Week 16: Belarus
Belarus is in the heart of Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, a forested, landlocked country with long, cold winters. It should be no surprise then that potatoes, sour cream, rye bread, pork, and vodka form the core of the cuisine.
This was our first United Noshes on the road, back in my former apartment in San Francisco. The big common space and excellently appointed kitchen (save for the comically small sink) make it easy to cook (and drink!) with friends. Our host was Jon, and guests were Alicia, Zoe, Kayla, Matt, Bryan, Cole, and Michael; Liz joined us after the meal.
Rye bread | Recipe
Conditions in Belarus are not favorable for growing wheat, and rye is the king of grains there, so rye bread it was. I couldn’t find any recipes specifically for Belarussian bread, but I did find some for the classic Russian dense dark bread with coriander known as borodinsky. Most had all sorts of improbably ingredients like instant coffee crystals to fake the darkness and rich flavor, but those had “copout” written all over them. A few were simpler but called for malt syrup. And then I found it: a method using 80% rye to 20% bread flour, including homemade malting and leavening with sourdough starter. Of course there was starter lying around here, but it was in the fridge and that was a big gamble.
It took several hours longer than the recipe called for both to ripen the mix with the starter and to proof the loaf, but in the end it was a total success. It might have ended up on the denser side, but the flavor was rich and malty and with the tangy complexity that comes from a long, slow rise. The part of the second loaf that survived until the next day became even tastier, with more complex flavors developing. And in all cases, it’s excellent with a slather of butter.
The most famous Belarussian soup is a chilled one called chaladnik, but it just didn’t feel right to eat cold soup in late fall. Instead, we enjoyed the local version of the well-known beet soup, this one having tomatoes, shredded cabbage, and chunks of beef. This took just about the whole day: I was the first customer at the Hispanic market around the corner at 8 AM for beef neck bones, which I roasted for a few hours before simmering for five hours. Then in went the beef and veggies, and after two more hours, it was time for this first course. With a dollop of smetana, a sour cream with a tang like crème fraîche but thick like American sour cream, this soup was rick and nicely textured and surprisingly complex. Even Laura, who hates beets, claimed to enjoy it. Went so well with that bread.
Krupnik | Vodka cordial | Recipe at end of post
A few weeks ago, I met someone whose parents emigrated from Belarus. She asked her mother for recipes, who refused to give most of what she knew on the basis of not thinking the food was very good. Too bad! But she did give the recipe for this warm drink of honey, spices, and vodka. Sooo good! It’s like what a hot toddy is trying to be. We ended up making two batches, going through the whole handle of vodka. Check out the video!
Draniki | Potato pancakes | Recipe
Like latkes, but more annoying to make. Instead of grating the potatoes on the big side, you use the little pokey ones so you end up getting a starchy mush. Mix with egg and onion and fry as expected. Apparently these are really popular there. Big thanks to Kayla, Bryan, and the others who grated!
Machanka | Pork stew | Recipe
I started with bacon, which I cooked to a crisp over the course of an hour to render out the grease. Then I separately fried pork, onions, and a flour roux in three separate frying pans, added that smetana cream to the flour, and mixed it all up together with beef broth before baking it all off. Not the best looker, and rich like whoa, but so good with the draniki and the bread.
Mushrooms with onion gravy | Recipe (search on page)
The damp forests of Belarus are excellent breeding ground for mushrooms, and they figure in a lot of dishes. This was a simple and really nice dish, really not much more than sauteeing whole mushrooms on high heat in one pan, and softening onions and mixing with smetana in the other. Mix ‘em together, and blammo, you’ve got a nice side dish.
Carrots stewed with apples | Recipe (search on page)
The whole meal felt a bit lacking in the healthiness department, so I went with this simple and nice recipe of simmered carrots with apples. Felt right for the fall season.
Mushroom salad | Recipe
For some reason I thought two mushroom dishes would be a good idea. This simple salad based on boiled mushrooms was ok, but just didn’t have enough flavor to be all that exciting.
Cranberry kisiel | Thickened cranberry juice | Recipe (search on page)
I don’t think Belarussians mix this with vodka, but we did! This thick juice, made with mashed, boiled, strained and sweetened cranberries, went nicely with a cold splash of vodka.
As you’d expect, with all this vodka, we had a marvelous time. Especially Michael, who passed out right after the meal on the couch in the background:
Thanks to all who came and donated, making this the biggest evening yet for the World Food Program, and pushing us over the $2,500 total mark.
Next week it’s back to Brooklyn, and onto the beers, fries, mussels and chocolate of Belgium!
1. Combine honey with water, vanilla, spices, lemon in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover, simmer 5 minutes.
2. Add vodka. Remove from heat. Serve hot or cooled.