East Meets West: Wild Wisconsin Green Borscht
April 22, 2010 § Leave a comment
There are probably as many variations of this classic as there are of the regular “beet” borscht. Although I think most people in this country might not even be aware such a thing exists. Green borscht is, essentially, a beef stock with potatoes and a multitude of greens which create the bulk in the soup. (I think. Correct me if I’m wrong. It’s been years). Traditionally, the primary greens, I believe, are spinach and sorrel (and also scallions, I think). I didn’t have any sorrel or even spinach, but this is nettle and ramp season, so I made my green borscht with nettles and ramps instead, and used chicken stock instead of beef stock as base, because that’s what I had on hand.
Ah nettles. I love putting them in my food. It makes me feel so thrifty. So virtuous. So resourceful. Once cooked, they are virtually indistinguishable form spinach to me (although many people will find them distinctly more fibrous than spinach), and they can replace spinach wonderfully as a nondescript filler green. When I got married 6 years ago, we made spinacopita with nettles to serve as a vegetarian entree at our wedding. The reason we did it then, and the reason I do it now is simple: nettles are a widely growing weed, and, as such, are free. Plus, they are a wild food, and wild foods do magical things in your body, not to mention that the nettle is loaded with iron and is all around good for you.
Note about harvesting nettles: While some people are not irritated by them, most react to the chemical that is injected into the skin through the ultra-fine needle-like hairs that cover the nettle’s stems (the leaves do not sting). Because some city dwellers, and as I once learned, have no idea what the heck nettle is and what that sensation is like, let me just tell you that the affected area becomes covered with red bumps and feels like a combination of burning and itching. It’s very unpleasant. If you happen to accidentally get it in, wash the area out with soap and water, which reduces the irritation if the brush with nettles wasn’t too extensive. This sting, however, is removed entirely by blanching. Also, I’ve seen some people use fresh, uncooked nettle leaves in salads, but I found that they taste way too tough fresh. But sting they don’t. Because remember what I told you before? The leaves don’t sing.
How to Handle Stinging Nettles:
- I use suede gloves to pick them, being sure to pick only the top part of the plant, which is the tenderest, unless it’s this time a year, when nettles are barely popping through (see the picture) and most of the plant is tender. It goes without saying that I am careful not to let them come in contact with my skin.
- To wash, I put them in a colander, all the while wearing gloves, and give them a quick rinse under the running water.
- Again, wearing gloves, I dump the contents of the colander into boiling (or near-boiling) water, and let them simmer for a couple of minutes, after which I remove them back to the colander with a slotted spoon and let them drain a little. After that you can handle them with your bare hands, and chop them as you would cooked spinach.
So here’s what I did:
Blanched some nettles in the above way.
Chopped them. Not too finely, either.
You can use kale or spinach any other dark green instead. Even lambs’ quarters. You just need some basic, dark filler green with not-too-strong a flavor.
Chopped some ramps… You can use anything in the onion family.
Threw in some chopped onions on top of that, but only because I had some.
Cubed a few potatoes kind of like so, and then added all of the above to the boiling chicken stock (traditionally, you’d want some beef stock with some soup meat for a richer brew, but I had to use up the chicken stock on hand). Then cook everything until the potatoes become tender. In retrospect, I could have waited with adding the greens until perhaps half-way-through, so they wouldn’t cook for quite so long. But you wouldn’t want them to be chewy, either. Tender is what we want.
I then threw in some hard boiled eggs, although, traditionally, a few slices are placed on the bottom of individual portions just before serving instead. Now add salt and pepper to taste, and it’s done!
Add a generous amount of sour cream to each serving (just put it on the table and let people add their own). As far as I can tell, this is the only feature this dish shares with the other, more widely known in the West red borscht. I also sprinkled some additional chopped ramps on top. So what you get in the end is a very light, simple, chowder-potato-soup type thing. But the pride in having used wild greens makes it all special. Caution: It’s light! Wild foods are that way, too – they don’t weigh you down in a pleasant, nap-inducing way. Which for some is a good thing.
And by the way, this was supposed to be an Old World Tuesday feature. But it had to wait until Thursday instead. The kids’ needs didn’t really let me do it. Blame the kids!