Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Week 51: A Journey to Ukraine

When planning the year’s fifty-two countries, I realized that some countries would overlap by design.  I just assumed that in the end, there would be plenty of dishes to cover in a week’s time despite the number of similar countries in the mix.  In light of that decision, I found myself in a quandary when I saw “Week 51: Ukraine” on my schedule.  To date, I had already covered Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary, and borscht was the only dish that I felt was missed.  Longing to take it easy while enjoying the holidays and my time in Tennessee with family, I almost allowed myself a tiny sabbatical from the project, but then I thought, “It’s Week 51.  I’ve almost made it to the end.  I can do this.  I just need a little inspiration.”  I found that inspiration from my Ukrainian friend and co-worker, Greg.  I ran into him in the break room on the week before Christmas and told him I needed help choosing some dishes from Ukraine for the project, and within thirty minutes, I had a list of frantically written notes and an email inbox filling with pictures and recipes that reflect authentic preparations of traditional dishes.  These moments are the ones I cherish most during the project.  Nothing compares to hearing someone enthusiastically share his culture, his homeland, and his family with you.  When I finally sat down and summarized our conversation, I had these notes to plan my week of Ukrainian dishes:
  • Borscht:  A must try.  There are more versions than imaginable, so just pick one that sounds good.  Green borscht, made with sorrel and no beets, is a favorite in Greg’s family, but finding fresh sorrel in the winter is difficult. Make a meaty borscht with red beets.  It should be sour.  Greg likes his borscht so thick that a fork will stand up straight in the bowl, but his dad likes it very brothy.  Either way is right, so make it as I like.
  • Varenyky and Perohy:  Varenyky are similar to pierogi.  They can be filled with anything….mashed potato and onion, liver, or even cherries.  Perohy are also dumplings stuffed with the same types of fillings, but they are very small…the smaller the better.  A cook who can make the tiniest of perohy is revered.
  • Greg’s Ukrainian Appetizer:  While he didn’t know the English name for the dish, he explained that most Ukrainian restaurants cook peas in lard, mash them with garlic, salt, and pepper, and serve it on Russian black bread as an appetizer.  He also explained that in the Ukraine this would more likely be made with kidney beans than peas.
  • Blintz:  Make with ground meat and onion like you’d use in shepherd’s pie.  Roll like a tamale, not like a crepe.  Fry in lard to crisp the edges.
  • Kiev:  One of the most famous dishes from Ukraine.  A definite must.  Serve it with potatoes.
  • Vinigret:  Greg’s dad’s favorite dish.  A salad made with beets.  Very important to cut up all vegetables in the same sizes.
  • Olivye:  A salad served at EVERY special occasion. 
  • Latkes:  A family favorite.
  • Pork:  They eat lots of it.
  • Sour Cream:  Serve it with everything.
From this list, I organized a plan to integrate Ukrainian cuisine into my post-Christmas holiday.  Greg’s enthusiasm boosted my spirits, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed thinking of him and his family as I cooked these dishes.
Despite my adoration for roasted beets, I never found the idea of borscht appealing.  In full disclosure, I knew nothing about it beyond the fact that it was a beet stew, its pink coloration in photos reminded me of Pepto-Bismol, and its mention summoned images of a circa 1950s housewife trying to impress her husband’s boss at a dinner party.  I was so wrong. 

Borscht is not really a dish as much as it is a category of Eastern European stews.  It may be hot or cold, vegetarian or meaty, hearty or brothy, and with beets or without beets.  I must note, though, that its name is derived from an old Slavic word for beets, borsch, so it likely began as a beet stew and evolved into many different variations over time.  In actuality, borscht is best described as a vegetable soup made with rich beef or pork broth.  In many cases, roasted beets are shredded or cubed and added to the soup.  The reason those “Pepto-like” photos exist is because many of the cold versions have sour cream mixed into the soup.  After Greg told me how much he loves “Green Borscht” made with sorrel and no beets, I considered sourcing fresh sorrel online to make it, but instead, I chose a traditional version for my first borscht.  After reading several recipes, I determined that one posted by Alan Leonetti on for his Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe best represented an authentic preparation.  The recipe begins with rendered bacon and beef chuck browned in the bacon fat.  The meat is removed, and carrots, onions, garlic, oregano, dill, and bay leaves are sautéed in the fat.  Then, red wine vinegar is added to deglaze the pot, and the beef, bacon, and some water are added back to the pot to simmer until the meat is tender, which is about two hours.  When the meat is tender, roasted beets, potatoes, cabbage, parsley, tomato paste, celery seed and salt are added and simmered for another thirty minutes.  Finally, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar are added to taste, and the borscht is served with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill.  The complex harmony of sweet, savory, sour, hot, cool, tangy, creamy, and tangy elements produces a lovely, rich broth with an irresistible flavor.  I couldn’t believe how much I loved this dish.  It was unbelievably delicious.


