Episode #6 Authentic Russian summer food
First things first, I’m an ethnic Russian and I come from a south-east of the European part of the country. And I’m going to talk about Russian food that we cook in this region. In other places it might be very different.
So Most of the Russian territory has continental climate. That means our two most distinct seasons are summer and winter. And our diet varies accordingly. Of course, these days we can buy fresh fruit and vegetables all year round in the shops. But most of it is brought from overseas. It doesn’t taste that great because it had to have been shipped while green and far from being ripe. And it tends to be expensive, so not everybody buys that.
In summer, however, we have our own locally grown produce. And we have tons of ways of cooking it.
Sure, these days our cuisine is just as affected by other cultures as it is in… well, other cultures. Still, we have some very distinct types of food.
Warning! This episode may contains explicit language. And my personal feelings and opinions. Mwahahaha
I won’t even attempt to talk about our summer cuisine in general. I mean, you can read wikipedia article all by yourself. I want to focus on what I cook and eat and what my family cooks and eats during this season. I am a vegetarian but I have been one only for about two years now, so I know and remember what regular people eat pretty well 😀
Okroshka, the most popular cold soup in Russia
Anyway, My absolutely favourite type of food that we eat only when it’s hot outside is окрошка/okroshka. It’s written with the letter “o” in the beginning but pronounced with “a”. That kind of shit happens all the time in the Russian language.
Okroshka is a cold soup. Russian cuisine has tons of soups, btw. And several of them are cold. This one is the most popular. The basis for it is another Russian staple, the drink called kvas/квас.
No, wait, let’s start with Kvas!
Kvas is a traditional Slavic or Eastern European beverage. It’s name is derived from the verb квасить/kvasit, literally to ferment. So kvas has a slightly sour or tart taste. It’s brown but the colour may vary from dark brown to light brown.
To make it you would dry the bread for several days. Or in the oven, I guess. So it becomes hard. In Russian that type of bread is called сухари/suhari. Russians usually use rye bread to make it. We call it black bread. Because it’s darker than the wheat bread. But other types of bread can be used too.
Then you would poor boiling water on them and leave for 4 to 6 hours. Then you add sugar and yeast. You don’t have to use real yeast, you can buy a fermentation starter called закваска/zakvaska in the shop. The proportion goes something like this: 50 grams of sugar and 2 of yeast per 1 liter of water. You wouldn’t try to make just 1 liter though. Just saying.
You can add stuff like berries, apples or raisin or even herbs like mint to create additional flavour. You leave that stuff to ferment for a couple of days and sift or decant it before drinking. No need to get rid of all of the residue on the bottom, it gives the homemade kvas its characteristic flavour and a lot of vitamin B, coincidentally. It’s considered a non-alcoholic drink. At least by out standards, because alcohol content from fermentation is about 0.5-1%
Kvas is very popular in Russia, Ukraine and a bunch of former Soviet republics like Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan and in some Baltic countries like Latvia. It’s often sold by street vendors along with lemonade. Which is another way of saying that you really don’t have to make it at home. You can simply buy it. The cheaper types are made basically like soda drinks. But the more expensive stuff is usually brewed properly. Lately it’s been marketed as a Russian alternative to Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I guess to some degree it is. The home made stuff would be way better for your health, that’s for certain.
What can you use instead of kvas?
So you would take this drink, 2-3 litres of it as a basis to make okroshka. Alternatively you can use кефир/kefir, that’s the type of dairy product that’s very popular in Russia. But you’d need to water it down a bit, because it’s too thick for soup as it is. Some people use sour or acidic whey. That’s the liquid that remains after making of cottage cheese. Cottage cheese that we call творог/tvorog is very popular Russian dairy product. And some people make it at home. That would mean that they have sour whey at hand. You can buy it, but it usually would be sweetened and sold like a type of cold drink. And then it’s unsuitable for okroshka because it’s sweet and okroshka must be tart.
Okroshka: ingredients and the recipe
Once you have your basis you can start the preparation. You would need some filler bland ingredients like boiled eggs and potatoes. The rest is vegetables and greenery. And meat or fish, if you eat it.
