Russian cooks Diane Prokipchak (at stove) and Luba Thome
Russian cooks Diane Prokipchak (at stove) and Luba Thome
In a quiet, almost sleepy stretch of the North Valley, on 4th Street about a mile north of Alameda, All Saints of North America functions as the only Russian Orthodox Church in Albuquerque. The church began around a kitchen table in 1994 out of a commitment by a small group of believers to create an active English-language mission. At first the group held services at an Episcopal church, later at a Roman Catholic church, until finally in 1996 they were able to acquire their present modest adobe building; they tacked on a Russian onion-shaped cupola, colored traditional blue, and proudly topped it with an orthodox cross.
All Saints of North America may look a little curious to a passer-by, though it is certainly a good fit in this solid residential neighborhood, but the site was crammed with visitors and families at the day-long Harvest Festival the church held on Sunday, September 28th. The kids had plenty to do, hosts in Russian costumes greeted and circulated, a Russian brass band played traditional music, Russian craft items were offered for sale, and bearded orthodox priests appeared in a group that couldn't help but attract notice. I had to navigate around all this to get to the cooks. I met Luba Thome, who is from Russia, and Diane Prokipchak, whose husband was one of the costumed greeters, in the church's small out building where they were busy at the stove. Across the way, other costumed women were offering up some real Russian basics: shashlik (the Russian form of skewered meat or shish-kebab), pierogy (filled dumplings, like ravioli or wontons), kapusta (a cabbage dish), and borscht (the traditional Russian soup based on beets).
"Russian food is wonderful but usually labor intensive," says Luba Thome, who works by day as a nuclear engineer for TCI Medical in Albuquerque. "Lots of pots and pans and step after step." Since Luba is the only Russian in her company, her co-workers count on her to bring Russian treats to company picnics and events, especially her cranberry-flavored vodka, which none seem able to reproduce exactly.
Vodka brings up my own Russian family, who drank plenty of it and lived to astonishing ages anyway. Both my mother and grandfather were professors of Russian at New York University. We'd set impressive Russian tables at family gatherings. During more normal times, when my mother was busy teaching, we'd eat Swanson TV Dinners and chicken pot pies like everyone else. Sometimes when we had a housekeeper from the south we'd enjoy foods like fried chicken and collard greens. Eating any of these three cuisines-including the Swanson-could be absolute bliss. It is only as adults that my sisters and I have made successful efforts to remain thin.
Russian cuisine is generally not for those who calculate every morsel. Russian core dishes share common threads with basic foods from Italy to China, but with distinctive Russian flavorings. The famous Pozharsky Croquettes are a perfect example; they look like croquettes from any other cuisine but taste distinctly Russian. Russia's greatest hero, the poet Pushkin, wrote a poem immortalizing the dish. The mixture for the croquettes is made up of ground chicken, ground veal, whole wheat bread soaked in cream, eggs, Madeira wine, a minced onion, and chopped fresh dill (along with sour cream the quintessential Russian flavoring). They are made into oval shaped patties, dipped in egg and bread crumbs, then pan fried until golden and often topped with a rich wild mushroom sauce.
Cucumbers are widely consumed in Russia. A typical Russian appetizer or side salad will consist of sliced cucumbers in vinegar, with a little added sugar, sometimes with sour cream, invariably topped with fresh dill. Cucumbers are also combined with yogurt, garlic and mint-a clear Middle Eastern and Central Asian influence-for soups and dips. Cabbage is probably the most widely revered leafy vegetable; it is served both cooked and raw, plain or in sweet and sour variations. Potato dishes are as ubiquitous in Russia as in the rest of Eastern Europe. Mushrooms are much loved by Russians; the hunt for wild mushrooms is deeply engrained in Russian folklore. Even during the old Soviet days, country folk could amass true wealth by gathering mushrooms. Those in the know now get rich by growing the much-coveted dill on small suburban plots. The Russian produce distribution system clearly has some catching up to do.
