Monday, 30 September 2013

A Warming Soup with Meatballs

A yummy autumn warmer
We love clear soups back home. This one is made with frikadel'ki - meatballs, and is an excellent way of enhancing flavour and making the soup more substantial. You can use any grain in this soup: rice, pearl barley, millet or like me - buckwheat (or kasha as you all call it).
Buckwheat is the nation's favourite grain back home. It is deemed to be good for virtually anything and full of vitamins. An absolute must for children and adults alike. (My mother is horrified that my children do not eat it regularly). It is available in health shops, Whole Foods, online (try and in East European shops.

Make sure you read the cooking instructions for the grain you use - and adjust the recipe, so the potatoes and the grain are ready at the same time.

Soup s Frikadelkami (Clear soup with meatballs)
(makes 6 portions, or 4 super portions)


For the meatballs:

750g minced pork or beef (I used pork, but beef would work just as well)
1 egg
Salt and pepper
Sunflower oil for frying
Flour - to roll the meatballs in

For the soup:

1.5-1.7l of chicken stock
1 medium onion - thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small carrots - chopped into thin slices
5 medium potatoes peeled and cut into 1 inch (2cm) chunks
100g of buckwheat kasha
Slat and pepper
Lots of chopped fresh dill and parsley to serve

The method: 

First prepare the meatballs. Mix the mince with the egg and seasoning in a large bowl. You need to season it really well and add a lot of black pepper, as the meatballs can otherwise be a bit bland. Divide into 25-30 small balls, rolling each in flour and fry until nicely browned on all sides. Set aside.

Heat the stock. While the stock is heating, saute the onions and the carrots in a separate frying pan until soft and slightly golden (this adds 'meatiness' - which we love), but you can just add them without frying. This type of frying is called 'zazharka' and takes at least 10 min.

When the stock is boiling, add the potatoes, after about 15 min add the buckwheat (the buckwheat I used took 15 min to cook). Then add the meatballs, onions and carrots.

Cook for another 15 min. (Check that the potatoes are cooked and that kasha is soft).

Serve with crusty bread and lots of dill and parsley.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Karl Marx and Winter Coats for the Poor

Not much is known about my great-great father, babushka's grandad. All I was told was that he looked like Karl Marx, with a great big beard, and that he loved my babushka so very much.

Not a bad way to be remembered, says my husband Tim.

Great-great grandad doted on my babushka and spoiled her as much as he could.

When it was time for Mariyka to go to school, and we are talking 1928, the Soviet regime was taking its grip over Russia.

I cannot say that it was all bad, during the Soviet rule. There were lots of horrible, cruel and unthinkable things, but also there were lots of good things, certainly when I was growing up. And even in the 1920s.

Many children had a chance to go to school for the first time ever. Babushka did too, though she would have probably gone anyway, as her family was well off. But for many poor kids, whose parents were on the verge of destitution, starting school was an exciting new opportunity. They got their hot meals there and winter coats, hats and boots were provided for them by the state free of charge. Lots of peasant kids in my babushka's class got those winter presents during their first year.

A lot must have been made out of this gift from the state, as my babushka came home very upset.

- What happened, Mariyka? - asker her Karl Marx-lookalike grandfather, as she climbed on his lap.

- There were all those children who got new coats and boots and I wasn't given any... - she cried (kids from rich families were not part of the scheme).

- Don't you worry, darling! We'll go to the market this very weekend and I will get you the best coat available!

And so he did.

Our old flat was next to a culture club - kind of a social club - named after Karl Marx. I used to borrow books from the kids library there. A portrait of Marx was engraved on the entrance, and it always made me think of my great-great grandfather, who loved my babushka very much and bought her the best coat on offer.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Every Child Must Eat This

Syrniki. Those black things are raisins. 
It's time to talk about the most popular children (and adult) breakfast in the former Soviet Union. Cottage cheese pancakes (syrniki).

Now, there is a certain amount of hysteria connected to the consumption of cottage cheese (tvorog) by children. The Russians and Ukrainians are convinced that no child will grow up healthy and strong without eating cottage cheese, as it's full of calcium! Mothers despair on mothering websites; 'my child won't eat tvorog!", a grandmother of my university boyfriend would make us syrniki almost every day to make sure we ate well (and they were delicious too). You get the gist. It's a BIG DEAL!

