Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘Ukraine’ category

A friend of mine—a genuine gourmand—recently departed DC for a long-term work assignment in Bucharest, Romania. She bequeathed the contents of her freezer, pantry, and liquor cabinet to lucky me, who became the proud steward of a bison steak, a pound of ground venison, mango chutney, Minnesota wild rice, assorted spice rubs, 3 bottles of pure maple syrup, as well as bottles of champagne, cognac, Armagnac, almond liqueur, and a few other assorted spirits.

Searing the bison in a little lard the other night, I wondered what would surprise her most about life in her first eastern European city. That’s the question I remember Russians asking me most often when I first arrived in Moscow as an exchange student. I wasn’t sure how to answer it. While many little things were different, the undercurrents of life—the pressures and satisfactions of work and school, family, homekeeping, friendships, preventing the entropy of everyday existence from spinning outside the bounds of the acceptable—that was all essentially the same. I wanted to say something profound about the inner lives of Russians and Americans, but all I could come up with were things like. “You guys eat a lot more soup than we do, and your spoons are way bigger.” Back then I swatted these observations away as mundane and insignificant, instead smiling, shrugging, and muttering some cliché about how everyone looks so serious all the time. 

Within a matter of months, many of the quotidian surprises that had intrigued me at first now seemed ordinary, and I stopped noticing them. But when I arrived in Kiev in November of this year on my own work-related trip, they all struck me again with renewed force. Though I’d never visited Kiev before, the city bears so much in common with its counterparts across the border in Russia that I had the bizarre sense of coming back to a place I’d never been. Nowhere was this more evident than in the kitchens I visited over the course of the week.

Everything in a post-Soviet kitchen, from utensils to dishes to furniture and appliances, tends to be smaller than what Americans are used to, except for soup spoons, which are huge. Most people’s refrigerators are half the size of American ones, and they never fill up the way ours do. No one seems to own anything as large as an American dinner plate. Instead they might eat a first course of soup and then a second course small enough to fit on a lunch plate, or they serve themselves little by little from serving dishes placed directly on the table. This is especially common if a family has company over, because they will most likely be eating in the living room at the only table in the apartment large enough accommodate both plates and serving dishes (and often just barely, at that). Almost no one has a separate dining room.  

In the Soviet Union, mass production of consumer goods with little or no variation in design meant that cupboards across the enormous expanse of the USSR contained remarkably similar sets of dishes—the red mugs with white dime-sized polka dots, the squat ribbed glasses that might as easily contain a full cup of vodka as water. Twenty years after the collapse, plenty of these are still kicking around. Pots and pans, which people store inside their ovens, also look  alike: almost everyone seems to have the white aluminum pot with the universally chipped black lip, tiny handles and a flower design on one side. 

The people I’ve met never use paper towels in their kitchens and don’t own Ziploc bags or tupperware. They store their leftovers in the pots they were cooked in or the dishes they were served in, overturning a plate on top. They are as likely to keep leftovers out on the stove overnight(s) as they are to put them in the refrigerator. As surely as there is a toilet in the bathroom or WC, there is an electric kettle in the kitchen for boiling water for tea.

Taken one by one, none of these details jumped out as particularly illustrative of any inherent differences beween the US and the former USSR. Many of them are common to other parts of the world as well. But taken together, they represnt a uniquely post-Soviet experience that has become comforting to me in spite of (or perhaps because of?) its foreignness. 

I’ve never been to Bucharest, so while I know that Soviet influence impacted Romanian political structures, I’m curious to learn how much it infiltrated their kitchens.

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Photo: Flickr user cafemama

After returning from Ukraine, you’d think I would have had enough lard to last the rest of the year, and indeed, there were a few days not long after I got back when all I craved all day was miso soup and grapefruit. But I had two packages of leaf lard (the creamy pink fat from around a pig’s kidneys) in the freezer that I had picked up at the farmer’s market before I left, and my friend Wendy had long been offering to teach me how to remove the impurities by rendering it. It’s the holidays and I’ve got pies to bake, so what’s a girl to do?

Given the general hipness of pork products right now (announcements about snout-to-tail dinners, pig roasts, hog butchering classes, and pork belly specials pour into my inbox with a frequency no other meat enjoys), I’m surprised by how many people still shrink back in disgust at the mention of lard. It seems to have been so vilified in the 1980s and ‘90s diet crusades against animal fats that people, many of whom have never tried it before, believe that lard not is not only unhealthy but also tastes bad. Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if your mind is not already made up, let me assure you—there is much to love about lard.

I grew up looking forward to the few times a year (at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter) that anything containing lard showed up on the table. My mom’s family short crust recipe, which my Norwegian great-grandmother Sophie used for many of her desserts, calls for it. Lard makes for a dazzlingly flaky crust and a lush, almost umami flavor that makes sweet pies and pastries pop. (The same principle makes salted caramel cupcakes and bacon-wrapped dates so alluring.) In Ukrainian cuisine, it complements the malty heft of a genuine dark rye bread with a savory creaminess, kicked up a notch with the addition of mashed garlic and coriander seeds studding the crust.

Leaf lard is softer and has a purer, creamier flavor than fatback (the fat from underneath the pig’s skin), so it’s the best choice if you’re planning to make pastry.

