Having supped new flavors from a southern sea, we weren’t sure how well we’d reacclimate to mayo-based salads and pickled herring. Russian cuisine is better suited to winter months when you need something that’ll stick with you, like a devoted friend. Once the temperature climbs or piddles upward, as it turns out this summer, there are a few standbys that offer relief. Though it’s no gazpacho, cold borsch can help a northern body through a hot day. The recipe is a play of raw vegetables, such as cucumbers and radishes, onions, carrots and enough beets to put some pink in your socks. It’s usually garnished with a boiled egg, parsley, dill and sour cream. Another popular chilled soup is okroshka, but its story begins with a beverage that wants description.
With the sun lingering past midnight, every other corner in St. Petersburg is now occupied by a woman dispensing drinks out of a yellow fuel tank or a great barrel that is meant to look old-timey. The presumably ancient beverage, kvass, is also bottled and sold in supermarkets, but the keg version is superior. Made from fermented bread, this summertime refreshment has a polarizing affect. Many Russians are sentinmentally bound to the sweet, soda-rye flavor, but even among their lot, some would rather dip their head in the Neva than take their bread in a glass. I enjoy it on rare occasions, but find the quality inconsistent. Bliny Domik on Kalakolnaya Street, whose staff appears almost natural in its village dress, serves a decent glass. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to pour such a beverage into a bowl, add some cucumbers, spring onions, radishes, boiled potatoes, eggs and maybe even ham and call it soup. I admire the audacity of such a recipe, but the magic is lost on me.
As August approaches, another summer novelty appears in proximity to the enduring drink sellers in the form of onion-shaped tiger cages. Each of them is painted green, perhaps to stifle the sense of alarm they naturally inspire amongst the pedestrians. For two weeks they stand empty, during which time last summer my mother remarked, “I hope those aren’t for people.” Actually, they’re for watermelons as well as some other kind of melon that looks like a torpedo-shaped cantaloupe. So, there are alternatives to cola soup.
Having just holidayed in a region where the temperature was flirting with the thirty-five-degree mark (that’s centrigrade, so multiply by 1.8 and add 32), Natasha and I were less than overwhelmed by St. Peterburg’s tepid conditions. We decide, therefore, to whip up a heavy-hitting off-season favorite. I’m not going to get into the debate about the national origin of the cabbage roll. When I ate it in Poland, they called it gwombki (apparently translating to “little pigeons”) and it’s also rumored to be a source of pride amongst the Ukranians, who know it as holubtsi. In Russia they refer to these precious pillows as golubtsy, and I’m willing to wager that it’s their simplicity that has made them enduring. Ingredients: pork, rice, onion, and a big head of cabbage.
Once the cabbage leaves are steamed and supple and the pork has been processed in the electric meat grinder (you’ve got to pick one of those up for yourself), you mingle the rice and meat along with any other surprises your loved ones might appreciate and pretend your putting together what could be construed a low-carb dumpling.
It helps to flash fry the bottom of each kitten-sized package, ensuring a proper seal, then delicately arrange them in an oven pan for a good long bake.
The Poles often accompany this dish with a tomato-based sauce, but in our kitchen we eat golubtsy with Russia’s favorite food lubricant, sour cream. It’s best to keep two hands on each plate when serving, as these babies are quite weighty, and to breathe between bites.