A clarification is needed here. The East European cottage cheese (tvorog in Russian, twarog in Polish) is slightly different to the one we get here. It's just the cheese bits, none of that liquid stuff you get in your cottage cheese in the UK. And it's not as salty.

It's not that easy to get hold of. You really need to go to an East European food shop to get it. Polish cottage cheese is good too. This is what I used when I was making the syrniki below. In Polish it's called Twarog and you want the full fat one for this recipe. (Tesco's stocks it, but it may only be available online, and of course all Polish shops will have it).

You must try syrniki. They are absolutely wonderful. I made eight yesterday. My kids had one each and I ate the rest! They are so easy to make, I don't know why I don't make them often enough. You can even cook them in the morning before school/nursery/work. Yes, it's THAT quick. And of course it's full of calcium!

Serve for breakfast with sour cream
Cottage Cheese Cakes (Syrniki)
Makes 8

250g pack of East European cottage cheese (tvorog or twarog) - full fat
3tbsp golden caster sugar
1 large egg
100g plain flour
50-80g raisins
Sunflower oil for frying
Sour cream to serve


Beat the cottage cheese in a bowl with the caster sugar and the egg. It needs to be smooth. Add raisins and flour. Mix well. It will turn into dough, firm enough to roll in your hands.

Divide into 8 parts and turn into thick flat round cakes.

Fry on a medium heat frying pan. They burn easily, so turn them quickly. They need to be golden on both sides, and one the pan is hot, it takes less than a minute (each side) to fry them.

Serve warm with sour cream (See cooking essentials).
I like to have sweet black or Earl Grey tea with them too.

Monday, 23 September 2013

A Tale of Babushka and a Plate of Borsch

There are stories that are told over and over again and they never cease to amuse. Several generations later, they are still a staple of any family gathering. This is one of them. A tale of babushka and a plate of borsch.

Imagine a family dinner in a Russian village. An entire family is sitting at a large table, with the father and mother at the head of the table and all the youngest kids at the other side. Everyone is given some freshly made borsch, with a large chunk of fresh bread. There is no chatting, or squabbling, or gossiping. Everyone's eating.

My babushka, the youngest of the children, is sitting at the very end of the table with a plate of hot borsch in front of her. A thought enters her head: 'What would happen if I put my foot into the plate?!'

And so she does.

Imagine the chaos! Her older sisters jump up and take her away from the table, telling her off and simultaneously washing the borsch off her feet and clothes. 'Mariyka, how did you come up with THAT idea?!'

I think she's always been rather pleased with herself for doing it. Even aged 60, when she herself was telling people off for bad table manners, it amused her. She did have a lot of hidden mischief in her.

It is now one of the favourite stories of my eldest son. He's never met babushka, but almost every week he pretends to put a foot into food, grins mischievously and says: 'Just like your babushka!'

And it always puts a smile om my face.

Friday, 20 September 2013

'Sour' Cake for Childhood Friends

Babushka's Sour Cake
My oldest friend and her family are coming to visit today and I am pulling out all the stops.

I've known Iris since secondary school and we spent many an afternoon exploring our home town. She had this incredible knowledge of local history and architecture, showing me all the hidden treasures of our otherwise architecturally unremarkable city.

Our expeditions often ended up at my house, and my babushka gave us tea with her famous 'Sour' cake. This is the cake I made today.

It's taken me a while to get used to British cakes, which are all essentially a sponge with lots of icing.

One of the few older buildings in Mariupol.
Ukrainian cakes are probably better described as tortes. They pretty much always have layers. And lots of them. They are always very moist and very sweet. We love things sweet.

Iris immigrated to Israel 18 years ago and hasn't been in our old town for many years. I hope my cake will remind her of the good old times.

Babushka's Sour Cake

This reminds me of Linzertorte, but with layers and we use plum preserve instead. Babushka's recipe was a bit vague and the measurement instructions included: "2 glasses of sugar" (a glass is a 200ml glass and is used as a measuring tool just like an American cup) and "enough flour to make a pastry". I have adapted it and measured it all out for you.

You will need plum preserve for this. Having tried a few, the best one to use is the Bonne Maman one. It's called Confiture Bonne Maman Quetsches in French. (I found mine in my local French shop)

'House with Lions' - Iris's favourite

2 eggs
400g caster sugar
1 teaspoon of baking powder
300g soft butter or margarine
300g flour
1 jar (370g) of Bonne Maman Plum Preserve
Crushed walnuts and sour cream for decoration


Heat the oven to 200C (180C Fan)

Using a mixer, mix the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the baking powder and butter and mix until smooth. If using unsalted butter - add a bit of salt. Gradually add the flour. You will end up with a soft pastry.

