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J. Dickinson – Language, Culture and Smak

The Power of Soup

Posted: November 16th, 2012 by jadickin

I am home today with a powerful cold and intense laryngitis.  My thoughts, quite logically turned to soup and digging through the vegetable drawer and pantry I found I had the ingredients to cook up the perfect soup for late fall, borschch  (the Russian word ends with the letter “щ” transliterated “shch,” not with a “t’).  Soup is very much a part of Russian and Ukrainian cuisine, often served as a first course for the main meal, or eaten by itself as a lighter supper, always with black or white bread.  In tougher times I remember arriving for a visit with a friend and finding only a soup bone and a few vegetables in the fridge.  She brought home a loaf of bread, and quickly put together a soup that that fed the whole family for an evening meal.  Soup, whether weathering a cold or weathering tough times, will get you through.

I have, over the years, enjoyed asking people in Russian and Ukraine to tell me how they make borschch.  The answers are as varied as their recipes, ranging from “red” borshch made with beets and sometimes tomato, to “green” borshch made with sorrel, spinach or even nettles.  I have had people say that borschch is Ukrainian or Russian, that it “must” have one thing or another to be a “true” borsch but when you gather the mindboggling range of variations it seems that borschch can be almost anything.  Borshch is generally made with beef or chicken stock but can easily be made vegetarian with no loss of flavor; here I have added beans and cabbage to create a soup that is a hearty meal in itself.  I’ve also added some celery.  Celery is an unorthodox ingredient but here it adds depth to the soup base; leave it out for a more authentic flavor.

Vegetarian Borshch with Everything

4 cups vegetable stock plus 2 cups water

2 tbsp olive oil

Vegetarian Borshch

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 stalk celery, chopped (optional)

2 medium (2.5″ diameter) beets, peeled and cut into 1/2″ slices, then cut into 1/2″ wide strips

1 large or 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp. chopped dill, plus more for garnish

1 can diced tomatoes

1 can cannellini beans

1 cup cabbage, thinly sliced

sour cream, for garnish


Saute onions in oil over medium heat until the onions begin to brown.  Turn heat down to medium-low.  Add celery and carrot and cook, stirring for a few minutes.  Add beets and potatoes, mix thoroughly, then add dill, bay leaf, broth, tomatoes and beans.  Raise heat to medium high to bring to a boil, then lower, cover and simmer for 1 hour, adding water to reach desired thickness.  Add salt to taste, then cabbage, if desired, and cook another hour.  Serve with a dollop of sour cream and black bread on the side.

Vyshnivka Update #2: In the Bottle!

Posted: August 28th, 2012 by jadickin

After several weeks of steeping the cherries in rectified spirits, I drained most of the liquid, some of which I will save and serve as cherry vodka.  I left a couple of cups of liquid in the growler with the cherries and sprinkled in about 1/2 cup white sugar, swirling the contents to mix the sugar in.  Then I went off to Ukraine, so that sat a bit longer than called for in the recipe…  Now that I’m back I strained the liquid and am bottling it to age for 6 months or so.  You can see from this photo that the mixture is darker than the glass from my first vyshnivka update.  The flavor is (obviously) sweeter with the addition of the extra sugar, but the cherry flavor has also mellowed and deepened.  I’m looking forward to trying it again six months from now at my annual Maslenitsa party in February.


