From Russia with Love: Borscht, Chekhov & All That
My father, theatre critic Richard Gilman, traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989 to research his seminal book on Chekhov’s plays. Harboring visions of Tolstoy, Gogol and the Cherry Orchard, he anticipated hearty meals of vodka, black bread and steaming beef and beet borscht. There were none. As in most Communist countries, conserving culinary tradition was at the bottom of the list. He reported that after theatrical performances he often went to bed on an empty stomach as nothing was open. Boiled potatoes, cabbage and meat were as ‘gourmet’ as it got If it got at all. Things have changed in the post-modern era and as in many renewed democracies, the new Russia has revived its cuisine. Caviar and shashlik are now to be found. Vodka flows; Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit is world famous.
The Russian presence in Mexico is small. Unlike New York, we have neither baths nor a Tea Room. An occasional “empanadas Rusas” stand pops up, nothing much 'old country' about it but otherwise the Grand Tenochtitlán is a blini-challenged, empty samovar.
So how or why a tow-headed Siberian family landed in El D.F. and opened Kolobok Restaurante Ruso is a mystery. It’s one of the few Russian restaurants in the city. The popular spot on the corner of Santa Maria la Ribera’s Alameda offers such iron curtain classics as borscht and palmeni (like the Polish pyrogi, dumplings). Unfortunately the food tends to be bland, more an odd cultural experience than interesting ethnic eating. (see my article on Santa Maria la Ribera in the NewYork Times)
The lovely chilanga Natasha has tried Kolobok. She reports, in her charming Russian-accented Spanish, that their food is “too simple: too few ingredients are used; I left dissatisfied.” Considering the probable ingredient options in Siberia, that doesn’t surprise me. So, for do-it-yourselfers, Natasha generously shares her own family recipe for borscht, nothing like the one-dimensional if delicious cold stuff you may know from NY’s now defunct Carnegie Deli. It's a heartwarming, complex one bowl dinner that Anna Karenina herself would have loved. Natasha's insistent that you use good, rich stock and grate the raw garlic on at the end "...to give it perfume."
2 Tb vegetable oil
Beets 750g (1.5 lb), peeled
Onion 250g (1/2 lb)
Cabbage 250g (1/2 lb)
Carrot 2 medium, 125g (1/4 lb)
Tomatoes 2 plum or 250g (1/2 lb)
6 cups good, rich meat stock, beef or pork, preferably homemade
2 or 3 Tb wine vinegar, or to taste
1 Tb tomato paste
½ ts dill seed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large clove garlic
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Finely mince the onion. Grate the beets, carrots and cabbage using the fine side of a grater. Heat the oil in a sturdy soup pot. Sauté the onion for a few minutes; add the beets, then the carrot and cabbage. Stir with a wooden spoon until vegetables are softened, about 6 or 7 minutes. Add stock, tomato paste, dill . Grate in whole tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, and cook for 1 1/2 hours .
Add vinegar, salt and pepper. Grate in the garlic clove.
Serve with a dollop of cream. And some nice rye bread if you can find it. Maybe a shot of vodka or two.
Kolobok Restaurante Ruso
Salvador Díaz Mirón 87, Col. Santa María la Ribera see map
Open daily, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Update 2019: A tiny but popular Russian restaurant, Soviet & Co. has opened in the Condesa on Celaya (no. 4). Reviews are positive….