Whatever your meal plans, if you purchase lard from a butcher or farmer’s market, you’ll likely need to transform it from a hunk of fat into a measurable, uniform substance before using it in your recipe. This process is called rendering, and it’s an easy way to make yourself feel like a real pioneer in the kitchen. There’s something weirdly satisfying and old-timey about turning something so obviously cut from the body of an animal into a more familiar and readily usable ingredient. It makes me feel frugal and indulgent at the same time, salvaging a cheap “byproduct” that would otherwise go to waste to create such rich, rare (to us now) flavors.

Rendering lard, it turns out, is simple. (A huge thank you to Wendy for guiding me through this process!) Chop up your hunk of fat into one- to two-inch pieces or use a food processor to whir it into something resembling pink cottage cheese. (This step isn’t essential—it just helps the fat melt faster.) Then dump it into a heavy-bottomed pan and heat it over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it all melts.

Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the small solid pieces resembling bacon that refuse to melt have crisped up on the outside but not burned. Strain them out with a slotted spoon and let them drain a plate lined with paper toweling. You can use these “cracklings” just as you would bacon bits: strew them over dumplings, potatoes, or vegetable dishes—if you don’t gobble them all down there and then, while they are still nearly bubbling,

Add a little water (roughly 2 tablespoons for every pound of lard you started with) to the rest of the lard and let it cool to room temperature, then pour it into a container and transfer it to the refrigerator. As it chills, the heavier water will sink to the bottom and take any impurities left in the fat with it.

When the lard has solidified, just drain out the water and scrape off the undermost layer. Your lard should keep in the fridge for three to four months, or in the freezer almost indefinitely—just be sure to keep it airtight and out of the door to avoid dreaded freezerburn.

Wendy and I pan-fried coconut shrimp and sautéed mixed greens with thinly sliced onions in a little of our lard, washing them down with a bottle of Prosecco. The hint of porky depth the lard lent to our light meal turned it from a summery snack into a hearty December supper. We were both too full for dessert, but there’s plenty more lard for that: next up, apple fritters!

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Onion domes at the Pecherska Lavra monastery in Kyiv

After my one-day foray in Paris, I traveled on to Kyiv, Ukraine for a week of work and a weekend of gallivanting from restaurant to market to café with a close friend who came from Russia to visit.

I was struck by how much Kyiv reminded me of Russia: the same scent of frost and cigarettes in the air, the same blue aprons on the dour women who clean the churches, the same overpapered community bulletin boards like palimpsests of public life. Ukrainian may be the language of advertisements and radio programs (as decreed by law, it seems to me), but 80% of the talk I heard on the street was Russian. This would change if I traveled west, I was told, toward Lviv and what has become the center of “Ukrainity” (as one colleague aptly put it).

So as I ate my way around Kyiv, I was on the lookout for elements that stuck out as uniquely Ukrainian. There were a few, though I got the sense that I’d have to go into people’s homes and villages or be around for a holiday celebration for the differences to really emerge. For one, Ukrainians tend to eat more pork than Russians. In both countries, people make use of every part of the pig, from its hooves (for creating gelatin for aspics and stews) to its ears (chopped up and baked with mushrooms, cheese, and sour cream) to its fat (for frying and flavoring other dishes). But if I had to name one thing that stood out as definitive of Ukrainian food culture, it would be fatback.

 

Vareniki with cracklings (fried salo)

Fatback is, self-evidently, the layer of fat under the skin on the pig’s back. It is known as salo here (pronounced SAH-lah), and is cured and salted or mixed with other spices to preserve it, much like Italian lardo. A Russian professor I had once described it as “bacon without the meat.” I’d eaten it in Russia, but never seen it in so many varied forms. It might be chopped into chunks and left with a thin layer of black pepper on one side to be eaten as a garnish with other foods, fried and sprinkled over  vareniki (stuffed dumplings), or stirred into borscht for extra richness.

Bread basket with three varieties of salo

We attempted to decline when the waitress (dressed, as the waitstaff at seemingly every Ukrainian restaurant in Kyiv is, in traditional costume) tried to upsell the lard plate. (You can do things like that in Ukraine.) But she snared us by hinting that we’d never had salo like this before. I can’t pass up the opportunity to try something new, so five minutes later we were presented with a full dinner-sized plate piled with thinly sliced rolls of chilled yet still creamy salo, half of which had been rolled around a paste of garlic and spices and then sliced to leave marbling throughout.

 

Slices of salo and horseradish mustard

We spread it on dense slices of dark rye bread, pleasantly tart and studded with coriander seeds. In Russia and Ukraine this Is known as “black bread,” which to Western ears unfortunately makes it sound like something they serve to inmates or prisoners of war. Far from it: there’s little I crave more when I return home from a former Soviet country. American rye is too soft and fluffy, the WonderBread cousin of the real thing. Ukrainian bread baskets come with white bread, too, but their more delicate flavor can’t stand up to the richness of the garlicky pork fat. I save them for soaking up soup (though I prefer the heftier rye for that, too).   

So how do Ukrainians stay so slim if they’re eating all this lard? My friend told me that in this part of the world many people even consider it a diet food. I can’t explain it, but it does lend credence to my belief that we are probably better off eating a tub of lard (literally) over a period of weeks than regularly consuming a tub of low-fat ice cream in two sittings (which, by the way, does not exist in Ukraine). 

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