BORSCHT. FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE

the second in my winter soup collection. because everyone needs a little red number.

the mighty beef and beetroot borscht is a traditional eastern european beetroot soup. although many think of it as russian, it is actually believed to have originated in the ukraine, although every eastern european country has its own versions and variations. here are some very helpful pronunciations in case you’re travelling in the area:

Azerbaijani: borș, Belarusian: боршч, boršč, Czech: boršč, Estonian: borš, German: Borschtsch, Latvian: boršs, Lithuanian: barščiai, Polish: barszcz, Romanian: borș, Russian: борщ, borshch, Slovak: boršč, Turkish: Borç (due to the emigration of White Russians to Turkey after their defeat in the Russian Civil War), Ukrainian: борщ, borshch, and Yiddish: ‫באָרשט‬, borsht.

thanks wikipedia. hope that helped, guys, especially those of you in lithuania.

i’ve always wanted to eat this soup, mostly because i would imagine myself wearing a poloneck in a bond movie during the cold war. and in my imagination i was always deeply undercover and deeply satisfied by the delicious russian meal. in fact, ‘meal’ is how borscht is traditionally thought of: it is not referred to as a soup, it is simply borscht.

my desire to finally make borscht was further flamed after i met vera alimanova, who i first thought was a russian double-agent, but was actually the wonderful hair and make-up artist from uzbekistan, who worked with me on the BBC series leonardo, and who had made a borscht for others in the cast which was supposedly a triumph (i missed out on it to a previous commitment with a bowl of tom yum). for this recipe i decided to make the beef stock from scratch, ukrainian peasant-style, which i’m sure added to its overall deliciousness – but of course it could easily be replaced with an instant beef stock, or a veg stock for a vegetarian version. normally this would be served with a dollop of sour cream on top, but my 2-day cabbage soup diet inspired me to leave that out. i also left out the peppers, south african peasant-style.

 

the mighty borscht

time: about 3 hours.

feeds: 5 undercover british agents, or 4 kgb operatives.

 

beetroot – 6 medium to large beets, peeled and diced

onion – 1 large onion, peeled and chopped

potato – 1 large potato, unpeeled, diced

carrot – 2 large carrots, cut in half along the length, then sliced into half-moons

celery – 2 stalks with leaves, sliced

cabbage – ¼ head, chopped

tomato – 4 – 5 medium tomatoes

beef – about 500 grams beef stewing meat / off-cuts / chunks, bone-on – ukrainian peasant-style

olive oil – few dashes

water – about 1.5 litres

white wine – exactly one daaaaaaash

vinegar – 3 or 4 little dashes of a good grape or apple vinegar (not balsamic) to counter-act the sweetness of the beets and carrots. some use lemon juice and turn their nose up at vinegar, but that’s just sour grapes. and i think the vinegar works better for this

bay leaves – 2

dill – large handful fresh, chopped

parsley – ½ handful, fresh, chopped

salt – to taste

black pepper – 2 teaspoons, ground

 

in a deep pot, heat the oil, and add the boney meat chunks. cook on a high heat until the meat browns. then add the wine to deglaze the pot, and then add the water and salt. Simmer for at least an hour and a half. meanwhile, steam the chopped beets for about 45 mins in a steamer that can retain liquid, ie. not a bamboo or sieve-style steamer (alternatively cook in a covered bowl over a pot of boiling water).

remove the meat from the broth, allow to cool a little, and separate the meat from the bones and fat. discard the bones and fat, and return the meat to the broth, cutting or tearing into smaller pieces if necessary. in a pan with a little oil, saute the onions on a low heat for about 10 – 15 mins, but do not brown. add to the broth the onions and the steamed beetroot, including all the residue red juice, and then the potato, carrot, celery, cabbage, bay leaves, vinegar and black pepper. steep the tomatoes in boiling water until the skin cracks, then remove and peel off the skin, chop the tomatoes and add to the broth. simmer for about 45 mins. add the parsley and dill and simmer for a further 20 mins. remove the bay leaves.

