Focus in on the delights of the kitchen and the table with ...

Plate of goodness! a-1

When I read that this month’s #LetsLunch theme would be the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, I rejoiced.


Rather than facing a time of pondering and wondering how I would focus my post, I had the perfect answer right on the bedside reading table.


Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing had caught my eye last fall, as I browsed at my fine local indie, Flyleaf Books. As a longtime fan and reader of any and all words written down by its author, Anya Von Bremzen, I rejoiced, partly because she writes beautifully and shares my interest in travel, history, the people and places behind the food. The food, too, of course! But not only — never only just A Tasty Dish, but who makes it and where and why and on what occasion and since when. The deeper ingredients.


I also delighted in this particular topic, because I had read her feature story in Saveur several years ago, about a dinner party at her mother’s apartment in Queens, New York, in which they prepared a Russian feast. Von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa Frumkin, had emigrated from the USSR in 1978.


I am sure I have that very magazine here somewhere, but finding it? Impossible, given my years of Keeping Good Things for Later without an accompanying system of organization. What surprises me is that I am thus far unable to find it online. (Please leave word in the comments section if you have an online link, or even the date of the issue, as I long to read it again and see the photographs.)

But I digress. The feature story grew and grew and is now enfolded into an extraordinary book, one whose treasures I am only beginning to enjoy. I am happy about that, because I love looking forward to a magnificent feast, to a great, compelling, and satisfying read. Meanwhile, #LetsLunch is today, so I flipped to the back of the book where Ms. Von Bremzen includes a petite treasury of recipes, one from each decade of Soviet life, as the book is arranged. I chose Kotleti: Mom’s Russian Hamburgers, from the 1930’s.

Kotleti ingredients 1

I used her option of ground beef and pork rather than the all-beef option, and seasoned it with fresh dill, garlic, salt, pepper, and grated onions, which made me weep. I’m new to grating onions — there may be a technique I need to learn. I settled on the large holes of my box grater; and the tears, they did flow. But for a worthy cause: Deliciousness! Mayonnaise and softened breadcrumbs brought it all together, and then I let the mixture rest for 30 minutes in the fridge. mixed up meat2 While my kotleti took a break before their event, I looked up the Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, right here:

Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 Official Website

Lots of detail and links to links right there. But then I came across this: A wonderful video from back in January, of the Olympic Torch being transported across Russia. That’s a journey, people. I just loved this. It lasts 2 minutes 28 seconds:

Video of the journey of the Olympic Torch across Russia

I also adore this. I love it a lot. This is Google’s “doodle”, featured on their homepage, with a quotation worthy of reading and remembering:


“The practice of sport is a human right.Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Olympic Charter

The opening ceremony takes place today, Friday, February 7th ( at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time here in the USA) ; television broadcast will be this evening at 8:00 pm. I love the Parade of Nations, and will be looking forward to that portion especially. Just to make it to the Olympics — what a grand, astounding, marvelous achievement! I imagine that ending up on your own riser at a medal ceremony would be quite grand as well. But imagine what it takes just to make it there and to take part. That already impresses me deeply. But let’s see, has it been 30 minutes? YES!

