Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Usvar for the Holiday and the Everyday!

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

During the holiday times, so much of our focus is the special, exceptional food that characterizes the season. But, I do so delight in those foods and drinks that mark both daily life and the festivals of the holiday. One such item is usvar, or compote, a delicious fruity beverage made from a mélange of dried fruits. Sometimes tart, sometimes sour, usvar may be flavored with any blend of revived dried fruits, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, blueberries and raisins, depending upon availability. Apples are probably the most common ingredient. The fruits are harvested and preserved in the summer and autumn by drying for use through winter and spring. During the harvest months, one can see garlands of apple rings dangling from kitchen windows and rafters in both the city and the village. I once watched with great anxiety as my L’viv neighbor endeavored to balance on his fourth floor apartment balcony railing to secure a string of apple slices for drying from the roof, all while smoking a cigarette, no less.

Another distinctive addition to the elixir is smoked prunes. Usvar with this ingredient is a potent, earthy taste sensation. I am crazy about a smoky usvar but it should be said that there is a wimpy, fussy contingent of the population (and my own family, I might add) that find it a bit intense for their delicate tastes.. The beverage is mildly sweetened with honey or sugar and often accented with spices or dried herbs from the garden or forest.

Of course, usvar is drunk year-round but is also customary for the Christmas table in Ukraine. And, given that Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated this year on January 6, it is the perfect time to steep some up usvar to celebrate. Or just because.


Adapted from a recipe in Ukrainia by Bete Blaha, from Culinaria, edited by Marion Trutter (2006).

1 pound/half kilo of dried apples and or pears

½ cup pitted prunes

½ cup dried blueberries or other berries

½ cup raisins

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

Juice and rind of a lemon

Honey and sugar to taste

Rinse the fruit in cold water. Bring 1½ quarts (1.5 liters) of water to a boil, adding desired sugar. Add the apples or pears and simmer for five minutes. Then, add the remaining fruit and simmer for another five to ten minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and honey, if desired. Let stand overnight so that the flavors may intensify. Strain the liquid (eat the fruits or toss them out). Usvar may be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Smachno!

Photo courtesy of Linda Knedsen McAusland

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Round on St. Andrew's Day

The Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv is dedicated to traditional Ukrainian folk culture.  They have a full calendar of events that encourage and continue all sorts of traditions--including food.  They've recently started posting great photos in their Facebook albums-and the photo above made me email my friend Ihor Poshyvailo,  the deputy director there, to ask for an explanation about what to me, looked like a giant bagel!  He wrote back,
That giant bagel on a string is a kalyta - a ritual bread used in Andriy (Adrew) traditional feast - December 13. It symbolizes the sun (often made in a form of a circle, stars) and during the feast boys have to jump and bite it not smiling (other boys and girls are standing nearby trying to make him laugh). If smiling he is black marked on his cheek... It's a rudiment of ancient rites of passage...

Although this day celebrates St. Andrew, a patron saint of Ukraine, this and other rituals date back even further.    Many Ukrainian traditions stem from pre-Christian rites that were adapted for Christianity.  St. Andrew's Day was also a time for fortune-telling, particularly to predict a young woman's future spouse.  And food played a critical role in these activities as well.  A piece of loaf sprinkled with salt and placed under your pillow.  Your dreams that night would reveal your future husband while your homemade dumplings could also reveal who would be the first to be married!  For more information on those traditions, click here.

As the year turns at the cold winter solstice,  it's a great time to check out the beautiful photos by Bogdan Posyvailo  of summer celebrations on the Honchar Museum's Facebook page.
 All photos courtesy of the Ivan Honchar Museum

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Village Christmas Story from Ukraine

Fran Cary, a Peace Corps volunteer who has shared her experiences before on the Pickle Project, sent us this beautiful piece that ties together so many elements of seasonality, sustainability, food and life in Ukraine.  Thanks Fran, for continuing to share your life in Starobelsk with Pickle Project readers.

Remember those cute little pigs I saw when Olga and I visited Tonya at her farm in Kurychevcka? Well today I bought some.

Yes, Tonya and her husband came to town with a carload of fresh pork and had a good sale in the back of Natala's shop. All the pork was freshly butchered, cleaned and packaged. I feel I had a small hand in this because Tonya and Natalia met through me, when Olga was looking for a new place for me to stay in town. Lots of good connections, and good cheer, came out of it!

