You might think he's doing something else. But in reality, he's learning how to sit/stay, and not doing a very good job of it (he eventually learned how to do so beautifully ... sort of ).

venerdì 6 agosto 2010

Ritual Dishes

We have them in the United States: stuff to eat at certain times (4th of July hot dogs and hamburgers, Thanksgiving turkey, ham or lamb on Easter, a great steak house to mark any celebration) and we have them here in Italy, too (fish-filled Christmas Eves, fava beans and pecorino on Pasquetta (Easter Monday), eating mostly fish on Fridays; though the ban on eating bi- and quadruped flesh on Fridays has long been lifted by the Roman Catholic church, habits die hard in this country, and Italians lean towards fish on Fridays in restaurants and at home). (They might not fill the churches on Sundays, but they cling to this tradition.)

The Scallion and I have ritual dishes based on no religious traditions and no calendar days. Ours are based on the following: 1) they’re a pain in the neck to make, hence we make ‘em once a year and 2) they’re seasonal and 3) they’re celebratory and 4) they just plain taste good.
So 5) we make them when lots of friends are around.

One such ritual dish is okrochka, a chilled Russian yogurt-milk based soup. It teems with cucumbers, fennel, and pickles; and then you can add shrimp and/or chicken and/or wurstel and/or veal (according to Marina, dear Russian chum and Designated Okrochka Expert).

Wiki, Italian version, says that the soup is either Ukrainian or Russian (imagine my dismay when a Polish acquaintance grudgingly told me that pierogies might, in fact, be Ukrainian and not Polish at all). The name comes from “krosit” meaning to cut things in little pieces.
It contains mostly raw vegetables, cucumbers and winter onions (strange that, as it’s a summer dish), boiled potatoes, prosciutto with kvas, and it’s usually served with sour cream. Totally clueless what made the broth for the soup … sour cream?

As always, we turn to Elizabeth David in these cases, who loftily informs us that she used to eat this soup at the Russian Club in Athens during World War II (did Rick’s Café serve food? Unclear). She ate it with kwass, and yogurt was served on the side.

Reactions to this soup were mixed, at best. Practically no one had seconds, except for us, and the Scallion’s Mother (who's English). One Italian painstakingly searched his way through the milky mire figuring out what he wanted to eat and didn’t. Another Italian – whose aversion to cucumbers I’d forgotten – minced her way through the soup, a real challenge when you’re vegetarian and are presented with only fennel and pickle swimming in a sea of dairy.

Since Italians almost always “take” seconds, and none of them did, we can chalk this up as a Never Again Experience. (Marina loved it.)(Let me reiterate. She is Russian, and knows.)

Not a disaster, but close. Fortunately, the starters of sorrel eggs (yup, it’s still growing), bruschetta, and anchovy/caper spread on toast ensured that no one starved , and the gruyere-laden curly endive/escarole salad (with optional pancetta on the side) helped ease any lingering hunger pains.

Fortunately, Poldo (idol of last post) met Harry, and we were all able to enjoy what, according to some, were dear friends meeting for the first time: for others, dog porn show; take your pick. Their antics took the sting out of the Really Don’t Much Want to Eat this Soup.

Do you need a Northern soul to enjoy this dish? Is it too wacky for Mediterranean tastes? Who in blazes knows? All I know is that it will remain a Ritual Dish, but perhaps only for family. Oh, and that one Russian chum of ours.

I very much enjoy this soup, which is why I give you this recipe, loosely based and almost-plagiarizingly so from my hero Elizabeth David. It tastes beyond brilliant on a hot summer day. It’s pretty and its checkerboard aspect, floating tiny bits of pink and green, might bring to mind Domenico Veneziano’s St. Lucy Altarpiece at the Uffizi, though I’m sure none of those ascetics (Francis, John the Baptist, and St. Lucy included in said) had much appetite.

(Jury’s out on St. Zanobius; Queen of Kansas? Your thoughts most welcome.)


4 c. diced fresh cucumber
3 c. diced wϋrstel (mild flavored, poach, then dice)
1 lb. chicken breast, poached with a bay leaf, half a carrot, thick onion slice, 3-5 peppercorns, generous pinch of kosher salt, thick slice of lemon, 3 garlic gloves, handful of parsley), then cut into dice around the same size as the wϋrstel)
1 lb. shrimp, preferably poached in an Old Bay Seasoning/vinegar mix, chilled, then peeled and deveined, chopped in pieces about the same size at the two above
1 c. chopped leeks, the part that bridges the area between green and white
1 c. diced fennel
1 c. diced pickles (kosher dills would impart a wondrous texture to this soup)
2 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 pt. low-fat plain yogurt
4 c. low-fat milk
Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
Handful of fresh dill, chopped

Throw all ingredients up to the yogurt and milk into a big glass bowl. Separately mix the yogurt and milk, and then pour over the vegetables. Chill for at least an hour, and then serve.

Ostensibly serves 8.

Elizabeth David’s recipe comes from A Book of Mediterranean Food (London, 1950). She would probably sneer at the very idea of using low-fat yogurt and skim or 2% milk; she would probably also raise an arched, perfectly-formed eyebrow at my inclusion of all the animal products she suggests. She would also be quite disappointed, I think, that it wasn’t served with kwass.
(Photo of Two Stooges thanks once again to Alli S.)
We are off to northern climes on Monday; this will be my last post; blog will re-appear at the end of August. Buona vacanza!

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