Bean poles and pole beans

Posted: August 4th, 2012 by jadickin

Pole Beans

Pole Beans, early summer, Zakarpattia

Beans have considerable significance in the cuisine of Zakarpattia.  One of my favorite dishes is terta fasol’ (mashed beans), made from dried kidney beans boiled and smashed with oil and large amounts of fresh chopped garlic , served as a spread with fresh bread.  The dish seems faintly out of place, more akin to Georgian lobio or Egyptian foul than a homey Slavic meal.  Dried beans are also used in soups and a few other dishes but it is pole beans that are a real staple throughout the region.  Nutritious and fast-growing, pole beans, called lopatky in Zakarpattia, figure large in summer fare.  Equally important, from a cultural standpoint, is the techka, or bean pole, which serves many purposes, from bean pole to kindling to improvised weapon.  Most notably, the bean pole is the equivalent of the American rolling pin as a symbol of domestic discord.  To say that one has seen a neighbor chasing his or her spouse wielding a techka is to state unequivocally that there is trouble in paradise.  Made from strong, straight sticks about 2 inches in diameter and 7 feet tall, techky are kept from year to year, and establish order in the neat garden plots that adjoin many a house in the region.

In the photograph included with this post you can see many features of the Zakarpattia landscape – a stucco house with a garden right outside; a large square hayrack nearby, and row upon row of lopatky marking the family garden, where potatoes, feed corn, squash and beets are all grown.  Here the lopatky are just flowering, but as soon as the pods begin to ripen, they are brought directly to the table.  One of the most important dishes prepared from lopatky is “serbanka,” a soup made from sour milk, paprika, porkfat, new potatoes, and pole beans.  Indeed, the soup has its own verb serbaty, which is colloquially used as a general term to mean “to eat soup” or “have a light meal.”  Serbanka is somewhat of an acquired taste – you learn to love the flavor of the sour milk as a savory base or you don’t.  Lopatky are also served as a main dish – boiled and then sauteed with oil and garlic.  Cooked new potatoes can be added to the mix to beef up the dish, which is also served with bread.  Lopatky can be prepared with lard or vegetable oil, and are a favorite choice for a main dish during Orthodox Christian fasts, when believers do not consume dairy or animal products aside from fish.  I can not imagine the Zakarpattia landscape – cultural or physical, without rows of leafy green columns wrapped around bean poles, or a Zakarpattia table without a plate or two of lopatky at the end of a summer’s day.


10-15 pole beans, strings removed and cut in thirds

10 small new potatoes or 2 large potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces and boiled

1/4 cup onion, chopped

1.5 tbsp lard, bacon grease or vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk, or 1/4 cup sour cream  (for a fat free option, try fat free Greek yogurt)

1/2 tsp sweet paprika

1/2 tsp. salt

Heat oil in a large saucepan.  Add boiled potato and onion.  Saute over medium heat until onion is slightly browned.  Add pole beans and cook, stirring, for one minute.  Add paprika, salt and 2-3 cups water.   Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until beans are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add buttermilk and cook 15 minutes more.  Adjust salt to taste.  Serve with fresh bread.

Lopatky with garlicread.

Lopatky (Pole Beans Zakarpattia Style)

1 lb. pole beans such as Roma, strings removed and cut into 2-inch pieces

3-4 large cloves garlic peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp. olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Boil the beans for 15 minutes or until just tender.  Drain.  Heat oil in large skillet.  Add garlic and saute 1 minute.  Add pole beans and salt.  Cook, stirring for 5 minutes more.  Adjust salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with starch of choice (potatoes, pasta, rice, bread).




Tokano z bryndzju

Posted: July 17th, 2012 by jadickin

picture of corn

Corn harvest, Zakarpattja


At a recent family gathering my relatives clamored for a traditional dish made from cornmeal, of which my father is the acknowledged master:  fried cornmeal mush.  Mush has a long tradition in American regional cooking, as well as in the cuisine of immigrants.  While my father’s family eats mush in a Yankee kind of way, my mother grew up with mamaliga, the Romanian equivalent craved by her father, a Romanian-born Jew.  When I arrived in the Zakarpattja area of Ukraine to do fieldwork, I settled in a village near the Romanian border and was soon introduced to tokano, the local dialect word for cornmeal mush.  A popular Romanian dish, mamaliga cu branza (cornmeal mush with cheese) had a local version as well, which carried the Zakarpattja-flavored moniker of tokano z bryndzju, or cornmeal mush with sheep’s milk cheese.  Tokano was so important that craftsmen carved special spoons, a kind of wooden spatula called a tokanych, specifically for stirring the porridge.

