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.