When someone says “blintz” to me, I think of something similar to a French crepe stuffed with sweet cheese and possibly fruit.  If pressed to define them further, I might add that it is also similar to a blini and is sometimes served with crème fraiche and caviar.  When Greg suggested that I make blintzes for this week’s project, I was a bit confused and surprised when he said that I should “make it with ground meat and onion like you’d use in a shepherd’s pie, roll it like a tamale, not like a crepe, and fry it in lard.”  I found a basic recipe for the batter (milk, eggs, oil, and flour), and with Greg’s notes, I set out to make blintzes.  I rolled and stuffed the thin pancakes with ground pork and onion.  Then, I dredged them in an egg wash and bread crumbs before frying them in some lard.  I served them with a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley, and they were quite satisfying.  My favorite part of the dish was the crispiness of the pancake edges as a result of dredging them in egg wash and breadcrumbs before frying them.  It added a nice texture next to the filling.  I also enjoyed the addition of the fresh parsley and cool sour cream, which offered a light counterpoint to the rich pork and onion filling.  I can see how this would be a great lunch on a cold, winter’s day.

Vinigret is a beet and potato salad dressed with oil and vinegar.  When Greg mentioned that it is his father’s favorite dish, I knew it would be worth my time.  After reading several recipes for it, I quickly recognized that the most important element of the salad is not necessarily the ingredients, but the precise size of the ingredients.  Each component of the salad should be diced into small cubes.  On the night before I planned to serve the salad, I boiled a large potato, two beets, and a carrot until they were tender.  When they were cool enough to handle, I peeled them and stored them in the refrigerator overnight so that they would be easier to dice the next day.  When I was ready to assemble the salad, I diced the potato, beets, and carrots, along with onion and dill pickles.  I mixed them with sauerkraut, and then I dressed the salad with olive oil and white vinegar and seasoned it with salt and pepper.  (Sunflower oil would have been a more authentic choice, but I didn’t have any on hand.)  The brightness of the vinegar, pickles, and sauerkraut elevates the root vegetables into a light, refreshing salad.  The small dice of the vegetables allows for each bite to include a bit of sweet carrot, earthy beet, silky potato, crispy pickles and onions, and sour pickles and sauerkraut.  I can see why Greg’s dad is such a fan of this salad. 

chicken kiev served with
mashed potatoes and peas
Although I’d heard of Chicken Kiev, I really didn’t know much about it.  I knew it was famous, but I had no idea why.  As it turns out, the Russian aristocracy in the late seventeenth century was enamored with French fashion and food, and aristocrats sent their chefs to train in Paris or hired French chefs to serve in their households.  A French chef named Nicolas Appert, who is also credited with the invention of canning to preserve foods, invented the dish, which is best described as a flattened, boneless chicken breast rolled around a chilled piece of herbed butter, breaded, and fried.  The dish gained popularity in Russia and was called Chicken Supreme.  I found two explanations regarding the dish’s name, Chicken Kiev.  One source states that New York restaurants in the early twentieth century named it Chicken Kiev to encourage Russian immigrants to patronize their restaurants, and another source states that Russian immigrants referred to it as Chicken Kiev as a way of referencing that it was chicken prepared in the style of what they remembered from Kiev.  Either way, this dish with French roots emerged from Ukraine as a representation of its style. 

Although its components are simple, assembling Chicken Kiev is not an easy task.  The key to successfully preparing the dish is rolling the chicken so tightly around the butter that it cannot escape while frying.  If properly prepared, a distinctive “poof” of air releasing can be heard when cutting into the center of the roll.  After several attempts to roll the chicken tightly, I gave up and tied mine with cooking string.  I’m not sure if that’s considered cheating, but I knew that my rolls would never stay together enough to achieve the necessary “poof” without a little help.  Cheating or not, it worked.  I leaned in closely as I cut into my first piece of Chicken Kiev, and sure enough…I heard it.  I sighed with amazement.  Everything worked like it should.  The chicken was moist; the breading was crisp; and the compound butter pooled onto my plate and provided a perfect elevation of flavor.  I cannot say that there was anything particularly different or interesting about the flavors here, but the simplicity of the ingredients and the technique for preparation certainly result in a well-cooked piece of chicken, which is not always as easy as some might think.

What a rewarding a week!  I wish I’d found more time to make the other dishes that Greg recommended, but I tried enough dishes to end the week with a newfound appreciation for the cuisine of Ukraine.  Without question, the borscht surprised me most as I never expected to find it so full of flavor.  All in all, I enjoyed every dish this week, and yet again, I remember why I began this project.  It’s a journey of discovery and overcoming misconceptions, and these Ukrainian dishes certainly provided opportunity for both.


1 comment:

  1. I saw an SNL sketch on Saturday about Rosetta Stone and it remembered me of this post! Borscht. Your culinary cv is amazingly ample. Impressed