Neighbors, friends and customers of Natalia's came and stocked up on all the fresh meat they wanted for the winter.  Natalia bought tons of pork herself to freeze and take to her family in Kyiv for the holidays. And Tonya and her husband Vlad went home with enough cash to see them through the winter.
Natural fresh meat! Ukrainians care a lot about natural foods, from produce to meat. They want to know if any fertilizer or other stuff has been added to the ground or fed to the animals. Tonya assured all customers the pigs were well fed with only the best food. I myself fed apples and corn, along with handfuls of fresh grain to those little pigs, and to the big fat ones too.

Now that I am at Natalia's and cooking for mostly for myself, I've bought chicken and meat at the supermarket. It's been mostly tasteless and unedible and I told that to Natalia when she saw me feeding it to the cat. "Is it okay for the cat?" I asked. "Yes, but why not eat it yourself?" "Because it doesn't taste good." That's when she told me Tonya was coming with her pig meat, and would be having a sale at the back of her shop. I was delighted, though my first thought was of those little pigs running around in circles and looking quite loveable. To think they would now be on the dinner tables of Starobelsk!

Today, when Tonya was busy selling the meat and it was my turn to buy, I turned to Natalia for help. I had never bought pork like this, knowing the pigs personally as it were, and wasn't sure what I wanted. I asked Natalia to get what she wanted and I would pay for it. She then told Tonya the story of my meat-buying experience and said "даже не кошка съест!" They laughed and laughed. Tonya then turned to me and translated. Natalia said "not even the cat would eat the meat you gave her!"

Life is hard for Tonya.  She works 24/7 to maintain a self-sufficient farm with her husband and adult sons, who work the farm but are unemployed, a difficult and worrisome situation for her.  She also adds a few hryvnia to the household economy from teaching.  But the products of their farm have become more and more important to sustaining the family.   

And so it was a Merry Christmas for Tonya and her family after the pork sale, and I felt glad for it. Snow fell on the town, soft and lovely. Spirits were high. Scenes of holiday sharing danced in my head. And I thought, with a smile in my heart: This is the best kind of Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New York Times' Album on Gourmet Forage

Today's New York Times album “Searching for Ingredients Beyond the Garden” highlights the growing use of wildcrafted and collected plants and fungi by American restaurateurs, chefs and gourmands.

Of course, collection of mushrooms, berries and wild herbs is a central part of Ukrainian food systems and gastronomy. (Check out our post chronicling a forest forage of delicious quince!) The New York Times album really showcases the use of small woodland herbs for flavoring and accents. One of my favorites from Ukraine is the infusion of wild mints in teas, a warm yet refreshing and medicinal tonic on a blustery winter evening!

And, while you cozy up with a that cup of tea, click on over to Kickstarter to support the Pickle Project's efforts to document and celebrate Ukrainian foodways!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What do you eat for Thanksgiving in Crimea?

Pumpkin manti of course!  Peace Corps Volunteer Barb Weiser shares this post about making pumpkin manti with her neighbor Lenura in preparation for a Peace Corps Thanksgiving that combined American and Crimean traditions.  Thanks Barb and Lenura!

For my contribution to the dinner, I asked Lenura to help me make pumpkin filled manti, a Crimean Tatar dish. Of course, it was really the other way around—she made them and I helped—mostly folding the manti into their intricate little shapes. Manti are a steamed dumpling or ravioli, traditionally filled with meat but sometimes with pumpkin and onions as we did this time, or other fillings. The real art to making manti is the crust. Composed of only flour and water and a small amount of salt, it is rolled out to a thin crust.

I was amazed how quickly Lenura was able to take a ball of dough and turn it into a perfectly round, very large and thin crust, ready to be cut into squares for the filling. Folding the manti into the proper shape with the filling inside is a precise maneuver, but easy to master—even I was able to learn it!
Then the manti are placed onto stacking trays in a stove top steamer (brought from Uzbekistan—it was Neshet’s mother’s) and 30 minutes later you have beautiful delicious steamed manti, usually served with a dollop of butter or sour cream.
Correction:  I had earlier posted a recipe here that didn't quite reflect Lenura's.  Barb's comment below sent me further afield on the Internet to  discover that the manti Lenura made is perhaps a combination of two fascinating traditions.  Turkish manti have an egg dough and are boiled, like Ukrainian pelmeni or its many variations, but the steamed manti with no egg in the dough is from Central Asia, most often described as from Uzbekistan.   And of course, that combination reflects the Crimean Tatars' history of origins, deportation and return. 

You can find a recipe for lamb-filled manti, steamed with no egg in the dough, on the food blog, Anna's Recipe Box.  Anna describes Uzbek food as the food she grew up with and includes recipes for other Uzbek foods as well.  Sopressata, another food blog, also has a recipe for Uzbek dumplings, with an egg in the dough and fried.  But she also describes how to make a pumpkin filling for you to try.

