Friday, November 28, 2008

A culinary success

Well, Anya and I tried our hand at traditional Ukrainian borshch today. This meant that the two of us spent pretty much all afternoon in the kitchen, as the process for making traditional Ukrainian borshch runs something like this:

1. Boil a bunch of beef shank, and a ham bone with plenty of meat on it, and a pound or so of beef marrow bones, and then when you've got that rendered down a bit, throw in a carrot, and an onion, and a couple of parsnips, and a stick of celery with the leaves on, and a boquet garni of celery and dill and peppercorn and parsley, and then simmer it for an hour or so.

2. Meanwhile, bake a couple of medium-sized beets for an hour and a quarter, inside aluminum foil.

3. Also meanwhile, cut up a whole bunch more vegetables that are going to go in once you get serious about the soup. (So far you're not making the soup, just the stock.) So, that's some garlic, and some more dill and parsley, and another carrot and another onion, and several potatoes, and several tomatoes, and a bell pepper, and (you gotta be kidding me, right?) several chopped-up dried prunes. And don't forget to get your lemon juice and tomato paste ready. And also the sugar. And the salt and the pepper...

4. Once you have the stock ready, fish out the meat and carve it off the bones and chop it up bite-sized; meanwhile (there's a lot of "meanwhile" in this recipe and I'm not sure how anybody does it by himself) you strain the rest of the stock into a whole new stewpot and throw out everything that's left. You put the stock back on the stove and get it boiling again and then throw in the potatoes and the tomatoes, and then you rush to...

5. ...get those peppers and onion and, oh, shoot, I forgot to mention the two cups of shredded cabbage so we'll hope you didn't forget them too. Anyway, we have to get the peppers and onion and carrot sauteed, and then towards the end mix the cabbage in, too, while the potatoes are softening up.

6. Then you add all the stuff you just sauteed to the stock, pausing to congratulate yourself for your foresight in having sent your parents to Wal-Mart and told them to come back with the biggest stewpot they could find because otherwise you'd be totally hosed right about now.

7. And after a few minutes (can't remember how many; it's in the book) you chop the beets up nice and fine (you remembered to take them out of the oven, right?) and pour about a cup of lemon juice over 'em and drop the whole concoction into the soup.

8. And after a few minutes more you add in the meat. Did you forget to fry up the bacon? I hope not because otherwise you're scrambling around the kitchen like mad now trying to get that bacon fried. (The Voice of Experience speaks.) Oh, and at some point in there the book is going to tell you to add sugar, and more lemon juice if you want, and more salt and pepper if you want. I think maybe that should have been Step 7 1/2 but I don't remember exactly when you put those in, to be honest -- that's why I have a cookbook. I should also add that I earned formal designation as a stáriy durák ("old fool," which in point of fact I'm called several times daily, but generally with an affectionately exaggerated rolling of the eyes) when Anya discovered that I had just dumped the sugar into the pot like a clueless child rather than first stirring the sugar into the extra lemon juice the way everyone knows you're supposed to do it.

9. Pretty much as soon as you've got the meat in, it's time to add the garlic. And more dill. And more parsley. And your home-chopped bacon bits.

9. Now you MUST allow it to sit and age for fifteen minutes or half an hour or so while the ingredients get to know each other. This is an excellent opportunity for you to go hop into the car and run down to HEB to get the fresh bread you forgot to ask your parents to pick up an hour ago when you sent them running off to HEB for the bacon you forgot to pick up when you took your first shot at collecting all the ingredients for the borshch. And, in case you haven't taken care of this already (though this is one thing I myself had planned well in advance), you can also use this trip to pick up some really strong beer -- Spaten Optimator will do, but Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale is even better, IMHO -- because this soup would sneer in contempt at anything as wimpy as a mere Shiraz or Cab-Sauv.

And then you tell everybody to grab a bowl and line up at the stove, and you put the smetána (which is just sour cream but smetána sounds more exotic) on the table so everybody can get a nice big dollop to mix into his personal bowl, and you say the blessing, and then everybody tears off a hunk of bread and digs in.

In the end, rather to my surprise, it actually turned out to be pretty good. My mother surprised me by saying, "Well, I've always wondered what borshch tasted like" -- I would have thought that Anya would have cooked borshch for them at least once. But my dad and I both got seconds (not that usual for me because I don't really like beets all that much), as did my mom. And here are the verdicts from Kinya, Roma and Natasha respectively:

PAPA: So, what's the verdict?

KINYA: [points at her Coke] It's delicious.

ROMA: [with emphasis] Óchen v kúsno ["very delicious"]!

PAPA: [to Natasha] So is it worth going to the trouble to make it ag-

NATASHA: [not waiting for the end of the question] Yes!

So, there's a big sigh of relief for me: all the way through my first recipe out of Please to the Table, coming out at the end with something actually edible.


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