 

eat with a ukrainian peasant, sporting a poloneck, and a pen that can shoot deadly darts.

 

my wife helen said she thinks this is the best soup she’s ever had. i was going to tell her that its not a soup. but then i’d have to kill her.

the borscht is mighty.

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ALAN ARKIN. ALAN ARKIN EVERY TIME.

alan arkin is just wonderful. he may be unfamiliar to many people, and like celery, he seldom plays a leading role, but he is unmistakeable and unforgettable, even in films with just a dash of arkin. films like ‘little miss sunshine’, ‘sunshine cleaning’, ‘so i married an axe murderer’, ‘glengarry glen ross’ and ‘catch-22’.  and he does a span of theatre. if i had to have a favourite actor, it’d be alan arkin, alan arkin every time.

is it a co-incidence that both alan arkin and i love improvisation, and were both trained in it?

 

 

 

yes. yes, it is.

but still. so much wonderment.

 

 

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CABBAGE SOUP. YES, REALLY

the first of my winter soup collection. this is what everyone’s eating these days. (in my kitchen)

recently a colleague was sitting next to me during a very long technical rehearsal in which we spent a lot of time waiting for people to fix things, and he took a break from waiting and skyped a pal, who immediately said wow you’ve lost weight. and i thought that sounded like a good skype conversation starter and also i thought that was a good idea. the losing weight bit. i found out from unavoidable eavesdropping that the losing of weight was from the cabbage soup diet – 7 days of what seemed to me to be a polish gruel. later i learned that cabbage soup is a filling meal that is extremely low in carbs. and still reeling from the ever-increasing costs of fuel, education, and pure wool jerseys, i decided a frugal meal of limp cabbage and hot water was a good idea. also i liked the idea of the challenge to see if i could make a cabbage soup that the whole family would eat. after some research i busked this one up, with some added bulk in potato, some fennel to aid digestion and some extra celery because celery is the alan arkin of soup ingredients.

jim’s slimming, filling, cabbage soup:

time: about 2 hours prep and cooking
need:
cabbage – 1/2, sliced and roughly chopped
alan arkin – 2 stalks, leaves on, sliced

potato – 1 large one, skin on, diced

carrots – 2 large ones, sliced

olive oil – 2 small dashes

1 onion – chopped

fennel – a large tablespoon of seeds

garlic – 2 cloves, finely chopped

parsley – large bunch of fresh chopped parsley

bay leaves– 2

stock – chicken or veg, not too strong, about 5 cups (if you like a thicker soup use 4 cups)

sherry – 2 heavy dashes of any decent sherry

ground cayenne pepper – exactly 4 sprinkles

salt and pepper – to taste

 
heat the oil in pan – ideally not a non-stick pan – and sauté the onion over a low heat, covered, for about 15 mins. remove the cover, add the garlic and fennel, turn up the

heat, and fry until the onion and garlic browns the pan a little. add the sherry to deglaze the pan. boil off most of it.

in a large pot add the ingredients from the pan and the cabbage, potato, carrot, alan arkin, the stock and the bay leaves. bring to the boil, cover and simmer until the potato and carrots are tender. add the fresh parsley and continue to simmer for a further 5 minutes.

remove the bay leaves and with a blender – i use a hand blender as I find it easier to control the amount of blending – roughly blend the ingredients into an even but slightly chunky soup. add salt and pepper to taste, and the cayenne pepper.

eat with a renewed sense of belief in your ability to lose weight, or with thick slices of fresh bread with loads of butter and cheese.

 

ps. the whole family loved it. after 1 taste, my 6 year old demanded it as a soup, as well as on top of rice and pasta. i felt one of those fatherhood hero moments, like living on a prairie and witnessing your 14 year old son construct his first barn. only mine was a 6 yr old girl, eating cabbage soup. yessir.