It's similar to short pastry, but much less dense. Put it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes, as otherwise you will not be able to roll it.

While the dough is cooling, prepare a baking tray and two sheets of baking paper, big enough to cover the tray.

After 20 minutes, take the dough out and divide it into 5 equal portions. Take one and put the other four back in the fridge.

Roll the 1st part of the pastry onto the baking paper. You may need some flour to sprinkle it with, so the rolling pin does not stick.

I used a rectangular baking sheet, so my pastry ended up being an oval shape. It needs to be relatively thin - about 5mm. Prick it with a fork all over and place in the hot oven.

It bakes very fast - 5-7 min tops and burns easily, so watch out for it. It looks lighter in the oven than when you take it out, so once you can see that the ends are starting to look dark golden - take it out.

Our old school 'Number 66'
It will still be soft and you can even roll it, but we want flat layers, so place it on a kitchen surface and let it cool a bit. Take it off the baking sheet and place on a serving plate/board.

Repeat with all other layers. I used two pieces of baking paper, as it makes it easier to roll one piece of pastry, while the other one is being baked.

While the layers are baking, smear plum jam over the first baked layer, place another baked layer on top, ending with a layer with no jam on it.

Babushka often covered the top of the cake with unsweetened sour cream (the layers are very sweet, so you don't want too much sugary stuff) and decorated it with crushed walnuts.

She served it as one big cake, but I like to cut mine into pieces. Like on the photo. It keeps for a few days in an airtight container.

P.S. It turned out that plum jams and plums in general were not that popular in the UK, though there may be a bit of a renaissance on the horizon. Listen to this BBC Radio 4 programme: Celebrating the Plum (aired last week and still available online).

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

It's Easy to Become a Traitor

I've been looking through my babushka's notebooks, trying to find a recipe for a plum jam torte and came across this note, which made me cry. (See the photo)

It's a list of all the countries I visited, followed by the Russian spelling of my husband's name.

The list reads:

1. America
2. England
3. Germany
4. Poland
6. France
7. Italy
8. Belgium
9. Luxembourg
10. Germany

Timothy Calland - Marina's husband
(first name) (Last name)

She wrote it after her first stroke, when her memory was fading - you can tell by the handwriting. It was a memo to herself. She wanted to remember where I went, because it made her proud. Being able to go abroad was (and still is) a sign of achievement. As there were times when only a handful of people could cross the Soviet border.

You see, the Russians and many Ukrainians have a difficult relationship with the 'abroad'. They kind of love it and hate it at the same time. The love for the Motherland has been drummed into out hearts and souls since childhood. Leaving your country to live abroad in the Soviet times was an act of treason. Once one left - one was never coming back. The phones would have been tapped, letters read and one would never get a visa to go and visit one's family. You were forced to denounce your Soviet citizenship forever. There was no return.

People just didn't travel. They were not allowed. A trip to Poland was like going to the Moon (so much for being part of the Warsaw Pact), a trip to a 'capitalist country' was equal to going to another galaxy! And yet, everyone wanted to go abroad. Because foreign lands seemed (and in true honesty were) so much better than the Soviet reality.

Babushka should know. She was in Germany during the war. And she was lucky enough not to be in a labour camp, where she would have been starved, humiliated and worked hard. She ended up working as domestic helper for a German labour general. Still technically a slave - she couldn't leave and she was not paid. But they treated her like their own. Instead of living in a basement and eating potato peels, like other domestic workers did, she had her own room and was taking meals with the family. They dressed her, fed her, loved her.

She saw what 'the rotting West' looked like. As did many of the Soviet soldiers who marched to Berlin in 1945. It wasn't 'rotting' after all. How could a bourgeois capitalist society produce such excellent living? They were quickly made to forget all what they saw on the other side of the border.

Babushka never told her own son-in-law, my father, about her time in Germany. Not until he was married to mum for ten years and proved trustworthy. She remembered only too well how she and other women who were taken to Germany were called 'German whores' by their neighbours and colleagues. As if they chose to go...

