Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Baba Valya's Green Borsch

 Returned Peace Corps volunteer Kim McCray shares another food memory--about one of my favorite dishes in Ukraine as well.  It's a perfect dish to celebrate the approach of a green spring.  If you try Kim's recipe,  send us a picture! 

Everyone knows about borsch.  In fact, I would place a pretty high wager on the fact that if the average American was asked to give a examples of Ukrainian/Russian cuisine, almost all would say borsch and vodka.  However, while the red beet borsch that most Americans know so well is the only borsch variety to have made the jump across the pond to find popularity in the U.S., it is not the only type of borsch that Ukrainians enjoy. Now, I love red borsch just as much as the next gal, but if given a choice between red borsch and it’s green counterpart, I will choose the latter almost every time - partly because I prefer the taste, but partly because it is green borsch that reminds me of Valya. 

Valya was my next-door neighbor in my village of Priyutivka, and in our small apartment building of eight flats, she was the person I came to know best. To a certain extent our living arrangements made such a relationship almost unavoidable, at least that is how it seemed at first, as I became aware that my every move was being watched by my neighbors, with Valya, who I eventually came to refer to as my “Ukrainian grandmother”, taking the lead in this hobby of “American-watching”. At first it made me uncomfortable.  But as time progressed I came to value their watchful eyes, as I knew very well that anytime someone rang my doorbell, Valya was peeping out the eye-hole from her caddy-corner apartment to make sure that everything was all right.  If it was a friend or coworker or someone else I obviously knew, I never heard a peep from her. But the few times when I opened my door to a stranger (usually someone from the utility company or someone lost and knocking on the wrong door), Valya was there in a jiffy, coming to my aid and translating when necessary.  I came to count on her as my own home security system.
Besides keeping an eye on who came to my door, Valya also fed me. Often. The feeding didn’t begin right away, but developed as a result of Valya’s sizing me up and finding me in some suspicious characteristics. First of all, I was an American girl, an old maid at 23 with no prospects, living all alone in the middle of nowhere.  Strike one, two, and three.  On top of that, I could not pass a bag inspection for the life of me.   

Bag inspections, as I have since dubbed them, were fairly commonplace throughout my Peace Corps service, but especially at the beginning.  Several times in my first month in the apartment, Valya would intercept me on my way home from the village shop.  She would then open my bag and paw around, announcing to the other babusyas on the bench the sorry evidence of my helplessness that she saw inside. “Oh no, don’t buy the canned mackerel in that oil, you must buy it in water…” or “Kimusia, why are you paying such prices for carrots? Go into the city where they’re cheaper”, or worst of all, “Slava Bogu (My God), this pelmeny is storebought trash!” 

After failing several of such bag inspections, it became apparent to Valya that I did not know how to shop OR cook, and so she took me under her wing.  For the next year and a half, at least once or twice a week my doorbell would ring and I would open it to find Valya standing there in her slippers holding out a mason jar full of cherry compote or an old tea towel wrapped around a half loaf of bread. But of all the food that Valya gave me, it was green borsch that became the emblem of our relationship.  I still remember the first time I tasted it.  My doorbell rang and Valya handed me a bowl of a green broth soup with half of a hard-boiled egg floating in the center.  I asked what it was.  “Zelyony Borsh” she replied.  Well, green borsch I had never seen, so I tried it on the spot and couldn’t believe how savory yet refreshing it was. I praised her and asked for the recipe and hurried inside to finish the bowl.  A couple of minutes later the doorbell rang again, and instead of coming back with the recipe, Valya had returned to my door to give me the rest of the pot of soup! 

As the summer waned and sorrel, a key ingredient vanished, Valya stopped making me “summer borsch” for a time, but the next spring it was back in her repertoire.  I think I can safely say that Valya brought me green borsch at least 15 or 20 times, and each time it hit the spot.  Sometimes I’d eat it hot, sometimes cold, but always with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of black bread.

Before I left Ukraine I did manage to get Valya’s recipe, and have included it below. In the typical fashion of any cook who has made a dish countless times, Valya did not write down any ingredient amounts, but I have added the amounts that I have used when making this dish. 

Valya’s Green Borsch

100 grams of pork
3-4 big potatoes
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
sorrel (2 cups fresh)
sour cream
dill (optional)
Fill a pot with water and put it on the fire to boil. Cut the meat into medium pieces. Put the meat into boiling water. Take off the skin of potatoes. Chop the potatoes in medium pieces. Let the meat cook for about 4 or 5 minutes and then add the potatoes and sorrel and the egg slices. Boil everything 10-15 minutes more. Add salt to taste and add sour cream on top.

Images:  Top:  green borscht, via Kansas City with the Russian Accent ,  Center:  Kim with Valya and Ivan.

1 comment:

  1. What kind of Pork meat is used for this recipe
    that cooks in 15 minutes?