I woke up from a forgotten dream, but for the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking of my grandmother’s borscht. What is it about food memories? I hadn’t thought of this soup in decades, but then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew every flavor in this soup before I found the recipe in the avocado green metal recipe box. And there was another word knocking around my head. Flanken.
When Mary would make soup, and there were only six in her repertoire – matzo ball in deeply flavored chicken broth; split pea, no ham – maybe hot dogs; vegetable barley with beef; and beefy borscht. There were two exceptional cold soups, too, but with snow flurries, cold days and a stiff breeze, I’m focusing on the hot ones.
Flanken is a key ingredient in the two beef soup recipes in that little box much as other cultures might use pork. But not Mary, a tradition-bound Jewish cook, even though it had been decades since she kept Kosher. For her, flanken provided a deep flavor and a sturdy base for bone-sticking soups. She would ask the butcher for some “flanken,” and although she rarely spoke Yiddish, when she said this word, there was a certain tone, something that told me she spoke this word in another language first. In her native Lithuanian. The soups had the same quality. They spoke another language; all tasted of tradition even though I hardly understood that at the time.
Flanken is cut from long ribs – the rail ribs. Picture a rack of ribs – the ones in the front of the animal are longer, to encompass the lungs and heart, then they get shorter toward the back. The shorter ones = short ribs. The longer ones? Rail ribs, or flanken.
The bones are cut into slabs, right through, and each piece includes three or four round bones. By slicing the meat and bones this way, the butcher reveals the meat, the marrow and the connective tissue that makes for a gorgeous velvety rich soup. Flanken is not a short rib, but if you aren’t blessed with a butcher, and can’t get true flanken, the short rib will do.
I could picture the meat, how she cooked it first in broth to defat everything before she made the soup. Once simmered for a few hours, we would pluck the meat, dispose of the small round bones, remove the strong fat binding the meat to the bone, and fill a bowl with tender shredded beef to enrich each bite of soup. This was work done with our fingers, not a knife, and therefore one of the first kitchen tasks I recall learning. If you have used short ribs, adjust the simmering times to accomodate the thicker pieces. The meat should be completely shreddable with a fork after simmering. Plan plenty of chilling time so the fat can be removed from the stock. (Lurking under that fat cap are the flanken… The marrow from the bones? Also added to the soup. Divine.)
After the broth is strong and deeply flavored, it’s just a happy vegetable party – beets, carrots, cabbage and potato, along with a ridiculous amount of fresh dill. When the soup is done, the cabbage is meltingly tender and everything is tinged a happy deep red.
There was little doubt I would make the soup from the moment the memories flooded back. But my real intention was to can it. Pressure canning means this soup will be available whenever I wake up with thoughts of borscht.
I roasted marrow bones to make a good beef broth first. And yes, I added shallots and red onions and grassfed beef, so there may have been some essential differences between Mary’s recipe and mine. In my heart of hearts, I was relieved it tasted just the same as hers, or as the memory of hers, because it was a tummy full of comfort every time I sat at her blue and white breakfast table and inhaled the steaming bowl of soup in front of me.
February 5th would have been my Grandmother’s 120th birthday. We think. But that’s a story for another day.
2 lbs. beets
3 quarts beef broth
1 -1/2 lbs. beef flanken
3 red onions, sliced into half moons
1 lb. carrots, peeled and sliced into discs 1″ thick
1 lb. (small) cabbage, shredded, but not too fine
1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and chunked
2 cups red wine
10 stalks of thyme, 10 parsley stems, 2 bay leaves all tied together
2 Tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely minced dill weed
Scrub the beets, wrap them in foil and roast for 40 minutes at 425°F. Allow the beets to cool, then peel and quarter them. Set aside.
In a pot wide enough to accommodate the flanken, add just enough broth to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot and simmer for 90 minutes.
After simmering, strain and reserve the broth. Chill, then defat.
When the flanken is cool enough to handle, pick out the meat, shred it, and dispose of the bones and fat.
Add the onions, carrots, potato, cabbage, beets, herbs, salt, pepper and broth to a large stockpot. Simmer for one hour.
Add the beef and the dill weed and simmer for another hour.
Serve hot, with or without a tablespoon of sour cream floating on top.
Makes 5 quarts
3 large beef marrow bones
5 large shallots, halved
4 garlic cloves, halved
4 carrots, halved
1 large celeriac, chopped into four pieces
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
12 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
12 parsley stems
20 cups clean water
Preheat the oven to 425°.
Line a sheet pan with parchment. Spread out the bones, shallots, garlic, carrots and celeriac. Rub tomato paste all over the bones. Generously salt and pepper everything.
Roast the bones and vegetables for 40 minutes.
Add the roasted bones and vegetables and any collected juices to a large stockpot. Add the water. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, stems.
Simmer for at least six hours, covered.
Strain and defat.
(To can for shelf stability, reheat the strained soup, ladle into pints or quarts, place lids and rings and pressure can at 11lbs. of pressure for 20 minutes.)