November 18, 2018

Christmas Borscht in a Jewish Town

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about my visit to Veselka, a renowned Ukrainian restaurant on Manhattan’s very Jewish-centric Lower East Side, is that the restaurant is, in fact, not Jewish. After my many visits to Veselka over the years, so many bowls of matzo ball soup and having eaten more than my weight in pierogi and potato pancakes, I guess I just assumed it was a Jewish restaurant. To add to my confusion, a larger-than-life “Happy Challahdays” sign is one of the first things you notice when you walk into the buzzing luncheonette.

That’s the thing about New York and Jewish food. Words like shlep and schmear and farkakteh are such an integral part of the everyday New Yorker’s lexicon, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the whole city is not just one big Jewish enclave.

I once read that the Lower East Side of Manhattan is considered the “Plymouth Rock of American Jewry.” When you consider that five out of six American Jews have origins in Eastern Europe, the vast majority of whom immigrated to cities and towns on the East Coast, it stands to reason that Jewish influence would have tremendous impact on the food and culture.

Because food is the greatest and most powerful unifier, imagine the joy hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans felt for that shared cuisine when Veselka opened in 1954 as a small newspaper, candy and cigarette stand. With only six stools in the original U-shaped diner, it began to sell sandwiches and coffee as well as Ukrainian specialties such as pierogi and borscht to meet the demand of the more than 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants who called the area their home at the time.

Words like shlep and schmear and farkakteh are such an integral part of the everyday New Yorker’s lexicon, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the whole city is not just one big Jewish conclave.

Germans, Italians, Poles — Jews and non-Jews alike — made up the fabric of the neighborhood in the 1950s and contributed rich and diverse dishes from their homelands.

This is one of the many reasons to love this part of New York City.  Even with the city’s neverending push to reinvent itself, phasing out the mom-and-pop diners and gentrifying neighborhoods whose inhabitants seem sewn into the landscape, there are and always will be gems like Veselka that serve the kind of soul food that manages to pull the heartstrings at first bite.

Although Veselka’s renowned borscht is made with pork butt and topped with sour cream, making it doubly unkosher, I was lucky enough to be there to watch its equally iconic Christmas borsht prepared. Ukrainian and Polish Christmas Eve is a fasting day when no meat is consumed. But the day culminates in a 12-course feast of which the first course is always vegetarian Christmas borscht. This works perfectly for Jews as well because a fabulous big bowl of “Veselka Red” just begs for a heaping dollop of sour cream and chopped dill.

Veselka’s Christmas borscht is served with dreamy little mushroom-and-onion dumplings called vushka (tiny ears in Ukrainian.) We will leave those for another day, but I’ve found that adding some sliced porcini or portobello mushrooms to the borscht will approximate the texture and contrast nicely with the earthy beet stock. Also, as a departure from Veselka’s recipe and Christmas borscht in general, I like to add back in some of the beets as well as all of the vegetables because I like my soup chunky. Feel free to follow the recipe exactly if you prefer a more brothlike soup.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the number of steps in this recipe. They are all very simple, and the soup itself can be prepared over a few days if you wish. It also freezes beautifully. Feel free to use chicken or beef stock in place of vegetable stock, and then perhaps use an inferior but better-than-nothing nondairy sour cream alternative.

Any way you want to make this soup, though, know that it’s much more than just a bowl of ruby red beets and humble vegetables. It’s the shared dreams and goals of the people of ancient lands and common heritage who happened to find themselves pressed together in the little bubble that is the Lower East Side.

(Adapted from “The Veselka Cookbook” by Tom Birchard and Natalie Danford (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)
2 pounds beets, trimmed and scrubbed,
unpeeled (small, young beets are best)
¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar (if you are sensitive to the taste of vinegar,
reduce the amount but don’t  leave it out entirely as it keeps the beets their vibrant red color)
4 cups water
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup porcini or white button mushrooms,
sliced (optional)
4 cups vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
5 whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon sugar, more to taste
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground
black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons salt, more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped,
for garnish
4 tablespoons sour cream or crème
fraiche, for garnish

Coarsely chop the beets in a food processor. In a medium pot, combine beets, vinegar and 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beets are soft, about 45 minutes. Strain and set aside juice. Veselka uses these cooked beets for its wonderful beet salad. I like to put half of them back into the stock and eat them in the soup.

In another medium pot, add carrot, celery, onion, mushrooms (if using), vegetable stock, bay leaves and allspice berries, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered until vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes. Strain and discard vegetables and aromatics. Again, Veselka discards the vegetables. I don’t. Rather, I pick out the bay leaves and allspice berries and keep the vegetables.

Combine strained stock and beet juice and simmer 5 minutes. Add sugar, garlic, black pepper, and season with sugar and salt to taste. Serve with half the beets, the vegetables and sprinkled with dill. Top with sour cream if desired.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Me and Borscht

What do Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and I have in common? We all spent a day at Veselka, an iconic Ukrainian restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The actresses were filming a trailer for their upcoming girl-power caper, “Ocean’s 8,” and me, well, I spent a far more exciting day watching the borscht-making process in Veselka’s 63-year-old kitchen.

My guide for the day, Veselka’s Ukrainian-born executive chef Dima Martseniuk, a French Culinary Institute graduate and veteran of some of the city’s most competitive kitchens, showed me around the various stations that churn out absurd amounts of Eastern European classics like pierogi, cabbage rolls (sarma) and stroganoff, but I was here for another classic: Veselka’s world famous borscht, of which 5,000 gallons a year are made by one powerhouse Polish grandmother named Malgorsia.