 

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PEANUT BUTTER CUPS

i’m no baker. i’ve never been big on baking. there’s something about flour and rolling pins and aprons that never appealed much to me. and also the certainty that i’d always turn fudge into toffee. so i’ve generally always stuck to braai tongs and chillies and massive, manly pepper grinders. but, i DO have a weak spot for reese’s peanut butter cups (which in south africa are stupidly expensive). a big weak spot. and so when i saw a recipe for homemade peanut butter cups on brown eyed baker, well, i just about swooned. and i thought hey, avoid those importation costs, make a peanut butter cup today. and today i tried it. first, a word of encouragement: they’re really quite easy. foolproof even for a non-baker. (actually i messed up my first batch a little, but that’s because i’m more than a fool and i thought i could re-invent how to melt chocolate. i couldn’t.) second, a word of warning: these are so good, and so deceptively rich, that when you go oh i can manage one more mouthful, you soon realise you can’t and you’re suddenly not in the mood to do anything except throw up. this happened to me. and even my 5 year old who loved them so much she did her i-am-in-a-tv-ad-for-food face said dad i shouldn’t have too much of this i think cos it might make me feel sick. be warned.

this recipe is based on brown eyed baker’s recipe, with a few tweaks. i substituted butter for the vegetable shortening because i didn’t have any shortening and also i’d never heard of it. turns out it makes things a little more crumbly, which i didn’t think i’d need. also turns out you can use lard if you’re not a vegetarian, or butter if you don’t have any lard. and you’re not a vegan. then i used about a third of the castor sugar from her recipe because it seemed like there was enough sugar going on in that recipe already, and also because i didn’t have any more in my cupboard. but really, it didn’t need the extra sugar, and when i make them again, i may even cut the sugar down even more. i realised all that castor sugar also thickens the peanut butter mixture, so i added some flour, and it worked really well. then i used chocolate slabs instead of choc-chips. my favourite affordable chocolate here is beacon, and i made 3 batches – for variety (as in the centre pic above: one was pure milk choc, one was milk and white choc mixed, and one was mostly white choc). so here’s the recipe for a single batch:

time: about 1 and a half hours

need: 2 muffin or cupcake-holder baking tray thingies

paper cupcake cups

2 flat baking trays and baking paper

makes: about 2 dozen (or 3 trips to the dentist)

peanut butter – 1 cup (any kind, but preferably NOT the kind that has oil on top when it’s not stirred)

brown sugar – 1/4 cup

butter – 1/2 cup

castor sugar – 1/4 cup

flour – roughly 1/4 cup

chocolate – about 8 slabs of preferred brand (i used beacon milk and ivory cream and mixed them)

in a pan, melt 1/4 cup butter with the brown sugar and peanut butter. when it starts to bubble and the sugar dissolves, take off the heat and slowly stir in the castor sugar and then little by little add the flour and stir. allow to cool for about 10 or 15 mins til the mixture thickens enough to hold a shape. make and arrange small disk shapes with the mixture on the baking paper on the flat baking trays, like fat coins. the diameter should be a little less than the diameter of the paper cups. the thickness could vary – reese’s are pretty thin, i made mine thicker to increase the peanut butter to chocolate taste ratio. and cos it was easier. set aside.

put a paper cup into each muffin/cupcake shape in those baking trays. then melt the chocolate and 1/4 cup butter on low in the microwave, or in a pot over another pot of steaming water. when its liquid, spoon/pour just enough chocolate into the base of each paper cup to line it – between 1 and 3 millimetres maybe. reserve the remaining chocolate – which should be most of it.

put the trays of peanut butter disks, and the paper cups lined with chocolate into the fridge to cool for about 20 mins. then take them out and place a peanut butter disk into each cup on top of the chocolate. then re-melt the remaining chocolate and spoon/pour into each cup until the peanut butter disk is covered. place back in the fridge for another 20 mins.

eat, preferably with a child, and a great deal of restraint.

