Back in the USSR with #LetsLunch: Kotleti, Kasha, and Remembrance of Things Past
When I read that this month’s #LetsLunch theme would be the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, I rejoiced.
Rather than facing a time of pondering and wondering how I would focus my post, I had the perfect answer right on the bedside reading table.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing had caught my eye last fall, as I browsed at my fine local indie, Flyleaf Books. As a longtime fan and reader of any and all words written down by its author, Anya Von Bremzen, I rejoiced, partly because she writes beautifully and shares my interest in travel, history, the people and places behind the food. The food, too, of course! But not only — never only just A Tasty Dish, but who makes it and where and why and on what occasion and since when. The deeper ingredients.
I also delighted in this particular topic, because I had read her feature story in Saveur several years ago, about a dinner party at her mother’s apartment in Queens, New York, in which they prepared a Russian feast. Von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa Frumkin, had emigrated from the USSR in 1978.
I am sure I have that very magazine here somewhere, but finding it? Impossible, given my years of Keeping Good Things for Later without an accompanying system of organization. What surprises me is that I am thus far unable to find it online. (Please leave word in the comments section if you have an online link, or even the date of the issue, as I long to read it again and see the photographs.)
But I digress. The feature story grew and grew and is now enfolded into an extraordinary book, one whose treasures I am only beginning to enjoy. I am happy about that, because I love looking forward to a magnificent feast, to a great, compelling, and satisfying read. Meanwhile, #LetsLunch is today, so I flipped to the back of the book where Ms. Von Bremzen includes a petite treasury of recipes, one from each decade of Soviet life, as the book is arranged. I chose Kotleti: Mom’s Russian Hamburgers, from the 1930’s.
I used her option of ground beef and pork rather than the all-beef option, and seasoned it with fresh dill, garlic, salt, pepper, and grated onions, which made me weep. I’m new to grating onions — there may be a technique I need to learn. I settled on the large holes of my box grater; and the tears, they did flow. But for a worthy cause: Deliciousness! Mayonnaise and softened breadcrumbs brought it all together, and then I let the mixture rest for 30 minutes in the fridge. While my kotleti took a break before their event, I looked up the Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, right here:
Lots of detail and links to links right there. But then I came across this: A wonderful video from back in January, of the Olympic Torch being transported across Russia. That’s a journey, people. I just loved this. It lasts 2 minutes 28 seconds:
I also adore this. I love it a lot. This is Google’s “doodle”, featured on their homepage, with a quotation worthy of reading and remembering:
The opening ceremony takes place today, Friday, February 7th ( at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time here in the USA) ; television broadcast will be this evening at 8:00 pm. I love the Parade of Nations, and will be looking forward to that portion especially. Just to make it to the Olympics — what a grand, astounding, marvelous achievement! I imagine that ending up on your own riser at a medal ceremony would be quite grand as well. But imagine what it takes just to make it there and to take part. That already impresses me deeply. But let’s see, has it been 30 minutes? YES!
So then I wet my hands and formed the meaty mixture into oval-shaped patties about 3 1/2 inches long, and started them sizzling in butter and oil per the recipe, and felt very proud of myself. And my picture. Until I noticed this: Yes, that’s a plate of freshly made bread crumbs, hand-crafted from a loaf of sourdough bread, toasted to simulate staleness, and buzzed up in the blender to become, well, crumby. What were those doing on my kitchen counter, near the stove but not quite near enough to remind me? They were for coating each kotleti prior to its placement in the hot cast iron skillet of butter and oil! So: I carefullly removed the three inaugural kotleti to cool down on the side which had gotten ahead of itself. due to the fact that Mistakes Were Made. I coated the waiting kotleti and started a new batch frying away. I wish you could hear the sizzle and take in the hearty inviting aroma. It took a little while to cook them through, to keepthem handsomely browned without burning them. I ended up starting a second skillet, as once they have browned, they need to be covered for another little bit on lower heat to cook through. It was dinnertime, and we wanted to taste them. So two skillets moved things along nicely. And how lucky am I that I have not one but two Lodge Cast Iron Skillets? I actually have more than two. Life is good. Here is the initial round of kotleti, which I served with kasha, which Ms. Von Bremzen mentions as a typical accompaniment. I don’t know much about kasha in general, nor in Russian cuisine, so I cooked it as directed on the package of kasha I found at Whole Foods, and seasoned it with butter, salt, and a little chopped green onion which I had handy. Also on the plate: a chunky potato salad with mayonnaise, fresh dill, salt and pepper, and canned peas, which she mentions in the book ,though I cannot not find the reference now. It reminded me of how food can have meaning for me apart from its current status in the world. I love Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup with saltine crackers. Diluted with milk and heated up on the stove: that was my favorite lunch. Revile it if you will, and I know you and I can make a splendid mushroom soup with lots less sodium and more complexity and gravitas. But that would not be my lunch on a snow day with my sisters. Sometimes it’s just the food, and sometimes, it’s the food with a side of memories. Also I added pickles which my friend Vada made; not sour, but these were the pickles we had and it was a wonderful, delicious, satisfying meal.
