Magazine article Russian Life

Recipe for Austerity

Magazine article Russian Life

Recipe for Austerity

Article excerpt

STUDENTS OF RUSSIAN will readily recognize the phrase Shchi da kasha, pisha nasha (cabbage soup and buckwheat porridge are our food). This truthful tongue-twister is introduced early on in the classroom in an effort to tackle the Slavic sibilants, but since July 2014, when the Kremlin imposed retaliatory sanctions against food imports from the US, EU, Canada, Norway, and Japan, the phrase has a new connotation: Russia's culinary options may soon dwindle to these two domestic staples.

These days in Russia, it's chic to be patriotic, and one is tempted to egg on those who still celebrate the annexation of Crimea, until they claim that this monotonous diet is a small price to pay for the nation's glory.

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Many of the newly patriotic also seem to be newly devout Orthodox Christians, adhering assiduously (if slightly unsure of, or indifferent to the doctrinal reasons why) to the rigorous liturgical calendar of religious obligations. And this is the season of the most demanding obligation of them all: Great Lent.

Orthodox Lent, like its Catholic and Protestant counterparts, lasts 40 days, in commemoration of the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness. Like all fasts, Great Lent is a time for quiet prayer and contemplation. Churches and cathedrals are shrouded in black, and the clergy leave off their bright vestments as they strive for spiritual renewal. Great Lent features an ascetic diet and the list of forbidden foods reads very much like the list of Russia's retaliatory sanctions: eggs, dairy, meat, fish, poultry, sugar, fat and oil, and alcohol.

Agnostic culinary historians point to the Northern European agrarian calendar as a likely inspiration for Great Lent, noting the need for austerity in the face of dwindling of winter stores before the advent of early spring. Skeptics may scoff, but there is something almost visceral, even today, in the Russian soul that embraces the fast as enthusiastically as it celebrates the feasts of dairy, that both proceed Great Lent and bring it to a close: raucous and playful Maslenitsa or Shrovetide, and the joyful supper following the triumphant midnight Easter vigil.

The limited number of ingredients Great Lent permits, as well as the lack of oil or butter to cook with, creates a piquant culinary challenge and nowhere is this more true than with Russia's ubiquitous shchi, or cabbage soup. This simple root vegetable soup makes an appearance in almost every prison narrative, where it is described as watery and tasteless. But Russians know better! Shchi can be a hearty and tasty treat if one takes the time and the trouble to build and develop the flavor layers.

Shchi's basic flavors are the earthy and nutty tones of cabbage, combined with the sweet accents of carrots and tomatoes, and the sour tang of sauerkraut and kvas. Two simple tricks can elevate shchi from watery diet food to delectable soul food:

Trick #1: roast the cabbage and the tomatoes. This step allows the cabbage to leach its liquid, thereby intensifying the umami flavor. The tomatoes also concentrate into sweet accents of flavor and color.

Trick # 2: let the soup cook "low and slow" in a slow cooker. This is the best imitator of a Russian "pechkaor tile stove, which allows the flavors to develop at something that is not quite a simmer. The result is fantastic!

In the recipe below, you will find a basic shchi recipe. …

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