The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York's East Village

The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York's East Village

by Tom Birchard, Natalie Danford

Hardcover(First Edition)

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For more than fifty years, customers have crowded into Veselka, a cozy Ukrainian coffee shop in New York City's East Village, to enjoy pierogi, borscht, goulash, and many other unpretentious favorites. Veselka (rainbow in Ukrainian) has grown from a simple newsstand serving soup and sandwiches into a twenty-four-hour gathering place, without ever leaving its original location on the corner of East Ninth Street and Second Avenue. Veselka is, quite simply, an institution.

The Veselka Cookbook contains more than 150 recipes, covering everything from Ukrainian classics (potato pierogi, five kinds of borscht, grilled kielbasa, and poppy seed cake) to dozens of different sandwiches, to breakfast fare (including Veselka's renowned pancakes), to the many elements of a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve feast.

Veselka owner Tom Birchard shares stories about Veselka's celebrity customers, the local artists who have adopted it as a second home, and the restaurant's other lesser-known, but no less important, longtime fans, and he offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to serve five thousand gallons of borscht a year and to craft three thousand pierogi daily—-all by hand.

The Veselka Cookbook will delight anyone with an interest in Ukrainian culture, New York City's vibrant downtown, and the pleasures of simple, good food.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312385682
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/27/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.72(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.03(d)

About the Author

Tom Birchard has worked at Veselka since 1967 and assumed ownership from his father-in-law in 1975. Veselka has grown steadily since and has expanded several times. The restaurant now employs approximately seventy-five people and recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Natalie Danford has written about food, restaurants, and cookbooks for Fine Cooking, Eating Well, Health, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Inheritance, published by St. Martin's Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Veselka Cookbook

Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York's East Village

By Tom Birchard, Natalie Danford

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Tom Birchard and Natalie Danford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6489-0



Veselka's Famous Borscht
Vegetarian Borscht
Cold Borscht
White Borscht
Chicken Noodle Soup
Cabbage Soup
Three-Bean Chili
Roasted Vegetable Chili
Split Pea Soup
Lentil Soup
Mushroom Barley Soup
Vegetable Soup
Butternut Squash Soup
Tomato Rice Soup
Cold Cucumber Soup
Beef Stock
Chicken Stock
Vegetable Stock

* * *

WHEREVER YOU GO, there is soup: Big, warm pots of soup can be found simmering on stoves in every country in the world. There's a reason for that. Soup is the original comfort food. It's digestible —didn't your mother serve you soup when you had an upset stomach? —and it's economical, too. Back in Ukraine, where food had to be stretched, especially during the long, harsh winters, soup was a lifesaver. So it's no surprise that soup has been offered at Veselka since its opening day. Long before Seinfeld made the soup guy famous, we were ladling it out by the gallon.

Soup is very forgiving, too. If you've never cooked a thing in your life, soup is the perfect place to start — it's impossible to get it wrong, and any misstep can be fixed. After you've made these recipes a few times, you should feel free to experiment with them. If you've got a handful of cooked rice, use that in place of barley, or add some leftover vegetables, as long as you think their taste will blend.

The only thing that soup won't forgive is low-quality ingredients. I don't believe in saving a dollar here and a dollar there; I think in the end you make more money with quality. So at Veselka, with soups and everything else, we go the extra mile. For example, lots of restaurants — and home cooks, too — make chicken soup using bones and necks and wings and backs, but we always start with whole chickens. That results in a rounder, less bitter flavor, and it also means that we then have lots of boiled chicken meat to shred back into the soup and to use in other recipes as well.

In general, at the restaurant we cook a lot of ingredients separately, then combine them into a single soup at the end. This gives us a little more control over the individual components of the soup. In the morning we get a little soup assembly line going with various pots bubbling on the stove. There is always one soup or another cooking in the Veselka kitchen, though we don't make each kind every day. We rotate them. Our various types of borscht are among the most popular, and we also sell Cabbage Soup, a Ukrainian favorite made with sauerkraut, that's no longer available in many places. And every day we make one special soup, usually something seasonal, like our Butternut Squash Soup. A person could live on soup for a long, long time, and this collection of soup recipes provides a great start.


Makes about 2 quarts; 8 first-course or 4 to 6 main-course servings

Borscht is Veselka: We serve 5,000 gallons of the stuff every year. While at Veselka we cook the beets and the meat on separate days, you can do it all at the same time, as long as you've got enough large pots to handle it all. None of the work is very time-consuming, although the individual components simmer for several hours, so you'll need to pick a time when you'll be home, though not necessarily in the kitchen. You can easily double or triple this recipe (again, as long as you have large enough pots). After all, at Veselka, we work with 250 pounds of beets at a time. And keep in mind that borscht, like most soups, freezes beautifully.

The beets for our borscht are cooked in two separate batches: One batch is used to make "beet water," a kind of rich beet stock. The remaining beets are cooked and grated. The process may sound a little complicated when you read it, but after you follow the instructions once, the logic will become clear, and I'm convinced that it's this two-step process that lends our borscht its distinct taste and depth of flavor.

You won't taste the white vinegar much, by the way, but it helps the beets retain the beautiful red color that is their hallmark. Without it, your borscht may take on a brownish tinge. If you are very sensitive to the taste of vinegar, use the full amount to cook the beet water and the beets, but in step 7, add it to the soup in small amounts, tasting in between.

3 pounds (10 to 12) small beets, scrubbed
thoroughly but not peeled
9 tablespoons white vinegar
One 2-pound boneless pork butt, halved
8 cups Beef Stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
3 large celery stalks, sliced
1 small head of green cabbage (about ¾
to 1 pound), shredded (about 4 cups)
2 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut
into ½-inch dice
One 15-ounce can lima beans, drained and

1. To make the "beet water," roughly chop 2 pounds of the beets (select the smaller ones), preferably in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Place the chopped beets in a large stockpot. Add 10 cups of water and 1 tablespoon vinegar.

2. Place the stockpot over high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours. (If it seems like the liquid is evaporating too quickly, you may need to cover the pot partially with an offset lid.) The beets should be extremely soft and the liquid bright red.

3. Strain the liquid, pressing the cooked beets against the side of the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the pulp or reserve to make Beet Salad. Set aside the beet water. You should have just about 4 cups.

4. Meanwhile, place the remaining 1 pound of whole beets in a separate large stockpot. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the beets are tender-firm, about 40 minutes. When the beets are cooked, add 1 tablespoon white vinegar and set them aside to cool.

5. When the whole cooked beets are cool enough to handle, peel them; the skins should slip off easily. Grate the peeled beets on the largest holes of a box grater or in a food processor fitted with the grating blade.

6. To make the broth, place the pork butt in a large stockpot and add the beef stock. If necessary, add a little more stock or water to cover. Add the bay leaf, allspice berries, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the meat is tender and beginning to fall apart, about 2 hours. Set the pork aside to cool. When the pork is cool enough to handle, remove it from the pot and cut the meat into ½-inch cubes. Strain the broth and discard the bay leaf, allspice berries, and peppercorns. Reserve the cubed meat and 4 cups of the broth.

7. To cook the vegetables, place the carrots and celery in a large stockpot and pour the reserved meat broth over them. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the carrots and celery are just tender, about 8 minutes. Add the cabbage and potatoes and continue to cook until the potatoes and carrots are easily pierced with a pairing knife but keep their shape, 15 to 20 additional minutes. Add the lima beans and cook for 5 additional minutes, just to meld the flavors. Gradually add the remaining 7 tablespoons white vinegar, tasting between additions and stopping when the flavor is to your liking. Remove the soup from the heat and set aside.

8. To compose the soup, in a large soup pot combine the "beet water" and meat broth with the vegetables. Add the cubed pork and the grated beets. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer over low heat. Season to taste with salt and serve immediately.

Variation: We also serve Vegetarian Borscht at Veselka, which is a little lighter and can be a better choice than traditional meat-based borscht when it's being served as part of a multicourse meal. For Vegetarian Borscht, simply leave out the pork butt, bay leaf, allspice, berries, and peppercorns, and skip step 6. In step 7, cook the vegetables in water orVegetable Stock.


