My grandfather came from the city of Boryspil, in Ukraine. One-quarter of the blood in my veins is Ukrainian.
In Ukraine, you cannot separate the people from the land, and you cannot separate the land from the food that is grown on it.
The soil of Ukraine is unsurpassed in its fertility. So much wheat is grown there that it is often called the bread basket of Europe.
“You just need to drop a seed, and it will grow there,” said Tetiana Mouzi.
Mouzi is a senior research chemist at Pfizer; she moved from the western part of Ukraine, in the Lviv region, to St. Louis in 1994. She thought she might stay here for just a few years.
“It’s a great city. We just fell in love, and we’re still here,” she said.
Though her family loves a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, Ukrainian food to her is comfort food. It’s what she turns to when she is feeling nostalgic; it is what she turns to when times are bad.
“Whatever you ate when you were a child, it’s always got that home-sweet-home feeling. The feeling of that warmth and smell and taste that your mom made, and your grandma. It always stays with you,” she said.
Never has that been more true than now.
“With the stress we are under, I have been making Ukrainian food,” she said. “Yesterday I made perogies, and today I might make borsch.”
Borsch — the T at the end is the Yiddish spelling — is the unofficial national dish of Ukraine. The hearty beet soup was invented there, Mouzi said, despite some other Slavic nations’ efforts to claim it as their own. Some historians suggest people have been eating it since the 1300s.
For a dish that has been around so long, it has almost infinite variations.
Beets are a necessity in borsch, of course, but everything else is a matter of taste. It can be vegetarian, or it can have meat — beef, pork, chicken or even duck. It can be made with beans or without, with cabbage or without.
It does have to be served with bread, preferably rye bread, on the side. Always. That is a must.
I followed a recipe by a Ukrainian immigrant food blogger and used beets, beef stock, beef, potatoes, onions and carrots. Root vegetables are very important in Ukrainian cuisine, and this recipe caught my eye because it was loaded with them.
And like everyone else who cooks it, I added my own touch to the dish. I made a double-rich stock by simmering bones and beef in store-bought beef stock, along with a bay leaf, an onion, a couple of carrots and a couple of ribs of celery.
The borsch was beety and meaty and robustly flavored, worthy beyond doubt of being any country’s national dish.
Up next, naturally, were cabbage rolls, another meal common throughout the Slavic lands. Called golubtsi, this version had a distinctly Ukrainian twist — carrots.
Shredded carrots are mixed into the tomato sauce that goes both on top of the cabbage rolls and inside them, where it is mixed together with rice and ground meat. I used a mixture of beef and turkey, but you could also use pork or — why not? — chicken.
The carrots add a natural earthy sweetness to the dish that perks up the mild-flavored cabbage. Some other cuisines add raisins or currants to sweeten the dish, but shredded carrots feel more organic to the overall flavor.
I next made one of the best known Ukrainian dishes, which is even named for the nation’s capital. Chicken Kiev is the famous dish of chicken breast stuffed with herbed butter, and fried. There is even a small sculpture of it on the streets of Kyiv.
Chicken Kiev was ubiquitous in the 1970s, on the menu of any American restaurant with aspirations of at least moderately fine dining. Then, as with many things that briefly become too popular, it began to fade away.
But when prepared properly, it is still an exceptional dish. And it is simple in concept. At the very center is butter mixed with herbs (I used tarragon, but you could also use chives, parsley, chervil, thyme or rosemary). Wrapped around that is a chicken breast that has been pounded thin.
This package of chicken and herbed butter is dipped first in flour, then egg and finally breadcrumbs before being deep fried to a golden brown. When you cut into one, the crust is crispy, the chicken is moist and melted butter flows out of the middle.
There are some caveats, though, in making it. Chicken breasts are much larger now than they were when the dish was at the height of its popularity. Even if you pound one as thin as you can and wrap it around the butter, you still are likely to overcook the outside in the oil before the inside is cooked through.
I sliced mine in half horizontally, which yielded the proper size. Some stores carry smaller breasts; the Just Bare brand of chickens are smaller and are available at several local supermarkets, but the store I went to was out of them when I got there.
Most recipes suggest frying the chicken briefly before then cooking it in the oven as a way to ensure it is cooked all the way through. But that’s cheating and is not in the spirit of the dish. I fried mine at the relatively low temperature of 350 degrees for the relatively long time of 15 minutes and ended up with chicken that was perfectly crispy on the outside and thoroughly cooked.
Yield: 8 servings
6 cups beef or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 pounds beef bones with beef, optional
1/2 large onion, chopped, (plus 1 onion cut into quarters, optional)
2 medium carrots chopped, (plus 2 medium carrots cut into quarters, optional)
2 ribs celery cut into quarters, optional
3 cups cabbage, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
2 medium beets, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon white vinegar
Pinch of granulated sugar
2 medium garlic cloves, grated
2 tablespoons dill or parsley, finely chopped
Sour cream, for serving
1. If making optional double-rich stock, put broth and bay leaves in a large pot or Dutch oven and add bones and beef, 1 quartered onion, 2 quartered carrots and celery. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 1 hour. Skim occasionally, as needed. Add water occasionally to keep liquid level about the same. Strain out bay leaves, bones, beef, onion, carrots and celery. Pull meat away from bones, and reserve. Proceed to step 3.
