I am quickly reminded when I say things like, “I learned how to make this soup from a Moldovan woman while I was staying with my dad in Afghanistan,” what an interesting life I’ve had — privileged, not in a monetary sense, but full of diversity, culture and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. My goal is to write more about those experiences, starting with this recipe for Moldovan borscht, a hearty, yet light, broth-based chicken and vegetable soup.
So, as I’ve just illuminated, I learned this recipe from a Moldovan woman in Kabul, Afghanistan, several years ago. She made this soup while I peeked over her shoulder and took mental notes.
Hers was a bit more rustic than mine. If you buy a chicken from a local market in Kabul, it will have its feet still attached, and if you grew up in a small village in Moldova, those feet will go into your soup pot. Regardless of my lack of chicken feet, I feel I really nailed the flavors and recreated the soup I remember eating.
The dill and beets are key and my favorite part of this soup. There is no butter in the recipe, but the combination of rich vegetables and the irreplaceable flavor you get from cooking the chicken skin-on and bone-in result in a satisfying, buttery depth of flavor in the finished soup.
I love any recipe that starts with a whole chicken; something about the process of breaking down a whole chicken makes me feel so capable, like I can do anything (silly, I’m sure, but you should try it sometime). If jointing a whole chicken intimidates you, feel free to buy one already jointed, or ask your friendly butcher to do it for you.
In case you’re confused, this is not the widely known, bright pink, creamy borscht. Moldovan borscht is commonly a brothier soup, with variations on the meats and sometimes the vegetables. Clearly, I am not Moldovan, but in defense of my credibility, I did learn this recipe from a woman born and raised in Moldova, and hers was a brothy, hearty chicken soup full of root vegetables and packed with flavor like this one.
I’ve also done quite a bit of research into Moldovan borscht and her version and mine are pretty much spot-on. This is rustic, peasant food — restorative and good for you on every level. The wine is my touch. I don’t think she added any, but the French in me has a hard time not adding wine to soups and stews. It is entirely optional, but it adds a nice acidity.
Regardless of its origins and history, it is delicious, healthy and comforting — hearty enough for a cold winter night, but light enough for warmer months, too. It’ll cure what ails ya!
P.S.: The leftovers are fantastic and taste even better a day or two later.
Servings: 8 to 10
Time: 3 hours
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into parts (breast, thighs, legs, wings)
1 medium head of green cabbage, sliced
2 large beets, peeled and cubed (or 4 small beets)
2 carrots, peeled and diced or grated
4 waxy potatoes, such as Red Bliss or Yukon Gold, peeled and cubed
3 tomatoes, diced (or 1 can diced tomatoes)
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons dried dill (feel free to use fresh if you have it)
2 dry bay leaves
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup dry white wine
8 cups water
Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot — cast iron, if you have it. Salt and pepper chicken and place skin-side down in a single layer. Allow skin to get very crispy and brown; don’t rush this step. Once all chicken has been browned, remove to a dish and pour any excess fat from the pot. Add chicken back to pot along with onions, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, beets, dill, bay leaves, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, wine and water. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until chicken is completely cooked through. Note: You won’t get any meat from the wings, but it is important to simmer them as they are packed with flavor and will result in a richer broth.
Remove chicken to a clean dish and set aside to cool slightly. Add cabbage and potatoes to pot and continue simmering for 1 more hour until tender. Taste broth at this point and add more salt and pepper to taste.
When chicken is cool enough to touch, remove and discard skin and pull meat from bones in large pieces. Discard bones and wings. I prefer to leave the chicken in larger chunks, but shred or chop as you prefer.
Once vegetables are tender, skim any excess fat from broth and add shredded chicken back to pot. Heat through and serve with a garnish of fresh chopped parsley and dill and crusty bread with butter.