“ These iron curtains of the old wench are pulling beetroots” is a known text phrase of our Slovene punk band Pankrti, which sang it in the beginning of the 80s. They sang it in the rebellious spirit of a visionary sight, tired of the old system and regime that lasted in those times. The beetroot is in the text, because it represents the common feel, the vibe at that time, and still with its presence symbolizes the collective wish of the masses, the pickled beetroot as a main metaphor for the old times.
Do you still remember the overly sour slices of beetroot, spiced up with a bit of cumin maybe? We had to eat those in kindergarten, in school and possibly in all the later reincarnations of lunch cafeterias throughout the land, if any of these still exist. Quite some people probably hated beetroot, because of those nasty memories, such deep lies the hateful taste of the sour vegetable, that loves to get stuck between your teeth. The poor beetroot really isn’t at fault here at all.
But now, I step into this story, a saint and patron of the beetroot. Maybe you don’t know this, maybe you do, but I cook to make a living. I prepare dinners on a regular basis, and winter is the season which gives the most thought about what to serve up to my eaters, what seasonal vegetables I can use to even dish up something fresh and tasty. So, I somehow became friends with the beetroot, the market and stores are full of them, it survives the cold and all in all lives up to May, where new sprouts are bursting out of the ground to replenish the old.
On my menu I have therefore regularly put on this vegetable, and came up on quite some resistance sides my diners, mostly young people around 30, plus or minus. Kindergartens, pickled beetroot, yuck, with cumin even, double yuck, and the story goes on and on, just the same as in my generation around 1974, till this day. I needed quite some time to make the most passionate beetroot haters to even try a bite a tiny bit of a portion, cooked, prepared with only a bit of pumpkin oil or without anything at all. And the results were amazing – they, who turned their backs on this vegetable ate something they really fancied and brought it back to their regular menu.
And so I stepped further into my investigation of this strange veggie, which is nice, but rather stigmatized as an ingredient. A local market peddler taught me to rather pick the bigger ones, since they are less hard than the smaller ones. And for the first time in my life I bought the biggest ones I could find so I could try to cook them, one, two or three times. And the thesis did prove to be right; the bigger beetroots have a softer inner than the smaller ones.
So I began to think of how to prepare it. Is cooking really the only way, or is there another way? And I immediately thought about the scenes from a restaurant, located above a Swedish photo museum I visited. 2 years ago, Jure, David and I explored the northern countries and after visiting an interesting museum, we went on a drink in a nice restaurant. I noticed a cook there, as he was pulling out a platter of salted and baked beetroots from the oven. The poor Scandinavian people, I thought to myself, what do they have to eat and make, just to bring a bit of vegetables on a dish.
And 2 years later I was doing the same thing as the cook. And I put the beetroots in the oven, spiced only with a bit of sea salt. And after 1 hour of baking I put them out, peeled them and put them directly in my mouth. Ohhhhh, svenska rödbeta is good!
I discovered, cycle after cycle, how to dish up the veggie with different approaches, adding some other vegetables that grow in these fruitful and bearing parts, which doesn’t grow just to feed the pigs.
For a more interesting story about the beetroot, my new friend, I need a full pot to make a fitting end. A full pot of borscht that is. It is winter, on your balcony you have a one or two cabbages rolling about, a few beetroots maybe, or a few potatoes. And inside you have a bag full of garlic and onions, who knows. For some inspirations, we can turn to the west, to our Slav brethren, who ate beetroots for many generations before us on a daily basis and made a delicious dish called borscht out of it.
This thick soup-like dish has many faces, travelled around the globe alongside European immigrants, from Ukrainians, to Russians, Polish and Jews. Borscht can be anything, from a thick soup, in which a spoon can stand in, or a clear soup, in which bread can be dipped in. it can be cold in the summer days, or hot in the winter, to warm us up. It can be prepared with meat, anything is good: from beef, pork, poultry, even fish, or a simple dish with some different vegetables or for instance, like a soup made out of tripe, a kind of “sarma”, a beef soup, maybe with some pickles, a kind of tomato soup. The common beetroot supposedly has a very stimulating effect on our libido. But the market peddler had no idea about that to be true.
For an exemplary recipe, I took one of the first American printed recipes I could find. It was written at the end of the 19th century and is called Borch a la Polonaise, Polish Borscht (from the author Francois Tranty, La Cuisine Francois, Chicago: Baldwin, Ross, 1893). I like it particularly, because it is simple and I can very well imagine a Polish family stilling at the dinner table, after a hard day’s work, and eating a tasty portion of warm soup. I added a spoonful of dill to the recipe myself and switched the cup of milk at the end, with a cup of sour crème to freshen it up.
For 6 portions we need:
¼ cabbage heads,
2 l of basic soup stock,
2 spoons of butter,
1 spoon of white corn flour,
1 small spoon of fresh or dried dill,
1 cup (20 dag) of sour crème,
Roast 2 shopped onions on warm butter and add 2 finely chopped beetroots. Roast it together with the chopped garlic and small dices of cut cabbage. During the constant mixing, add and roast a spoon of corn flour, and mix some more. Then pour in the still hot soup broth (soup broth doesn’t really fit in with the image of the working families of those days). Cover with a lid and let cook for 1 hour. Grate the remaining raw beetroot on a grate and pour the squeezed juice of it (we can help ourselves with a cloth or a rag) and add to the soup. Flavor with salt and pepper, add in the spoon of dill and pour in a cup of sour crème. Mix well, remove from the stove and serve immediately, together with wholegrain or white bread.
I am a star-eyed observer; I watch the world unfold before me and I am amazed at everything I see. The human person is always my main focus, even when I chop up carrots or write down my recipes. I like to talk to people that work with their own hands and with the earths soil itself. At home I crouch down before my computer and type down every impression and every note form the last 5 years and I publish this at the very end in a book for everybody to read. Throughout this whole process I always stay a father, sometimes a little grumpy, other times cheerful and high in spirit.