batch 1 no crumbs3 So then I wet my hands and formed the meaty mixture into oval-shaped patties about 3 1/2 inches long, and started them sizzling in butter and oil per the recipe, and felt very proud of myself. And my picture. Until I noticed this: crumbs 4 Yes, that’s a plate of freshly made bread crumbs, hand-crafted from a loaf of sourdough bread, toasted to simulate staleness, and buzzed up in the blender to become, well, crumby. What were those doing on my kitchen counter, near the stove but not quite near enough to remind me? They were for coating each kotleti prior to its placement in the hot cast iron skillet of butter and oil! So: I carefullly removed the three inaugural kotleti to cool down on the side which had gotten ahead of itself. due to the fact that Mistakes Were Made. crumby 5 I coated the waiting kotleti and started a new batch frying away. I wish you could hear the sizzle and take in the hearty inviting aroma. It took a little while to cook them through, to keepthem handsomely browned without burning them. I ended up starting a second skillet, as once they have browned, they need to be covered for another little bit on lower heat to cook through. It was dinnertime, and we wanted to taste them. So two skillets moved things along nicely. And how lucky am I that I have not one but two Lodge Cast Iron Skillets? I actually have more than two. Life is do 6 Here is the initial round of kotleti, which I served with kasha, which Ms. Von Bremzen mentions as a typical accompaniment. I don’t know much about kasha in general, nor in Russian cuisine, so I cooked it as directed on the package of kasha I found at Whole Foods, and seasoned it with butter, salt, and a little chopped green onion which I had handy. Also on the plate: a chunky potato salad with mayonnaise, fresh dill, salt and pepper, and canned peas, which she mentions in the book ,though I cannot not find the reference now. It reminded me of how food can have meaning for me apart from its current status in the world. I love Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup with saltine crackers. Diluted with milk and heated up on the stove: that was my favorite lunch. Revile it if you will, and I know you and I can make a splendid mushroom soup with lots less sodium and more complexity and gravitas. But that would not be my lunch on a snow day with my sisters. Sometimes it’s just the food, and sometimes, it’s the food with a side of memories. Also I added pickles which my friend Vada made; not sour, but these were the pickles we had and it was a wonderful, delicious, satisfying meal.

I ended up with eleven patties. The recipe says that this serves four, but you could make five or even six people happy depending on what else accompanies these tasty patties. I would make them smaller, as I like things in threes. I’m guessing I could get about 15 smaller ones out of the 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef/pork. I would serve 4 to 5 people as I did here, or I might call them Soviet Sliders, and put them on little buns with some spicy cabbage slaw with fresh dill, green onions, and chili sauce. Here’ s the recipe, which is featured was  during Ms. Von Bremzen’s visit to Leonard Lopate on WNYC Radio. Click HERE

stack of kotleti7

Anya Von Bremzen’s Kotleti: Mom’s Russian Hamburgers

1 1/2 pounds freshly ground beef chuck (or a mixture of beef and pork)

2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed, soaked for 5 minutes in water and squeezed

1 small onion, grated

2 medium garlic cloves, crushed in a press

2 tablespoons finely chopped dill or parsley

2 1/2 tablespoons full-fat mayonnaise

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

2 to 3 cups fine dried bread crumbs for coating

Canola oil and unsalted butter, for frying

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the first eight ingredients and blend well into a homogenous mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

2. With wet hands, shape the mixture into oval patties approximately 3½ inches long. Spread bread crumbs on a large plate or a sheet of wax paper. Coat patties in crumbs, flattening them out slightly and pressing down for the crumbs to adhere.

3. In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with a pat of butter until sizzling. Working in batches, fry the kotleti over medium-high heat until golden-brown, about 4 minutes per side. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes to cook through. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the patties. Serve at once.

Serves 4

Reprinted from the book MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING: A MEMOIR OF FOOD AND LONGING by Anya von Bremzen.  Copyright © 2013 by Anya von Bremzen. Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.


#LetsLunch is a circle of food bloggers who ‘meet-up’ monthly to post on one certain subject, each in our own way. I love checking out my friends’ posts, and I think you might enjoy ‘dining around’, too. For February, we are celebrating THE OLYMPICS. Join me in exploring an array of ways to feast on the topic, via my friends’ LetsLunch Links.  Click on these links below to enjoy their take on this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Check back later, as more posts will be coming in and I will add links here throughout the day.

875632 Finally, I have had the best time reading and listening to an array of features about Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Such a lovely, moving and apt title. Let me leave you with the image above of Ms. Von Bremzen’s first book, Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook: 100 Glorious Recipes from the Baltics to Uzbekistan, published by Workman in 1990, still in print, still excellent and worthy of the James Beard Award it earned back then. Be sure to check out the link to The Splendid Table below (two of them in fact) so you can see the photograph of kulebiaka, the featured dish of Chapter One in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, which is The 1910’s: Farewell to the Czars. I could not muster the time to make this for you in time for today’s #LetsLunch lunch, but I will be making that sometime later this year, and I will post it here.

