It’s amazing how a singular, seemingly innocuous dinner experience on a rainy Friday night could create an insatiable curiosity to learn about world cuisine.
So, the story goes like this…two girls walk into a deli on a rainy night for a quick bite…and no, they didn’t meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger…they chatted over steaming bowls of eastern European soups instead,one thing led to another and before they knew it…they were at a Russian cafe and a Slavic grocery store after that!!
That conversation over the widely popular cabbage borscht, is what ignited a spark for discovering the flavors of Eastern and Central Europe.We started with exploring the varieties of borscht. Borscht is a winter soup eaten in Slavic countries like Russia and the Ukraine. Borscht typically consists of hearty root vegetables such as cabbage,beets and potatoes simmered in a stock and topped off with herbs such as dill and scallion. The hot soup is then topped off with some cold and luscious smetana or sour cream which is a common condiment for a lot of Slavic soups and dumplings.
There are several variants of borscht…there are Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian variations of borscht to name a few…so you can imagine what a daunting task this was for two people who don’t know squat about ANY form of Eastern European cuisine let alone variants. That’s why we decided to tackle borscht 101 by attempting the Ukranian green borscht. It made perfect sense because borscht originated in the Ukraine.
Green borscht consists of sorrel leaves along with a slew of vegetables all of which are available in abundance in Slavic countries, namely potatoes, carrots, onions, all simmered in chicken stock. The soup is topped off with plenty of dill, sour cream or smetana and pieces of boiled egg for plenty of aroma, protein and flavor…..add a generous piece of russian dark rye bread on the side and you have a meal, people!! The cuisine of the Slavic region is so characteristic of their harsh winters, hard times due to several wars and revolutions as well as the predominantly poor section of society where the motto is to “fill yourself up as much as you can with warm, hearty food.”
Other varieties of russian soups include cold soups such as okroshka (another winter time soup made with sour milk or with kvass which is a bread based drink) and botvinya (made with leafy greens), along with hot soups such as shchi (a cabbage based soup,) Ukha ( a watery fish soup,) Rassolnik (a cucumber based soup) and Solyanka which is a soup combining ingredients from both schi and rassolnik.
Another way of warming up during a cold Russian, Ukranian or Polish winter is by consuming more comfort food in the form of cabbage dumplings or Varenyky, also referred to more popularly as a Pierogi. Other cousins of the Varenyky include the Pelmeni (dumplings stuffed with mince meat ) and the Piroshki which is a baked or fried dumpling stuffed once again with the ever-so-present cabbage. Speaking of cabbage, another delectable meal in countries such as Russia and Poland is the Golubtsy which is essentially a cabbage roll stuffed with mince meat and rice and also served with a side of rice.
For those of you who crave pasta over rice, the answer lies in Kasha Vernishkes where “Kasha” is the Russian term for buckwheat and “vernishkes” is the Yiddish corruption of the Russian “varenichki” or dumplings.
A simpler version of the dish which was an immediate favorite of ours, was buckwheat and onions over farfalle pasta…how simple is that!!!
After a meal like that, a nice way to wash everything down is with a glass of good Russian soda such as Baikal (a soda infused with cardamom) which is Russia’s answer to Pepsi, and Tarhun (a carbonated drink with a tarragon based syrup) which has a funky green shade characteristic of radio-active gunk but very refreshing nonetheless.
From Russia with love….I’m not sure about “love” as a component in Slavic cuisine…but the draw to the food for us is based on simplicity,heartiness and the underlying pragmatism where food is treated as a means to sustain harsh living conditions as opposed to the stigma associated with “living to eat”….and on that note…stay tuned for more information on our culinary discoveries!!
Green Borscht or Sorrel Soup (serves 2)
Celery – 2 stalks
Carrots – 1
Potato – 1 (cubed and boiled)
Onion – 1 small
Scallions – 1 bunch
Sorrel Leaves – Fresh or Canned (available in European markets)
Chicken stock – 2 cups
Smetana (if available) or sour cream – 1 tbsp
Boiled Egg – 1
Oil, Salt and Pepper
Dice the onions and saute them in 2 tbsps of olive oil or vegetable oil. Once the onions turn brown, add the celery and carrots and cook them for about 2 mins, till the vegetables turn a little soft. Add the potatoes and the stock and let everything simmer together for a few minutes. Then add the Sorrel leaves ( we used canned sorrel for this recipe, but fresh is even better) and salt and a little pepper according to taste. Garnish with dill and scallions. Another great option is to add chopped up boiled eggs as a topping on the soup.
Kasha Varnishkes (serves 4)
Farfalle pasta – 1.5 cups
Buckwheat – 1.5 cups
Chicken stock – 2 cups
Onion – 1 small
Oil, salt and pepper
Cook the pasta according to instructions. Beat the eggs and mix the buckwheat with the beaten egg. Chop up one small onion and saute the onion in oil for a few minutes. Once the onion starts to turn brown, add the egg-buckwheat mixture and cook this until the buckwheat grains are separate. Add the stock, close with a lid and cook for about 10 minutes, till the buckwheat is cooked to a desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.