Blood and Bones, Borscht and Broth
As our attention is drawn deeply inwards in the depths of winter, I can’t help but notice a particular fascination for, well, blood. It’s not the most festive of subjects, but it is something that seems to be lurking deep in our primal minds, in our collective memories of ancestral rites and rituals.
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. There is the constant desire to find out where - where is the point where it all began…most people forgot that the very oldest stories of the beginning are, sooner or later, about blood…” -Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
Even the colors of the holiday season harken back to that shared liquid that gives all of us life. There’s the white for the snow, the green for the trees, and the red for the blood. These colors have come to represent different ideals as the centuries have passed, but their pairings can still be deeply evocative.
“I was following the pack
All swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ‘round their throats
To keep their little heads
From fallin’ in the snow
And I turned ‘round and there you go.
And, Michael, you would fall,
And turn the white snow
Red as strawberries in the summertime”
-White Winter Hymnal, Fleet Foxes
This song catches my attention every year with its visceral lyrics and enchanting melody. The writers claim it just kind of came to them, but to me it feels like they were expressing some long-forgotten story about the essence of winter. It feels like a loss of both innocence and life, and it always hits me emotionally in a way few songs are able to.
It makes sense that we’d start to pay more attention to blood and bones in the middle of winter when scarcity in the landscape depleted our ancestors. Perhaps today we feel less connection to these subjects as we are able to feed our bodies with a variety of foods from grocery stores… but I think about the people who came centuries before us, who clung onto any nourishment they could find during the long harsh winters. It makes sense that they’d feel a stronger connection to the animals that provided them with much needed sustenance than we do to our chicken nuggets and fast food hamburgers.
Indeed, the practice of using up every part of the animal was once just the way it was done. Today, I’m seeing a resurgence in nose-to-tail cooking, where top restaurants are serving dishes made from unusual organs or unused muscle. Bone broth has become a health trend in the last few years, and for good reason; housewives have known for centuries that it is nourishing to the body, particularly the digestive system. I believe we are collectively moving in the right direction by letting less go to waste and finding flavor in unexpected places. Whether that’s in using unusual cuts or foraging for it in the woods, both ways bring us just a little bit closer to the Earth and her cycles.
Support your blood and body with some delicious soups while also using scrap bones and foraged ingredients. I’m presenting to you two recipes: a rich bone broth made with fortifying nettle, and a hearty borscht soup made with beets and oyster mushrooms. I hope you enjoy them!
Nettle and Lamb Bone Broth:
This rich broth makes a flavorful broth for any soup, though the strong lamb flavor goes especially well with beets in borscht. Nettles are deeply nutritive and are known to strengthen bones, blood, nails, and hair. In some areas, young nettles grow even into December, though dried nettle leaves work well too. Ask your butcher for the lamb bones; chances are, they have some saved up from their last butchering. Beef or venison bones would work well too.
4 lbs. lamb bones
2 medium carrots cut into slices
1 medium onion, quartered
1 head garlic, peeled
2 cups fresh stinging nettle leaves (wear gloves!) or 1 c. dried nettle leaves
1/2 c. chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
2 Tbs. black peppercorns
3 Tbs. cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 450F. Place the carrots, onions, and garlic on a roasting pan and roast for 20 minutes. Toss, then roast another 20 minutes.
Add the roasted vegetables, bones, bay leaves, peppercorns, and vinegar to a large stock pot and cover with water.
Cover the pot and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook with lid slightly ajar for at least 12 hours and up to 24. (You can also do this step in a slow cooker.) Make sure to skim foam and excess fat from time to time. Overnight, you can turn the heat off and leave the pan covered, then resume cooking in the morning. Add more water if needed to make sure contents are covered.
During the last half hour of cooking, add the nettle leaves and/or parsley.
When you’ve finished cooking, remove the pot from the heat and let cool slightly. Strain the broth and discard the vegetables.
Use the broth hot or cool and refrigerate for a couple of days. It may get thick and jelly-like once it’s been refrigerated; that’s a good thing. It’ll soften back into liquid when you re-heat it.
Bone and Mushroom Borscht:
This hearty beet soup is a favorite in Eastern Europe, where it is eaten in many different iterations (Our Polish family recipe is “barscht,” and is a clarified broth rather than a chunky soup.) Not only is this soup a gorgeous scarlet color, it has a rich flavor and lots of delicious components. I like to make it with oyster mushrooms, a winter foraging favorite.
6 medium beets, scrubbed
2 c. fresh mushrooms
3-4 c. homemade bone broth
1 c. water
1 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
6 juniper berries
3 allspice berries
freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste (about 3 Tbs.)
1/4 c. coarsely chopped dill
sour cream or greek yogurt to taste (sheep yogurt is especially yummy!)
mint to garnish
Preheat oven to 400F. Place beets on a piece of parchment paper-lined aluminum foil. rub a bit of oil on the beets, then fold up the edges of the foil and parchment paper to enclose beets. Roast on a small baking sheet until tender, or about 1 hour. After 40 minutes, add the mushrooms to the pan as well. Cool until the beets are safe to handle, then peel and chop into small pieces.
In a little cheesecloth bag, tie the bay leaves, juniper berries, allspice berries, and peppercorns.
In a medium stockpot, combine beets, mushrooms (chopped), sugar, garlic, and enough broth to cover. Add the bag of seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for about an hour, then remove the bag.
Serve hot, and garnish with yogurt or sour cream, fresh dill, and fresh mint.
Love what you’ve read here? Don’t forget to Subscribe to get frequent updates of new posts!
Huge thanks to my Patrons that make sharing all of these lovely posts with you possible (without all of the pop-ups and ads that make browsing other blogs so annoying). If you’re feeling generous, you too can support the wonder with a monthly contribution of your choice. Even $1 helps a lot! Your donation will help to fund this blog as well as my surprise free events and gifts for strangers. Learn more about this program at the link below: