They say you are what you drink… so I guess that makes me Belarusian.

February 15, 2015

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

…it’s funny because I learned recently that I am in fact 1/4 Belarusian… and I’ve been drinking White Russians for years! Why is that funny? Read on…

I’m not sure we have had a country yet whose name I will struggle to explain fully. This is largely because in the last century, few regions have gone through so much change as those associated with “Russia” and the USSR. And here is the start of the problem, there is a difference between Russia and -Rus’ . I honestly don’t want to spend the whole blog talking about this, because I know could, so I will say if this type of thing interests you, go search the web for the full details: it won’t be hard to find. Belarus literally means White Rus’ , which often gets translated to White Russia. Using this translation today would be an anachronistic mistake, and could border on the insulting. The origins of the issue are of course debated, between an ethnic meaning, a term denoting the areas unconquered by the Mongols, or the direct translation as White Dew. Regardless, the main aspect to focus on is actually the second word.

 In short, there is a long standing identity clash between what is Rus’ and what is Russia. The former term is the elder of the two which denoted from medieval times current day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Western Russia. This term later became “Ruthenia,” which in the 17th century morphed into “Russia”. Thus, the identity associated with the earlier names signified the Eastern European self. Today, to avoid confusion…uh huh…you will see the lands belonging to the earlier definition written as “Kievan Rus’”.

 Following the Russian Revolution, and towards the close of World War I, Belarus declared independence as a people’s republic, as they were occupied by German forces. Not long after, the Red Army replaced the Germans and exiled the young government, replacing it with the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the USSR). As of this writing, the council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic is the oldest current government in exile at roughly 98 years old. Although free of the USSR since 1990, the current president who was elected in 1994 has an authoritarian style and has kept several Soviet era policies. The country’s Democracy Index rating is always the lowest in Europe and many people label it as repressed and not free.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine occurred less than 10 miles from the Belarusian border. Roughly 70% of the radiation bled over into Belarus and 1/5 of their land, including much farmland, is still affected by fallout today. In 1994, Belarusian scientists discovered that certain rapeseed varieties can pull radioactive material from the soil cheaply and effectively. They have increased the amount of rapeseed cultivation over the last 20 years and still hope that it can ultimately undo some of the damage done.

 Throughout their history there has also been a lot of interaction with their neighbor to the west, Poland. A lot of land has changed hands between Belarus and Poland through several conflicts and treaties to get us where we are today, with them sharing a 250 mile border. The main dish I made has a name of Polish origin, though it is equally as popular in Belarus. This is a Meat and Potato Babka.

Now, for those Seinfeld fans or patrons of traditional Jewish bakeries, this will be a departure from expectations. There are few desserts I love more than a good chocolate babka (yes, cinnamon is fine as well). So I was surprised to see the term used in a savory application. This is a fairly simple meat and potato casserole, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although not much to look at, the salty flavor is melt in your mouth wonderful.

I find that when dealing with a simplistic dish, the factor which holds the key to success is often the ratio of ingredients. This is true for a basic chocolate chip cookie, lasagna, or bread dough. The fewer ingredients there are, and the less technical skills which are required, exponentially inflate the importance of precise balance of ingredients.

Accompanying the savory babka, I prepared a Pskovsky, which is vegetables served with a hot mushroom sauce. This is a super healthy side dish with very little fat (only what you brown the mushrooms in) and the sauce is luscious. Instead of dicing my potatoes as instructed, I had leftover grated ones, so I went ahead and used those which changed the texture of the dish (why my picture isn’t reflective of how yours would be). I think I added more mushrooms than called for also, because I love mushrooms, so it is open to interpretation. Overall, this was not the most visually appealing meal, but it played well on the tongue and isn’t that what REALLY matters?

Next we go to Belgium…and Lee…drinks…a non-stout beer?! You heard it here first…

 

  


 

Meat and Potato Babka

3 servings

Ingredients:

7 potatoes
7 oz meat, finely chopped
1 large onion
1 egg
3.5 oz milk
salt, to taste
vegetable oil

——————————————

Directions:

Add a little oil to a pan and use to fry the meat until well browned but not cooked through. Add the onion then season with salt. Continue frying until the onion is golden brown.
Grate the potatoes then place in a clean tea towel (or salad spinner) and wring out the excess moisture. Transfer to a bowl and beat in the milk and egg. Season with salt to taste. Grease an oven-proof casserole dish with vegetable oil then spoon the meat and onion mix into the base then pour the potato mix over the top.
Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 350°F and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is a nice golden brown in color.

 


Pskovsky

3 servings

Ingredients:

3 potatoes
2 carrots
1 turnip
5 tbsp frozen peas
For the Sauce:
5 tbsp (1/3 cup) vegetable stock – WHICH YOU WILL MAKE IN THE FIRST PART
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp flour
1 onion, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
3 tbsp button mushrooms,diced (or more)
sea salt, to taste

——————————————

Directions:

Wash the vegetables, peel and dice.
Add each vegetable (except the peas) to a separate pan, cover with a little water and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until tender (add the peas to one pot for the last 5 minutes of cooking).
Drain the vegetables (keep the stock) then combine the vegetables.
Meanwhile add about 2 tbsp oil to a pan. Add the mushrooms and fry for 2 minutes then scatter the flour over the top, mix to combine and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Whilst still stirring carefully add 5 tbsp of the reserved vegetable broth, stirring quickly to ensure there are no lumps. Add the onion and celery and season to taste.
Simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Serve the vegetables in a bowl, covered with the hot sauce.

 

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