Across the Cutting Board with Ris

When I got to Ris, Washington chef Ris Lacoste’s lauded contribution to DC’s food culture, the restaurant was empty. It was early on a Saturday morning, and the city was just waking up. Through the windows, the expanses of barren dining tables and upturned chairs looked nearly unfamiliar from the week before, when I met Ris for the first time amidst a clattering of plates and glasses, the hum from a dozen full tables swarming around me in the bustling eatery. Now, it was lifeless and unmoving. They didn’t open for a few hours.

However, walking into the kitchen through the back, it was a different story. I was greeted by a pastry chef feverishly mixing some creamy, white spread (which, as I later found out, was completely delicious). Fresh fruits and vegetables were being hauled in by the palette-load while a flurry of assistants disseminated the boxes throughout the kitchen. Pots and pans were nearly flying, finding their proper location after the previous night’s demands. Vegetables were being prepped. A flame shot briefly out from an industrial stovetop. Rows of cutting stations pulsed with the temptation of the coming day, the knives glistening on the wall not far away.

I was there to cook soup with Ris. Call it a job perk. I myself know enough about food to fool my friends into thinking I can cook. I could tell you if you’re about to burn the rice, what to add to your stir-fry to make the vegetables zing, which wines go well with which meats. My fish is always crisp and juicy and my knives are always sharp. But setting up at a cooking station alongside Ris Lacoste feels like meeting Andre Agassi for a few sets of leisure tennis: whether or not they’re trying very hard, I am surely in over my head, but it’s still rather thrilling.

We are making soup because it is the season for soups. And if you know Ris at all, you know that she cooks with the seasons. Regularly going to farmer’s markets for inspiration, she sees food the way photographers see their subject matter. You can’t shoot a sunset in the morning, and you can’t cook with strawberries in the dead of winter. It doesn’t make sense. Food will taste best, and be most nutritious, if it’s fresh and local.

So it’s not surprising that soups are popular in the fall. In the autumn months, root vegetables and squashes are in great abundance: potatoes, butternut squash, beets, radishes, onions, horseradish, sweet potatoes. Now is the time of year when these key ingredients are reaching their peak. Still, soup transcends mere seasonal convenience.

Giving someone a bowl of soup, Ris explains, is like giving that person your love, a taste of your soul. Soup needs to be listened to, pampered, spoken with, encouraged, handled delicately but firmly. Always keep your finished product in mind, she tells me. If it were a white soup, we would make sure the butter didn’t brown. If we were not going to puree the soup, we would skin the vegetables, and cut them uniformly to make sure they cook evenly. However our soups will not be white, and one will be pureed. Not to mention that there are loads of vitamins in vegetable skins, so it’s best to keep them in the cooking when you can.

The soups we will be making, she tells me over coffee, will be sweet potato bourbon soup and borscht. Sweet potatoes are like chocolate to me. I don’t care when or where or why—I just like eating them. I had also once added sweet potatoes to a ham bone soup and it tasted good, so I was looking forward to seeing what else it could do to a soup.

But the borscht had me jumping for joy. Like the Russian peasant’s equivalent to American beef chili, no one makes it the same way. A piecemeal dish from the old country, it’s modest, cheap, healthy, and a great way to clean out the pantry. Need to get rid of some onions? Tomatoes? Beef? Potatoes? Carrots? Celery? Throw ‘em in. Eggs? Hardboil ‘em and throw ‘em in.

This dish, however, has been largely left behind. You don’t see beets much outside the salad bar these days. My grandmother used to make borscht, and I recall being scared of it. That thick, impenetrable red, the indecipherable chunks of mystery vegetables.

My palette has since expanded, and my grandmother hasn’t been able to cook for years. I was excited to reinvigorate my heritage. As it turned out, the love of borscht runs in my blood. However, this is not, as they say, your grandmother’s Russian borscht. The heavy beefstock and kielbasa add a savory thickness that cuts through the sweet-sour play of beets and horseradish like a razor. And as for the sweet potato bourbon: it indeed tastes as good as it sounds. A word from the wise: The apple-horseradish sour cream is an unmistakable stroke of genius.

Yield: 1 Gallon
The flavors in this soup that brighten and enhance the sweet potato are the Sage, Orange and Bourbon. Although the recipe calls for use of a ham and chicken stock, you can eliminate the ham and substitute vegetable stock or water.

