I Cooked Topchii Ukrainian Borscht

…and it is real good.
Many thanks to Eric for posting the step-by-step Topchii Ukrainian Borscht recipe as taught to him by Nataliya Topchii. I made these pictures to put with the recipe, so I’ll remember which pot I used, how much was made, and so on. They turned out so well, I thought I’d share.

Of course all of the ingredients and methods are included in Eric’s posting of Nataliya cooking. I suggest you revisit that and make the soup. It’s easier than pie, and tastes so good. When I do it again, I will probably use an extra beet and a little more cabbage. Otherwise the proportions of things are just right.


My ingredients. Starting at the bottom left, that’s a purple bell pepper. Green peppers aren’t in season and the pepper guy at the Market said the purple or white is closest in taste to the green. An onion, apple, three red skinned potatoes, two beets, a tiny head of cabbage, some baby carrots equal to two regular carrots, a bunch of cilantro and a wrapped beef shin.


So here’s the unwrapped beef shin. The butcher at Golden Gate Meat called it Osso Buco. I thought osso buco referred to veal shank, but I looked it up and its Italian translation is, “bone with a hole.” Anyway, this one is 1 1/2 pounds; look at that nice core of marrow that’s going to melt into the soup. I trimmed off five ounces of hard fat and tissue.


The meat in the pot. It doesn’t look like very much, but it turned out to be just the right amount.


I chose the right size pot for the meat and vegetables.

b6_potato_chunk b7_potatoes_mashed

I chose to include the Mikola Option: remove three big potato chunks from the pot and put them in a small dish with a spoonful of broth. Mash into a paste and add back to the broth for “extra flavor.” It took me one hour and 30 minutes to here, working alone. When I added the optional tomatoes, I seasoned with 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, two pinches of my salt/pepper mix and several grinds of pepper.


Here I am serving the Borscht. Lovely.


The Topchii Ukrainian Borscht was served with crudités, toasts and my newly discovered house red wine from Kermit Lynch: Coteaux du Languedoc, St Martin de la Garrigue, Cuvee Tradition 2008.


b10_left_overLeftovers… we’ll be eating borscht for a while. That’s a good thing. Those are two-cup containers.

Topchii Ukrainian Borscht

transcribed 24 Nov 2010 in Monroe, Maine by Eric Rector

Our borscht professor, Natalia
Our borscht professor: Natalia Topchii

“Alison and I had the pleasure of hosting Brian and Natalia for Thanksgiving this year, and I took the opportunity to document the Ukrainian Borscht recipe that Natalia taught me in Reno in June. Alison and I have made borscht for as long as we’ve taken cooking seriously — it’s a versatile soup that can be vegetarian or not, chunky or smooth, served hot or cold. It’s basis in root vegetables and storage crops lends itself to the things we grow in our garden and on our land. We normally grow everything but the bay leaves and the peppercorns in this recipe.

Before we met Natalia, she had heard that we liked to cook borscht and she emailed us her recipe to try, which we did. But there was no cabbage in the recipe, and other ingredients were probably lost in the translation, like ‘is paprika the powder of dried Hungarian peppers? or is it a fresh green bell pepper?’ It was still good, of course — it’s hard to go wrong cooking beef and vegetables together into a satisfying soup. But, of course, I’m chasing authenticity.

In that search, I’ve visited the Polish and Ukrainian restaurants on Lower East Side of Manhattan many times — the food is good, filling, and cheap — and had several versions of their borscht. However, after I sent an article in the New York Times profiling the history of one of these restaurants to Natalia (through Brian), she declared: ‘I do not recognize these dishes…this is not Ukraine food.’ Definitively. I know that there is a wide variation in recipes for the same dish across cultures, but I also know that when foreign dishes are adopted by American diners, they necessarily change as well and take a life of their own. bratwurst becomes hot dogs…focaccia becomes pizza, etc. So I was interested in a taste from the source, and Natalia could provide that for me. (See also “Memories Of Borscht” in the New Yorker food issue this November.)

The first time she showed me how to make Ukrainian Borscht was in Reno this June right before the Anniversary Party we threw for Marc and Carol. There were lots of interesting differences in her recipe that I noted, but admittedly I was too focused on the Party to document the recipe appropriately. The next time we saw Natalia and Brian was Thanksgiving week, and I planned for one day to be devoted to Borscht (many other ‘smatch-no’ items were produced as well, but that may be for another post). Following is the result.

