Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Cooking of Strangers: Borscht & Piroshki


Zola: I've just begun reading an amazing autobiography called The Courage of Strangers by Jeri Laber. JL was one of the co-founders of Helsinki Watch, which would become Human Rights Watch. Our bookshelf is littered with similar books: passionate individuals who are driven to make substantive change in the world. I devour these things. But this one is really speaking me. It's partially because she found her "calling" later in life, and that puts me at ease. As someone who didn't even begin her undergraduate studies until the age of 27, I often feel like I'm in a constant struggle to catch up to get where I want to be. The other thing is that it turns out old JL is a bit of a foodie. In fact, it was while she was editing the Fannie Farmer Cookbook that she met then President of Random House, Bob Bernstein, who got her into her first paid position doing human rights work. It's two worlds--food and development work--that sometimes feel completely at odds to me and I enjoyed reading her experiences within both.

She began her career with an interest--an obsession, really--with all things Russian. It's easy to imagine. It was the early 1950's and everything Russian was forbidden and mysterious. Combine that with the fact that her father was Russian and refused to speak about his life there. Much to the chagrin of her father, she ended up studying Russian language and literature, and in 1954 was one of the first American students to get a student visa into the USSR. By the 1960's she had 3 children and was working part-time in the Institute for the Study of the USSR.

Jeri: I looked forward to the office Christmas party each year, which always began with a gala Russian banquet, prepared by staff members and their spouses and spread out on a cloth-covered Ping-Pong table in the office recreation room. Many of the foods were new to me, but the tastes were enticingly familiar and reminded me of meals my grandmothers had made. There was caviar, both red and black; several kinds of pirozhki (light, flaky pastries filled with ground meat, cabbage, or mushrooms); pelmeni (boiled dumplings often served in a delicate broth); beef Stroganoff; hard boiled eggs with anchovies and dill sauce and salad Oliver (made with diced chiken, potatoes, and dill pickles). Vodka flowed freely and there was no end to the toasting. No matter how late I stayed, the party was in full swing when I left, and the sight the next morning of broken bottles and overturned chairs testified to even wilder partying as the night went on.

I got recipes from my colleagues and began preparing Russian food at home. One of my specialties was a meat-filled cabbage and beet borscht that I often served as a main course with mushroom pirozhki on the side. I followed it with thin slices of paskha, the sumptuous Russian Easter dessert made with farmer cheese, butter, cream, sugar, almonds, and other sinful things. My love affair with Russia now extended to its cuisine.

Zola: I've never been crazy about Eastern European food. You may have noticed that my tastes lean toward the spicy. But in honor of Jeri and the amazing work of Human Rights Watch (and learning to cook new food) we're cooking borscht and mushroom piroshki.


Mushroom Piroshki:
Dough:
1 1/2 c. sifted flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
1/4 c. butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c. sour cream
Cut cold butter into flour/baking powder/salt until well mixed. Add sour cream and egg and form into a ball. Let refrigerate for a couple of hours.

Filling:
Cook 12 oz of mushrooms in butter. Mix in some flat leaf parsley, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Mix in some sour cream and a hard boiled egg.

Roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness. I cut the dough into squares to conserve dough. Place about 2 tablespoons of filling in center of each square. Using pastry brush, coat edges with beaten egg. Fold dough over and shape into triangles. Press edges firmly together. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and brush tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with . Chill them for another hour then bake at 400 degrees for about 25-30 minutes.

Borscht:
1 pound beef or lamb shank
4 c. water
1/2 chopped onion
2 small bay leaves
1/2 tsp whole allspice
1 tomato peeled & chopped
1/2 small cabbage
1 carrot
1 beet
1 tsp vinegar
fresh ground pepper
chopped parsley and dill


Bring beef/lamb shank, onion, water, bay leaves, and allspice to a boil. Skim as necessary and let simmer for an hour. Chop veggies into a thin chop (apparently if you grate them, your borscht will be cloudy, and who wants that?). Remove meat from pot--if there's enough meat on the bone, cut it off and throw it back in with your veggies. Otherwise, set aside and toss in veggies. Boil uncovered for about 15 minutes or until veggies are cooked through. Before serving, stir in vinegar pepper, parsley and dill. Add sour cream to top.

Note: I think these turned out really well. My one comment would be that there wasn't enough broth to the borscht. If I had to do it again, I'd up the stock part of the recipe.

Oh, the Jeri quote is from her book:
The Courage of Strangers, PublicAffairs, 2002.

15 comments:

kathleen g said...

Place on ungreased cookie sheet and brush tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with _____ ???.

dummies like me need to know!

Zola said...

oh--good question! those are sesame seeds. un-toasted.

I really recommend those piroshkis--they were tasty little buggers. I still can't get completely behind the borscht but I think that's my own issue and not the fault of the recipe.

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