Friday, August 6, 2010
The Great Big Blog of Russian Food
Today is my last day of classes here at the American House. I feel like I blinked and suddenly a month passed by. I've been meaning to write this entry for weeks now, but kept putting it off because I wanted to do it justice since it's probably one of my favorite things to talk about-Russian food.
It's one of the first questions I get when I tell people I'm going to Russia (besides "Why?"). "How's the food?" My answer is always the same, "Awesome!" It's true, I love Russian food. When prepared by a host mom it's always fresh, always hardy and always comforting. When I meet someone who says that they don't like Russian food, I'm automatically suspicious of them. My brain goes, "I'm sure you're a nice person-for someone with no soul."
Granted, there are a few exceptions to that-it's darn tough to be a vegetarian here. It's just a concept that host moms don't understand, and they will often try to sneak meat into your meals. The way that I understand it is that they feel you don't like meat because of the taste, so they're going to prepare it the best way you've ever had it & man, will you be surprised when you love it. Most of my friends that study Russian put their moral & culinary objections to meat aside when they step foot in Russia because it's just easier to go with the flow.
For now I'm going to talk about food that your stereotypically Russian host mom cooks, and hopefully in Moscow I'll be able to write a little about street food since that's also one of my favorite types of Russian food.
So let's start with breakfast. It's a force unto itself. Russian breakfasts are huge. When I first sit down to breakfast here the morning after my arrival, I'm always staggered by the size of a Russian breakfast. A typical breakfast at Zinaida's includes a bowl of kasha (think oatmeal) the size of a hubcap, yogurt, tea, and then these wonderful little devils:
Blini. These are probably what I miss most when I'm back in the U.S. These delicious little crepe-like treats are the highlight of my morning. In the bigger cities in Russia like Moscow & Saint Petersburg you can buy them on the street & have then filled with ham & cheese or chicken or bananas & chocolate. I like my morning blini with homemade raspberry jam. You'll notice that there are three on the plate. This picture is from a few weeks ago before Zinaida began trying to trick my roommate and me into eating more. A week or so ago she got the brilliant idea to stack two blinis on top of each other & lining up their edges perfectly so that we were actually eating four blinis instead of the requested two or three. She even tried to go up to five one day before we called her out on it. Like I said, Russian host moms are tricky little things.
Breakfast usually leaves me waddling to class so I skip lunch on a daily basis. At six o'clock each night it's dinner time.
Dinner always begins with a bowl of soup. Zinaida sticks with two types: veggie soup & borscht.
This is the veggie soup. It's also around the time that Zinaida discovered I was taking pictures & sharing them via email so that's why it looked like a parsley bush exploded in my bowl:
And this borscht:
You'll notice it's not the bright magenta color that you sometimes see in pictures of borscht. Each host mom has her own special recipe for borscht. I have to admit that I'm partial to Zinaida's out of all the borscht I've had. A lot of borscht recipes call for mutton, which I don't really like. Zinaida makes her with chicken, and goes light on the beets and adding in carrots and potatoes instead. I like to eat mine with thick slices of Russian bread. I love it.
After the soup of the day comes the main meal. Zinaida varies it up quite a bit, so there's almost always something new on my plate that night.
I'll start with one of my favorites: pelmeni.
These are little dumplings of awesome filled with some kind of meat-either chicken, beef or pork. I've had them both boiled and sauteed (Zinaida sautees hers). When I lived in the dorms of Saint Petersburg seven years ago I ate mine boiled & topped them off with a bit of vinegar and salt. The sauteed version is so flavorful that they really don't need any condiment.
On another night we might have a cutlet served with potatoes. A cutlet is ground beef, spices & some onion. They're pretty popular in Russia, and very tasty. You'll notice this picture was also taken during Garnish-pa-looza.
Another version of the cutlet is a chop of some type of meat. One night Zinaida made breaded pork chops, potatoes and cabbage.
One of the special meals that Zinaida made for us one night was Plov, an Azerbijan rice pilaf dish. The dish consists of rice, heaps of spices, chicken, dried apricots, and some type of tart little berry that I have no clue how to translate into English. According to my quick google search to make sure I spelled the dish correctly, I found out this dish is served to highly respected guests. It was, in short, amazing. The perfect combination of salty, sweet and sour.
And then, of course, are the things that accompany every meal-bread, fruit and cucumbers. I'm obsessed with cucumbers. The ones that we have here are tiny compared to the ones you get your typical U.S. supermarket. They're bumpy and have a ton of flavor. Zinaida prepares our fresh cucumbers "Russian Style" which may or may not be a real thing. She slices them length wise, scored them and rubs them with salt. I almost always have at least two cucumbers with my dinner. Sometimes three.
Zinaida also makes her own pickles. They're super salty, which I love, and very tasty. She has three massive of jars of them pickling right now on the kitchen counter.
The bread goes along with the soup. Vladimir is pretty well known for its bread. There's a big bread factory not too far from where I live so Zinaida always picks up a variety: the standard (and delicious) Russian black bread, white bread, dried fruit bread and seven grain bread. Given the sheer amount of parsley in this picture, I'm going to guess that this picture was also taken during Garnish-pa-looza.
Sometimes, she'll even throw in an extra veggie or two for us to try. A few days ago she brought home fresh peas for us to eat raw while we wanted for dinner to finish cooking.
As I've said before, this area is surrounded by farmland so there's always of plenty fresh berries. Zinaida brought home a mixture of black currants, red currants and gooseberries (which she claims were Pushkin's favorite berry) for us to try.
And as always, it was more food then we could possible eat, so she made a fresh fruit juice for us out of the leftovers.
So that's my great big blog of Russian Food. When I get back to the U.S. I want to have a Russian dinner party. Hopefully these pictures will entice people into coming.