I’ve been cleaning out my room in the ancestral home, sorting through old clothes and bad books, school reports and chemistry notes, rock collections and hardware odds and ends to determine what’s worth storing and what can make the trip to the great green Goodwill in the sky. In the process, I’ve realized that I’ve made quite the habit of collecting old cookbooks – complete with yellowed pages, ripped binding, and strange drawings.
And yet, I love to think of all the hands that have held a cookbook before it gets to me. I love the way old recipes reflect the culture in which they were written as much as the taste of the times. Since I’d just been to St. Petersburg, I paused during my cleaning frenzy before the spine of a book covered with torn paper, Cooking the Russian Way by Musia Soper and straight out of 1961. The book opened stiffly, its browned pages smelling like a dusty library.
Inside, I found the kinds of hearty meals to see you through a cold Russian winter, where rich broths, sour cream, potatoes, cream sauces, butter, and fried onions abounded. These aren’t the kinds of recipes that are featured in your newest food magazine, but the basics handed down from mother to daughter for generations. They’re written for housewives who already know how to cook and who are feeding a family of four. The ingredient list rarely tops ten items and more often runs something like that in this recipe for “Potatoes Stuffed with Meat”: Potatoes, tomatoes, butter, egg, minced meat, sour cream, flour, chopped dill, salt, and pepper.
The book is filled with fascinating recipes, like that for “Moscow Rassolink,” a salted cucumber soup made with ox kidneys, sorrel, soup vegetables, and sour cream. Or “Egg And Wine Sauce” made with eggs, white wine, lemon juice, and castor sugar. And then there’s “Kvass,” a homebrewed, fermented drink made from rye bread, yeast, sugar, and raisins.
I also learned that hors d’oeuvres are an important part of Russian entertaining culture, and that these, served with cold vodka before a meal are often so elaborate that it’s difficult to make a meal grand enough to follow plates piled with piroshky, bliny and dishes in aspic. I learned that most fish is salted, since the sea is so far from so much of the “USSR,” but it is also frequently cooked into pies, salads, and soup, and that game, including woodcock, snipe, teal, quail, venison, partridge, and plover is popular, but it used to be that “wood pigeons were not shot very often, because there was a belief that they were the guardian of souls.”
So of course, after all this perusal, I had to cook something from the book. While I was sorely temped by such delicacies as “Sucking [sic] Pig in Aspic” or sauerkraut soup, in the end I wanted to recreate those tiny, delicious pelmeny we’d eaten in St. Petersburg.
My cousin and her boyfriend are visiting from Germany, so I coerced them into spending the afternoon cooking. Together, we chopped vegetables, rolled out pasta dough, and stuffed dumplings.
There may have been a snafu or two, such as the cauliflower fritters, which were meant to be dunked into a batter and deep fried. “They really do assume you know what you’re doing – these florets we’ve just cooked don’t show up again in the recipe!” I exclaimed, and my cousin and I laughed as we mashed the cooked cauliflower and mixed it into the batter. Micha was the one who caught the slip a few minutes later – “I think this says you dip the florets in the batter.” “No, no,” we said, “Surely not.” But yes, that was indeed, what it said. We just hadn’t been able to imagine fritters any other way than dropped into a pan of hot oil.
Luckily, my cooking companions were just as nonchalant about changing recipes as I am, and we fried up puffs of our cauliflower batter into flat, delicious pancakes that we ate outside just as the sun began to set.
The following recipes are all adapted from Cooking the Russian Way. We modified the recipe for Siberian Pelmeny to make it vegetarian. First, because my cousin is vegetarian and second, because of the following warning paragraph in the book: “The craze for slimming has hit the Russian woman too, in the big cities anyway; and you may see her heroically refusing helpings of bliny with Smetana [sour cream], potato fritters, pelmeny or sweet dishes. This is quite a contrast to the days of the fat, rich merchants when it was not uncommon to see one of them drop dead from apoplexy at a meal, through constant overeating.” However, if you’d like to make these with meat, substitute the mushrooms and zucchini with equal parts cooked minced beef and pork.
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
5 tbsp. water (or more)
1 cup finely diced mushrooms
1 cup finely diced zucchini
½ cup finely diced onion
Prepare your pasta by adding ½ tsp. salt to the flour and shaping the mixture into a volcano. Break the eggs into the hollow and knead with your hands, adding water as necessary, until a stiff dough forms (5-10 minutes). Roll the dough into a ball and leave it in a cool place for 30 minutes.
While your dough is resting, sauté the onion in a little olive oil until translucent, then add mushrooms and zucchini until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Drain and set aside any excess liquid (you’ll want to add it to the onion sauce – see below).
When you’re ready to begin making pasta, lightly sprinkle flour over a clean work surface. Rip off half of the dough and roll it out with a rolling pin as thinly as you can. Then roll it even thinner. You can get fancy, and cut out circles with the bottom of a glass, or you can do it the lazy way by slicing the dough into approximately 3×3 inch squares. Put a small spoonful of filling into each round, then press the edges of the dough firmly together to prevent the filling from falling out. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Drop dumplings into boiling water. When they rise to the surface, they’re done. Serve with melted butter, sour cream, and chopped, fresh dill.
Adapted from Cooking the Russian Way.
½ cup milk
1 cup flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
Cut cauliflower into florets and boil in salted water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and coarsely mash the florets, then set aside to cool.
Beat eggs with milk. Add flour, baking powder, and salt. When the cauliflower has cooled, add it to the batter and mix well. Leave in a cool place for 30 minutes.
Cover the bottom of a skillet with vegetable oil, and when it is very hot, drop tablespoon-sized drops of cauliflower batter into the skillet. Flip and cook on the other side until both sides are golden-brown and the fritter is cooked through. Serve with onion sauce and sour cream.
Adapted from Cooking the Russian Way.
1 tbsp. flour
½ cup vegetable stock
Reserved cooking liquid from pelmeny filling (opt.)
2 tbsp. butter
¼ tsp. mustard
1 tsp. vinegar
½ tsp. salt
Finely chop the onion and sauté in 1 tbsp. of butter until translucent. Set aside.
Melt remaining butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour and gradually dilute with meat or vegetable stock and reserved cooking liquid from pelmeny filling, if available. Add onions, mustard, vinegar, and salt and bring to a boil. As soon as the sauce boils, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.