A literary mosaic cobbled from personal anecdotes, vibrant family history, and eighty years of Soviet history, Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking offers an intimate, humorous, poignant, and informative look into the tapestry of Russian life. The book takes you on a journey through decades of Moscow’s deprivations and excesses, and food is the unifying theme. In fact, food plays as significant a character as Stalin, Khrushchev, or Gorbachev in weaving together a tribute to family and to the resiliency of the Russian people.
Food is a central part of the human experience; much like von Bremzen, our own lives and stories -- from our respective hometowns of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and New Orleans -- are woven around a love of food. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is by far more memoir than cookbook, but what the pages lack in recipes, they make up for in illustrating the concept that food isn't merely functional. We immediately fell in love with this book primarily because its value isn’t in its recipes (of which there are barely any). Rather, its value is in its reinforcement of the idea that food is about people and experiences; it's about legacy and history and the expression of the times.
In an effort to review complementing dishes, we chose to cook Palov (Central Asian Rice, Lamb, and Carrot Pilaf) and Cornbread for Khrushchev (Moldovan Cornbread with Feta).
The ingredients to the dishes were similar to their French and Mediterranean bases (our comfort zone) but very different in their execution. For the stew, for instance, the lamb was browned, combined with slightly caramelized onions, then mixed with spices and grated carrots. Then you add uncooked rice on top of the meat and spice mixture so it steams, creating a complex, spicy, and intriguing one-pot meal. The rice was silky and rich, and the combination of turmeric, paprika, cumin, and lamb worked perfectly to create a delicious dish.
Though the recipe for the cornbread required fine yellow cornmeal, we decided to bake it two ways -- one with fine cornmeal and the other with medium ground -- as a test. Both were delicious, but the fine cornmeal worked much better to ensure a non-grainy bread that was more cake-like in texture, which we really enjoyed. We were skeptical of the feta at first, but it proved to smooth out the batter, and the grated pieces were delicious surprises in the finished product. The roasted red pepper added a bit of acidity and sweetness to a dish that we didn’t previously think needed either.
Although Von Bremzen's recipes are different from ones most cooks are accustomed to cooking, she manages to write them in a way that is simple to follow. We thoroughly enjoyed the book -- not only in a culinary context, but historically as well.
The Piglet—inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books—is where the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year face off in a NCAA-style bracketed tournament. Watch the action and weigh in on the results!