So take spring onions, dill, parsley, maybe, celery and cilantro, if you like them, and chop them finely. Put them in a large (well, as large as you want but not small) pot, add salt and grind them a bit with a pounder. You don’t need to mash them, just to make them give off the juice a bit. Chop cucumbers and radishes and add that. If radishes are out of season, we usually just add tomatoes. Next add chopped boiled eggs and potatoes and whatever meaty ingredient you want: boiled chicken or beef, cooked sausages or ham. Boiled fish might also work, though I never tried that. In my region you would usually add sun-dried fish like vobla. But that could be because we have the Volga, it’s a huge river with loads of types of freshwater fish. Sun-dried fish is kinda like fish jerkey, except we dry the whole fish because freshwater fish is often smaller. It’s not even gutted. And we don’t fry it after it’s dried like I saw in some fish jerkey recipes. Before you try anything like that you should consider the risk that basically uncooked fish presents for your health.
How much of every ingredient do you need?
Heck if I know! I never measure it, I just kinda know how much of what should be there. But that’s not helpful so let me try to give you some idea of quantities. If I were making okroshka for two people and want it to last for 2-3 days, I would take 2 litres of kvas, 4 potatoes, 3-4 eggs and a bundle of every type of greenery I want. Average one would weigh about 100 grams. I’d need 4 medium sized cucumbers and 10 or 11 radishes. If I use tomatoes, than 3-4 of those.
The quantity of meat or fish depends on how much meat or fish you want in your okroshka. Think of it as a salad. How much of it would you like in your salad? And how much сметана/smetana (that is a type of sour cream common in Eastern Europe) or mayonnaise to put in your bowl is also your choice. I’d say about a tablespoon for smetana and less for mayonnaise. Wow, didn’t mean to do that!
How to eat it?
And you mix and shuffle all that stuff in the pot. Now you have several options. You can take as much of the mix as you want to eat in one go, pour kvas in it, it should be the consistency of cereal with milk, add сметана/smetana or mayonnaise and okroshka is ready to eat.
Alternatively, you can pour kvas over all of your mix, so you have a whole pot of soup, not just two parts that need to be combined every time before eating. After you ate as much as you want, you put the rest in the fridge. That way when you take it out next time it’s even more tart. Some people prefer that.
If you add kvas to each portion, however, you can eat it over a longer period of time because it doesn’t get too sour. This is what makes this dish perfect for a work week actually. You can prepare a lot of the salad-like base of it, then just take it out as needed and add kvas and smetana. Keep in mind that cucumbers will taste kinda like pickles after a while, because there’s salt in the mix.
Some crazy people add ice to make okroshka in their bowl even colder. I never do it. But I generally never add ice to anything even drinks. The refrigerator temperature is cold enough for me.
From that recipe you can gather that our soups are not purees or broth, they are more like South-east Asian soups. And also that Russian cuisine is not spicy. It’s either kinda… bland but in a good way, or tart. Which often doesn’t work for me because I don’t like acidic taste. But okroshka is pretty awesome. It’s as if you’re eating a salad and having a drink at the same time. For a salad it’s also very filling, thanks to potatoes and eggs. It’s great for hot weather because the tart kvas doesn’t make you more thirsty afterwards as a sweet drink would. It’s also easy to make. I mean you only have to boil 2 ingredients and the rest is just chopping. And you can change and drop the ingredients to suit your tastes and needs and whatever you have at hand.
Another cold Russian soup is свекольник/svekolnik. The name is derived from the word свекла/svekla – beetroot. And that kinda hints at what awaits you. Although I think nothing will prepare you for the fact that you should (well, technically you don’t have to but it’s in some versions of the recipe) use beet tops as a greenery for that soup! Yeah, we are that weird! Of course, they don’t sell beet tops in all the shops. You would either go to the market and find some old lady who grew them in her garden and now sells them. Or you grow it in your garden. And a lot of Russians have vegetable gardens at their дача/dacha. That’s a summer house with a plot of land around it, where you can grow vegetables, berries and fruit trees.
Ingredients and the recipe
So, once you got yourself some beetroot and beet tops, about 4 average sized ones, I’d say, what do you need next? Well, that obviously depends on what kind of recipe you are using. My mom’s version looks like this:
- Couple of carrots
- 3-4 cucumbers (I’m assuming everything is medium sized. If your have bigger or smaller one, of course, you’d adjust the recipe)
- 3 boiled eggs
- A bundle of spring onions, dill and parsley. Or whatever greenery you prefer. Just as in okroshka.