And yet she was proud of me. Because travelling to all those countries was amazing. If anyone told me or my family only a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed, that I would live in London and marry an Englishman - I would have laughed to their face. It seemed so impossible.

Of course times have changed and many Russians and Ukrainians travel and live abroad. But even 6-7 years ago, a neighbour of ours, told my babushka that HER granddaughter would have never defected to the West...

Monday, 16 September 2013

Do it Now: the Real (and proper!) Rosehip Tea

Rosehips in Wimbledon park
A little foraging recipe this week. Forget the rosehip tea you buy in the health shops! Once you try the real thing - you'll never buy that poor imitation. The real rosehip tea is made from... rosehips! The problem is, you cannot buy real rosehips for love nor money in the UK, so there is only one thing left. Go foraging!

You may not need to go far. If, like me, you forgot to deadhead your garden roses (especially of the climbing variety), then you have rosehips ready and waiting for you in your back garden! Failing that - go to your local park. Avoid the main rose beds - they are looked after and deadheaded, go to the outskirts - there will be those wild rose bushes which no one bothered to tame and they are now covered with rosehips!

Just to show you how many you can get from one rose bush
The photos accompanying this entry were taken today in Wimbledon park. Look how much good stuff is on offer!

Rosehip tea is believed to have medicinal qualities (and we LOVE this kind of stuff in Ukraine - I'll do a special post on that later). Daddy used to go rosehip picking every September. He'd go with our neighbour, another Sergei, for a whole day and return home with a huge bag full of rosehips. If you like my dad decide to do it on that scale - take some secateurs and leather gloves, otherwise your hands will be scratched all over.

When picking rosehips, choose the firm red ones, the ones that are soft have gone over, the pinkish-yellow ones are not ready yet.

I went last year with my two sons and a small basket and we had a great time! Weather permitting - it can be as fun as picking blackberries, plus it's a good exercise in delayed gratification, as you cannot use the picked rosehips straight away.

You must dry them for a few weeks in a dark, dry place at room temperature. They will get darker, but will retain their shape. They are ready when completely dry.

What a faff, you'd say! But trust me, it's worth it!

This is how the dry stuff looks like
Proper Rosehip Tea
Makes 1.5 liters

You will need a thermos for this. I use a 1.5 liter Chinese thermos, but you can use a smaller or bigger one, just adjust the amount of rosehips you use. You will also need a pestle and mortar (or anything to bash the rosehips a bit).


Two large handfuls of dry whole rosehips
1.5 liters of freshly boiled water


Bash the rosehips in pestle and mortar. No need to do it thoroughly. You are trying to release their flavour, so if you crush 30-50% of them - that should do.
Put the crushed rosehips in a thermos, add the freshly boiled water. Seal and leave overnight to infuse.

Drink as tea (you may need a little sieve to pour it out). You can add a little sugar, or honey. But no milk!

I also do a second infusion. When you finish drinking the liquid of the first infusion, just add 1l of freshly boiled water and leave overnight again. It's not as good as the first round, but still better that the stuff you buy in the tea bags!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Last of the Summer Salad

I miss Ukrainian tomatoes. Apologies for a cliche, but the ones you get in the supermarkets in London are never that good. However I grew my own this year and ended up with a decent crop of the sweetest, juiciest, loveliest Gardener's Delights. I made a quick raw veg summer salad with them adding a few other veg. It's a very typical salad you'd have all summer long back home.

Just make sure you use unrefined sunflower oil (see Cooking Essentials) and lots and lots of dill and parsley. To add an autumnal touch, mix in some diced gherkins.

Salads like this are used as a sauce/gravy substitute in the Russian/Ukrainian cuisine. They will typically be served with meat and mash or meat and grains dish, to provide freshness and juiciness. My husband and I often have this salad with sausages.

Summer Raw Veg Salad
(Makes 2 rather generous portions)


15-20 cherry tomatoes or 2-3 ordinary tomatoes (get the best ones you can - ones the vine are usually better)
1/2 cucumber
1 medium sweet pepper - orange or yellow
1/2 small red onion
2 garlic cloves crushed
Lot of dill and parsley
1/2 lemon
a couple of gherkins (optional)
Unrefined sunflower oil (see Cooking Essentials)
Salt and pepper


Chop all the veg into a biggish dice. I quarter cherry tomatoes and chop sweet pepper fairly thinly. You don't want your salad to turn into salsa, but you don't want big pieces either.
Mix all the chopped veg and herbs in a bowl. Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, generous glugs of sunflower oil, salt and pepper.

