Another Hobby Blog

Friday, January 06, 2012

irrelevant chatter: I know it's borscht because it tastes better with sour cream

The thing I hate about cooking for myself (which is what happens any time I knowingly or inadvertently cook something my husband won't eat. My husband won't eat soup. I don't understand it, but aside from those times where the quickest way to heat up a decent dinner is to drop it all into the same pot together, I don't mind. We all have quirks, and being a choosy eater is a quirk I can live with.)... oops, that was a long interjection! .. okay, the thing I hate about cooking for myself is that when I cook up a decent sized pot of something (which happens anytime you've got more than three vegetables in the ingredient list) I end up eating it over and over and over again for a week or more.
So today I'm eating Excessively Orange Borscht. It was Flaming Fuschia Chicken Soup a couple of days ago, but that was before I'd given up on my denial about the power of beets. Now that the denial has given way to resignation, I'm calling it Borscht because of the beets. That's all it takes to make borscht, right? A couple of beets in the soup pot? and any time you put beets in the soup pot that makes it borscht, right? Now I don't speak much Russian, but I'm pretty sure that if you take the word "borscht" to its etymological roots, it must translate as "Oh great, it's pink. Now what do I do?"
And I wasn't in the mood for Flaming Fuschia Borscht two days ago, and I decided to play around with the color a bit. Silly me, I thought somehow that I'd be able to conquer the Flaming Fuschia. I added cumin and a little bit of yellow food coloring, and tipped the balance into the orange zone. Frankly, it looks like I started applying photo manipulation filters and forgot when to stop. Now orange is a nice enough color, but cumin is a very bright, intense yellow in its own right, and when paired up with the beet juice, I'm pretty sure this resulting orange could be worn as a safety vest. (Which I just might do if I accidentally tip the bowl into my lap while eating and typing at the same time. Still, better my lap than the almost-white carpet at my feet. Better yet, it should stay in the bowl.) Now "Safety Vest Orange Chicken Soup" didn't quite roll off the the tongue, but "Excessively Orange Borscht" is a name I can live with. It's a name that almost makes the bowl's contents endearing even on this third day after creation (with half the pot left for the next three days).
As you might have guessed by now, I am not much of a recipe person. I *can* follow a recipe, and in fact I have a small handful of sacred recipes that I don't mess with: lemon meringue pie, butterscotch-chip cookies, peanut-chicken soup, pancakes from scratch. Those select few recipes are the ones for which I go back to my recipe card every single time and follow it faithfully. Pretty much everything else is subject to whim and experimentation. I have about a 98 percent success rate with my experimentations and whims, which means that only about 2 dishes out of 100 are so unredeemable that I won't eat them (and while I'm not exactly as choosy as my husband, there is definitely a well-defined zone of "edible"). The other 98 run the spectrum from "it'll do, but I hope the leftovers don't last too long" all the way up to "OMG! I *HAVE* to have that recipe!" (which is a real "Doh!" moment because I don't keep notes as I cook, and back-engineering the recipe is never quite as successful as I'd hoped.) I have learned to treat every meal that comes out of my kitchen as a one-off, a fluke event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy this specific dish because it will never again be seen nor tasted on this Earth (excepting the 7 days of leftovers, of course).
Excessively Orange Borscht is one of those rare dishes, like a good curry, that seems to get better the second or third day out. Maybe it's because the flavors are blending, or maybe it's because the initial shock and distrust are wearing off, but EOB is inching its way up the scale into "Hmm... I might make this again if I'd kept notes... except I might leave the beet juice out next time."
Some of my most brilliant experiments come from desperation, one of those "Oh no, I need to eat again and I haven't gone to the store in the past few days" occasions. EOB was one of those. I was feeling a little sick and lethargic, and what I wanted was a good, honest, therapeutic chicken soup. I was off to a great start: I had a refrigerator full of leftovers I didn't want to eat, and I figured that the worst thing that could happen if they all ended up in a pot together is that I still wouldn't want to eat them, and if my experiment turned out to be one of those 2-%ers, I'd have a good excuse not to. :)

So into the crockpot went:
+ the bones of a rotisserie chicken (from Safeway, I think), with the remaining meat pulled off and set aside for last-minute addition into the soup.
+ a couple of leaves of kale. I like to think that it makes the soup healthier.

After an overnight slow-cook, I pulled out the solids and strained the broth. Then I started adding the stuff that would stay in as part of the soup:
+ chopped carrots
+ chopped celery
+ diced potatoes
+ diced onion (sauteed first)
+ diced bell pepper -- green and orange for festive color
+ a handful of raisins
+ the leftover chicken meat, finely diced
+ salt

The handful of raisins was supposed to have been my exciting "take a chance and see what happens" ingredient. I know that I like raisins in my rice pilaf, so it wasn't even that much of a stretch.