I ended up with eleven patties. The recipe says that this serves four, but you could make five or even six people happy depending on what else accompanies these tasty patties. I would make them smaller, as I like things in threes. I’m guessing I could get about 15 smaller ones out of the 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef/pork. I would serve 4 to 5 people as I did here, or I might call them Soviet Sliders, and put them on little buns with some spicy cabbage slaw with fresh dill, green onions, and chili sauce. Here’ s the recipe, which is featured was during Ms. Von Bremzen’s visit to Leonard Lopate on WNYC Radio. Click HERE.
Anya Von Bremzen’s Kotleti: Mom’s Russian Hamburgers
1 1/2 pounds freshly ground beef chuck (or a mixture of beef and pork)
2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed, soaked for 5 minutes in water and squeezed
1 small onion, grated
2 medium garlic cloves, crushed in a press
2 tablespoons ﬁnely chopped dill or parsley
2 1/2 tablespoons full-fat mayonnaise
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 to 3 cups ﬁne dried bread crumbs for coating
Canola oil and unsalted butter, for frying
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the ﬁrst eight ingredients and blend well into a homogenous mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
2. With wet hands, shape the mixture into oval patties approximately 3½ inches long. Spread bread crumbs on a large plate or a sheet of wax paper. Coat patties in crumbs, ﬂattening them out slightly and pressing down for the crumbs to adhere.
3. In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with a pat of butter until sizzling. Working in batches, fry the kotleti over medium-high heat until golden-brown, about 4 minutes per side. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes to cook through. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the patties. Serve at once.
Reprinted from the book MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING: A MEMOIR OF FOOD AND LONGING by Anya von Bremzen. Copyright © 2013 by Anya von Bremzen. Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
#LetsLunch is a circle of food bloggers who ‘meet-up’ monthly to post on one certain subject, each in our own way. I love checking out my friends’ posts, and I think you might enjoy ‘dining around’, too. For February, we are celebrating THE OLYMPICS. Join me in exploring an array of ways to feast on the topic, via my friends’ LetsLunch Links. Click on these links below to enjoy their take on this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Check back later, as more posts will be coming in and I will add links here throughout the day.
Finally, I have had the best time reading and listening to an array of features about Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Such a lovely, moving and apt title. Let me leave you with the image above of Ms. Von Bremzen’s first book, Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook: 100 Glorious Recipes from the Baltics to Uzbekistan, published by Workman in 1990, still in print, still excellent and worthy of the James Beard Award it earned back then. Be sure to check out the link to The Splendid Table below (two of them in fact) so you can see the photograph of kulebiaka, the featured dish of Chapter One in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, which is The 1910’s: Farewell to the Czars. I could not muster the time to make this for you in time for today’s #LetsLunch lunch, but I will be making that sometime later this year, and I will post it here.
Entry filed under: #LetsLunch, Classics, Cookbook Reviews, Family and Friends, History, Travel. Tags: Anya Von Bremzen, kasha, kotleti, LetsLunch, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Love and Longing, Please to the Table, Russia, Sochi.