Classic Cabbage Soup
Although many associate borscht with Russian cuisine, the iconic soup is actually a Ukranian dish. While also popular in Russia, it’s not technically a “Russian soup.” Shchi, on the other hand, is arguably the Russian soup. Popular throughout the country, there are numerous ways to make this classic cabbage soup, whether it be “empty” (made without meat), “lazy” (made with fresh cabbage instead of pickled) or “rich” (made with plenty of beef). Our recipe is an adaptation of Darra Goldstein’s shchi, which in turn is an adaptation of Maksim Syrnikov’s version, who has been tirelessly cataloging traditional Russian recipes. It’s a laborious and rich version of the soup, as it contains pickled cabbage which is slowly roasted before being added to a beef broth that has been braised for hours. Contains dairy, gluten.
There are a few exports of Russian cuisine famed around the world, with caviar being the most notable. And where there is caviar, there are often blinis; small bite sized pancakes that are often no more than a vessel for fish eggs. In Russia however, they take a different form. As large as a crepe or a pancake, and with a texture somewhere between the two, true Russian blinis are more than just a vessel. Served sweet or savory, stuffed, stacked or rolled, blinis are an ancient Russian food. Regardless of how they are served, they are always best hot off the griddle, which presents a problem for a food delivery company like us. So instead we’ve opted for what we hope will be a suitable substitute as part of our zakuska. Small barley and rye cakes that are baked in a cabbage leaf, with a texture somewhere between a biscuit and a pancake. They are every bit as delicious as their larger buckwheat counterparts and make an excellent vessel for pickled herring, beet salad or dipped in soups or stews. Contains dairy, gluten; vegetarian.
Pickled Herring in Sour Cream
There is a long, almost mythical tradition of pickling herring in the Baltic Sea that dates back millenia. For at least 2,000 years, it was one of the primary items traded throughout that area and the north Atlantic, with various Swedish kingdoms rising to prominence on the accrued wealth it brought. Since then, it has imbued itself into Scandinavian folklore and has grown roots in cuisines from the UK to Russia, consumed in various types of pickling brines and salads. It even has religious significance for both Ashkenazi Jews and Orthodox Christians, the latter of which would consume pickled herring as a source of protein during Lent and fasting days. This was particularly important to the farmers around St. Petersburg (which borders the Baltic) who have relied on the pickled fish for sustenance throughout the long winters and now is a classic vodka snack throughout the country. The oily herring fish is first salt cured before being pickled in brine, our version using a sour cream and vinegar base. Contains dairy, fish.
Vodka Dill Cucumber Salad
In no other cuisine we’ve encountered does pickling play as prominent a role in the national diet as in Russia. Which makes sense when you consider the long winters and shorter growing seasons; preserving food is a necessity for survival. One could argue too that vodka is necessary to survive the long, cold and dark winters. We’ve married the two with this salad, which takes advantage of vodka and salt to make a “quick pickle” flavored with garlic and dill. Vegan, gluten free.
Shredded Beet Salad
This may come as a surprise given how strongly people associate beets and borscht with Russian cuisine, but beets are not actually native to Russia. Originally from the Middle East and Mediterranean, they were highly regarded by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who cultivated beets primarily for their greens. They’ve since traveled around the world and, like the potato, become a staple of Russian cuisine. If you happened to order both this menu and our Sri Lankan menu this week, we encourage you to do a side by side comparison to see just how versatile the beet can be. That versatility includes using the beet for dishes other than borscht, as in this salad. Freshly grated beets, apples and red onions are tossed in a light dressing of cider vinegar, sour cream and horseradish. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Beef Stew with Horseradish
Mustard and horseradish - what better way to flavor a Russian stew than with these two home-grown condiments. The Russian word for mustard stems from the verb “to burn” and Russian mustard is distinctively robust relative to the French counterpart. Mustard seeds have been traded for their medicinal purposes since Roman times, but it was in the eighteenth century when Empress Catherine the Great allowed German missionaries, and their knowledge of prepared mustard, into the country that it took off. Horseradish on the other hand, has been around much longer. This staple finds its way into sauces, garnishes, flavored alcohol, and flavored butters and sour creams. This classic, wintery beef stew is flavored with juniper berries, onions and carrots, before being finished with a generous dollop of mustard and horseradish that offer just the right amount of bite to complement the sweetness of the vegetables. Contains dairy, gluten.