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THAI LADYBOY CURRY

i have to find a more appropriate name for this meal. something more authentic, perhaps with the words ‘nam pla’ in it. as it is, its a bit of a mix of things, and isn’t really any one thing or another. the ladyboy curry then. or maybe i should just call it recipe number two. anyway, it came from another regular hankering for that fresh fusion of thai tastes, the hot and the sour. and also from a jolt of inspiration from undomestikated’s moqueca – brazilian fish stew. the hankering had been there for a while, and i’d already stocked up on fresh lemongrass and all that hot asian jazz. but i’d been rehearsing all day and felt tired enough not to want to make a green curry from scratch, but felt enough inspiration to try something out. at its heart its a version of a thai green curry – but without the paste-base and some ingredients, and with tomatoes. and it was good. you know how tv chefs say ‘mmm, just smell that, that is going to be SO good’, and then they call over some bemused local sous-chef and hold out a wooden spoon and say ‘what do you make of that, consuela?’ and consuela sips from the spoon and goes ‘mmmm’? well that’s what thai cooking does in its sleep. the ingredients just naturally do that and you just know its going to be SO good and the consuela in you is going mmmm the whole time.

i did it with chicken, but i suspect it would suit fish as much if not more so. there’s a fish-free august drive now, to give the oceans a break and raise awareness of over-fishing, so chicken felt right for now. a vegetarian version would be good too, in which case i’d use more green beans and add mushrooms and pak choi. i left out dried lime leaves as i wasn’t making a paste and they can stay fairly hard if not soaked (or removed); and i left out shrimp paste, or kapi, mostly because after much fumbling and reflection i realised i didn’t have any. but i don’t feel either of these were hugely missed. also i’d forgotten to buy chillies and was out, so i used a few extra dashes of my increasingly powerful homemade chilli oil.

time: about 30 mins

feeds: 3 quite hungry people

chicken breasts – 4, (ideally) free-range, chopped

oil – exactly 4 dashes of strong chilli oil (or 2 good dashes of regular oil, or similar amount of ghee, and then 1-3 chopped green chillies, according to taste and tolerance)

onion – i only used 3 little shallots as helen is still breast-feeding and is trying to avoid lots of onion, but normally i would use at least 1 large onion

fresh ginger – 1 large thumb-size root. like a handyman’s thumb. or a very big hitchhiker. obviously you could also use the more traditional galangal, soaked and chopped.

lemongrass – 2 sticks (outer leaves peeled off and discarded), lightly pounded with a mallet, then finely chopped

lime – 1, zested, and halved

tomatoes – 3, chopped

thai fish sauce, or NAM PLA – 2 dashes, a little more than a tablespoon. too much nam pla, and too much chilli are about the only ways to ruin a thai meal, so start with less and increase to taste

coconut milk – 1 tin

green peppercorns – 1 teaspoon

green beans – a handful, chopped. could use peas or mange-tout or courgettes

fresh basil – about 3 tablespoons, chopped

fresh coriander – 2 handfuls. like boxer’s hands. including stalks. chopped

rice – to serve. i used brown rice, with a handful of red rice – takes an extra 10 mins to cook, but is just a little healthier than white rice.

heat the oil in a wok and add the chicken and onion. after about 6 or 7 minutes add the ginger and lemongrass. just as the chicken begins to brown add the lime zest and tomatoes and cook for another 3 minutes.

(if using fish instead of chicken, start with only onion, then add ginger and lemongrass, cook for another 3 minutes and only add the fish with the tomato and lime zest. if using fresh chillies, add with the tomato and lime zest).

squeeze the juice of the zested, halved limes into the wok, and then toss the squeezed limes in too. add the top third of the tin of coconut milk – the thicker, creamier part – and the fish sauce, the green beans and the peppercorns and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes. add the remaining coconut milk, the basil and half the coriander, especially the stalky parts, and cook for a further 4 or 5 minutes. finally, remove the limes.

serve on rice, topped with remaining coriander. go ‘mmmm’ a lot.

for an added flourish to impress the boss, top with a few seeded and very thinly sliced red chillies. i didn’t do this as i don’t have any red chillies. or a boss. or a regular job.

