General

Ukrainian Jewish food: remember the past through recipes

Borscht (Photo by Polina Tankilevitch via Pexels)

When Russia’s barbaric aggression against Ukraine began, Jewish aid organizations estimated that 200,000 Ukrainian Jews were integrated into that country’s life, making the Jewish community there the third largest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world.

Since March, Jews have fled en masse, mainly to Israel. Feeling helpless, my husband and I sent money through the Jewish Federation. On Passover we placed a beetroot on our seder plate in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Borscht, the beautiful garnet-colored soup, gets its radiant hue from beets. Borscht, popular throughout Eastern Europe, was not only invented in Ukraine, but is the most famous food. However, original recipes were made from a bitter white root called borsh. Poverty made this unpleasant soup widespread.

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But during the Renaissance, people started preparing this recipe from much sweeter beets, keeping the original name. In the end, the Ukrainians added beef, beans and vegetables to the recipe.

Jews created two different types of borscht: a thick meat-based borscht and a thinner vegetarian version to which they added smetana, a sour cream-like cheese. When Jews immigrated to America, vegetable borscht eclipsed the meat borscht.

Many celebrated Jewish dishes have their roots in Ukraine. Babka, the cake baked in bread pans in America, is baked in high round pans in Ukraine. In both Ukrainian and Yiddish, baba means grandmother; babka means little grandmother. Some say this high cake resembles Grandma’s long skirt.

Many Ukrainian Jewish recipes are well known to Ashkenazi Jews, especially challah and stuffed cabbage. Kasha varnishes, made with nut-flavored buckwheat, evolved into bow tie paste flavored with caramelized onions. Often prepared with butter and served with smetana, potato latkes are beloved in Ukraine. Jews created an oil-based version to eat with meat. This popular dish is served during Hanukkah and all year round.

But there are some Ukrainian Jewish dishes that most Americans are unfamiliar with. Carrot and zucchini muffins are popular during Passover but are eaten all year round, kotlety are meat patties stuffed with mushrooms and syrniki, cheese pancakes, are a treasured treat.

Since the crisis in Ukraine began, I’ve been cooking these dishes as a tribute to Ukrainian Jews who were driven from their homeland by a cruel tyrant – a theme that has been repeated throughout Jewish history. While it is unclear whether Jews have a future in Ukraine, I try to keep alive the memory of Jewish life there through food.

Ukrainian American style borscht | Meat
Yield: 3 liters

When you chop beets, your hands will turn red. I therefore rely on bottled borscht so that even a Ukrainian grandmother would think it is homemade. The only way she would suspect the truth is that my hands aren’t stained.

2 (32-ounce) bottles of borscht (made from beets, not concentrate)
3 (14-ounce) cans beef stock
12 small pieces of marrow bones
3lb short ribs for flanks, cut lengthwise between the bones
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
5 carrots, peeled and cut into circles
2 medium onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
16 peppercorns
⅔ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup sugar
Kosher salt to taste

Three days before serving, place all ingredients in a large stockpot. Simmer covered, stirring occasionally, for an hour, or until the meat and potatoes are tender. Check the spices. If it’s too sweet, add a little more vinegar. If it is too sour, add a little sugar.

Place in the fridge and skim the fat from above. Remove the bay leaves, bones and peppercorns. Serve hot.

Syrniki (cheese pancakes) | Dairy
Yield: Makes about 8 syrniki

Equipment: Preferably a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large mixing bowl and electric mixer

⅓ cup flour, plus ⅓ cup
1 pound farmer’s cheese
2 eggs
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup golden raisins
4-8 tablespoons vegetable oil, or more if needed
Side dishes: yogurt, sour cream, jam or berries

Place ⅓ cup of flour in a flat-bottomed bowl. Place 2 layers of kitchen paper on a plate. To reserve.

Crumble the farm cheese in the bowl of a standing mixer (or in a large mixing bowl if using an electric mixer). Add the eggs. Mix well until combined. Add ⅔ cup of flour, sugar and salt. Beat until the lumps disappear. Gently mix in the raisins. Let it rest for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 4 tablespoons oil over medium heat, adding more oil at any time as needed.

Using a ladle, scoop a heaping spoonful of pancake batter and drop it into the reserved flour. Carefully roll the batter in the flour. Lift the batter ball and shape it into a flat pancake with your hands. Shake off as much excess flour as possible.

Move the pancake into the heated oil. Repeat, but do not put more than 4 pancakes in the pan at a time. Bake them until the bottom is golden brown and firm. Flip them over with a spatula until golden brown. Watch the pancakes carefully, they burn easily. Move them to paper towels to drain.