It’s high summer now, but tokano z bryndzja tastes to me like early fall, when the shepherds bring their sheep back down from their summer home in the mountains.  Tokano z bryndzju has three key components:  cornmeal mush (tokano), fried bacon or unsmoked porkfat with drippings, and bryndzja.  Bryndzja (also called brynza or bryndza) is a sheep’s milk cheese associated with the Zakarpattja region.  Although it is available in other parts of Ukraine, the times I have purchased it in the store I found it so oversalted that I could barely eat it.  True bryndzja should be firm but springy, like dry feta, lightly salted with a fresh taste.  It can also be eaten as a fresh cheese, although your chance to snag a piece before it gets salted, formed and dried into a harder cheese is fleeting.  Bryndzja comes in large round loaves called holovky, or heads.  The closest thing to it I’ve had outside of Ukraine is ricotta salata, which makes a reasonable substitute in dishes requiring bryndzja.

But back to my beloved tokano z bryndzju.  The dish is simple:  make a batch of cornmeal mush, spread 1/3 in the bottom of an enameled metal bowl.  Top with a layer of melted bacon fat and crumbled cheese (you can use feta or grated ricotta salata). Repeat twice.  Tokano z bryndzju should be eaten hot, soon after it is made, when the cheese is still melty and the cornmeal mush has not yet set up.  The resulting dish is decadent, rich, satisfying.   If you find yourself with cornmeal, thick cut bacon and ricotta salata in the house and a yen for something indulgent, stir up a batch of tokano, cut the bacon into chunks and fry it slowly, and then layer away.  While I was always given enormous bowls to polish off on my own, I recommend serving this as an appetizer for the table.  The dish is not usually served for breakfast and it does have the quality of a “treat” as in most rural households bryndzja must be acquired directly from a shepherding family.

Recipe:  Tokano z bryndzju

3-4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 cup cornmeal

3-4 cups water

pinch salt

1 1/2 cups grated ricotta salata


Place bacon pieces in a frying pan over medium heat.  Fry, stirring, until the bacon is cooked but not completely crisp.  Set aside bacon in its fat.

Bring three and a half cups of water with the pinch of salt to a boil in a saucepan.  Slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring constantly.  Continue stirring until the mush begins to boil.  Continue stirring until the mush is thickened and fully cooked, 10-15 minutes.  (If you have your own way of preparing mush or want to substitute a polenta recipe, please be my guest.  There are as many variations on this dish are there are names for it across Ukraine and Romania, and all of them are delicious).  Have a medium-sized heat-proof bowl, preferably one with a gradual slope to the sides, ready.

Remove the cooked cornmeal from the stove and pour 1/3 into the bowl.  Spoon 1/3 of the bacon and about 1/2 tbsp bacon fat over the mush, then sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese on top.  Repeat twice, ending with a layer of cheese.  Allow the dish to sit about 5 minutes.  The heat from the mush and bacon fat should melt the cheese.  Bring straight to the table.  To serve cut through the dish from top to bottom with a spoon, so that each serving has all of the layers in it.

Pepper Vodka recipe in July 8th “Drink” column

Posted: July 6th, 2012 by jadickin

Bottle of Pepper Vodka

Red and Green Hot Pepper Vodka

Rosie Schapp, the New York Times Magazine “Drink” columnist, is featuring one of my vodka infusion recipes (for hot pepper vodka)  in her wonderful July 8th column devoted to drinks of Poland and Ukraine!

Here’s the link:   “Drink:  Hurts So Good”

The photo at left is the only bottle of pepper vodka I currently have “brewing” –  a mix of green and red Ukrainian Hot peppers.  The set up is a year old now, so it packs quite a punch and can’t really be drunk straight.  While I favor the red pepper flavor, the hint of “green” added by its unripe sibling makes for an interesting “double-pepper” fix.  I will certainly try it in a Bloody Mary, as Rosie suggests, on some hot summer day.