Makes about 2 quarts; 8 first-course or 4 main-course servings

Cold beet soup is tangy and refreshing — it's perfect on a really hot, humid day. If you're serving this as the first course in a fancy meal, pour it into tall glasses rather than bowls. The color is gorgeous.

1 pound (about 3) beets, scrubbed
thoroughly but not peeled
½ cup half-and-half
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons white vinegar
4 large eggs, hard-boiled
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 small cucumber, peeled and diced

1. To make the "beet water," chop the beets roughly and place them in a stockpot. Add water to cover, at least 8 cups.

2. Place the stockpot over high heat and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours. (If it seems like the liquid is evaporating too quickly, you may need to partially cover the pot with an offset lid.) The beets should be extremely soft and the liquid should be bright red.

3. Strain the liquid, pressing the cooked beets against the side of the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard pulp or reserve to make Beet Salad. Reserve 3 cups of the beet water and set aside to cool completely. (If you have any leftover beet water, you can reserve it for another use or simply discard it.)

4. When the beet water has cooled, whisk it with the half-and-half and buttermilk. Add the sugar and vinegar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved and all the ingredients are combined. Chill until serving time.

5. Peel and chop the hard-boiled eggs.

6. To serve the soup, ladle portions into individual soup bowls and garnish each bowl with a sprinkling of fresh dill, chopped hard-boiled egg, and diced cucumber.


Makes 2½ quarts; 6 to 8 servings

This unusual soup is generally served on holidays. It has a somewhat tart taste similar to sourdough bread. At Veselka, we use sauerkraut juice, but in some parts of Eastern Europe grain is fermented (similar to a sourdough starter) to make white borscht, and white vinegar will work as well. Sour soup sounds odd, I know, but this is highly addictive.

6 cups Chicken Stock
2 medium ham hocks
3 smoked pork ribs, optional
1 medium onion, minced
3 large carrots, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 whole allspice berries
¾ cup sour cream
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup sauerkraut juice, or 2 teaspoons
white vinegar
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
3 medium Idaho potatoes, cooked, peeled,
and chopped
4 large eggs, hard-boiled and coarsely

1. Place the chicken stock, ham hocks, pork ribs, if using, onion, carrots, celery, bay leaves, and allspice berries in a medium stockpot. Add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer and cook over low heat for 40 minutes.

2. Remove the ham hocks and ribs, if using, and discard. Strain out the vegetables and discard.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and the flour until very smooth.

4. Return the stock to a boil and stir in the sour cream — flour mixture. Add about half the sauerkraut juice or vinegar, taste, and add additional sauerkraut juice or vinegar, if desired. Stir in the marjoram and oregano, then reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

5. Season to taste with salt (depending on how salty your sauerkraut juice is, it may not need any additional salt) and pepper.

6. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and garnish each serving with a few cubes of cooked potato and a sprinkling of chopped hard-boiled egg. Serve hot.


Makes about 2 quarts; 6 servings

After borscht, chicken noodle is our most popular soup. On a cold day, a rainy day, or really any day at all when you need a bit of a lift, chicken noodle soup is ideal. Chicken soup also has amazing healing powers: It has been scientifically proven to help colds heal faster. You can make the soup in advance, but if you're going to freeze chicken noodle soup, thaw it and cook the noodles in the broth just before serving. At Veselka, we use a whole chicken to make our soup. Not only does this result in a richer, more balanced broth, but you then have cooked chicken that can be used in so many different ways — Chicken Salad, sandwiches, or just eaten plain.

One 3½-pound chicken
1 large onion, peeled
3 celery stalks, sliced
3 large carrots, sliced
3 leeks, halved lengthwise and thoroughly
3 cups fine egg noodles
¼ cup minced flat-leaf parsley,
for garnish

1. Place the chicken, onion, celery, carrot, and leeks in a large stockpot and add water to cover, at least 10 cups. Place over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered (though you may want to partially cover the pot with a lid to stop the stovetop from being splattered), until the chicken meat is falling off the bone, about 1 hour. Skim off the fat and foam from the surface occasionally.

