An Ukrainian Proverb states: "Borscht is the center of everything." It is the Ukrainian national dish and is to be made so thick that a spoon can stand up in it. The name borscht derives from the Old Church Slavonic ‘brsh’ (beet) in honor of the central ingredient of this stew. While originally a way to extend a handful of vegetables and various leftovers to feed the whole family over a number of cold winter nights, borscht soon evolved into a more extravagant dish loaded up not only with many vegetables but also many types of meat and sausage. There are now as many types of borscht as there are babushkas (grandmothers).
For Christmas Eve, the borscht must follow Orthodox Lenten rules and avoid use of meat, dairy, and eggs. In their place, tiny mushroom-filled dumplings are added to make the stew rich, complex and hearty. Making the tiny dumplings takes a bit of time, so if you want to cut a corner or two, you can eliminate them from the final dish, although it won’t be quite as authentic. As with all borscht, the flavor will improve as it sits over a few days. If you’re not vegan and do not feel obliged to strictly follow Orthodox rules, you should consider serving each bowl with a generous dollop of sour cream on top, which is stirred in at the table to make the borscht even more rich.
This dish makes wide use of your garden’s bounty. We recommend you use 'Chantenay' carrots and 'Hollow Crown' parsnips as both will be quite sweet by late December. Any onion will work well, though you may want to consider trying a pungent long-storing yellow type such as 'Stuttgarter.' 'Bulls Blood' beets will give you lots of beet flavor and dark red coloring. Why not try the 'Giant Red Re-Selection' celery to make your borscht even redder? Use an Eastern European leek cultivar, like 'Bulgarian Giant Leek.' While green cabbage is usually used (we’d recommend using the interiors left over after harvesting the larger outer leaves for stuffed cabbage), you could use a red cabbage like 'Red Express' or 'Tete Noire.' For the garlic, use an assertive eastern European marbled-purple-stripe cultivar, like 'Bogatyr' or 'Siberian.'
This recipe is part of a series that includes a number of vegetarian holiday recipes. Find more history and inspiration at A Ukrainian Christmas Eve.
Vuška: Mushroom-filled Dumplings.
In Ukrainian, "vuška" means ears, and these little filled dumplings do look this way. They also greatly resemble small tortellini. Make them ahead of time and keep in the refrigerator until ready to be put into the borscht.
Dumpling Filling:• 1/2 pound mushrooms, coarsely chopped
• 1/4 cup canola oil
• 1 cup finely chopped onions
• 1/2 cup dry, unflavored bread crumbs
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 1 cup unbleached flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons canola oil
• 1/4 cup water
• 1/3 cup olive oil
• 1-1/2 pounds sliced mushrooms
• 2 large onions, finely chopped
• 2 large carrots, grated
• 2 parsnips, thinly sliced
• 2 leeks, cleaned and finely chopped
• 3 celery stalks, 1/4-inch cubes
• 7 medium beets, peeled and grated
• 1 pound cabbage, shredded
• 5 potatoes, peeled, 1/4-inch cubes
• 1 tart apple, peeled, 1-inch cubes
• 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
• 8 oz tomato paste
• 3 quarts vegetable stock
• 2 bay leaves
Tiny Mushroom-filled Dumplings (Optional, though traditionally part of Christmas Eve borscht)
• 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice or to taste
• 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 2 tablespoons parsley
• 2 tablespoons dill leaf
1. Heat oil in a small pan over medium heat. Sauté onions until lightly golden, about 10 minutes.
2. Then add in the mushrooms and cook for another 10 minutes until the mushrooms have lost and evaporated their water.
3. Remove from heat and let cool. Put mixture into a food processor and grind into a paste.
4. Add in bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper, and mix well. Set aside.
1. Mix flour and salt together in a medium-sized bowl.
2. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add in the oil and 1/3 cup water, and mix into the flour with a sturdy spoon, working from the center out. If there is not quite enough water to bring up all the four, add in a little more a tablespoon at a time.
3. Once you have a ball of dough, transfer to a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
Assembling the Vuška:
1. Roll out the dough very thin, about 1/16 of a inch. Cut into 1-inch squares.
2. Place 1/4 teaspoon of mushroom filling near the corner of dough square.
3. Moisten the edges with a little water, and fold in half along the long axis to make a little triangle. Seal the edges so that the filling won’t escape. Bring the opposing corners of the triangle together and pinch to seal.
4. Place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Repeat until all of the dough is used up; you should be able to make at least 50.
5. After making the tiny dumplings, we’ll now assemble the borscht. Remember that the flavor will improve with time and that you should let the borscht sit for at least 3 hours before reheating and serving. Better yet, let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.
6. Heat oil in a large kettle over medium heat. Add in mushrooms, onions, carrots, parsnips, and leeks and sauté until slightly softened – about 7 minutes.
7. Then add in celery, beet, and cabbage, and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes.
8. Now add the potatoes, apple, garlic, tomato paste and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, add in tiny dumplings (Vuška), and cook (covered) for another 20 minutes.
9. Add the paprika, sugar, lemon juice, and adjust flavors with salt and pepper. Let stand at least 2-3 hours (preferably overnight) to let the flavors meld.
10. Reheat and garnish with parsley and dill.
Jeff Nekola has a PhD in Ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has a passion for biodiversity in its many forms. You can learn more here.
Linda Fey’s first and finest childhood memories are of helping her mother and grandmother in the garden and then bringing in freshly picked produce to the dinner table. As an adult, she has over 20 years of experience in market gardening and teaches middle-school English. Visit www.LindaFey.com to view her writing about food and life.