Monday, November 26, 2012

Foraging in Ukraine

Note:  Christie Bond of Burlington, Vermont is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Ukraine and has joined us in working on the Pickle Project.  We look forward to more posts from her!)

As winter approaches, I have been eagerly awaiting the first snowfall in order to tromp the grounds looking for tracks and other animal signs. As a prelude, I’ve been digging into Paul Rezendes Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign. The language used by Rezendes, “seeing” brought me back to tracking of another kind – foraging in Ukraine.

Although one might assume “tracking plants” to be far easier than following the signs of moving animals, it took me a while to find what my counterpart Maria described as my “mushroom eyes.” Not unlike tracking animals, it’s important to wait for the right conditions – rain after several warm days, and then the hope that your mushroom eyes are working! As Rezendes says, “If you know an animal well, you will know where to look for it and when,” - the same is true for mushrooms.
(Mushroom Pizza – Sumy)

When traveling the highways in Ukraine, it is common to see babushkas with foraged mushrooms for sale – fresh and dried. In addition, when the weather is right, any location will do. While on a weekend retreat near the Desna river, one of the program planners mentioned he had seen oyster mushrooms near the sanatorium entrance, so we happily ended our meeting in search of them. He brought them back the following day in the form of a soup that his wife had prepared.

(Mushroom Soup - Odessa)

Without Maria, Dr. Valarie, or Tatiana (all passionate foragers), I am reluctant to go on my own. Luckily this fall was particularly rich with giant puff ball mushrooms (which have no poisonous look-alikes). Rezendes believes that through tracking, a person can develop an intimate bond with the animal, and furthermore develop a more keen understanding of their relationship to the natural world. I believe the same can be said for foraging. Through the collection of mushrooms, one can develop a keen sense of their environment.

For helpful foraging tips, visit:

(Top photo:  Mushrooms at an Odessa Market)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Short Timers Food

Just off a leafy boulevard in Simferopol, you will find Crimea State Medical University. Every year, this small medical school welcomes hundreds of foreign students from around the world. Young people journey from African countries, the Middle East, Turkey and India, among other places, to study at the medical school, which is for many more affordable than training in their home countries.

Nestled on the second floor of the university’s high-rise dormitories, there is a cafe that caters to foreign students, serving pan-Asian dishes. Wandering up flights of stairs and through darkened hallways, we managed to find the little café recommended to us by several friends.

It was here, over curries and naan, that we met Seethala Devi, who just finished her medical degree a few days before. Seethala, 27, is Malaysian and comes from the Selangor district, about 45 minutes from the capital, Kuala Lumpur.  She has a warm eyes and a kind smile. 

Seethala first came to Crimea for her pre-medical training and decided to stay on for her full medical instruction. Coming here was really hard, at first, she said. It is tough to be alone in a new place with a new language and environment. Then, she told us, she started finding all the positives. “I like it here; I have really enjoyed it.” The hardest part now is missing her family, as she had not been back to Malaysia in four years. 

Getting used to Ukrainian food was part of the adjustment to life in Crimea. Seethala smiled as she recalled “When I first came, I became quite plump.” But, as it turns out, she explained, eating local food became a bit like a diet, with simple tastes, fresh vegetables and less oil than many Asian dishes.

She works long shifts at the hospital and packs along with her kasha, cookies vegetables and tea, for her breaks. “I actually really enjoy it. I will bring along some bread and I have a complete meal.” Eyes shining, she admitted that she has also developed a penchant for Ukrainian sweets (as many of us do!). Once in a while, for treat, Seethala stops by a local bakery for a sochnik, a puff pastry filled with the sweetened pot (cottage) cheese.

She still makes favorites from her native Malaysia, however, but access to spices for traditional dishes is limited. Once in a while, she will stop by the café for a quick meal alone, before heading to the hospital and meeting with friends. Like many restaurants in Ukraine, the café often does not have everything on the menu but does has a few daily specials. “It is a gamble, sometimes” Seethala told us and advised us to ask for “what is nice?” Then, you will get what is freshest.