During the centuries preceding the Russian revolutions of 1917, the Russian Tsars sent their conquering armies east into Central Asia and Siberia, and south into the Caucasus. The food of Russia's Caucasian dominions (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, now independent nations), brought many dishes into mainstream use in Russia, but none more than Shashlik (from shashka, meaning sword), a dish of marinated cubes of meat grilled on skewers. Unlike the Greek souvlaki or the Middle Eastern or Indian shish kebab, which use lamb, Russian shashlik follows the Georgian custom of using beef sirloin. A typical overnight marinade for shashlik would include red wine, onion and garlic, peppercorns and salt. Once marinated, the beef cubes will be skewered along with alternating slices of onion and green bell pepper, grilled, then served on a platter with slices of tomato and lemon.
Pelmeni are the Siberian equivalent of Italian tortellini, though with distinctly different spicing. Traditionally, Siberians would take full advantage of their climate, preparing hundreds of pelmenis at a time and storing them outside in nature's natural freezer. All over Russia today, pelmeni parlors and street sellers offer a quick food fix, equivalent in popularity, perhaps, to the American hot dog. Pelmeni dough is a simple affair of flour, water, egg and salt, but it is rolled very thin, and cut into circles at most two inches across. The filling is a mixture of beef and pork with plenty of chopped onions. My mother always served her pelmeni in chicken broth, though they may also be served simply tossed in butter. In either case, pelmeni will not be authentic unless served with the dynamic Russian duo of sour cream and dill.
You'll find filled, savory baked meat pies all over the world (empanadas in Mexico, calzones in Italy); Russian pirozhki (plural of pirozhok) are my favorite (though Jamaican meat pies run a close second). I'll never forget my chagrin as a boy at the fancy Russian Tea Room restaurant in New York when my pirozhki arrived baked in a flaky puff pastry dough (though this is a respectable option). I grew up loving pirozhki rolled in a simple chewy yeast dough. Pirozhki, each about three inches across, are offered with a number of possible fillings: potato, cabbage, veal and mushrooms, egg and scallion, often flavored with onions, sour cream, or dill. The same dough provides the basis for the similar pirog, a large rectangular pie with similarly varied fillings, and kulebiaka, a large pie filled with an assortment of fish. Unlike the rather slippery pelmeni, pirozhki are finger food; you can buy them hot on the street anywhere in Russia.
Luba Thome uses a yeast dough for her pirozhki, though other recipes may use either a short dough or puff pastry for the covering. The filling is subject to many variations.
DOUGHFor dough: Heat the milk until it is just warm, about 110 degrees. In a small mixing bowl, combine 1 cup of the warmed milk with the sugar and yeast. Allow the yeast to start working for ten minutes. In the meantime, combine the remaining warmed milk with the salt. Pour two or three cups of the flour into a large mixing bowl (it is important to use unbleached all-purpose flour for proper gluten formation). Make a "well" in the middle of the flour, pour in the salted milk, then begin to work the flour into the center from the edges, using your hands. Incorporate the yeast mixture, then the rest of the flour. Finally, add the melted butter and vegetable oil. Knead the dough well until it is firm and pliable. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let the dough sit at least an hour to rise. Punch the risen dough down then give it a few minutes to expand again before assembling the pirozhki.
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon dry yeast (about one commercial package)
5-6 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small head cabbage
4 hard-cooked eggs
For filling: Shred the cabbage and steam for five minutes. Chop the hard cooked-eggs finely and combine with the cabbage when it is cool. Butter enough to lubricate the mixture so the cabbage and egg combine well. Season to taste. (For a variation, substitute ground meat or chopped green onions for the cabbage. If using green onions, briefly scald with hot water before mixing with the egg.)
To assemble: Tear off egg-sized pieces of the dough, roll out into ovals, fill, fold and crimp with your fingers to form football-shaped pies. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the pirozhki on an oiled baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise fifteen minutes. Remove the plastic wrap. Beat and egg or two to create an "egg wash." Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash onto the pirozhki. Bake the pirozhki for 25-30 minutes until golden brown, leaving the over door slightly ajar for the first five minutes of the baking time.
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