My Russian Jewish Mom’s Recipes Are Keeping Me Grounded Right Now

I cook not to pass the time, but to make the passage of time feel right again.

The way that time passes during a pandemic feels much like a warped length of cloth. The days behind me are bunched up, the cloth wrinkled, as though I just jumped forward with a tesseract borrowed from Madeline L’Engle. Events seem to have passed so fast that something that happened two days ago is already ancient history. In the days in front of me, on the other hand — the days, and the weeks, and the months — the cloth is stretched out until the seams are fraying. There is no sign of when the gray patterns of social isolation will change.

But there are a few times when time seems to work as it should. When I am cooking, for one: Ever since shelter in place started, I’ve been texting my 70-year-old mother, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, asking for the recipes that I remember from childhood. When I tear up pieces of dill with my fingers, or stir a pot of soup, or start the ritual of cutting up an onion, time finally starts to pass at a steady rate, instead of achingly slow or dizzyingly fast. I feel at once centered in the present and connected to the past.

My mom’s recipes are comfortingly old-school and uniquely well-suited to quarantine cooking. Russian cooking makes ample use of the shelf-stable items that we’ve all been told to stock up on: potatoes and cabbage, carrots and beets, pickles and dried mushrooms. I text her almost every day: How do you make borscht? What about that barley and potato and mushroom soup that was so delicious, the one you made me when I was a kid? What about golubtsi, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice?

Within minutes, my mom texts me back her recipes. She takes the techniques passed down from her grandmother, who she’s always said could cook Michelin-worthy food in a Soviet communal kitchen. Then my mom comes up with inventive additions I’d never think of, like adding beet kombucha to borscht. She sprinkles the word “umami” into her texts whenever she can, as in, “I add a little bit of sauerkraut to achieve umami.” Her other favorite word is “caramelization,” which means fry everything before you put it in soup. Her phone inexplicably autocorrects the word to “caramélisation,” giving the recipe a whimsical flourish.

Having to self-isolate with my dad in their Florida apartment for the past month doesn’t seem to have diminished my mother’s spirit. Coming from the Soviet Union, she’s used to long lines at the grocery store, missing items from the shelves — especially toilet paper — and making the best of what you have. This isn’t even her first quarantine: She was passing through Odessa in 1970 when a cholera pandemic broke out. She had to sleep in a tent on the beach for a month before she could leave the city. I feel like if I can cook like her, maybe a bit of that life experience will help me navigate the next few weeks.

My mom responds to my cooking experiments with unabashed enthusiasm. She doesn’t need to actually taste anything to assure me that my food is delicious; she can judge based on the photo. “The quality of the borscht is in its color!” she declares. “Deep burgundy color tells me that you didn’t dilute the borscht with watery, un-caramelized vegetables.” As if I, her daughter, would ever forget to caramélise the vegetables.

Food is a ritual and a prayer. It’s a prayer I’m used to sending to other people, but now I’m saying it for myself. I cook to re-moor myself, to remind myself of how lucky I am to have so many happy memories of my mom’s meals, to put past and present in their proper places. I spend a few hours smelling the fragrance of sautéed onion, dill, and steaming soup, and feel that I can breathe. I cook not to pass the time, but to make the passage of time feel right again.

My Mom’s Recipes:

Note: there are no exact measurements because my mom never provides any. The soups are both vegetarian but sometimes she’ll also add a veal shank; if adding meat, simmer several hours more to make it tender.

Mushroom, barley, and potato soup

Take dried porcini mushrooms and soak them in hot water for 30 minutes. It will smell amazing and the water will turn into a dark brown broth. Boil half a cup of pearl barley in salted boiling water for 25-30 minutes depending on how chewy you like it. Drain and reserve for later. Meanwhile, sauté diced onions in plenty of oil until nicely caramelized. Separately, sauté diced potatoes until browned on all sides. Pour mushroom broth into a pot and bring to a boil. (Check that there is no dirt or grit in the broth; strain if necessary.) Add mushrooms, vegetables, and barley. Add more water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth if there is not enough liquid. Simmer for 20 minutes or until potatoes are soft. If there are leftovers, add more broth as the barley will soak up liquid overnight.

Russian borscht

Take whole, skin-on beets and boil them for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté diced carrots, celery, and onions in plenty of oil on low heat until nicely browned. Remove the beets, give them a minute to cool, then remove the skins by rubbing them with a paper towel. Shred the beets on a box grater, sauté the shreds for yet more “caramélisation and umami,” and add back to the pot. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Add a splash of beet kombucha and tomato paste (umami part 2!), plus salt and pepper. Mom sometimes adds sauerkraut (umami part 3!); she says that Lithuanians add fresh cabbage and Ukrainians add potatoes and chopped prunes. Serve with sour cream, parsley, and dill.

Gefilte fish

For this recipe, you can use traditional white fish (pike or carp), or any other fish with flakey skin. It is also delicious with salmon. Buy the fish with skin and bones if you can. Take the meat and chop it up by hand, with a mezzaluna if you have one (do not use a food processor). Add chopped raw or fried onions, matzo meal, salt, sugar, and a spoonful of olive oil. You may add chopped carrots or beets too. Add an egg if you would like a denser fish cake; omit if you prefer a fluffier texture. Roll the mixture into little balls and stuff each ball into a bit of fish skin. Sauté the fish cakes in olive oil, then add chopped or shredded beets and carrots and sauté that as well. Gently add water, taking care not to break the fish cakes. Add the fish bones, celery root or half an onion with skin on (the skin creates a nicer color for the broth), salt, sugar, and some cubed potatoes. Simmer, uncovered, for about an hour and a half.

Header Image: VICUSCHKA/Getty Images.

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