Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting!

I wish you peaceful and prosperous 2014!

Sincerely yours,
Eugenia Vlasova

Picture by Marina Fedotova

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pelmeni: Siberian Winter Food

Pelmeni (plural, пельмени in Russian) are dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. The typical filling for pelmeni is minced meat with chopped onion, salt and pepper. According to a legend I've heard, pelmeni was the favorite food of postal coachmen and hunters who had to cross endless snowy Siberian steppes. Sometimes coachmen could spend days without meeting a single living soul, excluding inns or any other en-route facilities. Minding this and particularly fierce winter weather, coachmen had to think carefully about their food. Pelmeni seemed to be a perfect solution: nutritious, compact, could be kept frozen for weeks, and was easy to cook.

To me, pelmeni is a taste of New Year. There was a tradition in my family to make pelmeni before the New Year night. We made them together: my mom was in charge for the filling, dad made the dough and then flattened the round cakes with a rolling-pin. My sister and I added the filling to the cakes and shaped pelmeni making them look like a funny bread ears. When we got two or three large baking sheets filled with straight rows of pelmeni, dad put them outside to freeze (baking sheets were too large for a fridge). Pelmeni would be served for New Year dinner, and for many other dinners throughout the long winter. In my childhood, there were store-made pelmeni, but they were half not that yummy and therefore not so popular. Home-made pelmeni were beyond compare.

Time changed. About ten years ago or so, hand-made pelmeni of quite high quality appeared in Russian stores.The tradition of making pelmeni at home has been almost forgotten, because it is so much easier to buy a pack of ready-made frozen pelmeni and spend 10 minutes cooking instead of two hours making them from scratch.

When I immigrated to Canada, I started missing my favorite food.Of course, there are Russian food stores and markets where I can buy the food from Eastern European countries, but I decided to make pelmeni by myself, reviving the memories of my early childhood. My husband helped me with the ambitious project, and the result exceeded our expectations. Our pelmeni were really good! Here is the recipe and step—by-step instruction.

Step 1. Dough. Take 2 pounds/1 kg of bread flour, make a heel with a crater on the top. Break an egg and pour it into the hole. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt. Pour about 1.5 - 2 cup of water and start kneading the mix until the dough is rubber-like. Put the dough ball to the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel, so it won't dry. Normally I ask my husband to help me with the dough, because I can not knead it well enough.

Step 2. Making the filling. Take 2 ponds of ground meat (the classic Siberian feeling is 50% of ground beef and 50% of ground pork, but you can also use lamb if you like). Chop one large onion finely, add to the meat. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and ¼ cup of water. Mix well.

Make sure your onion is fresh and fine. Otherwise, the smell may spoil you the dish. Do not prepare the filling in advance. The onions may start smelling very unpleasantly if they come in contact with meat. When the filling is ready, start making pelmeni immediately.

Step 3. Dust your working surface with flour. Cut off some dough from the dough ball, make a 'sausage', and cut it into small chunks, about 1 inch each. These will be your round cakes. Press the chunk with your thumb. Dust a pin-roller with flour too, so the dough won't stick to it. Roll the chunks into the cakes. They should be thin as paper, but not too thin, so the dough won't tear when you add the filling and wrap it. The outer side of the cake that contact the surface of your table gets more flour on it, while the inner side stays relatively clear and sticky. You'll need the sticky side to wrap each pelmen.

Step 4. Wrapping. Add a small amount of the filling to the very center of your round cake. I normally put about 1 teaspoon of the filling. In your mind, divide a cake into two half circles. Stick the opposite sides together, so you get one half-circle with a meatball inside. Make sure the sides glue together well, so when cooking, the filling remains inside the pelmen. Wrap the opposite ends of your half-circle together, and you get the roundish thing that resembles an ear. Here is your first pelmen. Continue wrapping pelmeni until you run out of cakes. Then repeat step 3 and 4.
If you decide to make round cakes out of the entire dough ball, they'll get dry, and won't stick together. Making smaller portions is much better.

Step 5. Put pelmeni onto the baking sheet and freeze, if you prepare them in advance. If you want to cook them immediately, boil water in a large pot. Add salt and 2 to 3 bay leaves. Add pelmeni to the boiling water, steer them gently, so they don't stick to the bottom. After a few minutes, pelmeni will start getting up. When all pelmeni are up, cook them for 5-7 minutes, drain and serve with butter, mustard, or sour cream.

The best way to make pelmeni is with one or two helpers, because otherwise, it would take you too long, and you'd feel too tired. Now you know how to make a genuine Siberian pelmeni, so you can surprise your guests with a Russian Style New Year party! Приятного аппетита!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Russia's Open Book

I was utterly excited to learn about the New PBS Documentary RUSSIA'S OPEN BOOK. I hope you'll share my excitement when you get to know about this project too.

For Western readers, Russian literature is mostly its classics – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or Tolstoyevsky, as some people ironically refer to them. Needless to say this is a very narrow perception of the Russian literature. There are many bright contemporary writers in Russia whose names are utterly unknown to the wide public, and whose works are still waiting to be discovered. My desire to share my reviews on recently published Russian novels usually withers away, because the names of the writers are mostly unknown, and the novels haven't been translated yet.