Baked Potatoes and Mushrooms
If you’ve read any of our past histories for potato dishes, this story will sound familiar (check out the past menus for Burgundy & Milan if you’re curious), as potatoes didn’t arrive in Russia until the 1800s. Even then they weren’t broadly adopted for almost a century (there were riots because people didn’t want to grow them initially). But as with everywhere else the potato has traveled, it’s gone from reviled tuber to beloved staple of the national diet, and in Russia it’s no exception. Mushrooms on the other hand, are as Russian of a food as a fungus can get. Mushroom foraging is akin to a national sport in Russia and dates back centuries. This dish then, is a combination of the old and new. Sometimes referred to as the “husband’s dish” due to its simplicity and the fact men would make it when their wives were not home to cook, potatoes are baked with mushrooms, onions and fresh herbs to make the perfect accompaniment to beef stew. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Barley Porridge with Almond Milk and Berry Compote
The counterpart to the tangy Russian pickle, is the sweet fruit preserve. Fresh berries are abundant in the forests of Russia, but only for a brief season each year. In order to make them last throughout the winter, fresh berries are picked and turned into sweet preserves and jams. Honey was the sweetener of choice until beet sugar became widely available in the mid 19th century, and fruits were boiled with honey and suspended in jars of syrupy sweetness to last the rest of the year. Honey was so abundant in Russia that it was a primary export during the 17th century, rivaled only by fur. It is still prized in Russia for its flavor and health benefits and we’ve made our compote the traditional way. Fresh strawberries are boiled down with wildflower honey and cranberries. The only step we skipped was actually jarring it, instead dolloping it right onto barley porridge. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish, the sweetness of the berries also make for an excellent end to a meal. Contains dairy; vegetarian
Vodka in Russia has a long, somewhat troubled history. In 988, Prince Vladimir converted his nation to Orthodox Christianity, in part because it did not forbid the consumption of alcohol. Then, according to legend, in the fifteenth century monks in the Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin were the first people to distill wheat grains into a product similar to modern-day vodka (potato vodka only came about much later). Starting with Peter the Great in the 17th century, widespread alcohol consumption was encouraged by the Tsars - instead of going to debtors prisons, men were offered 25 years in the army. By the 1850s, almost 50% of Russia’s tax revenue came from vodka consumption. Despite Lenin’s brief vodka ban in 1917, Stalin quickly reversed course and used it to fund his socialist industrialization campaign. In the 1970s, the spirit still produced a third of the country’s tax revenue. All this to say, Russians drink A LOT of vodka. And while it’s history is certainly exploitative, there’s no doubt that vodka, served freezer chilled (it must be ice cold, we recommend putting it in the freezer at least 4 hours before you drink it), provides the perfect pairing to this menu.
St. Petersburg, Russia
This week, we’re looking to present a culinary portrait of Russia that goes beyond the traditionally bland portrayal of borscht and potatoes. In reality, borscht originated in Ukraine and potatoes weren’t widely available in Russia until the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, we’ve turned to Russia’s past in search of recipes rooted in traditional village life.
The harsh climate and difficult soil conditions of northern Russia birthed a cuisine that could sustain its people throughout the long winter and indulge in the region’s natural riches after the spring thaw. This led to cuisine rooted in foraging, pickling, and fermentation, alternatively consuming ingredients with minimal processing or preparing them to be stored for months on end. These culinary traditions continue to permeate modern Russian culture.
