A taste of Spring in the far North

I’m going to tell you now about my very favorite food in the world. I know, you’re shocked – I’ve been writing this blog for almost three years, and only now do I decide to tell you about my favorite food in the world?

I have nothing to say for myself, no excuse. I think I’ve put off posting it for the same reason I’ve put off making it: it has a lot of ingredients. I don’t like to type any more than I like to chop (repetitive stress injuries in my hands and wrists), but in both cases there are definitely times when it is worth the pain.

So then, why now? The wonderful blogs Diet, Dessert, and Dogs and Affairs of Living are hosting a new monthly event called the Sweet or Savory Kitchen Challenge. I’m very excited about this event because its guidelines are meant to lead to glorious round-ups full of things that people on special diets (like vegan, no refined sugar, no processed foods; or “healthy, sensible diets” as I like to call them) can eat and enjoy. I know I’ll look forward to the round-up each month and always take away new inspiration and ideas, but I also want to contribute to such an excellent project myself. When I saw that the theme this month is Beets, I knew it was time. Some chopping, some typing – it’s worth it to share with you my favorite food in the world.

It’s a bit of an odd choice for this event, since from some perspectives it might not be construed as glowingly healthy – it’s basically a giant bowl of carbs. But this is total comfort food, and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than most comfort food out there – I think it straddles the line between indulgence and nourishment quite nicely.

A little history: My mom started going to Russia way back when it was still the Soviet Union. She made a lot of friends, did a lot of work there, helped a bunch of families to immigrate to the US. A few times I went with her, both before and after the fall of the USSR, and I grew up surrounded by wonderful Russian and Ukrainian friends. All this led to my studying Russian in college and eventually moving to St. Petersburg my junior year to do study abroad.

Russian cuisine can be amazing, and I had the chance to eat in homes all over the Soviet Union, from Moscow and St. P to the Ukraine and Siberia. Even when there was barely anything to eat – Bozhe Moy! – the things these women could do with a potato! Everything is strange and wonderful and particular, like the Salat Olivier, which contains potatoes and pickles and eggs and boiled chicken, all dressed with mayonnaise, and is much, much better than it sounds.

I don’t remember the first time I had the Russian salad known as Vinegret. But I do know that it had already become one of my favorite foods by the time I went off to St. Petersburg for my study abroad year. My host family was a mother and fourteen year-old daughter, money was tight, and, unlike the celebratory feasts I had always been treated to when I was just visiting the country, the majority of our meals were the simple, everyday food eaten in lower-income Russian households. Hotdogs, boiled and then fried. Potatoes, boiled and then fried. Cabbage, boiled. A variety of meatpastes spread on dry white bread. Throughout the whole winter I never ate a raw vegetable or fruit. I had made the conscious decision to stop being vegetarian while I was there (I would have starved and made my host family miserable), but my body simply wasn’t used to the kind of diet I was eating. I was constantly sick and the fact that the temperature was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit wasn’t helping.

The minute spring tentatively began to arrive in the frigid Northern city, I trekked out to the farmer’s market, rubles in hand. There among the potatoes and the cabbages I found what I had dreamed of finding, a few feathery stalks of early dill and a bunch of bright scallions. I loaded up my plastic sack (a true Russian never leaves home without at least one) with potatoes and beets and carrots and onions, made the long commute back home to our Khrushchoba (a play on the name of 1960s Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and the word for “slum”), and made a huge mountain of vinegret. I am a little ashamed to say that I sat in the kitchen on a stool in the otherwise empty flat and ate the entire mountain by myself. But the next day I did trek back to the market, buy all the same ingredients, and make another even more colossal mountain of vinegret, so that this time my host family, too, could have that tiny taste of spring.

This salad is a true Russian classic. It draws on the sustenance of those long winters in the beets and potatoes and carrots, root-cellar foods (my host-mother kept ours stored under the piano, with pumpkins and other squashes, too). It has the wild flavor of dill so beloved to Russian cuisine, and the peculiar surprise of the dill pickle, which the Russians really do love to put in many places I had never encountered it before (soup, salad, meat stews). And then there are the peas. I’ve seen recipes here in the states that call for frozen peas or even (gasp!) fresh peas, but for me the canned peas are essential. They’re mushy, true, but for me they are an important reminder of the time when mothers stood in line all day long, not even knowing if there would be anything to buy at the end of the line, just to get a can of Soviet peas to bring home to their children.

The salad does require a lot of prepwork, but it makes a large quantity and is truly delicious. The beets will turn everything a bright magenta, which makes it super fun to eat, and the flavors and textures mix and mingle in ways you simply can’t imagine from just looking at the recipe. Mmm… just writing about it makes me crave it. I think I could eat another mountain’s worth!

Vinegret (traditional Russian salad)
This recipe is modified slightly from the wonderful Russian cookbook Please to the Table by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman. Please see above for my justification for using canned peas, but if you hate mushy peas and are less of a romantic than I, feel free to substitute cooked frozen peas. For a really terrific picture of Vinegret, check out the glamour-shot over at Beyond Salmon.