Serve with kotlety and mashed potato or buckwheat kasha, or with sausages or any other meat. If you are a vegetarian - try it with mashed potato. I tend to pile it up on top of the mash and delight in the juicy-creamy mixture.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The story of pet mice and a barrel of butter

Olga Kardovskaya. Haystacks. 1933.
I’ve never seen a photo of my babushka as a child. I guess no one was taking photos in a relatively remote Russian village back then. Or if the did, the photos didn’t survive collectivisation and the war. For some reason  I don’t think I ever tried to imagine how she looked like as a child. I guess she was my babushka and that was it.

It was easy to imagine all the things she told me about though. I felt like I was there with her in the village, shepherding geese, playing in the fields, doing thousands other not so exciting things that she must have done as a little girl.

Being the tenth child, she didn’t exactly get too much parental attention or toys. As in many big families her sisters took care of her and her mother was only consulted on the really big issues.  

Of course I only remember snippets of stories and maybe she did spend a lot of time with her mother, but I doubt it. Her great gran didn’t feature that much in her childhood stories and mum recently said that she didn’t remember babushka talking of her mother too often. I guess my great gran was a busy woman. Ten surviving children and two sets of twins who didn’t make it would be enough to keep any woman busy. But being a peasan't wife, she had the whole household on her shoulders.

- Babushka, tell me the story about your pet mice, - I would ask, tucking into a warm blanket.

- There were lots of mice in the village: in the wheat barns, in the fields and in the haystacks…

They must have been very used to people because babushka and her friends would make tiny little houses for them from hay and play with them like with dolls. Of course, when they came the next day, the mice would be gone. I bet the mice were happy to e free again!

- We were a little sad, that they left the lovely huts we made for them.

One day the children found a barrel of butter under a bridge. No one knew how it got there, but it was pretty unusual. It must have fallen off a cart or someone must have nicked it and hidden it under the bridge.

They were so excited that they started eating it.  It was, at the end of the day, a bit of luxury. They ate so much that they all got sick.

I always imagined that babushka’s childhood was much more exciting than mine. But I guess it was like any other childhood: a bit boring, a bit slow, with a few exciting events here and there.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Kotlety: Yummy Russian burgers

I would like to add another burger recipe to your cooking repertoire today - a Russian/Ukrainian one. An absolute staple in the East Slavic diet. Back home we make our mince ourselves, as the shop bought one used to be awful. (I just wanted to make mince joke, but when I translated it into English, it sounded so gross, I thought it may put you off your food, but do tell me if you want to hear it and I'll 'hide' it in the comments). Swiftly moving on...

The British shop bought mince is absolutely fine for this, just don't buy the cheapest one - as it may turn out to be made with horse meat. Nothing wrong with it, but not for this recipe.

I make my burgers with half pork half beef mince to add fattiness and juiciness, but most Ukrainians would probably just use pork. My babushka certainly did.

We don't eat them with bread though. Russian burgers are eaten like meatballs. A traditional way of serving them is with mashed potato and fresh veg salad or buckwheat kasha and fresh veg salad. You can have ketchup or mayonnaise, but the juicy salad is normally doing the job of the sauce/gravy. Watch this space for some Russian raw veg salads.

Kotlety: Russian Burgers
(makes at least 12)


500g - Beef mince (don't bother with the lean one - you want a bit of fat in it)
500g - Pork mince
1 large onion peeled and chopped into quarters
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium raw potato - peeled
1 small white bun - you can use a stale one, or any stale white bread
150ml milk
1 egg
Unrefined sunflower oil for frying.
salt, pepper


Put the white bun into a cup and cover it with milk. Let it soften.
Put all the mince into a large mixing bowl.
Chop the onion, garlic and potato in a food processor. Add the bun when ready and soft. (Discard the milk).
Mix all the ingredients in the mixing bowl (don't forget the egg, it will bind it all better together). Season well. Don't be shy to use your hands - the mince needs to be well mixed.

You may ask why we added potato and a white bun? They moisturise the meat and soak up all the juices too, so you end up with soft and juicy meatballs.

