Tuesday, August 23, 2011

From Georgia, or ?

The wisdom of crowds helped us learn a bit more about one snack we saw in a number of different markets (although I don't remember seeing them in Kyiv or L'viv).  They were long, skinny brightly colored treats (above) that were hung up in markets, at vendors of dried fruit and nuts.   One night we ordered a sampling of sweets in a Georgian restaurant in Donetsk and realized one of the treats on the plate was a cut-up version of what we'd seen.  It had a nut inside a sort of hard jelly.  The texture was sort of like fruit leather, but sweet and crunchy at the same time--maybe a little grapy? Hmmm?  What was it?
So we put a picture up in one of our market reports and had a number of responses, all of which testify to the cross-pollination of food in Ukraine (and to the power of crowdsourcing!)  That's not surprising given the country's important place on both sea and overland trade routes.   Food traditions in Ukraine have come from what the land itself can produce, but also from traders coming across the Black Sea;  settlers coming down from Russia, Turkey,  and the Caucauses--and now, of course, from around the world.
This treat is called churchkhela in Georgia,  rojik in Armenia, or  Üzüm pekmezi (grape molasses) in Turkey.  It's nuts strung out along a string and then dipped repeatedly in grape juice mixed with flour and sugar. A Google image search shows me mostly natural colors,  but these brightly colored ones (probably food coloring) appear to be a newish innovation.  Thanks to Florian Pinel, who blogs at  Food Perestroika:  Adventures in Eastern Bloc Cuisine,  here's a recipe:

10 qt grape juice [white or purple depending on your color preference]
1 lb sugar
2 1/4 lb flour
2 lb walnuts halves (or almonds, dried fruits…)
  • In a pot, reduce the grape juice over low heat for about 3 hours, progressively stirring in the sugar.
  • Whisk in the flour [to avoid lumps, I would place the flour in a large bowl and progressively pour in the liquid while mixing] and return to a boil. The resulting mixture is called tartara.
  • Thread the walnuts onto 1 ft-long pieces of string. Dip the strings into the hot tartara several times to obtain the desired thickness. Hang to dry for approximately 2 weeks, until the churchkhelas are still soft, but not sticky.
  • Wrap in towels and allow to mature for 2 to 3 months. The churchkhelas will develop a thin layer of powdery sugar.
Florian's site is a great look at both Eastern European restaurants in New York City and his travels throughout Eastern Europe.  Check it out!

Inside detail photo from SF Weekly

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tea on a Summer Afternoon

We recently had the good fortune of spending the afternoon with my friend Nataliya’s family in Yanif. Located northwest of L’viv, Yanif (also called Ivano Frankove) sits at the edge of the Roztochya Forest Preserve and on the shores of a sizable lake historically known for the salty, smoked fish produced there.
From the marshrutka stop, we made our way through the village, along the dusty roads and winding alleys, past raggedy dogs and fenced yards filled with chicken coops, roses and potatoes to Nataliya’s grandparents house. Cheerful and generous, Pavlina and Volodymyr Litynski are are in their 70s and maintain an energetic and lively household.

They live in a simple house with a small but bountiful kitchen garden, a little greenhouse made of windows for growing tomatoes and a few fruit trees. It is there that I have learned much about Ukrainian food traditions. In addition to being industrious vegetable gardeners and orchard keepers, three generations of this family, including my friend Nataliya, her mother, Halya, and her grandfather, Volodymyr, are all foresters and are knowledgeable experts on native Ukrainian berries, mushrooms and wild herbs.
It was one of those clear, blue summer afternoons and we found Volodymyr sitting in the grass, sorting just-picked red currants. After surveying the various stages of vegetables and fruits in the garden, as we always do when I visit, Volodymyr carried the kitchen table out into the dappled shade of the yard, much the way my own grandparents would on a summer day.
Under the trees, we nibbled seernik, a light Ukrainian cheesecake, with fresh raspberries and sipped a refreshing herbal tea that Pavlina made. The tea was a local mélange of wild raspberry leaves, wild strawberry leaves, nettles, mint and the delicate fruits of basswood. (For the forestry geeks out there, they are technically nutlets with a thin leafy bract. We often see these marketed for tea in big Ukrainian city markets as well.) All of these were collected around Pavlina and Volodymyr’s garden and, then, hung and dried in the "shadow" of the trees. They store this mixture in a canister in their cool, dry pantry.
Despite the heat, we drank our tea hot and it provided that strange, cooling effect that warm and spicy foods produce. (Actually, I have always wondered about the physiological effects that spicy and hot foods precipitate. According to this 1999 Scientific American article, it has to do with the skin’s pain receptors, which can be stimulated by actual heat or by chemicals such as capsaicin, that simulate heat, to trigger a response from the nervous system.)
As we chatted and sipped, various neighbors passed through the yard, calling out greetings as they strolled by. Some carried borrowed garden tools, others bags of food or children. A few friends and cousins stopped to join us for a cup of tea, conversation and an idle moment during a busy season.

