Comfort Me With Too Much Dill

About once a year I start to feel nostalgic for Moscow, where I lived during my high school years. I always miss my friends from that time in my life, but over the years I’ve started to miss the food. Usually this means a trip to the nearest international grocery store for whatever I can find that brings back the feeling of home. In El Paso I haven’t been able to find many authentic Russian products, and during the pandemic I’m reliant on any store that offers curbside pickup, so after a prolonged drought of my Moscow favorites I broke down and made them myself for the first time. I got the idea when we accidentally got a massive green cabbage in our grocery order and all I could think about was Eastern European fare. This week’s menu is from Russia, with love.

Just about every dish I ate in Russia was topped with sour cream and dill, and my husband isn’t a huge fan of either, so I’m sure he is glad the “week” only lasted three days, but I tried my best. All the recipes I used were found online, and just about everything had to be modified at least a bit to work with missing ingredients and substitutions from unreliable grocery pickups.

When you’re looking for comfort, you want it the way you remember it, not a riff on a classic. When I make julekakka, a Norwegian Christmas bread, for my in-laws I offer to try and alter the recipe to make it less dry, but they say no — it should taste the way we remember it and it was always dry and straight out of the freezer. It’s the same reason I asked for Mom’s famous chicken and olive casserole after I had my first baby and not sushi — it’s it brings me back to a time in my life that I felt comforted. In this case, the more dill and sour cream, the better. Think of it as a replacement for a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of parsley.

Black bread, butter, and flake salt

“Bread is the staff of life,” goes the Russian proverb, and I clearly remember each school year commencing with an all-school assembly where we were offered a piece of bread to dip in salt and eat before heading to our first class. Historically, Russians kept salt for special occasions like welcoming guests, and good hosts are called khlebosolnye, from the words for “bread” and “salt.” And so, day one was Russian Black Bread day. This version had true Russian flavor, but wasn’t dense with despair like the others I’ve eaten. It’s soft on the inside and could use a bit of toasting before spreading on your butter and flake salt, or layering with cucumber slices and tomato. To my surprise, the kids loved it and I was so glad this method made two loaves. You would think dark bread made with bitter flavors like rye, coffee, and caraway seeds would turn off young tasters, but it was a great addition to an otherwise unfamiliar table this week.

I figured we’d ease into new foods by starting with Beef Stroganoff, so the kids could see buttered egg noodles as a familiar starting point. This recipe had a lot of layered flavors with brandy and mustard added to the creamy sauce, and I actually read the wordy part before the recipe that I usually skip and caught her recommendation to use really good meat since you only need one pound. Of course, the grocery store only gave me half a pound of sirloin, but three times as many mushrooms as I requested, so I supplemented with extra cremini. The brandy (actually Congnac) I had just by coincidence from a baking project a million years ago, but otherwise I would have left it out. The sauce was rich and tangy from the sour cream, but if I make it again I might try creme fraiche to decrease the sourness since I know my husband isn’t wild about sour food, and Russian sour cream is less sour and more creamy than the American version anyway. Definitely have your pan screaming hot before you add your mushrooms or they will be gummy, and the same goes for the meat. Since it’s just a quick sauté, tender meat is paramount, so skip the stew meat here. The dish isn’t terribly photogenic, but the pops of green from the dill help, both with color and fresh grassy brightness. If you’re worried about the dish being on the sour side, maybe hold back some sour cream, switch to creme fraiche, or choose a less acidic mustard. Overall, I’d say this Stroganoff was pretty authentic and delicious — something hearty to warm your belly on a snowy day.