2. If using regular stock, pour stock and bay leaves into large pot or Dutch oven, and bring to a boil.
3. Add cabbage, cover and return stock to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook 20 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet. Add 1/2 chopped onion and 2 chopped carrots and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil and beets. Cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Transfer sautéed vegetables to the pot and add potatoes, tomato paste, reserved meat (if using) and salt. Cover, bring to a boil, and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.
7. Turn off heat. Add vinegar, sugar, grated garlic and pepper. Stir and let borsch sit 10 minutes. Add dill, stir and adjust any seasonings (especially vinegar) to taste. This soup tastes best the second day.
8. Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream and bread on the side.
Per serving: 437 calories; 24 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 108 mg cholesterol; 27 g protein; 37 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 772 mg sodium; 118 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Olena Osipov, via ifoodreal.com
CABBAGE ROLLS (GOLUBTSI)
Yield: 12 servings
3 cups cooked rice, from 1 cup uncooked
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 medium cabbage
1 pound ground pork, ground beef, ground turkey or a combination
4 medium carrots, grated, divided
21/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups marinara sauce, your choice (preferably homemade), divided
1 large egg
1 tablespoon sour cream
1. If rice is uncooked, cook according to package directions. Set aside. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Fill a large pot or Dutch oven two-thirds of the way with water. Add 1/2 tablespoon salt and 1/4 cup vinegar, and bring to a boil.
3. Peel and discard the top two leaves from the cabbage. Cut out the core with a knife. Place cabbage in the boiling water, bottom down; cook 5 minutes, then rotate and cook another 5 minutes. Pull off leaves and place them on a platter to cool. If interior leaves are not soft, return cabbage to water and boil a few more minutes. Leaves are done when they are soft and dull colored. Reserve 4 cups of water from the pot.
4. Mix ground meats and rice together in a large bowl.
5. Grate and sauté 2 of the carrots in 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and the butter over medium-high heat. Once they are soft, add 1/2 cup marinara sauce and sauté 1 more minute.
6. Add carrot-marinara mixture to rice and meat. Add egg and 1/2 tablespoon salt. Mix well.
7. Remove the tough stem from the larger cabbage leaves. Place about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture (more for larger leaves) in the center of each leaf of cabbage. Roll the leaf like a burrito, stuffing in both ends to form a package of meat and rice encased in cabbage. Arrange cabbage rolls in a large pot or Dutch oven.
8. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet and sauté remaining 2 grated carrots with 1 teaspoon salt. Stir until soft. Add sour cream and remaining 1 cup marinara sauce. Sauté 1 more minute and remove from heat. Pour carrot-tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls.
9. To cook, add enough reserved water to almost cover the cabbage rolls. If using in the oven, cover and place on a rack in the bottom third and cook at 450 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook 1 hour more. (If using the stove, bring pot to a light boil, then cover and simmer 40 minutes over medium heat.)
Per serving: 242 calories; 12 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 45 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 22 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 393 mg sodium; 56 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Natasha Kravchuk, via natashaskitchen.com
Yield: 6 servings
4 to 8 ounces softened butter, depending on size of the chicken breasts
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, parsley, tarragon or chervil (or 1 to 2 teaspoons chopped thyme or rosemary), depending on size of chicken breasts
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (see note)
Salt and pepper
Oil for deep frying
2 large eggs
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups breadcrumbs
Note: If chicken breasts are larger than 8 ounces apiece, slice them in half horizontally. In that case, use 3 breasts to create 6 pieces of chicken.
1. Mix the butter thoroughly with the chopped herbs, adding salt if butter is unsalted. Chill briefly. If the chicken pieces are small, use the lesser amounts of butter and herbs; if quite large, use the greater amounts.
2. Place the chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper and pound lightly with a flat mallet or cast-iron skillet to make them 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Place 1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of filling in the center of each chicken breast. Fold the edges over to enclose the filling. Place the stuffed chicken breasts briefly in the freezer before breading them.
4. Meanwhile, pour oil deep enough in a pot to cover a rolled chicken breast. This requires a lot of oil; you may wish to use a medium-sized pot and cook the chicken in batches. Bring oil to a temperature of 375 degrees.
5. Beat the eggs with the water in a bowl. Dip the stuffed chicken breasts first in flour to coat well, then in the egg mixture, coating them all over. Finally, roll them in bread crumbs.
6. Carefully place 1 or more of the chicken breasts in the hot oil; the temperature will immediately drop. Try to keep the temperature around 350 degrees while you deep fry the breasts until golden brown and completely cooked, about 13 to 15 minutes.
Per serving: 567 calories; 25 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 185 mg cholesterol; 36 g protein; 47 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,253 mg sodium; 121 mg calcium
Adapted from “Craig Claiborne’s the New New York Times Cook Book” by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey