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.
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.