The spirit of Russian cuisine can be best understood through the tradition of mushroom hunting. The popular practice of heading to the woods armed with baskets to wander in search of mushrooms has been compared to a national sport, albeit a quiet and calming one. Russian forests are uniquely well suited for mushrooms, with a diversity and yield rarely found outside of the country. In ancient times, wild mushrooms provided a substitute for crops prone to failure in the poor Russian soil. Under serfdom, peasants were forced to farm the land on behalf of their lord, but could still forage in the forests where tradition dictated that everything was theirs for the keeping. The practice remained popular throughout Soviet times, and most households still come equipped with books documenting the over 200 species of mushrooms, some of them poisonous and important to avoid. According to a survey in 2019, over half of Moscow and St. Petersburg residents participated in mushroom hunts during the summer and fall season. During the pandemic, with indoor activities limited, mushroom hunting experienced a further surge in popularity as city folk returned to the forests.
Once harvested, mushrooms can be consumed raw immediately, fried or boiled in preparation for a range of dishes, or pickled to store indefinitely. Pickled mushrooms, originally a winter necessity, now remain a core element of the zakuska, a set of Russian snacks designed to accompany vodka drinking. Pickled herring, a part of this menu, can be found alongside the mushrooms, and occasionally comes covered in a heaping layer of beets. We’ve also used fermented cabbage in the soup and quickly pickled our own cucumbers in vodka. The culture of pickling and fermentation even extends to Russian drinks. Kvass, a refreshing soft drink made by fermenting rye bread, predates Christianity’s arrival in Russia and remained the dominant beverage until the end of the Cold War opened the door to Western sodas. Vodka itself is often infused with the sharp flavors of pepper and horseradish or the delicate notes of sweet cherries harvested in the summer.
Bryan and I often jokingly say that “peasant” foods are the best foods. While today, the term peasant carries a negative connotation, in a culinary context we take it to mean foods created with limited resources but limitless ingenuity. If necessity is the mother of innovation, then hardship is the grandmother of culinary creativity. From fermented cabbage soups to hearty horseradish stews to berry preserves, no other cuisine we’ve crafted so far has embodied this truth as much as Russian food. Centuries of living under oppressive regimes, in a punishingly cold climate has birthed a cuisine far more complex and delicious than many believe.
Featured Recipe: Shchi, Classic Cabbage Soup
Note that this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled to serve larger crowds
For the stewed sauerkraut
1.5 cups finely shredded sauerkraut with brine
1/2 large onion, peeled & finely chopped
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 tbsp flour
For the broth
1 lbs beef chuck roast
1 lbs beef bones
5-7 cups cold water
½ large onion, peeled
1 carrot, ends trimmed
1/2 leek, cut in half crosswise so you’re left with the majority white part of the stalk
1 bay leaves
2 parsley sprigs
4 black peppercorns
1/2 tsp salt
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp fresh dill, minced
1 tbsp scallions, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 400F
Strain the sauerkraut and reserve ¼ cup of brine
Mix the strained sauerkraut with the chopped onion, butter and reserved brind and place in a 10 in cast iron skillet or other oven safe baking dish
Bake for 10 mins at 400F then reduce heat to 250F and bake uncovered for 3 hours until the sauerkraut has turned a light golden brown. If it seems to be drying out, add an additional tablespoon or two of brine or water
When the sauerkraut has turned brown, remove from the oven and mix in the flour.
While the cabbage cooks, make the broth. Place the beef and bones in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and skim any foam that rises to the surface.
Add the onion, carrot, leek, bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns and salt.
Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered for 3 hours until the meat is tender.
Remove the beef from the broth and cut into ½ inch cubes, or shred if desired, removing any unwanted fat.
Strain the broth and discard the vegetables, herbs and bones.
Stir the meat back into the strained broth along with the baked sauerkraut and simmer covered for 30 mins.
Add the garlic, dill and scallions and let the soup stand, covered for 15 mins before serving.
Recipes Inspired By:
Beyond the North Wind, another exceptional cookbook from Darra Goldstein. So thorough that it inspired almost the entirety of this menu
Our close friend Georgiy, who was born in what is now Georgia and immigrated to the US a few years after the fall of the USSR
A great profile on Maksim Syrnikov and traditional Russian cuisine from The New Yorker
An interesting read about vodka consumption in Russia