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Bialy Barszez (White Borscht)

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    Posted: 27 February 2015 at 09:52
So, Saveur ran, as one of its recipes of the day, directions for making Bialy Barszez, which they translated as “white borscht.” I’d never heard of it, and, as is usual with Saveur recipes, it sounded kind of chefy. So I decided to check it out before making it.

Here is the Saveur version, which we’ll use as a benchmark.

2 lbs smoked kielbasa
2 tbls melted butter
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 leeks, trimmed, sliced
1 sm yellow onion, sliced
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
2 sprigs marjoram
1 bay leaf
1 ½ cups sour cream
¼ cup flour
1/3 cup freshly grated horseradish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup roughly chopped dill
2 tbls chopped parsley
4 boiled eggs, cut into wedges

Boil kielbassa and 8 cups water in a 6-quart saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook to flavor broth, about 25 minutes. Pour liquid and kielbasa into a bowl; reserve. Return saucepan to medium heat. Add butter, garlic, leeks, and onion; cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add reserved liquid, potatoes, marjoram, and bay leaf; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Discard marjoram and bay leaf; puree soup in a blender. Return soup to pot; bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk sour cream and flour in a bowl, add ½ cup soup, and whisk until smooth. Pour mixture into soup; cook, stirring, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Cut kielbasa into ½” thick slices; add to soup along with horseradish, salt, and pepper. Garnish with dill, parsley, and eggs.

Saveur also includes a note that, while fresh horseradish is called for, prepared works just in mind.

I did a search for Bialy Barszez. First order of irony: Google says, “do you mean barszcz? Oh, sure, I sez, and click on it. Whereupon it says, “do you mean barszez? Sometimes you just can’t win. But, as it turns out, Bialy Barszsz is a traditional Polish soup, served on Easter Sunday. It’s likely that every housewife had her own version, keeping within a certain ingredients list, as we’ll see later on.

At any rate, among the hits was this one, which is a long list of sites dealing specifically with this soup. This will provide an idea of the variations on that theme; which are extensive.

Apparently there are two hallmarks to this soup. First is the use of the sausage water as a base. That seems to be crucial. Second, equally crucial, is the addition of some sort of sour, which could be anything from fermented rye paste to vinegar. So, by adding the prepared horseradish as I did, I unwittingly took a step in the right direction.
Saveur’s recipe lacks any sort of sour (other than the cream). A third requirement would be the dairy, usually, but not always, sour cream.

Even the ingredient amounts change the nature of the soup. Saveur’s could be described as a sausage soup, given that it uses a pound of sausage against only two potatoes. But one recipe I looked at calls for two links of kielbasa (one white and one smoked) against six potatoes. To me, that would make it a potato soup.

None, repeat, none of the other versions I examined pureed the solids. And, by the same token, none of them used as much garden truck as the Saveur recipe.

Next, even better than a chick fight, is to watch two Polish hausfraus mix it up. When you check this next link, read the review first, even before the note at the top of the recipe. Then read the rest.

Or course, what’s really involved here is a fundamental issue we often run into when discussing the nature of authenticity: whose recipe to use? It’s quite natural for anyone to take the recipe they grew up with and get dogmatic about it. Note, in the above review, that she doesn’t present her version (which was probably her mother or grandmother’s version) as an alternative. Rather, she categorically insists it is the only correct way. I can just imagine the ill feelings this soup could engender at a cousin’s club meeting.

As food researchers, our problem is often that we accept the first version of a dish we encounter as being “authentic.” And then view other versions with suspicion. This is something to guard against.
At any rate, near as I can determine, the traditional approach is to use a sourdough starter (kwas) as part of the soup. There is another Polish soup, zurek something or other, that is the same as the bialy in all respects except it uses a rye kvass, as the above reviewer suggests.
Mixing flour with sour cream is, apparently, a more modern approach.

Now comes the best part. In Poland (and, presumably, other parts of Eastern Europe), baskets of food were brought to church on Holy Saturday to be blessed. Each of the items had a special meaning. A typical basket might include:

Bacon is a symbol of the abundance of God’s mercy.

Easter bread symbolizes Christ, the Bread of Life.

Butter or other dairy products celebrate the end of Lent and the
richness of salvation.

A candle, while not edible, symbolizes Jesus, the light of the World.

Cheese reminds Christians of moderation.

Hard cooked eggs are signs of hope in new life.

Ham or other meats symbolize the abundance of the celebration of the Resurrection.

Sausage links represent the chains of death that were broken by Christ’s resurrection.

Horseradish is a reminder of the bitterness of the Passion and the sour wine given to Christ at the Crucifixion.

Salt preserves us from corruption and speaks to the Bible passage “You are the salt of the earth.”

Examine the list and you quickly see that these are, by and large, the same ingredients found in the soup. By making the ingredients into soup, the housewife assured that everyone in the family got a taste of food that had been blessed.

It gets better. One site speculates that our tradition of Easter baskets may have evolved from the European tradition of Holy Saturday food baskets. No evidence to support this idea, but it seems to make sense.

Whether true or not, don’t wait until the holiday to enjoy this Easter Basket soup. It’s perfect right now, served with a good rye bread. To capture that traditional rye flavor, if not using the kwas, tear some rye bread into small pieces, put them in the bottom of your bowl, and pour the soup over it.
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thanket
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 March 2015 at 21:46
Outstanding post, Brook - I am glad that you made it. I've had almost nearly the same thing, and really enjoyed it. 

I definitely enjoyed your subsequent writings on this - when it comes to "peasant" cooking, I gave up the search for "authentic" recipes long ago, but I do try to find as many as I can in the course of my research - that way, I can pick out the common ingredients in order to get a "happy average" as well as get a feel for the "soul" of the dish, and hopefully do it justice. Some judgement and common sense comes into play as well, but the fact remains that for many traditional recipes, there is no hard and fast "one authentic recipe."
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