Food & Drink

Russian dish ‘makes the best of it’

Borscht is a soup that can be made in summer with vegetables fresh from the garden.
Borscht is a soup that can be made in summer with vegetables fresh from the garden. Photo provided

This article ran in 2004, when Russian emigres to central Pa.were a new story. Today the Russian church on West College Avenue is long established as is the Eastern European market on North Atherton. This year’s doping controversy puts Russia in the spotlight again, in a negative way, but this recipe for an unusual version of a traditional Russian soup is worth remembering.

The Olympics are the hot ticket these cool summer evenings, and the rousing anthems played for victors stir the emotional soup of nationalism. How proud the athletes are to represent their countries; how visibly elated to accept the gold medal that justifies years of sacrifice and effort. Go USA, go Australia, go Russia! Wait a minute — go Russia? Americans able to cheer on the Russians proves that we have come a long way in the past 15 years or so.

When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the Cold War cast a dark, icy shadow over the vast Russian empire. We were taught, outright and through innuendo, that the Russians, with their Communist ideals, were the enemy. Boris and Natasha cartoons on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” portrayed Russians as deceitful, out to trick us and conquer our American way of truth, democracy and apple pie.

The first time I met a Russian at work, about seven years ago, I was taken aback by his calm and agreeable manner, his industriousness and our mutual interest in what might be the best variety of garden tomato. I faced my own misconceptions about what a “Russian” would be and realized I was wrong — we are the same. Russians are not the only populace to be misrepresented by their leaders, who turn faces of rage to the outside world.

Now many Americans are adopting Russian children, often of indigenous central Asian stock, and the strict lines of nationality are blurring. In State College, the Russian population is ever more evident. At the outdoor natatorium in the summer there are often more Russians than Americans in the evenings after the sun worshipers leave, and the laughter and shrieks of delight have a Slavic lilt.

Sergey Maslov, a State College resident whose family was among the first to emigrate to this area in 1988, is busy constructing a sweeping orb of a church for the congregation of 280 members — and 350 children — that currently meets a the Calvary Baptist church on Sunday afternoons. The Russian church, located at 3645 W. College Ave., should be completed in December. To further accommodate the increasing Russian population, there is an Eastern European market on North Atherton Street that stocks a variety of breads, smoked fish, cured meats, cheeses and frozen and canned goods.

But there is no need to resort to a specialty store to prepare what many consider the quintessential Russian dish — borscht. We recently hosted a young Russian visitor who delighted herself, and us, by spending an afternoon making “borch,” as she wrote it. The fact that she did not have any beets available did not deter her, though culinary doctrine insists that beets are the defining ingredient of the soup. Many tasters preferred Olga’s “borch” because the beets were missing. “You put in whatever you have,” said Olga, game and determined to reproduce a taste from her homeland, “and make the best of it.”

Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink .com and can be reached at


Makes about 5 quarts

The literal translation of the Russian word “borshch” is “cow parsnip,” a wildflower also known as hogweed that grows in damp meadows and is related to the vegetable parsnip as well as carrot, fennel and hemlock. It is a soup that is broadly interpreted and peasant in the truest and best sense of the word, literally, “of the land.” It is delightful to make at this time of year, with vegetables fresh from the garden.

1 1/2 pounds bottom round roast, cut into three quarter inch cubes

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon salt

4 potatoes, peeled and cut into small, flat slices

3 carrots, peeled and sliced thinly

2 parsnips, peeled and sliced thinly

2 turnips, peeled and cubed

(4 medium beets, peeled and grated — if they are available and you want to put beets in it)

3 large tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons butter

1 or 2 onions, sliced

3 leeks, diced

1 green pepper, diced

Water or stock to cover vegetables

2 bay leaves

 1/2 head of green cabbage, sliced thinly

Beet greens from the beets, or a few leaves of kale, sliced

Pepper sauce to taste (Olga really liked the Zavory Peppers sauce, a not-hot local condiment available at O.W. Houts and other specialty shops)


Sour cream

Fresh dill or parsley, optional

Place the beef cubes, water and salt in a soup pot and simmer, covered, for about an hour and a half. Prepare the potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets and tomatoes and set aside. Heat the butter in a saute pan and saute the onions, leeks and pepper. Add all the raw vegetables and the sautéed vegetables to the soup pot, adding additional water or beef stock if needed to cover the vegetables. Cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes, and add the cabbage and beet greens or kale and adjust the seasoning with your favorite pepper sauce and salt. Serve with a dollop of sour cream in each bowl and garnish with dill or parsley, if desired.