Infused vodkas are easy to make and easy to tailor to your tastes.  For more ideas on vodka infusions, you can visit Rosie’s NY Times Magazine blog and check out recipes for roasted ginger vodka and pine-nut vodka, as well as those offered by readers – or add your own!




Vyshnivka update

Posted: July 5th, 2012 by jadickin


Glass of young vishnivka

Every year when the dark sweet cherries come in I think about vyshnivka, a delightfully rich, deceptively easy-to-drink flavored vodka made by soaking cherries in strong vodka (usually 140 proof)  for a couple of months, after which the alcohol is drained and reserved and sugar is added to the cherries, which sit some more.  The resulting syrup and the flavored alcohol are recombined and bottled to mellow for a year.  Vyshnivka is not as sweet as a liqueur, but more full-bodied than a simple infused vodka (and about as strong), meant to be sipped and for one’s own sake best enjoyed one small glass at a time.

This year I decided to actually set up some vyshnivka, which requires only a couple of pounds of cherries, a growler or other suitable glass container, and a bottle of rectified spirits, three things with I have somehow never managed to wrangle together at one time.  The cherries have now been steeping for almost four weeks and still have another 4 weeks or so to go before I move to the next step.  As you can see from the photo, the cherry juice has already given the drink a lovely ruby color.  I took a small taste and while it doesn’t yet have the mellow flavor of vyshnivka, the juice given off by the fresh cherries has already begun melding with the vodka, taking the harsh medicinal edge off of the rectified spirits.

I got this particular vyshnivka recipe from Olha Verbenets’ indispensable book Napyvky (Drinks), sadly available only in a small printing in Ukraine.  The slim volume contains dozens of historical and contemporary recipes for infused vodkas, liqueurs and other vodka-based alcoholic beverages.  My personal favorite is made with green walnuts, something I have only eaten in Ukraine, though I suppose there is nothing preventing anyone with a walnut tree from peeling and eating the fruits when they are almost fully grown but not yet “ripe.”  The flavor is recognizable but quite different – green, fresh, crisp, still rich and walnut-y but not oily.  Olha shared some of her green walnut infused vodka with me once – deep green in color and quite unlike anything else I have ever tried.  Perhaps if the vyshnivka works out, I’ll go looking for a source of green walnuts next year…

Here are two interesting recipes for cherry vodka-based drinks adapted for American preparation from Olha Verbenets’ book Napyvky.  The first is slightly sweet, while the second is not.  Both are quite strong and best served in small shot glasses.

Vyshnivka (Fortified Cherry)
Take 2 lbs. fresh cherries, about half of them pitted, and place them into a clean growler or other large glass container with a tight-fitting lid.  Pour in 1 liter of strong vodka (100-140 proof) and cover.  Store in a warm place for 6-12 weeks, swirling the container every few days to mix it.  Pour out and reserve the flavored vodka.  Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar to the cherries.  Swirl to mix, then close.  After a few days, strain the cherries, reserving liquid.  Add the reserved vodka to the sweet cherry liquid and mix well.   Strain through cheesecloth, then bottle and let stand for a full year before drinking.

Old-fashioned Mokruxa
This can be made in a clean growler or other large glass container with a lid. Place the rind of one orange and 6 whole cloves into the growler.  Pour one bottle of 80-100 proof vodka over the orange and cloves, cap and allow to sit for 4 weeks.  Add two cups fresh or bottled unsweetened cherry juice.  Mix well and allow to sit for 2 more weeks.  Strain, bottle and seal tightly.  The mokruxa will be ready to drink in 6 months.