After seven years in Crimea, she is preparing to go back to Malaysia and was hoping for an internship in Sabah, the oil rich province in the Northeastern part of the country.  It will be a transition too, she said. “I am really going to miss it here.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Checking Out Markets

Today, I'm headed off to work on an exciting new project for Context Travel, helping to develop resources and approaches for their scholar/docents who present fascinating, indepth city learning experiences.  But that also means, I hope, that I'll carve out time to visit city markets in London, Rome, Paris, Florence and Venice.   I love food markets of all types, so I'll be sharing some images here and on our Facebook page with all of you.  A detour from Ukraine, but I hope you enjoy them!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Help Us Plan the Future!

We're now in the process of establishing the Pickle Project as a non-profit organization to explore ways to develop active conversations about food, sustainability and community in Ukraine, the United States and elsewhere.  As a part of that process, we're embarking on a strategic planning process over the next few months--and we hope you'll be a part of it. 

All along the way,  from our very first blog post--all of you readers,  guest bloggers, Facebook fans and Kickstarter supporters--no matter where in the world you live-- have inspired us, cheered us on,  and been an integral part of our journey as we explore food and community.   So please just take the survey below (it's short, we promise!) to help us shape the future of the Pickle Project.

Click here to take survey

Photo:  Anna Khvyl and her mom at the 2011 Pickle Project conversation in Kyiv at the Bulgakov Museum.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kitchen Talk

Sofia's Kitchen, Verkhovyna, Carpathian Mountains

I have heard native-born Ukrainians refer to the language spoken by members of the Ukrainian diaspora, living in the US and Canada as “kitchen Ukrainian,” a not-quite contemporary Ukrainian, often with English or other influences. It is also meant to reflect the fact that many first and second generation Ukrainian Americans and Canadians learned Ukrainian from their mother or grandmothers, usually while they helped with cooking. Indeed, several friends with Ukrainian roots that grew up in the US and Canada have shared these kinds of insights. 

The Beekeeper's kitchen, Donbass Oblast
Social scientists actually use the term “diaspora language” to describe the dialects or variations of languages spoken in places of migration. These languages evolve, as all languages do, absorbing new influences and changes to their community. In the context of rapid change in Ukraine, as well as long absences from the country, language and food practices seem to be the most tangible connection to this culture for people with Ukrainian roots living in other parts of the world.

Svitlana, in her Kyiv kitchen
Through the Pickle Project, we too have learned a kind of kitchen language, Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar, spending time, mostly with women, talking about food. Standing over stoves, hunched over plants in the garden: Як ви сказали? How do you say it? 

Lenura's kitchen in Ak-Meshet, Crimea

Maybe it is because that is where Mama is, or, where the food is, or, where the work is.. Everyone is always hanging out in the kitchen. Included here are photos of some kitchens that we have been lucky enough to spend time in.

The 1970's kitchen, Pyrohiv National Museum of Folk Architecture
Of course, nothing foments fervent debate or connections to identity and culture quite like language in Ukraine. So, please consider this an open invitation to share your own thoughts, stories and experiences about the intersection of food practice, cultural preservation and food. 

Historic Photo, Ukrainian Market

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Out of this World Apples

Last year, the apple tree in our backyard here in the Catskills was heavy with apples, with every branch full.  This year, there's barely an apple to be seen out there, due to an late frost last spring.  So despite the scarcity of apples in my immediate neighborhood, fall always seems a good time to think about apples.

Berries and cherries may seem like the most prevalent fruits in Ukraine as they're so scrumptious, prevalent and available in the summer months.  But apples take center stage come fall.  You can eat them fresh, picked from the tree in your dacha's garden;  you can make apple cakes;  you can dry them, and use them to make a compote from that;  you can have pickled apples,  or make apple wine or brandy.  So rather than those big, hard supermarket apples, Ukrainians have all these ways to make the flavors of real, taste-filled apples last the year-round.