- A little vinegar or lemon juice, 2-4 teaspoons. Salt, sugar (if you think the result is too tart) and pepper if you feel like it
- Smetana to add in the end
The process goes a bit like with okroshka. You chop the greenery, eggs and cucumbers. But! You need to boil carrots and beetroots. And to the water with beetroots you add the vinegar or lemon juice. You would put beet tops into that water too, but at the very end. If the tops are fresh, you don’t need them boiled, just kinda scalded. But if they are older and harder, you would boil for 3-5 minutes.
Once they are cooked, you cut carrots and beetroots into sticks or cubes and chop the beet tops. The vegetable broth that you get from boiling the beetroots needs to be sifted. You would use it as a basis for the soup.
Now mix everything together, pour in the broth, add salt and maybe a bit of kvas if you have one on hand. You can add smetana to the whole pot or later to your bowl. And that’s it. The soup is ready. And it’s served cold.
It’s should be this pretty magenta colour. To make it look fancier, you might add a half of a boiled egg to every bowl instead of chopping it into the mix.
What other special summer dishes do we have? Anything with mushrooms.
What type of mushrooms do Russians eat?
Not with champignon or shiitake mushrooms that we can buy all year round. But with the ones that grow in our forests. We have thousands year old tradition of picking mushrooms in the forest. That was an important food source for our ancestors. Now it’s a favourite summer pastime for a lot of people. Also a reason to combine a family hike with a national version of a treasure hunt. So after a rain or two a lot of people go into their local forest and return with bucketfuls of fungus.
Aren’t they poisonous? Well, there are rules to mushroom picking. And ways to determine which mushroom is edible and which isn’t. People are usually taught that pretty early in their life. But you can find tons of resources about it on the Internet. I’ll leave the links to a couple of articles in the shownotes. And one day I will definitely make an episode about them.
Also I once heard that the further north you go, the less poisonous and more edible mushrooms grow there. I don’t know if that’s true. But we have 300 species of edible mushrooms and way less than a hundred poisonous ones.
The most popular among those who pick them are белые (porcini), which we call white mushrooms or tzar mushrooms, подберезовики (birch bolete), подосиновики (red-capped bolete), маслята (slippery jack), лисички (chanterelle), рыжики (saffron milk cap), опята (honey mushroom), грузди (milk mushrooms) and cыроежки (russule).
If 300 edible ones weren’t enough, a lot of people know how to cook mushrooms that are considered poisonous. Like fly agaric, reindeer mushrooms, morel or morchella, false morel, common puffball, parasol and even polypore that grows on trees.
I personally tried morel, because my mum knows how to cook them. And they are good, especially with fried potato chips. My favourite are honey mushrooms, though.
Personally I’m not especially good at determining which are edible and which are poisonous. But even I can tell a мухомор (toadstool) or бледная поганка (a death angel). And I have relatives and family friends who are good at it. My own friends mostly are not. Hm. I wonder what’s wrong with us? I guess, we just grew up in the city, and though we have a forest nearby, we know better than to hunt mushrooms there. Because it’s too close to the huge city, which means, the air is polluted. And mushrooms absorb up all sorts of shit from their environment, because that’s just how they work.
How do you cook Russian mushrooms?
Now, imagine you’ve got yourself a basket or a bucket full of mushrooms, what do you do with it? How do Russians cook them? Well, by some European chef standards probably like barbarians. Because we never serve them raw. Even porchini. They are boiled and fried and also dried, salted and marinated for winter. Yeah, we have mushroom preserves. And I adore them! Especially with chopped raw onion and a bit of sunflower seed oil.
The method of cooking depends on the type of mushrooms you’ve got. So I guess, you come home, wash and clean your booty and google it. One of easiest dishes is mushroom soup. As I said earlier, okroshka might have clued you in that we rarely make cream puree soups. You can, of course. But usually you would just peel them, boil to make a broth, add chopped raw carrots, potatoes or pasta and cook till they are ready.
