Like many of you, I have been filled with agony over Russia’s violent aggression against Ukraine, disgusted by the flippant and cavalier attitudes presented by deniers and Putin sympathizers, and worried that there is little I can do to make a tangible difference in the lives of the Ukrainian people. And yet I feel a kinship with them and want to do something, anything, to show my support.
One of the primary reasons I started Comfort du Jour was to build community with others who, like me, feel deeply connected to the world through food. It is the most universal need of humanity, yet very personal because of the customs and traditions woven into our individual and collective heritage.
Last week, a message from Sam Sifton, the founding editor of New York Times Cooking, arrived in my email inbox and it confirmed that I am not alone in this desire to use food to demonstrate solidarity. Sifton described being inundated with reader requests for recipes for borscht, a traditional sour soup that is common across all of Eastern Europe, most notably with Ukraine. I could not resist digging into the variety of recipes he offered in response to his readers, and this one in particular caught my eye.
Most borscht recipes are based on red beets, and though I adore their earthy flavor, my husband (whose Hungarian mother used to make beet borscht for herself) does not. This version, named “white borscht” by chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, features potatoes and kielbasa, and seemed more in line with my husband’s palate. The original recipe suggests using real pork kielbasa, but I have substituted a lower fat turkey kielbasa. I also cut the butter amount in half and stirred in a little sour cream at the end rather than the crème fraiche suggested by the recipe’s author.
As always, my exploration into other cultures’ cuisine has taught me some lessons, and one thing about this soup surprised me. I have long assumed that Eastern European soups are “sour” because of fermentation or added vinegar (and sometimes they are), but this soup is both soured and thickened with a hefty chunk of sourdough bread, which I always happen to have on hand. This method of soaking and pureeing the bread was a genius move by the author, as it gave the soup a sturdy, almost creamy, texture, as well as a distinctive sour flavor. Always more to learn in the world of food, isn’t there?
My only regret is that I cannot make an enormous vessel of this soup to feed and comfort all of Ukraine, but I hope that somehow, sharing this experience will ripple across time and space to ensure the courageous people of that nation that they do not stand alone. 🇺🇦
Note: The original recipe linked above is only available to paid subscribers of New York Times Cooking (which I am), but my adaptation is very close to the original, except for the aforementioned substitutions and the fact that I halved the recipe for our family of two.
1 lb. smoked turkey kielbasa, cut into three or four pieces
6 cups filtered water
2 dried bay leaves
4 Tbsp. salted butter, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 large leek, cleaned and cut into thin half-moon slices
Kosher salt and about 1 tsp. ground black pepper
A large piece of dense sourdough bread*, crusts trimmed (see notes)
1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled
About 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth*
Sour cream and fresh dill for serving
Note that real sourdough bread is made from a sourdough starter. Some grocery bakeries take a shortcut that embellishes yeast bread with citric acid, and it is not the same. If you don’t have sourdough bread, consider picking up a loaf from an authentic bakery or use a (seedless) rye. I confess that the sourdough loaf I had on hand was dotted with pumpkin seeds, but after pureeing, this did not have a bad effect on the finished borscht.
The recipe that inspired me did not call for broth, other than the one created by simmering the kielbasa, but in my first-attempt jitters, I accidentally simmered my soup longer than I should have and needed more liquid to keep it from becoming mashed potatoes. It isn’t a bad idea to have some broth at the ready for this purpose. I used a version of vegetable broth called “No-Chicken” broth, and it was perfect for making up the difference in liquid without affecting flavor.
- Place the kielbasa chunks in a large soup pot and cover it with the filtered water. Add the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Prep the potatoes by cutting off the sides and ends, creating mostly flat sides on the potato. Keep the potato scraps in one pile and cube up the rest into a separate pile.
- After simmering, the kielbasa should be noticeably swollen, and small droplets of fat from the kielbasa will be swirled throughout the broth. Use tongs to transfer the kielbasa to a cutting board. Pour the broth into a large bowl or measuring pitcher.
- Into the same pot, melt two tablespoons of the butter and sauté the yellow onions and garlic with salt and pepper for about five minutes, until tender. Add the remaining butter and leeks to the pot and sauté two more minutes, until those are also tender.
- Add the scraps of potato and the large chunks of sourdough bread to the pot. Pour about 2/3 of the reserved broth into the pot and simmer until the bread looks completely bloated, about 10 minutes. Use a large, slotted spoon or tongs to pull out the sopping bread into the measuring pitcher with the remaining reserved broth. It’s OK if some of the leeks and onions tag along. Set the pitcher aside to cool for a few minutes.
- Add the potato cubes to the pot, along with enough broth or water to just cover them. Heat to a boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes until potatoes are slightly tender. While that simmers, use an immersion blender to puree the sopping sourdough with the liquid in the bowl or pitcher.
- Stir the puree mixture back into the pot, along with the kielbasa. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Simmer just until heated through, as continued cooking will cause the potatoes to turn mushy.
- Serve the white borscht with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill.