The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Sitting down to write this column, I came upon a headline that caught my eye. “Long before US hipsters discovered it, kombucha was a staple in Russia,” it read. The story, written by the Los Angeles Times’ Moscow correspondent, detailed Russians’ long love affair with kombucha or chainy grib, “tea mushroom,” as it is known in Russia, and how it’s making a comeback after a couple of languishing decades. The story mentioned that kombucha was a substitute for all the soft drinks that the Soviets didn’t have, and that it lost its popularity when market reforms flooded Russia with manufactured sugar drinks. Yet now kombucha is making a comeback among Russia’s younger generation as it turns its sights toward healthy living.
You could write quite a few articles like this: “Long before Americans discovered kimchi, it was a staple in Russia.” (Korean pickles have been in abundance on Russian markets and in stores for over 25 years now.) “Long before fermented milk products became a health food in the US, they were a staple in Russia.” (Kefir has only recently been added to supermarket shelves, thanks in large part to a Russian-American firm in Chicago, Lifeway, but its history in Russia is long and storied.)
And finally this: “Long before seasonal eating became popular in the US, it was the norm in Russia.”
Open any food blog or food magazine today, and you’ll find stories about what’s in season this month, what are the best recipes with seasonal produce, and so on. But in the Soviet Union, and Russia through the end of the twentieth century, the situation was like pre-WWII America: eating seasonally wasn’t a matter of choice, but of necessity. Sure, the Central Asian republics had a warmer climate and grew lots of produce, but their offerings were out of reach — financially or literally — for most people, who only ate fresh tomatoes in the summer, when they were cheap and available, and pickled whatever they didn’t eat to enjoy in the winter.
A fresh cucumber and tomato salad in winter was unimaginable. And if you wanted fruit, you ate it in the summer, when it ripened. Whatever you didn’t eat you used to make preserves and compotes to eat and drink in the winter.
The Soviet economy’s output of frozen fruits and vegetables was very limited, and the refrigerators that most people had weren’t much bigger those Americans now know as “dorm fridges.” And the freezer couldn’t fit more than couple boxes of pelmeni.
So to this day sour cherry (or apricot) varenikifor me evoke memories of summer visits to my grandmothers. One lived in Southern Russia in a house with a garden, that in summer was overrun with mulberries, sour cherries, and apricots. The other lived in Kazakhstan and had a dacha on the ridges of the Tian Shan mountains outside Almaty.
My Russian grandmother made her vareniki with whole (un-pitted) cherries, and thus hers were larger, to accommodate several full cherries. After boiling the dumplings in salted water, she took them out and placed them on the dishtowel, to allow the water to drain away more quickly. These were eaten with your hands.
My Jewish grandmother made hers with pitted cherries, so thevarenikiwere smaller, were not dried on a towel before serving and were eaten with knife and fork.
Both grandmothers made sour cherry vareniki, albeit very differently. But of course both only did it in summer.
3 cups flour (350 grams)
3 Tbsp of vegetable oil
pinch of salt
5 ounces (150 ml) of boiling water
Mix the flour and the salt in a bowl and make a small well in the middle of the mixture. Pour the oil and boiling water into the well. Mix the dough, give it some time to cool down, then add the egg to the dough and knead it again.
Allow the dough to rest in a mixing bowl covered with a dishtowel while you prepare the vareniki filling (20-30 minutes).
Classic varenikiare made with sour cherries, not sweet cherries. Or with apricots.
These should be fresh, fully thawed from frozen, or (in a pinch) reconstituted from dried fruit (soaking dried cherries in kirsch or apricots in orange liqueur would add a nice touch).
Once your dough has risen, fill a medium-sized pot with water and get it to boiling.
Now roll your dough into a log about two inches in diameter, and cut it into pieces about an inch wide. Then take each piece of dough and roll it out on a floured surface until it is a round disc about the thickness of a quarter. Place one or two cherries into the center of the dough-disc (no sauce required, but if you like, you can dust the cherries lightly with sugar or flour), fold it in half and pinch the edges to prevent the filling from escaping.
Drop the varenikiinto boiling water and cook until they float to the top, about 5-6 minutes.
Serve with copious amounts of sour cream.
Yields about 80-100 vareniki.
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Long before seasonal eating (or kombucha, or kimchi, etc.) became popular in the US, it was the norm in Russia.
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