In praise of sunflower seeds

Posted: June 28th, 2012 by jadickin

Sunflower field in southern Ukraine

As we move into summer I have been thinking about sunflower seeds and all the encounters I have had with them in Russia and Ukraine over the years, starting with toasting mounds of seeds in an old skillet suspended over a campfire in Siberia and watching everyone’s hands and lips turn black from splitting the shells and extracting the warm, flavorful meat.  Later, doing oral history research on WWII, sunflower pressings, or zhmyx reappeared, remembered in representations of deprivation and near starvation on the home front.  When I began doing research in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine I heard of people who had made their family’s fortune growing and processing sunflower seeds and oil.  While of course the oil is the real money-maker I somehow imagined this sunflower mogul mobilizing hundreds of sellers to sit on street corners and in markets with burlap sacks of seeds, selling them by the cupful in paper cones to passersby.  Sunflower seeds remain a popular snack food, now sold in impersonal plastic packets as well.

When I first began to do fieldwork in Russian in 1991, sunflower oil was one of the few cooking oils available for purchase.  The oil was not really refined, amber in color with the distinctive toasty tang of oil pressed from unshelled seeds and decanted directly into old soda bottles and other containers.  The oil added a certain flavor to salads and other foods – a flavor that has all but disappeared with the influx of commercial oils onto the market starting after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The disappearance of this flavor represents a line of cultural demarcation for me that stands as an icon of a broad range of cultural reassessments.  What was once a sought-after addition to foods, seen as augmenting their flavor, rapidly transformed into an “aftertaste” to be eliminated through the purchase of more expensive, more highly refined, and at least early on in the post-Soviet period, imported oils.  And yet…When I hosted some visitors from Bashkortostan a few years ago, they lit up when they tasted salad to which I added a few drops of sesame oil to evoke that same sensation – a toasty/bitter/intense flavor.  The taste of sunflower oil is one of that catalogue of things, so firmly embedded in the sensations of the Soviet Union, tastes, textures, smells, that I guess will fade away, though I wonder sometimes why people gave up on this flavor so quickly, and do they miss it?


Recipe:  Baby Vegetable Vinegret

A standby of Russian and Ukrainian tables is “vinegret” a salad composed of boiled and diced potatoes, beets and carrots, with pickles, onion, dill and often canned peas added to the mix, dressed with vinegar and (sunflower) oil. While this salad is prepared year-round, I recently made an early-summer version using new potatoes and baby beets and carrots.  Unlike a traditional vinegret, I did not peel the vegetables, and I sliced them into chunks, rather than a 3/8″ dice.  Freshly made pickles and fresh sugar snap peas complete this summer version of the traditional salad.


1.5 lbs new potatoes

1 lb baby or young beets

1/2 lb baby or mature carrots

5 pickles, preferably half-sour, quartered and cut into 1/4 inch slices

10 sugar snap or snow peas, sliced crosswise into thirds

1/2 cup chopped white onion (if you don’t like raw onion, try substituting green onion)

3 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill

1/4 cup white vinegar

3 tbsp. oil (add a couple of drops of sesame oil if you like)

salt to taste


Cut off the beet stems, cover beetroots with water and boil until tender (a knife slides through easily).  At the same time, in a separate pot boil the whole new potatoes with the baby carrots (break larger carrots in half if they won’t fit in the pot).  Remove the baby carrots after about 10 minutes, when they should be tender, and continue boiling the new potatoes until a knife slides through the largest one easily.  Drain all of the vegetables and cool.

Quarter the potatoes.  Cut off the tips of the beets, and if the skins seems tough, slide off the beet skins, then quarter.  If using mature carrots with thicker skins, remove the carrot peel from the cooked carrots.  Slice carrots into rounds.  Place the vegetables in a large bowl with the sliced pickles, onion, dill and peas.  Add about 1/2 tsp. salt and toss quickly to mix.  Whisk together oil and vinegar.  Pour over the vegetables and mix gently until combined.  Taste and adjust oil, vinegar  and salt to taste (the amount of vinegar needed to balance the sweetness of the vegetables varies).   Let stand at room temperature for 1/2 hour, then refrigerate until you are ready to serve.


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