July 01, 2013

Some Like it Cold

Some Like it Cold

I've always loved the evocative Russian phrase babye leto — old ladies’ summer — that describes those brilliant early fall days when old women and young folk alike bask in the last warm rays of the sun, which feel all the more precious as summer draws to a close.

Things are quite different in midsummer, when the sun feels less like a friend than a foe. In English we call that oppressive time the “dog days” of summer, when nothing seems to bring relief. But the Russians know how to stave off heat-induced tempers with a wonderful array of refreshing, cold soups. My favorite among them is okroshka. The soup’s name comes from the Russian verb kroshit, to crumble or mince. Okroshka is basically a liquid salad, bursting with all manner of fresh summer vegetables and herbs. To me, it is a quintessentially Russian dish in its use of the freshest garden produce and homemade staples from the pantry.

Okroshka started out as a peasant dish, or — if you believe the tale that circulates on numerous Russian websites — as a specialty of the Volga boatmen. The story goes that the boatmen were fed porridge in the morning; for dinner they were given dried fish (vobla) and kvass, that slightly alcoholic home brew made from black bread. Many of the boatmen had terrible teeth (if they had teeth at all), and dried fish can be tough and quite hard to chew. So the boatmen would soak it in the kvass to soften it. Soon they began adding vegetables — mainly boiled potatoes, radishes and cucumbers — to make the mixture more filling, and okroshka was born.

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