Dried apples are just one part of what makes uzvar, a drink made from soaking dried apples, plums and perhaps pears in liquid.  The drink often has a smoky taste, from the way the fruits are dried,  and to me, is a bit of an acquired taste.
A little web research told me more about Ukrainian apples--several of these heirloom varieties can also be found in North America.  On several sites describing apple varieties, I wondered whether apples whose origins noted as Russian were perhaps Ukrainian.  From Crimea, there's the Kandil Sinap, also called Jubilee.  Discovered growing wild in Ukraine in the 1700s was the Alexander apple, which came into Britain in 1805;  and then made its way to the United States.  
One of the most notable apples was the Reinette Simirenko (above)  which, some agronomists say, may be the same as Woods' Greening, an American apple. But it may have originated in P.F. Simirenko's Ukrainian garden.  I could just find a bit about Simirenko,  who evidently was an expert in fruit crop breeding in Ukraine but whose work was opposed by Soviet horticulturist Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, leading to Simirenko's imprisonment and death in the 1930s.  But evidently the taste of the Reinette Simirenko is out of this world--Soviet cosmonauts snacked on it in space! So perhaps it's a carefully wrapped Reinette Simirenko you glimpse in this video showing ground level tasting of cosmonaut food.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunflowers, Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated, sourced

By now, via screen or page, it seems everyone has taken in the vast, almost magical fields of sunflowers in Jonathon Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Love or loathe Everything is Illuminated (not to cop out but I find myself squarely on the middle ground, except where Eugene Lutz is concerned.), it set an imagination of the Ukrainian countryside as a sunny, golden sea. 

I must admit, there is something sort of dreamy or wistful about sunflowers, their vibrant yellow color, the way they are said to lift their heavy heads together, following the sun across the sky. (This tracking of the sun is called heliotropism but there appears to be lack of consensus as to whether sunflowers are true heliotrophs or maybe only in early life stages. As a child of the American Midwest, I swear that I have witnessed this. Any sunflower scientists out there that can clarify?) 

From train window, central Ukraine, photo courtesy of pickle pal Linda Knudsen McAusland
In the genus Helianthus (sound familiar?) with sunchokes, sunflowers originate in the Americas but were brought to Europe by those intrepid Spaniards in the 16th Century.  According to Cullinaria, edited by Marion Trutter (2006), sunflowers came to the Dnieper Valley with Peter the Great, after a trip to Western Europe in the mid 1500s. Peter, who was something of a sunflower aficionado, was fond of their bright colors but they soon emerged as an important food source. 

Sunflowers, соняшник in Ukrainian, are grown for seeds, which are pressed for oil or cracked and roasted as a food stuff for people and animals, particularly poultry. Referencing my trusty Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (Rodale, 1971), I learned that sunflowers are highly nutritious, very rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin and are an important source of linoleic acid (good for hair and skin, by the way). Sunflower oil is generally cold pressed, which helps to retain the oils nutrients and vitamins.  In my experience, sunflower oil is the oil of choice among Ukrainian cooks. It complements fresh veggies, as well as meats. 

From train window, central Ukraine, photo courtesy of pickle pal Linda Knudsen McAusland
Oil production began in Ukraine around 1835 and that the Kherson and Zaporhiza regions were critical to fat supplies during the Second World War and in the Soviet Area. Overtime, sunflower oil production has remained an important economic resource in Ukraine, though the industry has struggled to keep pace with crop resistance and industry standards. All that said, according to this recent post from PR Newswire, Ukraine now produces a quarter of world’s sunflower oil, comprising 51% of the global export market for the commodity. Interestingly, India is the top consumer of Ukraine’s sunflower oil. A 15% decline in production is anticipated for Ukraine’s sunflower oil production over the next year, based on adverse weather projections.

Sunflower seeds at Odessa's Central Market, photo by Linda

Whole sunflower seeds are a very popular Ukrainian snack and are found studding breads and sweets. Markets stalls feature a dizzying array of varieties and preparations. On street corners, kerchiefed grannies sell sunflower seeds for birds.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Train Food Memories

This past week I did a rare thing for most Americans--took a train ride--and although the scenery was different (traversing along the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to San Diego) it brought back many memories of so many train trips in Ukraine, so I thought I'd share a bit about Ukrainian train food.

