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#15 - JRL 7173
The Miami Herald
May 8, 2003
From Russia with love: simple but elegant eating
By Sylvia Rector
Knight Ridder News Service

Dine at Russia's table and you'll find wonderful breads, hot soups, plump dumplings and -- always -- potatoes, along with sour cream sauces, salted fish, scores of pickles and plenty of cabbage.

If it seems like simple fare, look again.

Shaped by history, climate, economics and geography, it is a cuisine as rich, fascinating and complex as Russia herself.

Scratch the surface of the subject, and widely held beliefs -- that borscht is Russian, for example -- prove to be wrong. Elements you hadn't fully appreciated, such as the role of vodka in dining, come into focus. And dishes that once seemed ordinary take on new appeal when you hear their history, how they're made and how they're enjoyed halfway around the world.

Many Russians began arriving in the United States in the mid-1970s, when U.S.-Soviet tensions began to ease. In the decades since then, other Russian-speaking people from the 15 former Soviet republics have followed, and though they share a common language, they come from many ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

Modern-day Russian cuisine incorporates foods from many cultures, but everyday family dishes in Russia are still, by and large, the eastern European fare familiar to most Americans.

''Bread is No. 1,'' says Moscow-born Michael Kurchersky, a Detroit restaurateur. ''Russians eat a lot of bread,'' especially pumpernickel, a dark bread made with rye flour and molasses.

''For the Russian government, it once was very important to make sure everybody got bread, and next were potatoes and vodka,'' Kurchersky says.

Potatoes are Russia's most important vegetable, he says. They are served at any and all times of day, and no occasion is too grand for them.

''When anything happens, it's potatoes. They've got different ways of cooking them -- boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried with onions in a pan,'' Kurchersky says. A favorite version is draniki, which Americans would know as potato pancakes.

Cabbage also is essential. It is pickled, brined, made into soup and stewed as a popular side dish with tomato puree, onion, salt, pepper and a little sugar. And, of course, it's stuffed.

The filled, rolled leaves are called golubtsy, or little doves, because the packets are thought to resemble small birds at rest, writes Russian scholar Darra Goldstein, author of the authoritative A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality (HarperPerennial, $14.95).

Every region and ethnic group has its own version of golubtsy; it's layered with bacon in the Baltic, stuffed with lamb in central Asia and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce in Russian Jewish cookery, she writes. One typically Russian version even stuffs the cabbage whole, she says.

Russia's harsh climate forces cooks to rely heavily on cold-weather vegetables like potatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots and onions, so everyone eagerly awaits summer's fresh produce.

Even working-class city-dwellers had a dacha -- a small summer place with a garden plot in the country. There, they could cultivate their own vegetables. ''Russians want their tomatoes and cucumbers, so everybody grows them,'' Kurchersky says.

''In late summer, they love to pick up mushrooms,'' a favorite food, in the fields and woodlands, so they can be dried for winter and used in gravies, sauces and soups.

In fact, soups are among the most common everyday dishes -- little wonder in that climate. Favorite kinds include sauerkraut soup, or schee, made with beef bones, potatoes and onions; potato soup, mushroom soup, pickle soup, a mixed-meat soup and, of course, borscht, or beet soup.

Kurchersky's borscht is Ukrainian. Cooked in a meaty broth red from the diced beets, the soup is hearty and filling, chock-full of shredded cabbage and carrot and diced potatoes and onions, with even more flavor from tomatoes, garlic, black pepper and hints of vinegar and sugar.

There are many styles of borscht, all closely related except for the Jewish vegetarian version, says Alina Makin, who teaches Russian at the University of Michigan. That one, sold in delis, is water-based, made without meat or other vegetables; it bears little resemblance to the soup preferred in Russia.

One of the most distinctive elements of Russian dining is the predinner spread of zakuski, or appetizers, accompanied by shots of ice-cold vodka, Kurchersky says.

Zakuska dishes can range from simple black bread with butter, cold salads or various pickled vegetables to more elegant ones such as smoked salmon, pte or Russia's famous caviar, which even working-class people can still afford to enjoy on occasions such as birthdays, he says.

''Basically,'' Makin explains, ''zakuski means a bite after a shot of vodka. The first course is completely devoted to providing these little bits and pieces of food -- cold cuts, caviar, salads. It's sort of like antipasti, and along the way, there is a huge selection of pickles. Every family has pickles every year.''

You'll have to provide your own pickles, but here are recipes for other dishes for you to try, the first three from A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality and the bread adapted from russianfestival.bizland.com

[DJ: Recipies not here.]

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