Oh, also, the most authentic instruction given by Natalia in the course of teaching me how to make a true Ukrainian Borscht: almost every ingredient is optional and variable. No beef shin? OK, any beef is good, or hamburger will do. Or pork, or lamb (but never chicken). But beef stock is not necessary — you make your stock with your fresh meat. It is much better that way. Beets? That which would seem to make soup borscht? Optional. Potatoes? If you wish, one or three or five. Apple is very good, but not necessary. Carrots can be left out, as can green pepper, or can be used in larger quantity if you wish. Some people don’t like cabbage — that’s OK. But NEVER add celery — we don’t do that. Garlic is good, but never more than one clove in the pot — save the rest to mash and mix with bread. Parsley (that’s what we used because it was still growing in our garden, improbably through many frosts) is OK — dill leaves are much better. So much better that Natalia normally grows dill through the year, outside in the spring and summer, inside in the fall and winter. Which means that borscht is really just a soup with dill. Go for it.”



vegetable oil (peanut oil is preferable)
1 medium onion
1 pound beef shin with bone
3 quarts water
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium carrots
1 large (or two small) beet
1 green bell pepper
3 medium waxy potatoes (like Yukon Gold, Kennebec, or other boiling potatoes)
1 clove garlic, chopped (not minced or pressed)
1 apple, peeled, cored, grated
1 handful of chopped fresh parsley, dill leaves, sorrel leaves, or other green herbs of your choice
1/2 medium green cabbage head
1 can tomatoes (small can paste, regular can sauce)
2 bay leaves
3 black peppercorns
salt and sugar to taste

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Fennel and Berkswell Cake

I saw some really nice, fennel at the farmers market recently and it reminded me of a fennel cake I’d had in London, so I went to Cheese Plus and asked if they had “Beekswell” cheese (that’s what was in my notes). Ray, the owner, said they had Berkswell, a raw milk sheep cheese from England. I figured that must be it, and bought a wedge of nearly a half-pound.

Fennel and Berkswell Cake at St John Bread and Wine in London

Fennel and Berkswell Cake at St John Bread and Wine in London

St. John Bread and Wine is Fergus Henderson’s smaller restaurant in the Spitalfields area of London (northeast). We visited last October when we also toured France and Spain. I asked the server how it was made, it seemed so simple. She consulted the kitchen and advised that, “it is sliced fennel, layered with Beekswell goat cheese and baked. To finish, the top was spread with a mixture of milk and cheese and broiled for 2 or 3 minutes to brown.”

They served the cake with pickled walnuts.  (After making my cake, I learned that Cheese Plus sells Pickled Walnuts in a can.)

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Eats in Europe: Barcelona 1

Here I will account for everything we ate in Europe, well, most everything, well, at least the interesting things.

This installment takes Carol and I through Barcelona on our way from England to France. We hadn’t yet joined up with “the gang.”

Tuesday Dinner
Sports Bar


Our EasyJet flight arrived in Barcelona well after 9 in the night. By the time we had checked into the Hotel de Quatro Nacionales at #44 Las Ramblas, it was after 11. Carol and I were tired and hungry. Las Ramblas, the sprawling tourist street of Barcelona, was dark and relatively unpopulated and a brief rainstorm was blowing by. We saw no welcoming lights, other than the lights of a SUBWAY sandwich place and a sports bar across the street. Imagine that, our first meal in Barcelona was Subway sandwiches and vodka tonics. They did the job.

Las Ramblas

Wednesday Breakfast
Hotel de Quatro Nacionales

A continental breakfast was served on the Principal Floor of the hotel. We learned that in Spain, the Principal Floor is the floor above the Ground Floor and below the First Floor. The breakfast room featured one of those coffee machines that spout forth when you push the button for one of 8 coffee or hot chocolate concoctions. None of them are French Press, but the coffee wasn’t bad. Croissants (real ones), rolls, toast, butter, jam, and fruit are available. Life is good. Continue reading

Eats in Europe, England Edition 2

Eats in Europe will account for everything I ate in Europe, well, most everything, well, at least the interesting things.

Our transcontinental transatlantic Virgin Atlantic flight was San Francisco to London, so England was the beginning and ending of our 2007 European odyssey. I addressed our first meals in Stansted Mountfitchet, England in England Edition 1. I’ll address our meals in London, just before flying back to San Francisco, in this installment.

Saturday Dinner
Mela: Indian Cuisine

We ate at Mela on our last trip and it was a new and satisfying experience.

Mela is basically a square, storefront room on the busy Shaftesbury Avenue in SOHO. I would call it undecorated. OK, the sidewall toward the back has a tile pattern, and the lighting is soft and adjustable, thick white tablecloths complete the décor.


We were seated in the back of the main dining room. As we sat down, Carol said, “I’m glad we’re not near that woman passed out in her own vomit.” I hadn’t noticed, but over to my right, against the wall, a woman sat, sort of sprawled, with her head on the table and a napkin over it. OK, I guess I won’t look that way. The staff seemed to be ignoring her. Continue reading

Eats in Europe, England Edition 1

Eats in Europe will account for everything I ate in Europe, well, most everything, well, at least the interesting things.

