, shredded
  • 1 carrot, in ½” pieces
  • 1 heaping tsp dried dill weed
  • 1 tsp dried parsley flakes
  • <salt> and pepper, to taste
  • ¼ tomato, diced, per serving
  • 1 dollop sour cream, per serving

Boil the beets in enough water to cover until just tender. Remove and cool the beets enough to peel and dice them. Save 2 cups of the water.

Brown the beef in the olive oil, then add the onion, garlic, and celery and continue to cook until the onion begins to brown. Add the liquid, bay leaves, tomato bouillon and onion soup powders, and tomato paste, bring to a simmer, and continue to simmer until the beef is really tender, about an hour or so, depending on the cut of beef used. Then add the cabbage, carrot, dill, and parsley. Cook until the cabbage is limp, about 20 minutes. Add the beets and bring to a simmer.

Serve in deep bowls garnished with the diced tomato and a dollop of sour cream on top.

Serves about 4.