Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cooking Day

I don't do this so much anymore. Maybe I have too much time to sit and think and I don't have to be on my feet running around after a small child bent on mischief. Maybe it's just that others have taken over the kitchen. Or maybe I'm just old(er).

Or maybe I just lost the habit of long, complex dinner in the years I worked a full-time, 8-5 job with a long commute.

Anyway, yesterday, I went all out on traditional Russian cooking. Of course, it was at the request of my kids, and they did promise to help.

Well, help is as help does, but I must admit that they did a lot. Because making pirozhki ([pee-rohzh-KEE], singular pirozhok [pee-roh-ZHOHK]) one by one by hand (take small amount of yeast dough, add spoonfull of meat filling, wrap and seal) is time consuming. But they did it. While I did the other stuff.

So we had pel'meni last night (pehl-MEH-nee, the Russian answer to ravioli: meat-filled pasta served with sour cream and a vinaigrette dressing) which we ate with a side of cucumber-and-sour cream salad.

One thing you have to understand about Russian cooking: it comes with sour cream. Everything is better with sour cream. Sour cream gets added pretty much to everything, and then served on the side.

As salad dressing, with salt. As flavoring in pastries, cookies, and bread. In your soup. On the side with almost every dish. As a dip. On bread (why not? on a nice, thick slice of rich, dark bread -- and it's a spoonful of thick, creamy sour cream, not the runny "light" stuff -- you have to eat right!). A little sour cream in your shortbread heightens the flavor. You say buttermilk pancakes, I say sour cream olad'i (oh-LAH-d'yi).

And today? Today we will have BORSHCH.

Not Borsht. Not the dark pink canned beet product you find in stores. Nope. That's not the traditional Russian dish. No more than sweet-and-sour chicken is a traditional Chinese delicacy.

No. Borschch. Don't-call-it-soup Borshch. It's LIKE soup, but not soup. It's LIKE stew, but not stew. It's Borshch, and that's what Russians call it.

It's cabbage-based, with other root vegetables, including beets, carrots, turnips, leeks, and/or onions, potatoes and/or beans. It can be beef-stock based and contain beef chunks, or it can be a Lenten dish and be strictly vegetarian. It's tasty, filling, versatile, it has a million variants, and even though I use my mother's recipe, mine does not taste like hers. Close, very close, but not quite. Anyone would recognize the flavor and aroma of Borshch but each cook, each household has its own variant.

The magic of true Russian Borshch.

That's what we're having tonight. And while the kids don't particularly like soup, they've been asking for Borshch. Because, and it bears repeating, Borshch is not soup. It's just Borshch.

It can be served with thick slices of hearty bread slathered with butter, or, like we're going to do tonight, with pirozhki.

Because we were in a cooking frenzy, we only have meat pastries (meat-filled pirozhki), but you could have some cabbage filling, some mushroom filling, even sweet fillings like farmer's cheese or sour cherries.

And because we're only having an ordinary family night, we're just having borshch and pirozhki. If, however, I was serving up a proper feast, borshch would be a first course, followed by some kind of roast (meat or fish), with a vegetable, and a salad. Followed by a dessert.

Okay. That's enough. I'm hungry now.
But you know what? Ethnic cooking is pretty healthy. Look at all the good ingredients that go into borshch. And just ask the kids (and all the students of Russian who tried it over the years): it's tasty. Especially with pirozhki.