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Stove-Slaving in St. Petersburg for Stroganoff & Kotlety

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Today, our journey took us into the depths of St. Petersburg on the metro, and out of the historical city centre. Exiting the metro, we’d find architecture that triggered immediate ideas of Communism; we had ascended into the projects. Real estate prices here, however, fetch surprisingly high tariffs, and we still are at a loss for an answer as to how people pay to live in this city. It is incredibly expensive.

The food, on the other hand, is quite simple. Russian cuisine is hearty to a point of insulation, and it reminds me a lot of the cuisine I had in Poland earlier this winter. In fact, some of the words are even the same, however, their translations couldn’t be farther apart. Take “pierogi” for example. During our city tour the other day, our driver, Alex, took Brady and I to a traditional Russian “fast food” restaurant for pierogi. We walked in, approached the counter, and looked around for the tender dumplings of various fillings, only to find exquisite golden pastries bursting with sweet and savory insides. Lost in translation? Apparently. Russian pierogis have nothing to do with the dumplings you’d find in Polish milk bars and in the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s. They are bonafide pastries filled with everything from salmon to apricot jam. And quite good. But I digress. The cooking class is why you are reading.

Brady (or Buh-rian, depending on who you ask) and I jumped on the metro this morning and made our way far out of the city centre. You wouldn’t believe how deep these metros are here. A picture wouldn’t even do it justice (and we tried), and if that wasn’t enough, we descended to find just a row of metal doors with people hanging about. Where were the trains? Behind the doors, of course. We entered the train, the doors slammed shut with a resounding clunk, and we were not getting out. Russian suicide prevention, or something else? We wouldn’t find out, but this was unlike any metro either of us had ever seen. The train skated along the tracks briskly, and after about 40 minutes, we arrived at our stop, the 2nd to last on the line. 

The plan was to meet our host there at the exit, but as we waited and waited, we both questioned why I hadn’t been more judicious in getting a description of this woman, or giving her ours. Clearly, we stood out; Brady, looking like a proper English gent in his camel overcoat, and me with flat boots and round eyes taking it all in. Everyone was staring. Suddenly, from nowhere, Polina appeared. 
An unforeseen incident with her electricity forced us to her mom’s apartment around the corner where the three of us met her mom and Jack, the English Spaniel. Polina and I were about to be up to our elbows in Beef Stroganoff and Turkey Kotlety, so we got straight to work. Neither of these dishes required any special cooking equipment though, only time. The three of us had a chat before we got started regarding the American interpretation of Beef Stroganoff versus the Russian one. Being that it was invented by a chef in this city, I can without a doubt say, we’ve got it all wrong.

I didn’t see a can of mushroom soup anywhere today, nor did I see a mushroom for that matter. Egg noodles need not apply, as they’re not even a part of this dish. Our stroganoff included hand-pounded and sliced meet, an onion, olive oil, a bit of sour cream (save it people), Russian herbs (which Polina so graciously sent us home with), and salt and pepper. C’est tout. The dish truly could not have been easier and I can imagine having it on a cold winter’s night, assuming we actually have a winter this year. Based on current reports, it sounds like a long-shot. We boiled off some potatoes for a mash on the side, and there, my friends, you have the real Beef Stroganoff. Where we ever came up with this concoction over noodles is beyond me. 

Next to our Beef Stroganoff and potatoes were massive patties called Kotlety. We ground the meat by hand, and passed all the other ingredients (garlic, carrot, onion, and a bit of white bread) through the meat grinder as well. Cinchy. Before forming the mixture into patties under water, we added in an additional Russian dried herb and salt and pepper, and then sauteed them in frying pans until they were golden brown. This was truly winter fare, and perfect for the flurries falling outside the window.

At the conclusion of our cooking, Brady, Polina and I sat down to a lovely lunch, and talked about all things everything. Polina has Russian citizenship, but was born in London so she’s a British national above all else. We each shared our interpretation of St. Petersburg, discussed immigration in our countries, pondered what living in the Soviet time must have been like, and laughed about how Russians can’t queue or drive for shit. She regaled us with some hilarious stories about being pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road here (they drove over from London, and she drives on the opposite side in her car), and it was a really fun afternoon. 

If you’re headed to Russia and fear the food, don’t worry. It’s really nothing more than meat and potatoes, just like my Irish ancestors noshed on in a similar effort to keep warm in blustery times. The cooking digs today were a real indication of what Soviet Era Russia must have looked like. From the austere apartment buildings with unfinished concrete hallways and stairwells, and the metro experience from start to finish, we were whisked away from European Russia and transported to decades of yesteryear. I’m realizing more and more that traveling through the lens of cooking is a fantastic way to move between countries. Fantastic and different. Really.

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