Barszcz Bialy or White Borsch

Here is a story from one of our editors about an Easter family tradition passed down through many generations. It just goes to show that even the oldest of cherished family recipes can use a helping hand from a good food processor.

When my great-grandmother came to the United States from Poland, she brought with her many long-standing culinary traditions. She was from a poor peasant town, so most of these traditions involved coaxing maximum flavor out of simple ingredients. One common means to achieve this goal was fermentation. The lowly cabbage takes on a myriad of complex flavors when transformed into Kapusta, also known as sauerkraut. Cucumbers become pickles and grapes become wine. And simple grains become the base for my favorite soup: Barszcz Bialy or White Borsch.

Throughout my childhood this soup was served only one day out of the year: Easter Sunday. Historically, rye was the grain of choice when making Borsch in Poland. When my great-grandmother arrived in the U.S., she found fresh raw rye flakes difficult to find. Oatmeal was plentiful and very similar, so the switch was made.

Every year, four cups of uncooked rolled oats were combined with 10 cups of water in a large mixing bowl exactly one week before Easter. The mixture was then covered with a towel and put into the basement (any cool, dark place will do.) Every night it was stirred and re-covered.

Early on Easter morning, a small bone-in ham and several polish sausages (both fresh and smoked) were placed into a large stock pot and covered with water. The meats were boiled for about four hours. Ten cups of the meat water were placed into a separate stock pot. The fermented oat water was strained, then slowly poured into the meat water while whisking constantly.

The boiled meats were cut into large chunks and placed into large serving bowls along with roughly chopped boiled eggs and horseradish. The hot Borsch gets poured on top. It absolutely must be served with generously buttered rye bread, and a decorated lamb cake is a great ending to this meal.

A few years ago I saw rolled rye flakes at my local market and I decided to try making a rye based Borsch. The resulting Borsch was very delicious but definitely different from the version I was accustomed to. The next week I made another with two cups of rye and two cups of oats. It was perfect! Each grain produces distinctive flavors that compliment each other quite well.

The only other way I have deviated from tradition involves the preparation of the horseradish. I peel a large piece of horseradish, cut it into quarters and toss it into my food processor. After a few pulses, I have perfect chunks. My mother and grandmother always spent a lot more time on the horseradish. I like to think that preparing things slowly with family is part of the joy of a holiday tradition, but who has time anymore? I use handy tools, like food processors, whenever possible and use the extra time to sip on wine with friends and family.

There are a couple of things to be aware of if you intend to make Barszcz Bialy, or White Borsch. You are cultivating the micro-organisms that are naturally found on grain products. You can't use heavily processed grains; they are devoid of all life. Use organic rolled oats (not instant) or organic rolled rye flakes. The quality of your water matters too. Chlorine is deadly to these micro-organisms; use only clean, filtered water.

Thanks for spending a few minutes learning about my Easter tradition. It is not only a dish with a long, rich history; it also tastes great! So try something new and ferment your own batch of delicious soup.

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