2-3 large beets with skin, but stemmed, washed, and dried
3 med. boiling potatoes, peeled
2 med. carrots, peeled
3/4 cup chopped onion
3 med. dill pickles, in 1/2-inch dice
1 can of peas, drained
1/4 C. chopped scallions*
1/4 C. finely chopped fresh dill
Salt & pepper to taste

1 tsp dry mustard (or use fresh mustard, it’s fine)
1/4 tsp agave nectar
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
1/3 cup unrefined sunflower oil or olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

The harder but more delicious way to prep the beets: Preheat oven to 375, wrap beets in foil and bake until tender, about 1 1/4 hours. When cool enough to handle, slip off beets skins under running water and cut into 1/2-inch dice.
The easier and still tasty way to prep the beets: Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Boil beets in boiling water until tender, about 45 minutes – 1 hour, depending on size of beets. About 30 minutes into the beet cooking, add the potatoes, then add the carrots ten minutes later. Keep poking everything with a fork and remove each piece as it gets tender.
If you baked the beets, follow these directions for the potatoes and carrots: Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Add carrots and cook until tender, about ten more minutes.
Drain all veggies. When cool, slip skins off of beets under running water and cut beets, potatoes and carrots into 1/2-inch dice.
In a small bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the dressing.
In a large salad bowl, combine diced beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, pickles, peas, scallions, and dill. Toss with dressing, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
This salad is fabulous warm and scrumptious at room temperature and even better the next day!

*My instinct on the scallions is to chop the white parts only, but my host-mother Marina was shocked at the waste. She gathered up the discarded green parts and made a terrible spread/dip thing with sour cream and the bitter green scallion tops that we all tried to eat. Thank goodness for scrap stock, is all I have to say!

Earlier this week I’d been pondering what I might make for the fabulous Family Recipes event hosted by The Life & Loves of Grumpy’s Honeybunch, The Spiced Life, and Lynda’s Recipe Box. I’ve never entered anything, but I love reading the stories and memories people share about the foods they make. Tonight I was musing again on what I might make to submit when I realized that Vinegret would be perfect for this event! It’s a true “family recipe” belonging to all my extended Russian family, and has especially strong ties to memories of my St. Petersburg host family.

18 comments on “A taste of Spring in the far North

  1. lauralynne says:

    Oh, yum! I really love beets. My husband definitely does not, so I don’t eat them as often as I’d like. But this salad sounds lovely. And it’s beautiful. You can always count on beets for a striking dish.

    • scrumptious says:

      I’ve always felt that people who don’t like beets have just never had them the right way – maybe they’re secretly a roasted beet person, and they’ve only had boiled, or they’re a grated-raw-beet-salad person and they’ve only had those flabby canned slices.

      I’m a bit of a beet proselytizer that way, I suppose. When it comes to beets, I never take no for an answer! When I met my boyfriend he thought they tasted like dirt, but then I made a big pan of roasted root vegetables and told him he could pick out the beets. When I looked over, his whole plate was clean with nary a discarded beet to be seen! (In all fairness he still does think they taste like dirt, just dirt that is lovely roasted with garlic, olive oil and rosemary.)

  2. Joelle says:

    Wow, that looks great! I looked for beets last week at the supermarket but didn’t see any. I know they have them here, however.

    • scrumptious says:

      I am so dying of curiosity to know where in the world your Island is! I am always reading your posts for clues, but with widespread globalization of food, I’ll probably never figure it out.

      So let’s see… it’s some place with beets… but they’re not common… where the macaroni is in long tubes… All detective work aside, I would love to see a post sometime on the native, regional foods of where you’re living – that would be fascinating!

  3. Ricki says:

    This sounds delicious to me (canned peas or not!). And I wouldn’t say it’s basically a bowl of carbs–well, complex carbs, anyway, which are exceedingly good for you. Beets, carrots, even potatoes are full of great vitamins, minerals and great fiber as well.

    Thanks so much for joining the roundup! Look forward to trying out the recipe. 🙂

    • scrumptious says:

      Oh good, I wanted my first entry for your event to be something healthy, but as I was writing it up I got a little worried – people fret so much these days about those veggies that are higher on the glycemic index, and potatoes in particular have gotten such a bad rap all these years.

  4. Jessi says:

    Can’t wait to try your recipe!
    I studied Russian in high school and in college too. I spent part of my senior year (of high school – in 1991) in Simferopol, Ukraine. Reading your post brought back lots of memories. I was also SO sick from eating only meat and bread all winter long. The closest thing to fruit I ever saw was 1/2 an apple at the bottom of a jar of sweetened water – and we stood in line for it. I wish I had been wise enough to at least take some vitamins with me. Even though I was in the “bread basket” of the Soviet Union, much of the Ukraine’s produce was siphoned off to the rest of the country.

    But, the warmth of my host family and the culture in general made up for the poor food. I guess that’s how they make it through those tough winters.

