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Jack Zaleski, Published August 17 2013

Zaleski: One of these days I’ll get the soup right

For the first time in years, my wife and I have grown a crop of beets large enough to feed a small country. The Detroit dark reds are absolutely delicious – firm, sweet, with rings of deep crimson/black color. Boiled, sliced, larded with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper – well, really good eating. An acquired taste, to be sure, but I love ’em.

We intend to put up a few pints of pickled beets if we can find my wife’s grandmother’s special recipe. Beet pickles all winter. We’ll also blanch, slice and freeze a few bags. Good stuff, whether served hot with a meal or cold in a salad.

But my real interest in beets is rooted in my ethnic heritage. My Polish grandmother made a beet soup called barszcz. (If you can pronounce it, your Polish is better than mine.) By some reckonings, it’s a variant of the better-known Ukranian borscht, but my grandmother never saw it that way. Her recipe was uniquely Polish; she was emphatic about that. She brought it with her from the old country. I loved it.

She started with a rich pork stock – always pork. As the meat fell off the bone, it stayed with the developing soup. She’d add sliced beets, a touch of clove and other spices, parsley, maybe just a sliver or two of sweet onion. Then came the hard part: striking the balance of vinegar and heavy cream in the simmering stock. The temperature had to be just right or the cream would curdle. Soup ruined. She always got it right.

With more simmering, the soup took on a deep pink hue. A sharp but muted aroma filled her kitchen. When all was right, she dropped kluskis, small white dumplings, into the rich brew. They’d cook down tender and mild, with just a hint of the salt pork in the dough.

Served steaming with a side of Polish hard-crust caraway rye bread, barszcz was heavenly.

For years, try as I might, I was unable to duplicate it. Failure always came at the same place: the vinegar and cream step. Never got it right. Gave up.

I’ve written about this delightful soup before. The beet harvest in our garden got me thinking about it again.

So here’s my plea: Anyone out there of Polish ancestry know the secret of making barszcz? I’m not interested in Ukranian, Latvian or Russian variations, only my grandmother’s never-written-down Polish recipe as I’ve described. With a little guidance, I’m ready to try again.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.