Friday, May 30, 2008

Comfort Food: Simple Cabbage Soup, with Belesh

I've been trying to recreate my grandma's pirozhki and beleshi for years. It looked so simple back then: grandma would wake up at 4 am to start the dough. By the time I'm up and finished watching the kids TV program, the dough is up and the filling is ready, so I would have my share of fun helping to shape the pirozhki, playing with the leftover dough, and generally messing up the kitchen. Now grandma is not here anymore, and I am far away, dealing with completely different ingredients, trying to keep the tradition of a distant place and a time long past. Not completely without success. But they don't come out the way I remember them!

So, here are the differences and substitutions:
The beef was all grass fed, poor quality, and previously frozen. This is something you just cannot get in California now - either it's corn fed frozen, or very fresh organic grass fed. I've tried both, they don't taste the same as the beef we had back in Russia. This time I had a package of organic grass fed ground beef from Safeway. Grandma would grind the meat together with the onions and garlic in an old-fashioned hand-operated Chech meat grinder. I have one of these, but since the meat came already ground, I pureed the vegetables in a blender.

The stock used to be made fresh, either with the bones from the same beef, or with an old hen.
I buy stewing hens in the Chinese grocery, make a lot of stock and freeze it in 1 and 2 cup containers (my "bouillon cubes"; I open the freezer and see a dozen containers labelled "chicken", "beef", "crab", "bunny and friends" - that one from leftover rabbit, chicken and duck bones).

We had frozen fresh yeast back in Russia, here I have dry.

The oil that grandma used for frying was refined sunflower oil. I use peanut oil.

I guess the flour and water are completely different too.

And I don't have a clan to feed, so the small scale of my cooking affects the technique.

So, this is what I make out of it.

Beleshi (makes 8)
for the dough:
2 cups bread flour
approx. 1 cup warm water
1/4 tsp dry yeast
1/4 tsp salt

for the filling:
1 lb ground beef, or use half beef, half lamb
2 medium yellow onions
2-3 large garlic cloves
salt and pepper

vegetable oil for frying

Mix the bread dough with the flour, water, yeast and salt, adjust the amount of water to make soft, but not wet, dough, knead for 5 minutes, place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place for 3-4 hours. Fold a few times, pressing the air out, and let rise the second time, 1-2 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling: chop onions and garlic, then coarsely puree in a blender. Mix with the beef, season well with salt and pepper, refrigerate until used.

Divide the dough into 8 equal parts, roll each into a ball, then roll out into a circle. Place a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center, bring the edges up and seal almost closed, leaving a small opening. With you hand, press the belesh flat.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Place beleshi into the skillet open side down and fry until golden. Turn over, reduce the heat, and finish cooking until the juice runs clear. Remove to a plate covered with a towel, let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cabbage Soup (serves 2)
2 cups chicken or beef stock
1 tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, white part only, halved, cleaned and sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced
about 1/4 of a medium white cabbage, cut into large squares
salt, pepper
chopped dill or parsley, for serving
fried bacon bits, for serving

Heat oil in a deep sautee pan. Over low heat, sautee leeks and carrots until soft. Add stock, bring to boil, add cabbage and cook for a few minutes until the cabbage is ready.

Garnish with dill or parsley and bacon bits.

Just like this! I should make more of these bouillon cubes, they are treasures, save so much work.

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