    • scrumptious says:

      Jessi, it’s awesome to hear from someone who had the same experience as me! It was so long ago now that I was I writing it I was thinking to myself, “Did that really happen? No fresh produce for the entire winter?” but you remember it, too! I don’t think I thought to take vitamins with me, either.

      I did my study abroad in ’98, but my first visit to the USSR was in 1990, so we were there around the same time. My host family, sadly, was not particularly warm – I very much got the feeling I was just there because it doubled their monthly income (at least), and my host-sister had to give up her room and sleep in her mom’s bed the whole time I was there, so she was understandably resentful. And of course I was there on language immersion, so I could only speak Russian (and not very well) and must have seemed like quite an idiot with not much to say. But then an amazing thing happened – sometime in the spring my mom came to visit, and she stayed with us in the little flat. She and my host mom spent that whole first night staying up drinking cognac and talking about men (they were both divorced). By the next morning, my host-mom adored my mom (who has that magic effect on people) and it was like all of a sudden she saw me as a real person, too. Lucky for me my mom came to be my ambassador!

  5. Kim says:

    Privet, Scrumptious – I love Russian salad! Your story is so wonderful, and it makes this recipe even better! Thank you for sharing your experience, this recipe, and for participating in the challenge. I can’t wait to include this in the round up. I posted a recipe for Russian Salad back in February some time 🙂 I have a soft spot for Russia and Russian culture; I played in a balalaika ensemble in college and got involved with the Slavic language department. Your story warmed my heart, and it looks so tasty! Again, and in Russian this time: spasibo!
    Kim | affairsofliving.com

    • scrumptious says:

      Privet, Kim! Ochen Priyatna! What fun to make the Russian connection with so many fellow bloggers! Who knew we were all such Slavophiles (Russophiles?) at heart! Your Russian salad looks amazing and I love your Balalaika tales! (Now I have Kalinka stuck in my head…)

  6. Jessi says:

    No, you didn’t imagine things. We didn’t have any fresh produce all fall and winter. I do remember that when I first arrived we had some canned green beans. They put on a feast for me, and I was so tired and jet-lagged that I didn’t eat much of it. Little did I know that it would be liver and tough dry bread for the forseable future.

    We did get a chicken once. We bought it out of the back of a guy’s car trunk.

    Oh, and we had lots of ice-cream. Something’s weird about Russians and ice-cream. They go around telling you to wear a hat & coat and keep the windows closed on a 65 degree day, and then they eat ice-cream in Moscow while it’s below freezing. I dunno…

    But for me, having trouble with both dairy and gluten, and not really knowing it yet…I was so sick and in so much pain…and my family knew it. They tried so hard to help – making me herbal teas and even french fries. I only saw one roll of toliet paper, and it only got smaller as I used it. Having tummy troubles, and knowing that this roll was just for me and that no one else was using it…well, it put life in prespective when I was 17-years-old.

    I was lucky though, my host sister could speak really great English. It made me lazy, and I didn’t inprove my Russian much 😉

    • scrumptious says:

      Oh, the ice cream! My friend from my study abroad program and I used to get an ice cream every day after class, walking down Nevsky Prospekt (the main thoroughfare), bundled in our REI antarctic-grade coats, gloves, hats, and scarves, eating that incredible, thick, creamy frozen delight. I was totally converted – ice cream is winter food for me, now!

      What an intense time you had, wow. I can’t imagine how that would have been at age 17.

  7. Sandra says:

    You got me with this one! I will have to try it for sure next week. Scallions, beets, potatoes, dill pickles, AND canned peas! My husband (a serious beet fan) will think he has gone to Veggie Heaven!

    Even though the recipe is Russian, it speaks to my German/Polish roots. I think pierogi on the side may be called for. 🙂

    • scrumptious says:

      I’m so excited for you to try it. You’ll have to let me know how it turns out and what your husband thinks of it!

      I am very jealous of you and your pierogi. Since going gluten-free pierogi and pelmeni are some of the things I miss the very most! (Even when I was a strict vegetarian I would still have a plate of pelmeni a couple of times a year, right up until I stopped being able to eat wheat.) What will be inside your pierogi? I need to eat vicariously through you!

      • Sandra says:

        The beet salad is on my menu for this week!

        I buy my peirogis frozen so they are not worth too much excitement. I prefer the traditional potato and onion.

        I was curious so I looked up Gluten Free Vegan Pierogi. I found a vegan recipe and a gluten free recipe, but not a combination of the both. If you are feeling super creative, maybe you could design one?

        Of course, since I buy frozen I wouldn’t blame you a bit for letting the whole thing slide. 🙂

  8. […] to the market a few blocks from my house. I picked up tofu and noodles and the ingredients for vinegret and slogged back home. By the time I got home, my jeans were soaked through to the skin. But it was […]

  9. […] first learned about Vinegret from one of the salad submissions in an old SOS Kitchen Challenge (the grandmammy of Wellness Weekend) on beets. Shame on me for not […]

  10. […] first learned about Vinegret from one of the salad submissions in an old SOS Kitchen Challenge (the grandmammy of Wellness Weekend) on beets. Shame on me for not […]

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