You can imagine how happy I was to read about the Russia's Open Book – a co-production of Intelligent Television and Wilton Films. Broadway World wrote:

"Hosted by actor, author, and activist Stephen Fry (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jeeves and Wooster, The Hobbit), RUSSIA'S OPEN BOOK celebrates contemporary Russian authors who are carrying on one of the world's great literary traditions - yet doing so on their own terms. Each author is interviewed extensively in the film, with contributions from their literary critics, publishers, and peers. Excerpts from the authors' recent works are brought to life by vivid animated sequences created exclusively for the film and voiced-over with dramatic readings in English by Fry, who currently stars in the new Broadway production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night"

From the trailer on YouTube, I've learned who are the authors, to whom Mr. Fry talked. Here they are:

Zakhar Prilepin (Захар Прилепин) – born 1975 in Ryazanskaya oblast. In 1990s he “worked as a laborer, a security guard, served as a squad leader in the riot police, took part in the fighting in Chechnya in 1996 and 1999”. He is a very contradictory person, and his political views (a supporter of national-bolshevism) may be somewhat extreme, but he is no doubt a very talented writer.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya (Людмила Улицкая) – a novelist and short-story writer. Being an activist, she “is actively involved in philanthropic projects”. She often writes piercing stories on social issues in the modern Russia and promotes ideas of religious and social tolerance. Though some readers think her texts are somewhat dry (an unexpected characteristic for the female writer), she works with details very thoroughly. By those details she reproduce the unique atmosphere that keeps you reading on and on.

Mariam Petrosyan (Мариам Петросян) – unfortunately, I know very few about her, and didn't have a chance to read her most famous novel “The House, in which...” (Дом, в котором...). I've added her books to my to-read list.

Dmitry Bykov (Дмитрий Быков) – He is a virtuoso of writing. He writes as naturally as he breathes. His novels are always long, and his prose is wordy, yet as delicate as laces. He works as a teacher in one of the schools in Moscow, and, honestly, I envy the kids that have a chance to listen to him. His lectures about the Russian literature are amazing. He is exceptionally good in Russia's history of early Soviet epoch.

Anna Starobinets (Анна Старобинец) – a horror fiction writer. I haven't read her works yet, so, I just added her to my to-read list too.

Vladimir Sorokin (Владимир Сорокин) – His biting, sarcastic novels were banned in the Soviet Union. He managed to be so irritating that in 2002, there was a protest against his book Blue Bacon Fat. His recent dystopian novels of the Oprichnik cycle are, in my humble opinion, a very accurate and merciless diagnostics of the modern Russian society.

Hopefully, the documentary will be available soon. I can't wait for it!

Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about the modern Russian writers, you can also read Life Stories, a unique collection of original works by 19 leading Russian writers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Word That Can Mean Anything

Any language has many words that have literal definitions, but are rarely used in their direct meanings. For example, nobody means that you are fearsome by saying “you are awesome!”. In the Russian language, there is a word that may mean either excitement or huge disappointment in colloquial Russian, while its literal meaning “in general”, “on the whole”, “always”, “at all”. This word is вообще (vaabschE). Here are some examples how to use this miraculous word:

- Русский вообще и его фонетику, в частности, трудно выучить. Russian generally and its phonetics specifically are hard to learn.
Here вообще is used in its direct formal meaning – opposite to 'specifically'

- Почему ты такая весёлая? Why are you so cheerful?
- Я вообще такая. I'm always like that.
In this case, вообще means “always” opposing to some particular moments.

- Наш менеджер опаздывает на собрание? Is our manager late for the meeting?
- Он вообще не придёт. He won't come at all.

- Я не готовлю дома. I don't cook at home.
- Я удивляюсь, как ты вообще не умер один с голоду! I wonder why you haven't died of hunger at all living on your own!
In these examples, the word вообще has a slightly negative connotation. It is not explicit, but Russian native speakers would hear some faint note of irritation or irony.

Those were the meanings of 'вообще' that you can find in a dictionary. Now let's see the examples from colloquial speech.

- Я выпил твоё пиво. I drank your beer.
- Что ты вообще делаешь в моей квартре? What on earth are you doing in my apartment?
Вообще plays a role of “what on earth”, “what the hell” in the sentences to show extreme emotions (mostly negative).

- Я сказал начальнику, что он идиот. I told the boss that he's an idiot).
- Ну ты вообще! hmm... the mix of distrust, jealousy, fear and respect, like 'Man!'

- Посмотри, какую машину я купил! Look, I've bought a new car!
- Вообще! Wow! Super!

- Я утопил твой телефон в кружке с чаем. I sunk you phone in the mug of tea.
- Ты что, вообще? WTF did you just do?!?!?!?!?

- Её парень не чистит зубы. Her boyfriend doesn't brush his teeth.
- Вообще! Ugh!

The context and intonations usually help to distinguish whether “вообще” means excitement, anger or disgust. It is so funny to watch how far the real usage of a word can deviate from the official definitions!

Photo by Ralph Kränzlein