For the second batch, you may need to drain the oil from the pan as it may be dusted with flour, which can burn. If so, wipe the pan with paper towels and start over with another 4 tablespoons of oil.

Serve immediately with yogurt or sour cream, jam and/or berries.

Kotlety (meat patties) with mushrooms | Meat
Yield 5-6 kotlety

mushroom filling:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 ounces mushrooms, finely chopped
½ small onion, finely chopped
Kosher salt to taste
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
¼ cup breadcrumbs

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and onion. Sprinkle with salt and cook until the vegetables have wilted. Add the garlic and stir. When the garlic is fragrant, add the breadcrumbs and stir for a minute. Take it off the heat and reserve.

Kotlet:
1 pound ground turkey
½ small onion, finely chopped
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Place the turkey in a medium bowl. Add the onion, salt and pepper and mix with a fork. Divide the flour over a dinner plate.

Put the ingredients in the order you need them. Start with the bowl of turkey, followed by the mushroom filling, then the plate with flour, ending with a clean plate, next to the hob.

Place ⅓ cup of turkey in your palm. Flatten the turkey into a thin burger patty and make an indentation in the center. Place 1½ teaspoons of the mushroom filling in the well. Close the turkey around the stuffing, making sure there are no seams. Flatten the pie slightly. Roll the pastry in the flour and shake off the excess. Keep them on the clean plate.

Repeat until all turkey is used up. You should rinse your hands once or twice under cold water so they don’t get sticky. Save the leftover mushroom filling.

Drizzle 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet and heat over medium heat. Transfer the kotlety to the skillet and cook until browned on the bottom. Turn them over and brown the top. Turn them back and forth a few times until the turkey is no longer pink inside. If it browns too quickly, lower the heat.

Transfer the kotlety to a platter. Heat the reserved mushroom mixture over medium heat and sprinkle it over the top of the kotlety.

Savory carrot zucchini muffins | Pareve or dairy
Yield: about 18 muffins

Requirements: 2 muffin tins, a food processor and 2 large pans

3 jumbo carrots
1 large sweet potato
1 large white potato
3 large courgettes
2 medium onions
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, or more if needed
Kosher salt to taste, plus teaspoon and ¾ teaspoon
No-stick vegetable spray or 2 tablespoons of butter
¾ teaspoon sugar, plus ¾ teaspoon
1 egg, plus 1 egg
¼ cup potato starch, plus ¼ cup
½ teaspoon lemon zest, plus ½ teaspoon

Set up a food processor with the metal cutting blade. Pour the water into 2 large pots until they are two-thirds full.

Peel the carrots and both potatoes. Rinse them together with the zucchini under cold water and drain on kitchen paper.

Cut the carrot and sweet potato into inch pieces. Move them to one of the large pots of water. Cover the pan with a lid and cook over high heat for 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are very tender when pierced with a kitchen utensil-sized fork.

Cut the white potato and zucchini into 1-inch pieces. Move them to the second pan of water. Cover with a lid and cook over high heat for 35 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender when pierced with a kitchen utensil-sized fork.

Meanwhile, cut the onions into cubes and then finely chop. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sprinkle with salt to taste. Saute them until the onions are fragrant and soft. To reserve.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat the muffin tins liberally with no-stick vegetable spray or preferably with butter as the muffins come out of the pans more easily. Do not use muffin tins as these muffins are quite soft and will fall apart when pulled out of the tins.

Drain the carrot mixture in a colander until the cooking liquid stops dripping. Transfer the carrot mixture to the food processor and puree. Move it to a large bowl with a spatula. Rinse the food processor and dry it.

Drain the zucchini mixture in a colander until the cooking liquid stops dripping. Move it to the food processor. Pulse on and off to puree when the zucchini becomes watery. With a spatula, move it to a second large bowl.

To both bowls, add half the onions, ¾ teaspoon salt, ¾ teaspoon sugar, 1 egg, ¼ cup potato starch, and ½ teaspoon lemon zest. Using a silicone or wooden spoon, mix the ingredients in each bowl until well blended.

Place the zucchini mixture into each indentation in the muffin tins to one-third full. Smooth the zucchini mixture with the back of a teaspoon to create a smooth surface. Cover with the carrot mixture until it is two-thirds full.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. A cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool completely to room temperature before removing it from the muffin tins.

Serve them muffins with borscht, kotlety, stuffed cabbage, and even eggs. PJC

Linda Morel writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliate publication where it first appeared.

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