When you picture the food of the former Soviet empire, it's probably a fairly heavy image: steaming bowls of borscht, long-baked stuffed cabbage and all manner of savory, meaty dumplings. You're not far off. This hefty, stick-to-your-ribs menu is fairly representative of Soviet cuisine. It's not the whole picture, though. There's also a strong tradition of light meals that make the most of summer, avoiding the oven and capitalizing on the fleeting season of berries and vegetables. When it's too hot for pirogies, this lighter side of the Soviet summer can make a surprisingly welcome meal.
As expected from such a sizable empire — the Soviet Union spanned an area comparable in size to North America — Soviet cuisine is strongly regional, and recipes from the depths of Siberia are different from the herb-laden dishes of the more temperate Caucasus. And members of the former Soviet Union's sizable Jewish population, who grew up with the kosher prohibition on mixing milk and meat in the same meal, have a distinct repertoire of lighter meat-free meals. Whatever their origin, Soviet summer dishes share a common thread: They make great use of summer crops, celebrate the best of the seasons and are delicious.
Vitaly Paley, a Portland-based chef, now has access to fresh produce year-round in the Pacific Northwest's temperate climate. When he grew up in the Soviet republic of Belarus, however, most of his diet came from the potatoes, onions, beets and apple-studded sauerkraut that could be long stored in the family root cellar (in addition to the ubiquitous herring, of course). There's nothing like absence to make the palate grow fonder. "When the season rolled around and the first tomatoes and strawberries came up, it was amazing," he remembers. Paley enjoyed summer meals of simple tomato-scallion salads (bound with a bit of sour cream), cold summer soups, and his grandmother's curd-cheese pancakes (and stolen sips of his grandfather's cherry wine).
My own grandfather came from a Brooklyn Belarussian family, and he enjoyed his stuffed cabbage as much as the next Eastern European. But he also spent summers sprinkling salt and lemon juice onto cabbage and cucumbers for a lightly pickled summer salad, slicing dripping summer tomatoes to enjoy plain, or mincing radishes and scallions into cottage cheese to pile onto thin-sliced brown bread.
About The Author
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories on topics ranging from urban agriculture to gefilte fish have appeared on The Splendid Table, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Voice of America, The Environment Report, Salon.com, The Northwest News Network and Culinate.com and in The Oregonian and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.
Drawing from this inspiration, I started my Russian-inspired meal with okroshka, a radish- and cucumber-studded entry in the well-developed tradition of cold soups (which also includes chilled soups based on beets, sorrel and other vegetables). Okroshka is usually made with kvass, a fermented grain beverage, which can be difficult to find outside of Russian markets. Thinking of my grandfather's dairy-based vegetable spreads, I substituted kefir, giving the chopped vegetables a hint of fermented tang and a refreshing, creamy base.
For a salad course, the simple mix of chopped vegetables was a logical choice. Instead of my grandfather's pickled slaw, or Paley's sour cream-bound chopped salad, I looked to a recipe from another Soviet-era republic: Azerbaijan. Peak-of-summer tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are dressed with lemony scallions, with a simplicity that nicely complements other dishes.
For a main course, I wanted a bit of heft without turning on the oven, so I turned to the grill — and to Azerbaijan's neighbor, Georgia. Georgian cuisine, with its tradition of bright herb- and fruit-studded recipes, is a natural summertime choice. Following Darra Goldstein's recipe in The Georgian Feast, I filled trout with sliced lemon and fresh tarragon, grilled them and served them with Georgia's ubiquitous cilantro-walnut sauce. The punchy herbal sauce (sweetened with a bit of dried apricot) perfectly complements the smoky fish, putting a flavorful Eurasian spin on summer grilling.
Syrniki, the beloved Russian curd-cheese pancakes, make a perfect dessert or even a light meal in and of themselves. Cheese gives the pancakes a rich smoothness, different from the fluffy crumb of a standard flapjack, and their small size means they're well bathed in the sweet butter you use to fry them. They're so ridiculously delicious that you may find yourself eating a full third of the batch before they get to the table, if you share my lack of restraint. A swipe of cold sour cream is the traditional accompaniment, but they taste even better if you top the sour cream with a pile of fresh berries. After all, it is summertime.
Okroshka (Cold Kefir Soup)
Okroshka is traditionally made with kvass, a fermented rye drink that's hard to find outside of Eastern Europe. In this version, kefir, a yogurt-like beverage, provides that fermented tang. The mix of fresh herbs, radishes and cucumber keeps the soup refreshing, while the boiled eggs and potatoes give it enough heft for a light main dish. Kefir can generally be found in the dairy section of health food stores (if you can't find it, you can substitute a slightly lesser amount of yogurt).