Last summer, Sarah and I embarked on trains that literally took us around Ukraine--from Kyiv to Donetsk to Simferopol to Odessa to L'viv and back to Kyiv.   It was holiday season for many and I was struck by two ways in which local residents living near train stations made additional income by supplying food to those hungry travelers.
At several stops,  people waited for trains to pull in and sold food up into the doors and windows of the train:  smoked fish,  corn on the cob, and more.   Anxious travelers stocked up for the overnight trip. (sorry for the blurriness of some of these photos,  taken on the fly through a train window)
Still other entreprenuers appeared with buckets and baskets of berries, peaches, plums, cherries and more, to be purchased as fresh as can be, gently carried home, back to the city, for canning and preserving.  At one station in the Carpathians, travelers passed through a friendly gauntlet of women with all sorts of fresh (and as we can attest, delicious) things for sale.  It reinforced for me the ongoing importance for Ukrainians of a direct connection between consumers and producers.  You want to be able to look a vender in the eye and talk about the food.
We were no exception. Before we started off on any Pickle Project ride,  we stocked up with food to sustain us along the way:  pickles,  salty string cheese, dried fruit and leposhka, a round bread like naan, baked on an oven.  If it was summer, berries, cherries and plums;  in winter,  dried fruit.

And of course, there's one drink that epitomizes Ukrainian train travel to me.  It's that hot morning tea,  delivered briskly by the train attendant to your compartment in the morning as you approach your destination in its old fashioned yet lovely glass with a metal holder that clinks a bit as the train lumbers and rattles along and you watch the countryside pass by.  If you've been a Ukrainian train traveler, what food memories can you share?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Taste of Summer: Watermelon

Sarah and I don't manage to be in the same place very often, but two weeks ago our schedules brought us together for lots of catching up over dinner in Albany, NY.  She arrived with a lovely small watermelon from a Vermont farm stand, and it seemed the perfect time to write an appreciative blog about Ukrainian watermelons.  Watermelons (and melons of all types including one called the Collective Farm Woman  are another marker of summer).  Melons appear stacked up sky high in markets, and in funny wire cages on street corners.  There's nothing better than fresh watermelon, as appreciated by this young boy in above in a historic postcard from Ukraine; but Ukrainian cooks are adept at making that summer flavor last.  
Recipes abound on the web for pickled watermelon rind,  but recipes for watermelon pickles that include the red flesh are much harder to find, but it's a common treat in Ukraine.   Last October, at the Dacha restaurant in Odessa,  pickled watermelon joined a plate of other pickled fruits and vegetables for an incredible treat for the four of us on our Pickle Project Conversation Tour.  It's at the top of the plate in this photo, joined by pickled cucumbers, apples, peppers, tomatoes, beets, and more.  But this kind of pickle is far from just restaurant food.  It's made  by home cooks as well.   Pickled watermelon makes up part of a winter meal at home in Ukraine below  (thanks to Grace Eickmayer for the photo).
Want to try pickling watermelon yourself?  Here's a recipe via Saveur magazine.  It originally appeared in Pickled: Preserving a World of Tastes and Traditions by Lucy Norris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003); and was contributed to that volume by Sophia Vinokurau, the owner of M & I International Foods in Brooklyn, New York.

1⁄4 cup kosher salt
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 tbsp. pickling spices
3⁄4 tsp. cayenne
1⁄2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
8 cloves peeled garlic, smashed
5 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 bunch dill, roots trimmed
1  2-lb. piece watermelon, rind left on,
   cut into 1"-thick wedges

1. In a large nonreactive bowl or pot, stir together salt, sugar, pickling spices, cayenne, vinegar, garlic, celery, dill, and 8 cups water until salt and sugar dissolve. Submerge the watermelon wedges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 week and up to 2 weeks before serving.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Abundance and Scarcity: Food in Newfoundland

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling around the island of Newfoundland, Canada, in my museum persona,  facilitating a series of workshops for heritage organizations—but of course, finding time to eat and think about food along the way. The traditional foods are still found in many places here—both in restaurants for visitors like me,  but also for everyday people—in the same way that many Ukrainians still eat borscht almost every day.

Newfoundland is the easternmost province of Canada—but in fact, only became a part of Canada in 1949 and maintains a distinct identity.  Newfoundlanders mostly perch on the outer rim of this rocky island, with only half a million residents in the entire province;  60,000 in the provincial capital, St. John’s.  Aboriginal peoples have lived here for thousands of years, while Leif Erikson and a band of Vikings landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000.  Irish, English, French and Scottish immigrants shaped the province and its traditions.