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About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. Pingback: Glass of Fancy » Blog Archive » Let’s Lunch: Olympian Eats - Fashion, fiction, and life in the city.

  2. Annabelle Reply

    I’ve been on a meatball kick lately, and I’m intrigued by this grated onion thing. Seems like it would work really nicely if you can get past the crying!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Yes, Annabelle; I’m intrigued by that method. She also called for use of a garlic press, which I don’t have so I just chopped it finely. More surface = more flavor, and I stopped crying as soon as I stopped grating, so I say, go for it! Must do a comparison; I think these would be delicious with chopped onions. Meatball kick: YES!

  3. Uptown Southern Cooking Reply

    I read this and couldn’t keep my mouth from watering. I’m so darn hungry right now. This meal looks so good. Reminds me of a southern meal too, potato salad, hamburger steaks and little green peas. Universal, and oh my God, so good looking. Thanks for making me want something good to eat.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Thank you, Linda. Maybe you will join us for #LetsLunch next month…. You are on the same page. And I think you would love this book!

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  6. Mai Hoang Reply

    My husband and in-laws would totally love this. This looks so good! Will have to make this for our next family dinner. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Hope they enjoy it as much as we did. Not hard to do, and so satisfying and tasty. Happy Olympic-viewing to you and yours!

  7. Mai P. Hoang (@maiphoang) Reply

    This looks really good! My husband and in-laws would love this! Will have to make this for the next family dinner. 🙂

  8. HapaMamaGrace Reply

    The kotleti look delicious! Who could resist a hamburger patty dipped in breadcrumbs? You’ve piqued my curiosity for Soviet cooking now…

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Thank you! The book is fascinating and she is such a fine writer. The cultural/immigrants aspect, the mother-daughter story, the food-writer connection — I have to hide the book so I can get things done. And I want to make kulibiaka now!

  9. bettyannq @Mango_Queen Reply

    What an exciting find. I never knew anything about Russian dishes till now. This dish looks like sheer comfort for anyone. I can’t wait to try the recipe and follow your helpful tips. Thanks for the blog visits and the mention in the round up here, Nancie. Let’s Lunch is always fun with you 🙂

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  11. spicebox travels Reply

    Hi Nancie, I read a review of her book and was also intrigued, but haven’t read it yet. As for kasha, since I grew up on Long Island with Jewish best friends, I have fond memories. We’d eat it as varnishkes (mixed with bow tie pasta, really) and in kasha filled knishes, far more interesting than the standard potato ones. Last week, I was given a box of kasha as a gift from a patient who attended my healthy cooking workshop on whole grains (kasha is buckwheat)– he told me he prepares it with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, and so will I. Happy #LetsLunch and thanks for this interesting post!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      So glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for the scoop on kasha! I actually knew about kasha varnishkes from a quick and easy pasta book I did years ago. I adored it, but then the curtain fell and time passed and I hadn’t thought of it till I started reading this book. I figured that was more of its own dish, maybe more substantial, than what Von Bremzen mentions. Now with whole grains being on my mind, t’is time to get cracking with kasha. The mushrooms and onions idea sounds so so good.

  12. sandwichsurprise Reply

    Amazing that you had a Soviet cookbook at the ready. And you had me at hamburger! Must. Try. Soonest!

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  15. Lucy Reply

    “Sometimes it’s just the food, and sometimes, it’s the food with a side of memories.” You got that right. And I love Campbell’s C of M soup, too. With Fritos, no less.

  16. Free Range Cookies® Reply

    Love everything here! I vaguely remember the Russian banquet issue – too bad it’s not online. But good thing you reminded me of its wonderful author and her books!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Glad this rang a bell for you as well, so to speak. And I adored your lemon slices on those cookies, and with the lovely cake. Your photographs are transcendantly beautiful. A feast even when I don’t get to make the pictured good thing. Enjoying LetsLunch-ing with you.

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