Our transcontinental transatlantic Virgin Atlantic flight was San Francisco to London, so England was the beginning and ending of our 2007 European odyssey. I’ll address our first meals in Stansted Mountfitchet, England in this installment. For our London experiences, see England Edition 2.
In the spirit of everything, I’ll start with the dining experience on the 10-hour flight:


Sunday Dinner
Virgin Atlantic Airline
Sunday night on the aeroplane…

I have no idea what time it is and I really don’t care. I know we left SF and we’re not yet in London and dinner is served. We have a choice of chicken with rice or beef with mashed or vegetarian.

Roast Beef with Mashed Potatoes

Sliced Roast Beef with dark gravy and mashed potatoes in an oval dish.
Green salad
Cracker and a little wedge of orange cheese
Cheesecake, way too rich
Bottle of water
A real glass of red wine; poured from a bottle and refilled.

Not bad.

Monday Breakfast
Virgin Atlantic Airline

Pierre Creations egg and cheese croissant sandwich. It was hot and came in a cellophane wrapper.
Blueberry Muffin
Salad of 4 red grapes, 3 orange melon cubes, 3 green melon cubes
Orange juice

It wasn’t terrible.

Monday Lunch
Dog and Duck Pub
Stansted Mountfitchet, England


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Food and Memory


Los Caracoles, Barcelona

My eye was drawn to this place on my after-lunch walk, as workers were cleaning the spit where chickens twirl before flames during service.

Los Caracoles = snails. I first ate snails while on a Navy cruise in 1964, in Barcelona, prepared in tomato sauce. Could have been here.

I looked it up in my Lonely Planet guidebook: “Started life as a tavern in the 1890’s and is one of Barcelona’s best-known restaurants.” Probably was here. Sounds like a candidate for dinner.

We needed to pass by a bank machine, and did on our way at eight o’clock, stylishly early for dinner. We passed a line reaching around the corner for La Fondeau, on Calle Escudellers. In the next block, in front of   Los Caracoles about seven folks were hanging outside the door. Inside, a line was formed alongside the right wall, while the crowded bar occupied the left side of the space.

One was meant to go to the end of the bar and down a few steps to the Maitre d’ stand, but who knew? It seems that there were a number of large groups of footballers — there’s a big match coming up — and when I worked my way to the Maitre d’ and said, “dos, por favor,” we were waved right in. I collected Carol and we followed his wake through the kitchen with a room-size coal-burning stove in the center, meats and stews and sauces bubbling and roasting away on top. Up some steps and around a bend we found a fine table for two.

The room, and indeed the entire entry procedure screamed ambiance. Leather bound menus were on our table and soon a waiter came by for questions.

I was there for the caracoles in a tomato sauce — specialty of the house. Anything else would be a bonus. It was listed as an appetizer, so I felt compelled to order salted cod in a tomato sauce as an entrée. Carol ordered the Gazpacho and a half chicken, spit-roasted.

The waiter rather insisted that we have a certain Spanish Chardonnay and it turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Everything was good, except the gazpacho, which was very good. The chicken was a little too salty, the caracoles a little too muddy rich, the cod a bit tough, the rice not quite cooked enough.

The room seated about 30. Stone walls with a wood wainscot were arrayed with hundreds of signed, framed photographs of the rich and famous. The room felt fabulous.

Groups passed through, going to and from the back, guys carrying stacks of plates came one way, guys carrying huge paella pans came another, everything moving, changing in a great dance of food. What a place! It’s okay that the food is just good and the prices are over the top. I came for memories and theater and I left with a bellyful.

Lets see, 2007 — 1964, in 43 years I’ll come back again and it will be the same and I will love it all over again.

eatsforone on the go

Eatsforone is going to Europe, so I won’t be posting again until early November. But I will be eating, and maybe even do a little cooking, and I will be writing about those experiences.

Starting with Virgin Atlantic Airways, the food should be worth commentary at every step of the way. A few Google Blog searches hinted at good food for all of our stops.


The major news about Virgin Atlantic food is that,

“Virgin Atlantic is pleased to announce that it’s now offering Fairtrade tea and coffee to all passengers. The airline served nearly seven million cups of coffee and over five million cups of tea onboard flights in 2006 so a switch to these products will be a significant boost for farmers who are supplying the Fairtrade market.”

Well, not exactly mouth watering news, but it’s not bad news.457018_chimneys.jpg

Our first night will be spent at Chimneys Inn in Stansted Mountfitchet a few kilometers from London’s Stansted Airport. Probably not the quaint British town, but I’m sure we can find a pub.

Following the British experience we’re flying to Barcelona for much anticipated eats. Barcelona is where I ate my first caracoles. That would be snails in English, escargots, a more recognizable term, in French. They were steeped in a rich tomato sauce, returned to their shells, and went down good and easy. I don’t remember the restaurant or district, but it was on a Med Cruise when I was in the Navy. Carol and two other of the wives followed our ship around Europe from port to port. Continue reading