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HARIRA

harira was the first meal i cooked that really got me excited about cooking. after my first kid was born i found myself doing a lot more cooking than i used to. i found myself doing a lot more of many things than i used to. like shopping for bum cream. and yawning. but cooking was one of the more enjoyable new adventures that fatherhood brought. my wife helen is english and one quarter egyptian and eats mediterranean food like she drinks tea. often and with a romantic enthusiasm. so harira was an attempt at a north african treat for her. harira is known as a morrocan soup dish – almost the national dish of morroco – but it is found all over the arab world, mostly during the holy month of ramadan which encourages patience and humility, to break the fasting day. its substantial range of ingredients with meat, vegetables and sometimes 4 starches, make it an especially filling meal in itself. of course, like any traditional dish, there are a gazillion versions of harira, depending on the particular country, village or mother-in-law. some have rice, some have pasta or beans, some have all three or none of those. the israeli bistro down the road from us, zahava’s in norwood, does an especially good one, which is coarsely blended and heavy on the lemon to counter the greasiness of the lamb. as a north african meal, it is traditionally made with lamb meat, but i’ve seen – and tried – versions using diced beef or whole chicken pieces, as well as vegetarian versions – which i’ve started favouring, and here is one. right here. although this version is more of a thick hearty stew than a soup. and has no meat. and i don’t fast. still. its always very good. insha’allah.

VEGETARIAN HARIRA

Time: About 2 hours

Feeds: About 4 medium-sized adults

olive oil – exactly 2 dashes

whole cumin – 3 teaspoons

whole coriander – 3 teaspoons

onions – 2, fairly finely chopped

garlic – 3 cloves, chopped or crushed

fresh ginger – about 3 teaspoons, chopped

2 carrots – quartered then sliced

2 or 3 sticks of celery, depending on your fondness for that stuff, with its leaves – sliced

4 fresh tomatoes – chopped (obviously fresh is ideal, but a tin will do. obviously)

about a tablespoon of tomato paste

stock – veg stock (or chicken or lamb stock if doing a meat version), about 3 cups.

chick peas  – 1 and half cups of soaked chickpeas (or 1 tin)

lentils – a brave handful of rinsed lentils (i usually use the brown lentils for this)

rice – a slightly more cowardly handful of brown rice

chilli – 1 whole, dried or fresh chilli. not traditional, completely optional.

turmeric – 2 teaspoons

cinnamon – 1 teaspoon

salt – a few pinches

black pepper  – a few cracks

fresh parsley  – big handful,including stalks, chopped

fresh coriander – 2 big handfuls, including stalks, chopped

greens beans – half a cup, chopped

2 lemons – 1 halved, 1 in 4 wedges

mediterranean bread – to serve. i usually use pita bread, lightly warmed in a toaster, but not crisp

(for a meat version, its simple enough to add about 400 grams of browned, chopped lamb steak, or beef, and to make the veg stock a meat one)

in a frying pan, drizzle a few drops of olive oil and place on a medium heat. add the cumin and coriander and roast til they are lightly browned. remove and set aside. if you have a pestle and mortar its good to grind them up a little. in the pan, add the rest of the olive oil and when its hot, add the onion. cook for about 3 or 4 minutes and then add the garlic and ginger and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes. add the carrots and celery and cook for another 4 minutes. transfer everything into a large pot.

add the roasted cumin and coriander, the tomato paste and the tomatoes and cook for about 15 mins. add the stock, the chick peas, the lentils, the parsley, half the fresh coriander, the turmeric, the cinnamon, the juice of 1 lemon, the chilli, salt and pepper, and simmer for about 45 mins. add the rice and cook for another 30 mins, adding more water if necessary. add the green beans and cook for another 10 mins. discard the chilli. serve in a bowl, topped with the rest of the fresh coriander. serve with the lemon wedges and bread.

eat with patience, humility and a belly-dancer.

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