If you have time, let the mince rest in the fridge for 20 min.
Take it out and divide into small burgers. The shape should be oval and slightly flattened. Twice or even three times as big as a meatball, but smaller than a burger.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the burgers on both sides until ready. As we are using pork mince, you can't have them medium or medium rare. They need to be well done, but with all those additional ingredients, they will turn out nice and juicy.

Serve with dill as part of a meal (see above) or on their own as cocktail party food with mayonnaise or ketchup. You can stick them in a bun too, if you want to go British on them.

Next - some Russian salads and stories from babushka's village.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A peasant life that wasn't to last

Sister Pasha's house in Solntsevo, on the site of the old house
Having to share a bedroom with my babushka was no hardship at all. I never even craved my own space. Having a kids' bedroom was an utter luxury and I din't know of anyone  then who had more than one of those even if they had more than one kid.

I loved sharing a bedroom with her. Every night I would ask babushka to tell me stories about her childhood. Or 'stories about the village', as I used to call them. And tell me she did, again and again, during those long Ukrainian winter nights, often falling asleep mid-sentence.

She was the tenth surviving child in a well-to-do peasant family in Western Russia. I've never been to Solntsevo, the village she was born in: the old house didn't survive anyway and the new one was occupied by babushka's older sister Pasha until she died before I was born.

But it's easy to imagine the place. White clay houses, surrounded by kitchen gardens and fields, a stream running in between weepy willows and fruit trees, unmade roads, that turned into mud baths in the rain, and daisies. Lots and lots of daisies.

It was a busy household. Mariyka's mother Natasha would be busy cooking, cleaning and washing, helped by the older girls. The boys would be working with the father in the fields. A typical life of a peasant family.

Babushka's first job was to look after geese and she didn't like it that much. They would hiss and pinch - a bit frightening for a 4-year-old girl. But everyone had to pull their weight.

It was mid 1920s when the Soviet Russia, starved and exhausted after two wars, allowed private enterprise, previously banned, to pop up all over the country, creating jobs, producing goods, growing and selling food.

My babushka's family was considered to be a 'kulak' family. A name given to well-off peasants, who could afford having hired help for working on the fields.
They were tolerated for now, at the end of the day, the new proletariat, which flooded the cities needed bread, and the 'kulaks' were particularly good at growing and selling food. But it wouldn't last too long...

Monday, 9 September 2013

How does Ukrainian Borsch differ from the Russian?

(can be Vegetarian if using vegetable stock)

Borsch is such a traditional Eastern Slavic dish, that every family has its unique recipe. There are several 'official' types of borsch including 'green borsch' which is made with sorrel, but this one is for the spring, as that's when fresh sorrel is first available. This recipe is based on my babushka’s way of making borsch. Though born in Russia she made it Ukrainian way. There is a joke that a Russian borsch is a bucket of water with one cabbage, two potatoes and three beetroots. Ukrainians, being blessed with rich produce, put pretty much all the autumnal vegetables in it. But the basics, what makes borsch - borsch and not just a vegetable soup, are the same: stock, potatoes, beetroots and cabbage. To make it more substantial, babushka would add to it pieces of boiled beef or pork from the stock bones, but you don't have to. Also, be warned, because it contains beetroot it may make your wee look pink!

Ingredients: Makes 6 portions
2.5l home made beef stock (see previous post. You can use veg stock instead, though it won't be authentic)
Sunflower oil (preferably unrefined, see cooking essentials)
2 large-ish beetroots - peeled and cut into thin batons - bigger than frites, but smaller than chips
2-3 medium carrots - cut into small chunks (I do cemicircles)
2 medium onions - thinly sliced
4-5 medium potatoes - cut into medium chunks
½ small white cabbage (400-500g) - shredded
2 red or orange peppers - cut into thin slices
½ tube (100g) of tomato paste
2 fresh tomatoes - cut into small chunks - or 1/2 tin of tinned tomatoes
1tbsp or so lemon juice or white wine vinegar
4-5 garlic cloves crushed
Salt and pepper

Sour cream or half fat creme freche and chopped fresh dill to garnish


Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the beetroots and fry for a few minutes, this is supposed to lock the colour in the beetroots as well as to tenderise then, as they take longer to cook. If you are using unrefined sunflower oil - smell it! There is no other smell that is so authentically East European! Add the carrots and see how the smell changes.  After a few minutes add the onions. Let the veg soften a bit then add beef stock.

