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Jack Zaleski, Published August 24 2013

Zaleski: Ethnic beet soup recipe a family thing

Reader response to last week’s column about my Polish grandmother’s beet soup underscores the maxim that old recipes for ethnic foods are unique to families. The barszcz (Polish for borscht) I first had at my grandmother’s table has several iterations, all of them originating in kitchens of immigrant Polish families. And all of them just a little different, as Polish families made each recipe their own.

Still, the ubiquitous red beet is the base of the soup, whether Polish, Ukrainian or Russian version. Some are meatless (can’t imagine that), but most use a rich meat stock, most often pork and/or Polish kielbasa (sausage).

Here’s an edited sample of messages from soup lovers:

A friend and colleague from Bemidji, Minn., (he and his wife are genuine chefs), offered a recipe that substitutes lemon juice for vinegar. It’s a meatless mix that includes mushrooms, and is served with boiled potatoes. It also can be cooled then garnished with dill and sour cream. Intriguing, but I dare not make barszcz without the pork stock for fear of upsetting grandmother’s ghost.

An experienced soup expert, responding to my chronic failure to balance the cream and vinegar in attempts to duplicate my grandmother’s recipe, suggested this:

Cool the meat and beet stock; carefully stir in cream and vinegar to taste (more vinegar for more tartness); then slowly reheat. This process, she said, avoids curdling the cream. Well, of course. Basic chemistry and physics, isn’t it? However, the mystery remains: How did my grandmother do it when the soup was simmering just below a boil?

A former West Fargo resident, who lives in Wisconsin, said the Milwaukee Polish Center would be good source of many barszcz recipes. Worth a look.

And finally, a Moorhead reader made the salient point that “recipes are like surnames,” in that there is hardly a surname on the planet that has not undergone some change. The same is true of cherished family recipes, which often were influenced by what was available on an Old World family farm. When Poles and others migrated to America, they brought their kitchen traditions with them, not only as sustenance but also as “comfort food” in a new and strange country.

And, she added, the nationality of the soup is not as important as again tasting “the exact same … recipe that your grandmother made.” Point well-taken, but I have no doubt my grandmother would never have minimized the Polish factor.

Thanks all, for the soup advice. Here’s the plan: When the season turns and soup weather is with us again, I’ll give my family barszcz recipe another try, this time incorporating reader suggestions. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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