Everyone kept asking me where I was going for Easter.
"Nowhere." I'd reply flatly.
My Omnivore had a gig on Easter Sunday at um... 7:30 in the freakin' morning!!! Greeting the newly risen Saviour at a church down the Peninsula. He had to get up at 5 am, therefore-- at which hour I was thinking even the Easter Bunny was mumbling, "Just five more minutes, Mom..."
Nevertheless, I duly arose and made him breakfast and coffee for the road, and then set about my day off--here's a first for this year-- with nothing scheduled, nothing due, no appointments. I could stay home quietly and do nothing.
Except clean the bathroom (ick!). Do some laundry (Pah!) Maybe start my taxes? (Feh!)
Or I could cook.
I've been having an obsession with borscht lately -- it was probably the gefilte fish that kicked it off. But when I passingly mentioned a porcini barley soup, Eric went, "Oh, oh, OHHHH!"
We'll come back to the borscht. *Sigh*
We searched high and low for porcinis -- which we saw fleetingly at the Embarcadero once--but in the end, we had to settle for dried.
So this morning I made the porcini barley soup so he could have some when he got back for lunch. This is a modified version of one that appeared in Bon Appetit and based on one served at Belvedere Mansion in Staatsburg, NY. I added more barley because I love barley, and I also upped the amount of porcinis and Swiss chard.
Porcini Mushroom and Barley Soup
4 ounces pancetta or thick bacon slices, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups water
2 cups beef broth
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
low-salt chicken broth
1 cup pearl barley
1 to 1.5 ounce dried porcini mushrooms,* brushed clean of grit
3-4 large Swiss chard leaves, thinly sliced crosswise (about 2 cups packed)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Shaved Romano cheese
Cook pancetta in heavy large pot over medium-high heat until crisp, about 6 minutes (if using bacon, drain off excess drippings). Add shallots, carrots, celery and garlic to pancetta in pot; cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups water, both stocks, barley and porcini and bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer until barley is tender, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before continuing.)
Add chard to soup; cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Ladle soup into bowls. Drizzle with oil. Top with cheese.
Doesn't it look yummy? Yeah, well, so Eric had lunch on his way back, before he got home.
"FINE." I said. "NO soup for you!"
Except that wasn't true, because I had already started making the borscht.
So back to my original topic.
Borscht is one of those funny sounding things that I never really wanted to try, until my Dad took me to the Russian Tea Room, that fabled New York restaurant that was always a hang-out for the grandest of the grand stars of the Russian opera and ballet. I had a borscht there that was unbelievably smooth and velvety, with a scoop of chilled sour cream melting in the middle of it and sprinkling of dill on the top. At least that's how it was in my memory.
Later on, when I searched through various books and online for the recipe, I found versions that claimed to be the Russian Tea Room borscht. But instead of finishing up with a smooth, wonderfully fragrant puree of magnificently ruby-red soup, it was left rustic-style, with giant chunks of beet and shreds of cabbage. For such an elegant place as the Russian Tea Room?? Unacceptable.
Is my memory faulty? Possibly. Probably. But in my dreams, the borscht is smooth and plush, like a velvet bed with a white satin pillow of creme fraiche out in the spring air with a grassy smell of dill suffusing it. So that's the way I make it now and that's the way it's going to be.
ME's Mythical Velvet Borscht from the Russian Tea Room
1/2 cup sliced onion
2 Tbsp bacon fat
1/2 cup julienned carrot
1 cup shredded cabbage
4 cups beef consomme
1 Tbsp tomato puree
2 cups julienned beets with cooking liquid
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
4 Tbsp potato starch
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup creme fraiche
In a large stockpot, saute the onion in the bacon fat until translucent. Add the carrots and cook until tender. Fold in the cabbage and cook until wilted. Pour the consomme over the vegetables and add the tomato puree. Lower the heat and skim off any fact that rises to the surface.
Put the julienned beets and 1 Tbsp of red wine vinegar in a saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Cook until the beets are tender. Add the cooked beets with an equal amount of their cooking liquid, to the consomme.
Add the remaining 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar and bring the soup to a simmer. Add the potato starch dissolved in 1/4 cup of beet juice and cook gently for an additional 2 minutes.
Puree the soup either in batches in a blender or using an immersion blender in the pot. Add the salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into a tureen or soup bowls, and place a generous dollop of creme fraiche in the middle of each bowl and garnish with chopped dill.
To finish things off, we had a cheese course of tangy, sharp Super-Aged Gouda with toasted hazelnuts and some white Turkish figs sliced and soaked in oloroso Sherry for several hours. Very simple, not at all Russian, but, um... TASTY.