2. Remove the pot from the heat with the chicken still in the broth and allow to cool to room temperature.

3. Remove the chicken from the pot. Pull any meat from the bone and shred into large, rough pieces. Strain the chicken stock. Discard the onion and leeks, but set aside the celery and carrots. (Don't worry about a stray piece of onion or leek making its way in as well.)

4. Return the stock to the pot. Bring to a boil, add salt to taste, and toss in the noodles. Stir and turn down the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook until noodles are tender but still have a little bite at the center, about 8 minutes.

5. Return the shredded chicken and the cooked carrots and celery to the pot. Cook just to meld flavors and until noodles are perfectly tender, about 3 additional minutes.

6. Divide the soup among soup bowls. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately.


Makes 2½ quarts; 6 to 8 servings

When I started working at Veselka in 1967, we had a lot of Ukrainian men who, frankly, intimidated me. They would come in late at night — sometimes a little tipsy — and eat traditional Ukrainian foods and smoke cigarettes, and they seemed like tough customers. (This was decades before New York City would outlaw cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants. In fact, when Veselka was a combination newsstand and restaurant, cigarettes were sold at the counter.) This cabbage soup was one of their favorite dishes. I had never heard of a soup made with sauerkraut at the time, but it has since become one of my favorites, too — the simple yet forceful flavor cannot be ignored. When I've eaten too much rich food for a few days or my palate feels jaded, I find a bowl of Cabbage Soup really wakes me up.

1 boneless pork butt (about 2 pounds), halved
1½ quarts Chicken Stock
3 whole allspice berries
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
3 cups sauerkraut, drained
1 large Idaho potato, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, minced (about 1 cup)
2 large carrots, minced (about 1 cup)
1 small onion, cut into medium dice

1. Place the pork butt in a large stockpot with the chicken stock, 4 cups water, the allspice berries, bay leaves, and marjoram. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered (though you may want to partially cover the pot with a lid to stop the stovetop from being splattered), until the meat is fully cooked, tender, and beginning to fall apart, about 2 hours.

2. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside to cool. Skim most of the fat from the stock, leaving a few "eyes" of fat for flavor. Strain out and discard the bay leaves and allspice berries. Leave the pot on the stove.

3. Stir in the sauerkraut and simmer for 20 additional minutes.

4. Add the potato and simmer for 5 minutes. Then add the celery, carrot, and onion and simmer for 10 additional minutes. Finally, cut the reserved meat into large cubes and add to soup. Simmer for 10 additional minutes, until the flavors have melded and potato is cooked through, then serve immediately.


Serves 6 to 8

This chili is so hearty and filling that I wasn't sure whether to include it in this chapter, with soups, or to place it in the chapter with recipes for meat entrées. There is nothing dainty or timid about it. This chili also makes good use of canned beans, since cooking the three types of beans separately would be time-consuming. Look for a good brand, preferably organic, with little or no sodium, as we toss in the bean liquid for extra flavor. At Veselka we cook up a vat of caramelized onions every morning and just scoop from that all day long, but here I've amended our recipe slightly so that you cook the onion as part of the recipe.

2½ pounds 80 percent lean ground beef
1½ cups chopped onion (2 medium onions)
One 15-ounce can black beans
One 15-ounce can white beans
Two 15-ounce cans red kidney beans, rinsed
and drained
2 cups ketchup
3 tablespoons ground coriander
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons dried basil
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

1. In a large stockpot, cook the beef and onions over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is fully cooked and the onions are browned.

2. Drain off and discard excess fat.

3. Add the beans and their canning liquid, and the drained kidney beans to the pot. Stir in the ketchup, coriander, cumin, oregano, chili powder, and basil. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered (though you may want to partially cover the pot with a lid to stop the stovetop from being splattered), until the chili is very thick, about 1½ hours.

4. Season with the salt and pepper and serve hot.


Excerpted from The Veselka Cookbook by Tom Birchard, Natalie Danford. Copyright © 2009 Tom Birchard and Natalie Danford. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Title Page,
1 - SOUPS,
Copyright Page,

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