Waiting to be cooked
Extra sour cream for me

Day two we went crazy and made our own pelmini. When I’m headed to a Euro-grocer looking for something Russian, pelmini are my first purchase. It’s a bit like a sturdy and filling tortellini, and I mostly ate them in broth with peppercorns and bay leaves. Since the dish was going to look pretty foreign to my kids (who won’t eat tortellini because it’s too strange but do accept ravioli), I decided to skip the broth and instead toss them in browned butter with pepper and bay leaf. As a result, two kids gave the dumplings a thumbs up, and one kid tried a bite and politely declared they were just not his favorite. The process is not difficult but does take a bit of time, and though it looks like a fun activity for kids, you’re working with raw meat so it’s not really kid friendly. My advice is to roll the dough as thin as you can without ending up with a lot of broken bundles, because the outside thickens when you boil it, so if you start with something on the thick side you’ll get a mouthful of gummy dough (luckily I learned from the comments before I rolled mine). Also, if you serve them in broth you can also cook them in the same broth and save yourself the steps of boiling/draining/frying the pelmini. I have no idea what I did to this recipe, but I made double the dough and still had filling left over, so feel free to halve the filling. And of course, top with sour cream and dill.

A lot of traditional Russian foods lack color and crispness, so a big meal is accompanied by a plate of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, sometimes onions, and tiny pickles. In the same way you snack on a pickle between slugs of vodka, you grab a cucumber to break up the more round and heavy flavors of your main dish. I didn’t have the right kind of pickles, so I threw in some pickled onions as a compromise. I never ate the raw vegetables on the table when I lived in Moscow, preferring to just bathe myself in the spray of butter from my Chicken Kiev, but I appreciate them now when looking for more balance in flavors and textures.

One food that certainly doesn’t lack color is our beloved Borscht. People make fun of this dish, but the hot version is just a hearty vegetable soup that happens to contain beets. There are versions with beef, but I don’t think I ever ate a meaty version so I went with the typical beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, and cabbage. This recipe doesn’t call for cabbage, but if you recall I had the bright idea to make a bunch of Eastern European delicacies because I’d mistakenly gotten a giant cabbage from the store, and then I chose a bunch of recipes that didn’t call for cabbage at all. Cabbage is often in traditional borscht so I threw it in at the end to save face. This recipe is fantastic, however, it calls for grated beets and I can tell you that grating beets sucks worse than wet snow in your shoes on your commute to school. I wore gloves and an apron so I wouldn’t stain everything within a five foot radius, but raw beets are more firm that potatoes and were a little hard to control. And let’s face it — if I sliced off a finger the paramedics wouldn’t be able to tell how much blood I’d lost with all the leaking beet juice on the cutting board. I would suggest taking the time to do a very fine dice if you feel more comfortable with a knife than a box grater, or grating really big beets so you can just toss it when you get closer to your fingers. It will take some focus, so save your vodka for after the grating. And obviously, garnish with sour cream and dill.

Not photogenic but very tasty

Since I went with a vegetarian borscht and my kids don’t care for soup, I threw in some shashlik at the last minute to fill out the meal. We used to go to this open air market in the middle of winter (honestly could have been spring or fall but potato potahto in that cold of a climate) to shop for crafts, antiques, and bootleg movies. After digging through piles for treasures we’d shake the snow off our shoes and duck in to the little restaurant at the market for some shashlik, which is marinated and skewered meat grilled over open coals. It’s salty and caramelized by the flame but also bright from an acidic marinade that tenderizes the meat and keeps it juicy. All kinds of meat can be used for this preparation but we had chicken thighs in the freezer so I improvised. I didn’t have lemon for the marinade so I put in a splash of white wine vinegar and a dash of ground sumac to mimic that sour bite. My seven year old ate an entire skewer himself, so this was probably the biggest success of the week besides the bread. While there are probably people in Russia garnishing shashlik with sour cream and dill, I don’t remember it being served that way so I served it plain, with the black bread and slices of cucumber and tomato.

While it’s not the same as actually visiting Moscow, this is the way I travel nowadays. Even before the pandemic, we had three little kids and my health is a bit of a wildcard sometimes, so big trips are pretty rare. Hopefully we can at least get into the grocery stores soon to find all the ingredients needed for a special meal, but until then we are making it work and lowering our expectations. I hope you try some of these recipes, or try a Russian restaurant in your city (support your local businesses!) and until we meet to share bread and salt in person, za vashe zdorov’ye! (Cheers! but literally to your health!)

Vodka is served chilled and straight, usually with pickles or other salty bites.

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