1 small bunch radishes, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 hard-boiled large eggs, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 midsize boiled waxy potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch dice
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix together all of the ingredients and chill. Serve cold.
Azarbaychan Salati (Azerbaijan Salad)
Most Russian salads aren't the lettuce-based affairs we think of. They're more a collection of various summer vegetables, chunked up and tossed together. This particular version, adapted from Culinaria Russia, edited by Marion Trutter (H.F. Ullmann 2007) comes from Azerbaijan. In the early fall, you can garnish it with pomegranate seeds, but during summer it's lovely as is.
3 sweet Italian peppers, diced small (substitute bell peppers if desired)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the tomatoes, cucumber and peppers in a serving dish. Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice and scallions to form a dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the salad with the dressing and serve.
Grilled Trout With Tarragon And Cilantro Walnut Sauce
With its many rivers, Georgia is full of trout, which can be caught and grilled right by the water. The trout are lovely served plain, with just the lemon slices and pile of herbs in their cavity, but are even nicer when their smokiness is paired with cilantro walnut sauce. This recipe is adapted from The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein (University of California Press 1999).
Makes 1 entree serving (scale down slightly if it's part of a larger spread)
1 trout, cleaned and slit down the belly
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon minced scallion
4 to 5 thin slices lemon
1 large sprig fresh tarragon
Olive, sunflower or canola oil
Georgian Cilantro Walnut Sauce (recipe below)
Heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium heat. Lightly salt and pepper the insides of the trout and place the scallion, lemon slices and tarragon in the cavity. Rub the skin of the trout liberally with oil to keep it from sticking to the grill, then cook the fish over a hot fire for about 5 minutes per side, or until the skin is browned and the flesh begins to flake. Serve with Cilantro Walnut Sauce.
This rich sauce, adapted from The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein (University of California Press, 1999), is similar to a pesto, but with sweet notes from the dried apricots, richness from Georgians' beloved walnuts and a bright punch from an assortment of herbs. According to Goldstein, this sauce is great with grilled meat or chicken, vegetables and even potato salad (and makes an especially nice complement to the grilled trout).
Dice the apricot leather into small bits, place in a dish and pour the boiling water over it. Let sit until softened, then stir until a puree is formed.
Place the walnuts and garlic in a food processor and pulse until finely ground (do not overmix). Add the apricot puree, and the herbs, scallions, lemon juice, salt, pepper and cayenne and pulse to combine. With the motor running, add the walnut oil in a stream until it forms a thick sauce.
*These dried fruit-based snacks are widely available; try to find a natural version without added sweeteners.
Syrniki (Curd-Cheese Pancakes)
Beloved throughout much of the former Soviet Union, these pancakes make a delicious dessert or a light summer meal. They're traditionally made with tvorog, a fairly dry curd cheese. Farmer's cheese makes the best substitute, though cottage cheese or fromage blanc can be substituted in a pinch (with a bit more flour to compensate for the extra moisture). A handful of raisins traditionally adds a nice flavor and texture, but during the summer you can omit them in favor of the modern touch of fresh berries or compote. Either way, don't forget to serve them with sour cream. This recipe is adapted from one Portland chef Vitaly Paley remembers from his mother, Genya Paley. He says his grandmother was famous for adding a pinch of baking powder, dissolved in lemon juice, to produce exceptionally light syrniki.
1 1/2 cups farmer cheese (if unavailable, you can substitute cottage cheese, blended to break up the curds, or ricotta or fromage blanc, but they will require a bit more flour)
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch baking soda
Few drops lemon juice
3 to 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour (depending on the type of cheese used)
Butter for frying
Sour cream and berries, jam or compote for serving
Heat a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Mix together the cheese, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Separately, mix together the baking soda and lemon juice and stir that in as well. Add enough flour to make a thick batter, slightly thicker than pancake batter (the exact amount will vary depending on the type of cheese used).
When the skillet has heated, melt a few spoonfuls of butter in it, and plop down heaping tablespoons of batter. The batter should sizzle slightly. If the batter is too runny to set in little pancakes, add additional flour. Cook until the underside is golden, and the top has dried out slightly and holes are beginning to poke through (this will just take a few minutes). Flip, and brown on the other side (the second side should take less time). Repeat with remaining batter, adding additional butter to the skillet as needed. Serve with sour cream and fresh berries.