Making the most of borscht

Published on Tuesday, 4 February 2014 23:29 - Written by Christine Gardner, food@tylerpaper.com

In culinary school there were two recipes at which I failed miserably — one of which was borscht. This Russian soup made from beets turned out overly sweet with a weird texture and a blood red color that covered the counters, sink, dishes and knives.

Maybe it reminded me of a horror movie, but more than likely, I wasn’t interested because the only beets I had eaten in my life came from a can.

Now I know better. Fresh beets are fantastic and come in so many different colors and sizes. Small, large, white, golden, red, dark red, candy-striped — all filled with wonderful antioxidants and fantastic flavor when boiled, roasted or even grilled.

Popular in Russia because they grow well in cold climates, beets are used in borscht and many other dishes. But this iconic soup is probably where the familiarity with Russian food begins and ends.

Unlike Mexican, Italian and Chinese, you don’t see many Russian restaurants in the United States.

Many of the traditional dishes feature preserved, pickled or canned meats or fish. There’s pickled herring, caviar, salted cod, doktorskaya (bologna), kholodet (meat jello), salo (preserved pork fat) and kishka (sausage). You also will find plenty of pickled fruits and vegetables.

Fruits are boiled down to extract their juices and used in fillings for dumplings and flavoring in drinks like kompot and soups like kissel.

When it comes to dairy you will find kefir (fermented milk) and sour cream — the Russian equivalent to American ketchup.

Recently, a friend of mine hosted some Russian guests on a visit to Texas and the foods they were most interested in eating were steaks, fresh fish and pasta.

They were not interested in American junk food, such as sandwiches, potato chips and burgers. Instead, they asked for real food that is cooked at home and satisfying.

However, they loved sweets — pastries, desserts and pie — especially chocolate cake.

This group of Russians was actually here on a cross-country fishing trip. They started their trip in Alaska fishing for salmon, then went to Miami to go deep-sea fishing and ended their trip in East Texas fishing for alligator gar in the Trinity River. Seems like an unexpected stop, but interesting to learn the growing popularity of these East Texas river monsters. Whatever the reason, they enjoyed their visit to Texas, the food and the company.

They’re even planning another visit in July to coincide with Fourth of July festivities.

So, as we watch the Sochi Olympics, I am sure we will learn more about the Russian traditions and food. As much as we like our own daily fare, it’s always fun and enlightening to experience the flavor of other cultures.

Prijatnovo appetita!