Another option which is especially good for porchini and chanterelle is frying them with smetana and chopped onions. Or potato chips. You can add meat too, if you feel like it. The main rule in Russia is that you don’t add spices or just a tiny bit because mushroom have their own unique flavour.
You can also fry mushrooms and potatoes without smetana. Prep the mushrooms by cleaning them properly and chopping into bite-sized pieces. Then chop the onions (if you want to, you can skip it). Cut potatoes into bite-sized pieces too. Now sautee the mushrooms and onions until they are golden brown. On a separate skillet fry potato pieces over really high heat. You want there to be a crust on the potatoes. Once it appears you lower the heat a bit and add salt. Mix the mushrooms with potatoes, add thyme, chopped parsley or dill. And it’s ready.
Buckwheat kasha with mushrooms is also very popular. Buckwheat is the most popular Russian каша/kasha on its own. We use it as a base to which you add whatever type of meat, mushroom, vegetable or gravy that you want. You would fry chopped onion and mushrooms separately and then add them to kasha when it’s almost ready. Finish cooking them together, so that buckwheat absorbs the flavour of the mushrooms. By the way, you can skip the onion for this dish if you don’t like it.
Sorry for not giving you any amounts, but it really depends on how much mushrooms you’ve got. And I’ll leave the links in the shownotes.
We also eat a lot of salads but well, everybody does that. But just in case I don’t realize that actually not everybody does that, here’s my usual salad recipe:
- about 3 cucumbers,
- 3 tomatoes or radishes,
- spring onion or regular onion, whatever greenery I have at hand. Personally I adore parsley and basil. But only the purple one.
- What else I might add? Whatever kind of cheese I happen to have in the fridge, garlic (ok, I wouldn’t, not really, but some people do), peppers, chopped dried bread that we call sukhari. Stuff like boiled potatoes or eggs if I suddenly have them at hand.
- Our popular seasonings are sunflower seed oil, smetana and mayonnaise. Since olive oil is actively promoted as a healthy version, a lot of people switched to that. I don’t like it. But I like mustard-seed oil, corn oil and soy sauce. Some people use vinegar and lemon juice too.
Another version of the summer salad that I absolutely adore is eggplant and egg salad. I take a couple of medium-sized eggplants and 2-3 boiled eggs. I peel the eggplants, but if they are young and their skin is tender enough, or I’m feeling particularly lazy, I just cut them into cubes unpeeled. I stew them with a bit of sunflower seed oil and when they are ready I add chopped boiled eggs. And that’s it! I used to add mayonnaise, because that was the original recipe I got from my friend but I soon realized that it works without any sauce. It’s zesty without the addition of any spices. So you only have to salt it.
Fried eggplants and zuccini
Another way I cook vegetables is so easy, it’s ridiculous. I just cut eggplants or squash or zuccini into circles and fry them in a little amount of oil. I like the crust so I do it over high heat. Before frying I would mix mayonnaise (that’s by far the most popular sauce in Russia, btw) with crushed garlic and maybe chopped basil or dill. Also I’d cut enough tomatoes into circles so that I have a circle of tomato for each eggplant or zuccini circle that I fry. So, I take a fried veggie circle of the skillet, put in onto the large plate, add a bit of my enhanced mayonnaise and cover with a tomato circle. And repeat with every circle. That’s it. And it’s so tasty it makes me moan every time.
And on that note it’s time for the segment
How do you say it in Russian?
Goodbye is До свиданья/Do svidaniya! But you would actually say dA svidaniya. And bye is Пока/Poka! But, again, when you talk, you change the “o” sound for “a”, so “Paka!”
And that’s all for today! If you have questions, ideas or suggestions, you can always write to me at email@example.com or on instagram at greennily,
Till next time,
From Russia with love and lots of mushrooms!
- What wiki thinks about our cuisine
- Quite a few Russian recipes in English
- Smetana (dairy product)
- About mushroom picking from a Russian
- About Russian mushroom picking from NY Times journalist
- Several kinda poisonous mushrooms that some Russians cook
- Recipe for porchini in smetana
- one version of the recipe for buckwheat kasha with porchini (you could use any type of mushroom really)
- Fried potatoes with wild mushrooms – that one also has really nice pictures
- Edible Russian mushrooms – this one is in Russian, but there are pictures
Couple more recipes I hadn’t mentioned