Persian Borscht

(2011) There are many variations of Borscht. Some are made with beets, others just cabbage. I’ve made it with beef short ribs and a vegetarian version with white beans and prunes. Borscht is served hot and cold, topped with sour cream or garlic croutons. This borscht has it roots in Persian where all of my grandparents and great-grandparents were born.

I found packages of ‘Lamb Breasts’ at Landmark Market, another Arab-owned inner city neighborhood market. Marked ‘special’ they were .99 cents a pound. They have been chilling out in my freezer pantry for weeks. With cabbage on sale for .39 at Meijers, it was time to make the borsch.

This cut of meat, that resembles pork ribs, has a lot of meat on the bone but also much fat. They require special treatment; high roasting, simmering, straining, de-fatting, and separation of the meat from the fat and bones. I know, it probably sounds like work to you, but it is a labor of love for me. And, it is the only way to the colorful and flavorful soup that will transport me back to my Persian grandmother’s kitchen.

Cabbage, fresh beets, onions, and garlic are gently simmered in the de-fatted lamb stock. The broth is sweetened with unsweetened pomegranate juice. This beet-red sweet and tart juice from the “Fruit of Heaven” is used in many Persian dishes. When it was not available in the ‘new world’ it was replaced with lemon juice and honey. Thankfully California produces them.

The combination of golden brown onions, garlic, fresh mint and dill definitely identifies this soup as Persian. I’m using dried mint that came from the Middle Eastern Grocery. There are many varieties of mint, be sure you use one grown for cooking. It is different than the ones used for tea and juleps.

My grandmother would have used ‘ghee’ in this recipe. This type of clarified butter is slowly cooked until all the milk solids settle to the bottom of a heavy bottomed pan. The strained ‘butter oil’ was used to caramelize the onions that topped our lamb filled grape leaves. It was also drizzled on the Chicken and Wheat Berries stew. It does not require refrigeration. I have replaced the butter oil with olive oil. I think the soup has enough flavor to do without a drizzle of butter oil on each serving. I will, however, spread a little sweet butter on the dense and chewy homemade flatbread that will accompany the steamy bowls of borscht.

The bread will also do a good job of sopping up the tasty broth.

This recipe makes a big pot of soup, enough for a party. It can easily be cut in half although it freezes well and lasts for days in the refrigerator.

Soup is meant for sharing. It is the original communal food. You can’t find a more healthful and economical food. It humidifies the air and fills your home with layers of enticing smells (just ask my neighbors). Throughout the winter it is a must-have menu item. Set aside a weekday night or weekend afternoon for soup making. It is time well spent. Gift a jar to a friend and store some in the freezer.

Forget that salty, mushy ‘poor substitute for soup’ from the cans. Save that for unexpected guests or friends who love ‘Olive Garden’.

Persian Borscht

Makes about 4 quarts              Serves 8-10 people

Cook’s Notes: Purchase the unsweetened pomegranate juice from a Middle Eastern grocery store. Look for juice that has not been made from concentrate. The pricey stuff in the curvaceous bottle is too sweet.

Make it your own: You can substitute beef chuck or pork shoulder for the lamb. I have also made this soup with lamb shanks and sometimes lamb breasts. A vegetarian version uses roasted winter squash and white beans in place of the meat.

4 pounds Lamb Shoulder or Stew Meat, cut into cubes

Kosher Salt and Ground Black Pepper

4 tablespoons Olive Oil

1 large Onion, peeled and chopped

6-8 cloves Garlic, peeled and chopped

8 cups chopped Cabbage (½ of a large head)

4 Beets, peeled and cut into small cubes

8 cups Low Sodium Chicken or Beef Stock, or a combination of both

4 cups unsweetened Pomegranate Juice, fresh or bottled

½ cup Fresh Dill, chopped or 2 tablespoons dried Dill Weed

1 tablespoon Dried Mint

¼ cup Pomegranate Molasses, or to taste

Salt and Pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large soup pot, add the cubes of lamb, season with salt and pepper, and brown on all sides. Do not crowd the meat; brown in small batches. Transfer the browned lamb to a plate and set aside. Discard the excess fat in the pan.

Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil to the pan. Add the onions, lightly salt, and cook over medium-high heat until they become light golden brown. Add the garlic and cook 5 more minutes.

Add the cabbage and beets and cook for 10 minutes until the cabbage is wilted. Add the stock and juice.

Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer until the vegetables are cooked.

Add the cooked lamb pieces, dill, mint, and pomegranate molasses.

Taste and adjust the seasonings. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in bowls with crusty, chewy bread and sweet butter.