The day I stepped into Veselka’s seemingly endless, underground kitchen happened to be the day that a cataclysmic blizzard dubbed the “bomb cyclone” befell the city starting at 5 a.m. Stabbing icicles of snow and wind made visibility grim when I reached the restaurant in the morning. But inside, sheltered by the warmth and coziness of Veselka, with the sweet smell of stock and savory meat all around me, I met a cyclone of a different variety and no less powerful.

Polish-born Malgorcata Sibilski, affectionately known as Malgorsia, has been making Veselka’s iconic staple, as well as all its other soups, for more than three decades. For five hours straight, I watched the diminutive 71-year-old grandmother of five lift, chop, paddle, schlep, taste, stir, hoist and smile. She didn’t talk much, so I just watched her until a bit past noon, when, in the middle of the lunch-rush chaos, she disappeared up the stairs for a few moments leaving me to contemplate my lack of energy in her wake.

Four minutes later, she reappeared with a plastic pitcher of coffee, two chipped Veselka mugs and a brown paper bag. She poured us coffees, adding cold milk from the walk-in fridge behind me and downed hers, her first of the day she told me, in a matter of seconds. She unfolded the paper bag, offered me a slice of bread from it and proceeded to shove half a slice into her mouth, tucking the other half into the pocket of her white chef’s coat, presumably for later.

There was no sitting, no resting, not even a moment to lose because there were 100 gallons of borscht to prepare for the weekend. All the while, workers trudged in and out of the kitchen, wearing coats, hats and scarves, remarking about what I assume were the weather conditions, speaking Polish, Russian, Ukranian and a language that one of the workers informed me is Malgorsia language, a mashup of Polish and English with a sprinkling of Ukrainian.

All the while, Malgorsia was stirring and talking, smiling, charming and stopping for a second to kiss a cheek here and there and greet workers who come or go during their shifts. She beckoned me to an enormous eight-burner stove, all burners bearing 25-gallon soup pots bubbling away with various fragrant liquid concoctions.

I followed her in an overwhelmed daze and watched as she explained in broken “Malgorsiaspeak” the various contents of the pots. One pot was full of cabbage and other vegetables that I watched her chop by hand the whole morning. Another, with huge white lima beans in a different broth, potatoes and onions in another swimming in meat stock. Yet another contained shredded beets with vinegar (for color I was  told), and a final pot containing a strong version of beet juice that was squeezed the previous Sunday and was reducing. The meat has been cooked and is in the cold room waiting to be chopped because it is “easier to slice when it’s cold.”

She stood on tiptoes and used an oar about the size a person would use to paddle a canoe, but with a shorter handle. Martseniuk, the head chef, tried to help her reach the pots on the back burners but failed to get the stirring technique exactly right. He told me that he can’t quite use the oar the way she does although he is bigger and stronger; only she can paddle the soup with the oar in the right way.

I asked him what would have happened if the weather had prevented Malgorsia from coming to work that day, seeing as she lives 35 miles away in New Jersey and the cyclone bomb had some people sheltering in place that day. Martseniuk laughed and said, “No chance of that. War, no war, rain, snow, cyclone bomb, nothing would keep Malgorsia from work. Nothing!”

“What would we do without her to make
the borscht?” — Tom Birchard

Later, Veselka’s owner, Tom Birchard, told me that Veselka employs a high percentage of older workers and is being given an award later in the month by Columbia University for being a leader in the industry in this regard. “Older workers are mature and have an incredible work ethic, as you can see. What would we do without her to make the borscht? Can you believe her passion and dedication?” he asked me. I admitted to him that Malgorsia has astounded me with her speed, efficiency and passion for her “art,” as she called it.

“This is my play,” she said when we finally were ready to put together the borscht eight hours later, six pots and pans of cooked ingredients in front of us along with her trusted paddle, to be mixed into a huge cauldron and then separated into 50, one-gallon empty plastic Hellman’s mayonnaise containers.

For five minutes, she mixed and seasoned until finally she stuck one of her gloved pinkies into the soup for a taste. I looked at her expectantly. Silently, she handed me a spoon the size of my head and nodded toward the pot. “Try,” she said.

I got the feeling it was a test to see what I’m made of, and sure enough, to me, the soup needed salt and acid, so I told her so. A smile broke across her face, an indication that I didn’t fail her. “Bravo!  Yes, we add,” she said as she mixed in some more vinegary beet juice and Maggi. “Now we play until we are happy.”

Upstairs in the restaurant, after the woman The New Yorker dubbed the “Queen of Borscht” had played with her soup enough to be happy, I was served a steaming bowl of “Veselka Red” (a real term in New York) beet soup with chunks of potatoes, lima beans and tender meat. On the side were two perfect slices of the house-baked challah and a dollop of sour cream that seems to have come from some heavenly planet.

I contemplated the snowy wonderland outside the steamy windows, and the huge “Veselka is Love” sign made out of foot-tall red, wooden letters hanging above my head. I was surrounded by young and old people speaking many languages, some laughing and some just sitting in quiet meditation in this little piece of old New York on Second Avenue. I raised a spoon to my mouth and remembered a sentence from the Talmud: “A person will be called to account on Judgment day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.”

Rest assured, at Veselka, full enjoyment regularly ensues — and with great abandon.

Stay tuned next week for Veselka’s borscht recipe.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.