Across time and across space, we make recipes our own and family food traditions continually evolve.  The museum person in me, who thinks about artifacts, sees so much, so many stories embedded in that simple steamer,  brought home to Crimea by Lenura's mother-in-law.  Thanks again Barb, for sharing!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's in Your Root Cellar?

As winter begins to close in here in upstate New York, I'm thinking of the many root cellars I still see in Ukraine.   Root cellars are pretty much gone from here, as we can buy out-of-season food year-round, or if still a preserver, might use the big chest freezer out in the garage.   But root cellars are still the norm in most Ukrainian villages and filled with far more than root vegetables.  In May, the supplies in root cellars were dwindling down--but there were potatoes,  onions, and shelves of pickled and canned vegetables, remnants of the previous summer.
And as we sat down to eat, my hostess dashed out to the root cellar to retrieve the soup she was chilling there.  It was a perfect temperature, and kept that way, of course, in the most environmentally thoughtful way possible, in a space that stays about the same temperature year-round, underneath the ground.   Even the New York Times, in a 2008 article, heralded the return of the root cellar, "food storage as grandma knew it."
 We're continually struck by the resourceful of Ukrainians and how much we can learn about growing, storing, and of course eating food--and the root cellars serve as physical examples upon the village landscape of this.   A typical root cellar has shelves for canned goods, separate floor bins for potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables,and meat hooks for hanging meat.  In autumn, the shelves are filled with tomato sauce, pickles, compote and more to sustain through the non-growing seasons of the year.
The interiors of the root cellars shown are are all from a village, as is the blue exterior.  I saw many of these slant-roof, above-the-ground entrance root cellars in common use.  The other two root cellars are historic buildings from Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, outside Kyiv.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the Lovely Latke, the Delicious Deruny

On this, the first night of Chanukah, we find occasion to relish in the comfort of the latke, deruny (деруни) in Ukrainian, a potato pancake and staple of the Jewish festival.

Like other marvelous foods of Chanukah, including one of my personal favorites, the wonderful filled doughnut, pampooshke (пампушки), latekes/deruny are fried in hot oil. The essence of the holiday, the oil represents the purification of the holy Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC/BCE. As the ancient story goes, the Maccabees, fresh from battle, could only gather a small volume of oil, just enough to light the menorah on the rededicated alter, for one night. Yet, by great miracle, the oil lasted, providing for eight consecutive evenings of light.

Latkes/deruny are typically made of potatoes, which are grated, often along with onion, thickened with flour and egg and fried (sometimes, delightfully, in chicken or goose schmaltz!) until crispy. The golden beauties are typically served with sour cream (сметана). Interestingly, I read in Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America (1994), that before the arrival of potatoes to eastern Europe (which was quite a long while ago, indeed), latkes were made of buckwheat kasha (kaшa)!

For a more (or perhaps less) traditional Latke/Deruny, try this recipe:

5 or 6 good-sized potatoes, grated

1 onion, grated

1/4 to 1/2 cup green onions, chives or dill

2 eggs

1/3 cup matzo meal (wheat flour would do too)

Salt and Pepper

Vegetable Oil/Schmaltz

(Note: All of the quantities vary according to personal taste and preference)

First step, generously flood the bottom of a wide, heavy and deep skillet (preferably) or large pot with fat or oil. You want enough to adequately “float” the latkes. And, remember, the pancakes will absorb oil as they fry and you always need a tad more than you think. Then, heat the oil, over medium/high heat. It will take a few minutes and seem perhaps a bit too hot at first, but that is fine because the latkes will reduce the oil’s temperature when you drop them in.) Next, grate the potatoes and onion, then, try to squeeze out all of the additional moisture, using a towel. This will ensure a crispy latke. Then, mix in the eggs, flour, herbs and season with salt and pepper. Form into small patties, using a good 2 or 3 tablespoons of batter, flattening them to desired thinness (I desire a thin latke, myself). Finally, the frying! Carefully, carefully, lower the cakes into the hot oil, smashing them down a bit with a spatula. Monitor the latkes closely, make sure they do not stick to the bottom of the skillet. Once the sides turn golden, flip them and brown the other side. Pull them and drain on a towel/paper towel, while you cook the remaining latkes. Serve with sour cream and enjoy!

Recipe adapted from Joan Nathan's Classic Latkes, drawing on personal potato pancake practicum, observation in the western Ukrainian kitchen of expert deruny maker Halya Stryamets and consultation with several other friends. Photo taken by Linda Norris.