Monday, February 10, 2014

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen

With our oldest son currently living and working in Moscow, I've been interested in learning more about the history and culture of Russia and the former Soviet Union.  The additional press about Russia as the Olympics open in Sochi provides an opportunity to learn more.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking provides an opportunity to explore Soviet history through the lens of food.

 “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing.”

Anya von Bremzen was born in the USSR in 1963, a year of nationwide crop failures and hunger. Anya's mother, Larissa, long-disillusioned with her life in Russia, eventually takes advantage of a policy granting exit visas to Jews,with the stipulation that no return is possible.  She journeys to America with 10 year-old Anya.  Years later in New York, the author and her mother embark on a mission to cook banquets commemorating decades of Soviet life from the last Czar to the Putin era consulting the The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.  In 1936, Anastas Mikoyan,  commissar of the food industry, criss-crossed the US, scouring for secrets of capitalist food manufacturing to bring home. In 1939, at the end of Stalin's blood-soaked purges, Mikoyan's commissariat issued an official Soviet cookbook, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. Shared by one sixth of the world's population, the 15 republics and over 100 ethnicities of the USSR, it ran through a dozen editions with more than 8m copies in print.

A banquet spread is pictured in the 1952 edition
 of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Foods.
The cookbook, published in the former Soviet Union,
 promoted a fantasy of abundance
 at a time when shortages abounded.
Eventually changes in leadership in Russia finally allow them to return to visit family in Russia. Inspired by her childhood fascination with the variety or languages, costumes, and foods of the different republics of the Soviet Union at the central market in Moscow, Anya and her boyfriend journey through the republics of the former Soviet Union.  Their cookbook, Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, was published in 1990, as the Soviet Union was in the process of  disintegrating into 15 separate republics. 

Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman
Winner of the 1990 James Beard Food and Beverage Book Award. 
 To celebrate the winter Olympics, I plan to try the following recipes from Anya von Bremzen: 

Chilled Russian Borscht

2 lbs.    medium beets, peeled and quartered
11 c.      water
1/4 c.      plus 1 T. sugar
1/4 c.      fresh lemon juice
2 T.     cider vinegar
                 Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 med. Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 lb.     Kirby cucumbers—peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 c.      finely diced radishes
4          scallions, thinly sliced
3 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 c.      coarsely chopped dill
1/4 c.      coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
                 Sour cream or crème fraîche, for serving

In a large pot, cover the quartered beets with the water and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat until the beets are tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beets to a plate.
Coarsely shred the beets in a food processor. Return them to the pot and add the sugar, lemon juice and cider vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the soup until chilled, for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
Meanwhile, bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the potato cubes and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Drain and cool under cold water. Pat dry and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the cucumbers, radishes, scallions, eggs, dill and parsley.
Ladle the chilled borscht into bowls. Garnish with the vegetable and chopped egg mixture, top with a generous dollop of sour cream and serve.
(The borscht can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Prepare the garnishes just before serving.)

Beef Stroganoff

2       lbs. filet mignon or filet mignon tips, cut into thin strips
3       T.   unsalted butter
3/4    c.    finely chopped onion
1       lb.   small fresh white mushrooms, caps only, wiped clean and halved
2 1/4 t.     all-purpose flour
1/3    c.    beef stock or canned broth
1/3    c.    heavy or whipping cream
1/2    c.    sour cream
2       t.     Dijon mustard
1 1/2 T.   chopped fresh dill
1 1/2 T.   chopped fresh parsley
               Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron over high heat. Add the meat, a few pieces at a time, and quickly sear all sides, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon, 3 to 4 minutes. If the meat throws off too much liquid, drain it off and set aside. Remove the meat from the skillet and set aside.
Melt the butter in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high, then add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring frequently, until they are deeply colored, about 20 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Stir in the stock, heavy cream, sour cream, mustard, and the meat juices, if any. Simmer over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 5 minute; do not allow to boil.
Return the meat to the skillet, stir to coat with the sauce, and heat for 1 minute. Stir in the dill, parsley, salt, and pepper, and serve at once.

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