Bring to the boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes on low heat. Add the potatoes. Season. Bring to the boil and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Add the cabbage, sweet peppers, tomatoes, tomato pure and lemon juice or vinegar. Taste it. It should have a slight acidity to it,  but still basically have a rich slightly sweet vegetably taste.

Simmer until the cabbage and potatoes are ready. Take off the heat. Add some crushed garlic.

Serve adding a spoonful of sour cream or creme freche and lots chopped fresh gill. Best eaten with crusty fresh bread.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A Mysterious Cup and a bit about meat retail in the Soviet times

Our Stalin style one bedroom flat, which my parents and I shared with my maternal grandparents was a typical example of a place a well educated but not terribly well off family of an engineer would live in. It was packed with the 1970s Soviet furniture, ‘Persian’ rugs on the walls, a black and white TV and net curtains on the windows. But in a sideboard full of Soviet and Czech crystal stood a cup. An unusual cup. A cup of an age gone long ago - a gilded, hand painted , beautiful cup. It was simply out of place.

(I since took it to Antiques Road Show. In its current cracked state, this cup which once belonged to a not-so expensive Bohemian set is worth about £40). Nothing too special, but for me it was a mystery. What was it doing next to these rather austere Soviet objects?
It was early 1980s - the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union recently invaded Afghanistan, the US just boycotted the Moscow Olympic games. Bourgeois objects like this were not exactly the norm. 

But I was little and knew nothing of all of this. I was playing in the yard with my friends, observed by other grannies, and was following my babushka on her errands. (Mum went back to work when I was one and babushka was looking after me, which was the thing to do then).

I loved going to the market with her. We had to go really early - 7am or something like this, as it was all over by 8.30. Buying meat was the main thing. All prices were controlled by the state to prevent speculation, so to make money meat sellers used to give you meat cuts which always contained hidden bones. They were quite crafty too, only back home would you realise just how bony/fatty the piece of meat was.

But money was tight and nothing was thrown away. So the first thing my babushka would do is to make stock. Below is a recipe for beef stock, which we will use to make borsch. You can make borsch with vegetable stock or water, but (apologies vegetarians) it’s not the real thing. I tried making it with some shop-bought stock, but it just doesn’t taste right either. So don’t be lazy and make your own. (You can make it in advance and freeze it.) I always make masses and freeze some for the future.

Beef Stock for Ukrainian Borsch

There is no need to roast/fry the bones and meat. What we are after is beefiness, not delicate flavour you'd need for a sauce or gravy.


2-3 pieces of beef/veal bones - you can get them from your local butcher.
½ of ox tail (about 500g)
2-3 medium onions cut into quarters with skins on
2-3 medium carrots - washed and cut into chunks
1 celery stick if you have it
2 bay leaves
10 black peppercorns


Put everything into a large pot, cover generously with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer on low heat for good 2-3 hours. Taking the scum off here and there.
The stock will be cloudy, but it doesn’t matter. We are here for the flavour not the looks.
Sieve the liquid. Discard everything else. Skim the excess fat from the top.
Cool. You will need 2.5l for the borsch. Freeze whatever you are not using.

Next time - Ukrainian Borsch.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Food from my grandmother's old cookbooks

Babushka during the WWII as Ostarbeiter in Germany
This is a story of my babushka (grandmother), who died when I was pregnant with my first son in 2008. I grew up eating her wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful food (her Uzbek plov - pilau - was terrible!)

When she died, my mother gave me her old recipe notebooks, which I will use to cook and share with you some wonderful and often weird Russian and Ukrainian food. Some recipes were never written down. Everyone back then was expected to know how to cook borsch and kotlety (meatballs) - so I'll cook them from memory. Some I will try and tweak to make taste as authentic as possible.

As I cook and eat all this food, I will tell you about my babushka's life and about what it was like living in the post-war Soviet Union. 

If you want to start making some Russian/Ukrainian food - you will need to have a few essential ingredients. They are easy to find in most big supermarkets in London, in East European shops (try Polish ones, if you can't find a Russian grocery) and of course online. Have a look at the Cooking Essentials page.

You may also wonder, why should you bother with East European cooking? Well, I'd like to convince you that it's worth a try. It's seasonal, it's fairly healthy - if you don't forget about adding veg to your meals and it's pretty crude - so anyone can make it! 

We;ll be cooking borsch first - a perfect harvest time dish with all the veg at it's best. Watch this space!