A couple of hours later I got a bit hungry, but the vegetables weren't tender yet, so I made myself an auxiliary snack of potatoes, beets, and kale. Flora, this is where you get to point and laugh, because when I'd been looking through my refrigerator, deciding what to add to the soup, I'd taken one look at those beets and very distinctly thought, "nope. Beets will turn the whole thing pink, and I'm not in the mood for borscht. I'll cook them up on their own in the next couple of days." So naturally when I went looking for an auxiliary lunch, I remembered that I had to cook up the beets anyway, so into the steamer they went along with some potatoes. (The kale I stir-fried)
The beets were delicious. When I tidied up dishes after lunch, I noticed that the beets had sweated a little of their juicy goodness into the steamer's drip tray. I seem to recall a snippet of the train of thought that turned my chicken soup pink, and it went something like this: "Hmm! The drip collector in the steamer has water that's loaded with vitamins from cooking the beets and potatoes. And it's bright pink. I'd better not leave it in the steamer for long or it will turn the white plastic bright pink and I'll have a terrible time getting the stain back out again. Well, I guess I could add it to the soup pot-- it's only a couple of tablespoons: hardly enough to even influence the flavor" and in it went.
+ 2 tablespoons dilute beet juice
It might not have been enough to change the flavor, but it just about instantly dyed every single ingredient in the pot a bright pink (except for the raisins which were dark enough not to show any significant change alongside the fuschia potatoes).
By this time the vegetables were just about tender, so I dished myself up a small bowl to see how the flavoring. It wasn't bad! ...but I just couldn't come to grips with bright pink chicken pieces. Beef is just fine in a borscht. Beef is a rich enough brown on its own that it doesn't suffer from exposure to pink broth. I can't say the same for the chicken.
I felt compelled to change the color somehow.
It occurred to me that cumin has a nice earthy color that might help mute the soup's visual intensity. Cumin is frequently used in chili and has a fairly strong flavor. Since I didn't want to use too much cumin, I supplemented my color adjustment with a couple of drops of yellow food coloring. I also thought the cumin on its own might be an odd flavor to add to the soup, so I balanced it with a dash of cinnamon.
+ cumin
+ cinnamon
The raisins were losing their claim to the title of my "throw caution to the winds" ingredient.
The cumin and cinnamon added an interesting flavor component, but even with the aid of yellow food coloring they couldn't offset the pink.
So I added a dash of turmeric.
+ turmeric
I might have added a bit too much turmeric, because my soup turned bright orange: Neon-, flourescent-, safety-cone orange.
It dawned on me that despite my attempts to adjust the color, what I had in my soup-pot was borscht: almost-entirely-beet-free borscht, but borscht nonetheless.
Now, whenever I make borscht (on purpose, at least), I add some beef stew cubes to the pot. My refrigerator, however, illustrating the lack of foresight that my culinary whims had embodied, was distinctly void of beef stew cubes.
It held no leftover pot roast, no fajita steak brought home from a Mexican restaurant, not even a hint of ground beef.
My refrigerator held exactly one beef-containing product: half a package of Ball Park beef hot dogs.
So I added them.
+ Ball Park beef hot dogs
I started to wonder whether the raisins might not have been the tamest decision I'd made.
And then it occurred to me that perhaps the raisins were the tipping point: perhaps the raisins were the culprit that brought the entire string of questionable choices descending down into my soup pot. If I hadn't tossed in the raisins on a whim of curiosity, maybe I wouldn't have tossed in the steamer's beet juice in a moment's indiscretion. If I hadn't added the beet juice, I would have had no reason to add the cumin, the cinnamon, or the turmeric. And beet-juice or no, the cinnamon would never have gone in the pot if the raisins hadn't already been in there.
It just goes to show how one whimsical, off-handed, ill-considered choice can influence an entire string of choices to follow.
Fortunately, it's not bad. It's odd, to be sure, but it's not bad. It's actually kinda yummy. I just had to give up the idea that it was ever "chicken soup" and just accept it on its own merits as one of those kitchen experiments gone awry.
In the words of John Krakauer (author of Into The Wild), "a challenge in which a successful outcome is assured isn't a challenge at all." Or put another way: It wouldn't be called triumph if you knew you could bank on a successful outcome.



  • At Sat Jan 07, 05:36:00 AM PST, Blogger Suztats said…

    thanks, I needed that.

  • At Sun Jan 08, 05:06:00 PM PST, Blogger ladyhawthorne said…

    LOL, nice to see that someone else cooks like I do!

  • At Mon Jan 09, 08:43:00 AM PST, Blogger Mertie said…

    Too funny!!! I am Ukrainian, and tho my Mom made Borscht ALOT, i think i have made it once. You have inspired me to want to make it again! And i love the red/pink/fuschia colour..

  • At Mon Jan 09, 12:10:00 PM PST, Blogger Peacock said…

    I am glad my soup has been so useful and inspiring! ... I still have to eat it for another two days. ...boy that pot was big.

  • At Mon Jan 09, 11:23:00 PM PST, Blogger NikonGoddess said…

    You crack me up! I loved reading this blog. I am sooooo following you like a crack addicted monkey now...or snail. ;)

  • At Tue Jan 10, 11:54:00 AM PST, Blogger Momma Bear said…

    point and laugh may be a bit harsh.
    bite my lips and snicker a little maybe..
    if it weren't for culinary curiosity (or maybe impending starvation-I'm not ready to concede to either) we would never have truffles or tomato sauce. considering how many truly awful dishes I have come up with over the years an experiment you can eat (or at least stomach) is always preferable!

  • At Fri Jan 13, 12:27:00 PM PST, Blogger Jane said…

    This totally cracked me up !! You have a wonderful flare of telling a tale, I appreciate the humor and can't wait till youe next cooking experiment...


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