Republic of Belarus
I’ve been looking forward to preparing this entry for a while – almost since I started, actually. It’s my first completely vegetarian entry, and it serendipitously features several ingredients that happen to be in season at this very moment in summer – beets, scallions, and farm-fresh kefir. I was luckily able to also find some succulent, fresh sorrel at the Union Square Green Market. Then I was off to Brighton Beach to pick up some fresh smetana, the creamy, sour amalgam that would properly gild my borscht-y lily.
At M & I International Foods, probably the best place in NY to find Eastern European/Russian staples, I made friends with the lady who was in front of me in line. She spoke Russian and seemed to know a lot about the dairy products she was shopping for, judging by how unbelievably long she took to discuss the qualities of every. single. cheese. that the lady behind the counter held up for her grave and exacting approval. During a quiet moment, while the cheesemonger rewrapped a piece of bryndza that had been rejected, I abruptly asked her if she was familiar with a Minsk-style variation of borscht called khaladnik – of course she was, she informed me. I then asked if she could suggest the correct type of kefir for such an application, since there were literally twenty varieties, all with different flavors and thicknesses. She suggested this one, which was less liquid and more apt for a thick soup:
I mentioned that I also needed some smetana for my draniki, or Belorussian potato pancakes. Her husband overheard this and asked at what time he should come over for dinner. I told him four o’clock. He laughed and nodded. His wife, in the meantime, had taken charge and ordered my smetana for me (in Russian!). She stared into me with a big smile, gestured at the cheesemonger (whose ability in English was, somehow, almost nonexistent) and said “she is prepared for you now.” How considerate! I gave her a big hug and shook her husband’s hand, thanking them for their help and reminding them of the aforementioned dinner hour. The husband grinned again.
They never showed up.
Preparing the khaladnik seemed much simpler on paper – boil this, shred that, mix well and refrigerate. In the end, it actually took several hours because of the fact that the liquids needed to cool before being mixed together. In brief, the process involved making a stock from the sorrel, then making a stock from the beets, shredding absolutely everything and then mixing all the ingredients together. It also needed to sit for a while in the fridge to let the flavors get to know each other, with the active cultures in the kefir gradually dismantling and reconfiguring the flavors on a molecular level.
While the khaladnik steeped, I started grating potatoes for the draniki.
All of my recipes specified that what makes draniki draniki is their unique texture, which can only be achieved by grating taters on the smallest setting into a starchy liquid. Doing this to five large potatoes took a long time and made my arm hurt.
I fried them in sunflower oil, another draconian requirement of every draniki recipe I managed to uncover.
Here they are, crackly on the outside, chewy in the inside, and served with that dreamy condiment, smetana.
Smetana is frigging awesome – it’s heavy and thick, with a buttery, cheesy richness. If sour cream is the prom king, smetana is the much cooler kid who skipped the prom in order to watch Die Hard 3, get high and eat a bacon cheeseburger at the Howard Johnson’s. I insist you find some wherever Eastern European groceries are sold and eat it with anything you have around, even corn flakes. Probably.
After this little appeteaser, I served myself some khaladnik – garnished with dill and scallions that I had rubbed vigorously with salt, and ever more glorious smetana – along with some piping hot, boiled potatoes. In Belarus (and elsewhere), potatoes are affectionately called “the second bread”, so I had no qualms about serving them twice in the same meal, especially since I was serving them to myself.
The most crucial thing I can say about this soup is that it is unique – it tastes like nothing else I can remember eating, even other variations of borscht. This is probably due to the kefir, which loans a dairy richness that other borschts lack. The sorrel stock gives a background of lemon, and the vinegar that was added to the beets as they boiled buttresses an overarching tartness that mingles with the kefir. Coupled with the fresh, cold sweetness of the cucumber, this is a joy to eat on a hot day. What’s not a joy is washing all the beet-stained pots and pans needed to make it.
Now you go:
Adapted from a recipe by Clifford A. Wright in The Best Soups in the World
10 cups water
3 tsp salt
1 bunch sorrel, chopped
2 large red beets
3 tbsp white vinegar
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and shredded
7 scallions, trimmed and chopped
1 egg, separated
2 cups thick kefir
1 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
copious Smetana for serving
Boil washed sorrel leaves in 6 cups of water and 2 tsp salt for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Strain and reserve liquid. Discard the leaves.
Place beets in 4 cups cold water and all the vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook covered until tender, about 1 hour. Reserve 2 cups liquid, drain, cool, peel, and shred on largest setting.
Once everything is the same temperature, mix the sorrel cooking liquid, shredded beets, cucumbers, 6 scallions, egg yolk and remaining salt in one bowl. In another bowl, mix beet liquid, kefir, egg white and sugar. Whisk vigorously. Add this bowl’s contents to the the other bowl’s contents and mix well. Refrigerate at least 3 hours. Serve with some scallions and dill rubbed between your palms with salt, and a dollop of smetana. Serve boiled potatoes on the side.
5 large potatoes, grated into liquid
1 medium onion, grated into liquid
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt, or more
7-8 tbsp sunflower oil
Mix grated potatoes and onion, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl. It should be a fairly wet mixture.
Heat enough sunflower oil to coat the bottom of a shallow frying pan. Once it is shimmering hot, CAREFULLY (water + oil = burning splatters) spoon about 2 tbsp of the mixture into the pan to form round pancakes. You may have to squeegee the filling out from the center to create uniform thickness throughout the pancakes – use a spatula for this. Once well-browned on one side, flip the draniki and brown the other side.
Serve hot with an obscene amount of smetana.