Ingredients/Shopping List
2 Tbsp. Butter
3 Carrots, roughly chopped
2 Celery Stalks, roughly chopped
1 Onion, roughly chopped
Bouquet Garni of 6 Sage leaves, 2 Bay leaves, 5 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
1 C. Bourbon
3 lbs. Sweet Potatoes, peeled & roughly chopped
2 Oranges, halved
1 Smoked Ham Hock, optional
3 Qts. Chicken Stock, Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Tbsp. Salt or to taste
½ tsp. Freshly Cracked Black Pepper or to taste
½ C. Orange Juice

1 C. Crème Fraîche, combined with 2 Tbsp. Bourbon
Diced Ham, Optional
Toasted Pecans, roughly chopped
Green Onions, thinly sliced

The Soup: In a heavy-based 2-gallon soup pot, melt the butter. Sweat the carrots, celery and onions with the bouquet garni over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until onions are lightly caramelized. (A Bouquet Garni is a mixture of whole fresh herbs, used to flavor soup or stock, tied in a ‘bouquet” for easy removal.) Add bourbon to deglaze the pan and flavor the vegetables. Cook for another 2 minutes until the vegetables are saturated and the alcohol of the bourbon is “cooked off.” Add the sweet potatoes, halved oranges and ham hock (if using). Add enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables by about 2 inches. {the amount of liquid you add to achieve the perfect thickness of the final purée depends a lot on the vegetable being used. Some vegetables render more water into a soup than others. Some take longer to cook, thus resulting in greater reduction of the amount of added liquid. Trial and error and experience are great teachers. Just remember to always observe. You can always thin a too-thick soup with stock or water and and thicken a too-thin soup with added cooked vegetables. Almost always there is a “fix.” You’ll know better next time.) Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through. (the cooking time depends on the size of the vegetables and the level of heat. If you are in a rush, cut the vegetables smaller and up the heat.)

The Garnish:
Meanwhile, mix together the crème fraîche and bourbon. Ready the remainder of your garnish and set aside until ready to use. Remove the oranges, bouquet garni and ham hock from the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Puree in a blender until smooth. Pour blended soup back into the pot and stir in the orange juice. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve with a dollop of bourbon crème fraîche, diced ham (if using), toasted pecans and green onions. Garnishes are KEY! They provide balance, texture, freshness, a bit of “je ne sais quoi“ to any soup.

RUSSIAN BORSCHT Yield: 1 ½ Gallons

This soup is great for its vibrant color and texture - cutting the vegetables and other ingredients into different shapes and sizes gives it an interesting consistency. Borscht is a soup that uses everything but the kitchen sink, so feel free to use leftover vegetables or meats that you have in the kitchen – no rules here! Every cook has their own version of Borscht. This is mine, which has developed over the years, inspired by friends and their grandmothers.

Ingredients/Shopping List
1 C. Bacon, small dice, Optional
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1 Onion, medium dice
3 Carrots, peeled & sliced into rounds
2 Celery Stalks, sliced
Bouquet Garni of 4 Sprigs of Fresh Thyme, 2 Bay leaves, & 5 Sprigs of Parsley
2 lb. Head of Red or Green Cabbage (approx. 2 qts.), thinly sliced
2 Qts. Beef Stock, optional (You can omit beef stock and just use chicken if preferred)
2 Qts. Chicken Stock
1 Ham Hock, optional
2 C. diced fresh tomatoes; in season, or canned San Marzano tomatoes
1 lb. Sausage (your choosing, we used kielbasa here), cooked & sliced
2 lb. Red Beets (approx. 2 qts.), roasted, peeled & grated
1 Celery Root, small dice
1-2 C. Brown Sugar
4-6 Lemons, juiced (1/2 – 2/3 C. lemon juice)
2 Tbsp. Salt or to taste
1 tsp. Freshly Cracked Black Pepper or to taste

1 Apple, peeled & cut into a large dice (use any local, firm textured apple, such as Honeycrisp)
1 Tbsp. Butter
2 cups sour cream
½-1 Tbsp. Prepared Horseradish or to taste*
Green Onions, thinly sliced

The Soup:
In a heavy-based 2-3 gallon soup pot, sauté the bacon in olive oil over medium heat until cooked thru, 3-4 minutes. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and herbs, and sweat for 3-5 minutes until softened. Add the cabbage and roast until it begins to caramelize slightly, about 5 minutes. Add beef stock (if using), chicken stock and ham hock (if using). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook another 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld. Add the tomatoes, sausage, beets, celery root, brown sugar and lemon juice. Bring back to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook until vegetables are just cooked, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste additionally for sugar/acid balance and adjust if necessary.

The Garnish:
Sauté the diced apple in butter for 3-5 minutes until softened and lightly caramelized, but still firm. Set aside to cool. Add the sour cream, horseradish and a pinch of salt. Mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Ready the remainder of the garnish and set aside until ready to use. Serve with a dollop of apple-horseradish sour cream & green onions. Add fresh sliced apple for texture & presentation.

Ris Tips: You can create your own prepared horseradish by grating fresh horseradish and mixing it with a little cider vinegar, brown sugar, and salt. Be mindful, fresh horseradish packs a punch. Also, when puréeing soups or sauces, use extreme caution. You may want the soup to cool slightly before using the blender. Blend in small amounts and always use a towel and your hand to secure the lid. The towel allows enough air circulation to keep the heat from building up pressure inside the blender, while keeping your hand from burning. Furthermore, every time you roast a chicken, make sure to make chicken stock while you are doing the dishes. And always make a whole pot of soup. Make deliveries to your neighbors with the leftovers.

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