I was struck by the ways in which scarcity and abundance, two facets of food in Ukraine, also operate here.  Almost anything from the sea was freely and easily available, gained by your own labor.  One woman told me her family ate lobster easily once a week!  Cod was king here, until overfishing lead to the cod moratorium of the 1990s,  bringing drastic change to many fishing villages.     I picked up a reproduction of the 1958 cookbook,  The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes,  composed of recipes sent in by women from all over the island to a flour company sponsored radio show.   The variety of seafood recipes is astounding:  baked flippers (seal) with vegetables, fish and tomato scallop, baked cod tongues, fried cod heads, stewed grilse,  herring fried in oatmeal, fried squid, matelote of eel, fried capelin, fried smelt, fried clams,  fried mussels, oyster stew,  lobster cutlets…the list goes on and on.
 One night in Twillingate I tried fish and brewis, a dish that exemplifies the simple, resourceful eating.  It can be made with either salt cod or fresh fish and is just hardtack or hard bread soaked overnight in cold water (as the salt cod would be as well) and then both boiled separately and combined, and served with scrunchions,  small cubes of salt pork fried golden brown, and the fat and cubes poured over the dish like gravy.  

Amazingly, I heard a radio program where local chefs and others were discussing how hard it is to get local fish for restaurants here in the province because of various regulations. And in St. Alban’s, a local radio station read out the various opening and closing seasons for a host of seafood:  whelks, scallops, sea urchins and more, many of which are now shipped to Japan and other places.

The forests also provide sustenance.  Although moose were not introduced onto the island until the 19th century,  there are now thousands, and moose stew appears on many menus.   Berries grow in abundance, although this year’s dry, hot season has produced fewer than usual, said one gatherer.   The berries have their own particular Newfoundland names:  what Scandanavians refer to as cloudberries are known as bakeapples, and partridgeberries are better known as lingonberries.  Crisps and crumbles, jam and jellies, pies and even a partridgeberry cocktail make sure that the gifts of the short season last throughout the year.
Old-fashioned root cellars still dot the landscape and those crops that last through the winter are most commonly grown here. Those traditional food preservation methods find their great expression in the Jiggs Dinner,  named after the mid-20th comic book character in Molly and Jiggs, for reasons that are now lost in time.   A Jiggs Dinner (served at what we call lunchtime) includes several variations, but the one I had at the Cozy Tea Room in Twillingate(highly recommended  by several locals) included salted beef (corned beef),  pease pudding (dried split peas boiled down into a stiff paste),  boiled potato, carrots and cabbage,  pumpkin pickle, a dumpling, and an onion bread pudding.  Delicious!  And sure to sustain you in a long day’s physical work at home or on the boat.

At one workshop we began talking about food, and one participant remembered her mother “bottling” everything:  flippers, turr (a shore bird),  capelin (a small fish), herring and more, ensuring that the family would have enough to get through the long winters.   The Treasury cookbook has a recipe for preserved moose:

Wash moose meat and cut in small pieces.  Place meat in jars, add 2 teasppons salt and enough boiling water to fill jars within one ince of top.  Seal jars and loosen slightly.  Process in boiling water for 4 hours or in a pressure cooker for 1 ¾ hours at 10 pounds pressure.  [No instructions provided for getting that moose in the first place].
When we talked about seminal events in the 20th century lives of Newfoundlanders,  many workshop participants remarked that the Great Depression had little effect on their families’ lives here—because people lived on what they could catch, gather or raise, and had little other money;  they could manage in the same way they had often had. (Above, moose stew).

But managing with what they had didn’t mean doing without sweets.  I discovered the English and Irish traditions of great desserts still in force here, including many types of steamed puddings.   Here’s one recipe from the cookbook for a cranberry pudding (as I assume cranberries might be easier for Pickle Project readers to find than bakeapples or partridgeberries).

1 cup fresh chopped cranberries
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup boiling water
½ cup granulated sugar
½ light molasses
1 egg, well-beaten
1 ½ cups sifted Cream of the West (the cookbook sponsor) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Put cranberries and butter in a mixing bowl;  add boiling water.  Then add the sugar, molasses and beaten egg.  Stir until well mixed.  Add the sifted dry ingredients.   Pour into a well-greased one-quart pudding bowl,  Cover tightly.  Steam for 2 hours.  Serve with a foamy sauce.
Partridgeberry Crisp