Special thanks to Pavlina and Volodymyr Litynski and Halya, Serhy and Nataliya Stryamets, as always, for their warm hospitality.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ukrainian Cuisine: The Cookbook

In our conversations in Ukraine, we've discovered that most Ukrainian cooks don't use recipes when cooking traditional Ukrainian dishes.  Some now go to the Internet to try new things--Chinese or Italian, for instance, but most home cooks learned at the kitchen table with their mother or grandmother.
So imagine my surprise when my friend Gwen Spicer gave me a Ukrainian cookbook, called, simply, Ukrainian Cuisine, published in 1975 in English, in the Soviet Union (in Kyiv) that features all sorts of recipes and as well, provides a picture of a particular time and place, as presented in a form that perhaps doesn't always represent reality (just think about how few of our American meals actually resemble those in cookbooks or magazines).

In the introduction, the authors (H.I. Georgievsky, M.E. Melman, E.A. Shadura, and A. S. Shemjakinsky) write,
The consumer can now buy a wider variety of nutritious foodstuffs.  Farming and the food industry supplies the market with greater quantities of better and more wholesome food than ever before.  Canned products and processed foods help the housewife reduce the time needed to cook tasty family meals.

The cookbook,  like all instruction books, is prescriptive.  "To cook tasty meals you must follow the recipe and keep to the cooking time indicated."  And referencing Pavlov,  they advise that "to arouse the appetite and ensure that meals are thoroughly enjoyed, the important thing is eating at regular hours,"  to establish a proper reflex and healthy appetite.   They recommend simple foods, without frills, quoting the Ukrainian folk proverb, "Eat simply and you'll live to a hundred."
But what are the recipes?  Borscht gets its own chapter, with 24 different variations.   I'm particularly intrigued by the regional variations.  There is are recipes for borscht from Poltava, from Kiev, from Volyn, from Chernihiv, Galicia, Lvov, and Crimea as well as Krivy Rog cold borscht.  There are recipes for varenyky with liver and salt pork;  heart and lungs; cottage cheese; potato, potato and mushrooms; beans and mushrooms; and of course sweet varenyky with cherries, plums, or poppy seeds.

The home canning chapter is extensive.  Detailed recipes provide information on pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, spiced greens watermelons, beets, cabbage and more.  You can learn how to marinate mushrooms, "Place the mushrooms in rows caps down or pierce with wooden matches which are then inserted into a special staff.  Another way to dry mushrooms is to string them up on thread or thin cord and hang them up to dry."

There's lots of cooking hints including:
  • Cook pearl-barley before adding it to the soups if you want to avoid that blueish tinge.
  • It is easier to clean slipper fish if you coat your fingers with salt.
  • Corn on the cob should be boiled without removing the husk and silk.  Salt just before it is done.
  • To stop milk from brimming over, rub the edge of the saucepan with butter

And some tips for setting and serving Continental style.
  • Bread, cut neatly in accurate slices weighing 50-100 grams is placed on the table, on a plate or special bread basket.
  • Soft caviar is served in caviar bowls wtih ice in the metal bottom.
  • Soft boiled eggs are served in special egg cups.
  • A special knife is used for Dutch cheese.
  • Main course dishes are set on the table in oval or round bowls.

The book is a fascinating combination of familiar and unfamiliar recipes with these sort of aspirational instructions.  I look forward to trying the recipes and to learning more about what role these type of books might have had for post-World War II cooks in Ukraine.

Note:  The lovely illustrations are by O.I. Miklovda and the book was published by Technika Publishers, vul. Pushkina 28, Kyiv.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Galina’s Favorite Meal

Often, discussion of food and culture is focused on those big celebratory meals, at holidays and seasonal festival times. On our recent research trip, we specifically explored the foods of daily life in Ukraine. Drawing on this work, the Pickle Project is launching the "Favorite Meal" segment, to share stories about people and their favorite foods and memorable meals.

Galina is an enthusiastic friend of the Pickle Project that lives in Donetsk. She told us that, while she does love to cook and spends much time tending her garden outside the city in the summer months, because of her busy schedule, she prefers simple, healthy, quick meals.
Galina’s favorite meal is a broth made with mutton and accompanied by black bread toasts. She makes the toasts by rubbing slices of heavy black bread with minced garlic. She then cuts the bread slices into small pieces and dries them out over several hours. The result is a crunchy, garlicy crouton that she can float in the flavorful broth. Galina also likes to add fresh dill to her soup and toasts. “Oh!” she gasped and put her hands on her cheeks, in mock ecstasy “it is delicious.” When she has time, she adds, she may also put together a quick cabbage salad. Her typical salad combines shredded green cabbage with sliced fresh cucumbers and smetana (a cultured milk product, like sour cream), with salt and pepper.