What you think about when you think of Russian food probably depends on whether or not you have actually spent any time in Russia. If you haven’t spent much time in Russia, you might actually just draw a blank when it comes to Russian food – and if you don’t, you’ll probably think of borscht.
They do eat borscht in Russia, but if you bring up borscht to a Russia, he or she will likely mention that borscht is Ukrainian, not Russian. That is factually correct. In fact, when I think of Russian food, I don’t think of borscht at all. I don’t even think of borscht when I think about Russian soups.
I think of щи (shchi).
It being winter, and it being time to cook something from Russia, I decided to cook up a pot of shchi.
The proper English translation for щи would be “cabbage soup.” Shchi is basically cabbage soup. Most shchi has onions, potatoes, meat, root vegetables like carrots and is seasoned with a bay leaf, but only the cabbage is necessary for the soup to be considered ‘shchi.’
My Russian cookbook has a whole chapter on various ways to make shchi (to be fair, it also has a whole section on borscht). As usual, instead of copying a single recipe, I flipped through the chapter, looking for the components I thought would be most important to include. As I did so, I was also thinking about the shchi I ate in Russia – it almost always had small pieces of pork, and the key ingredients were cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions.
There are two shchi moments from Russia that I remember well. The first was during my Christmas vacation. I had gotten together with a friend in the afternoon, and he had invited me over for dinner. He had already made a pot of shchi already made, and we sat in his very small room, eating shchi and having spoonfuls of honey for dessert.
The second shchi event was at the home of the director of an orphanage where I was volunteering. The orphanage was run by they Orthodox church, and this woman was pretty religious (for Russia). It was during Lent, which means that the shchi she prepared did not have any animal products (Orthodox lent means going vegan, not just vegetarian). Even though it was prepared with water instead of stock, the soup was remarkably flavorful.
Good shchi is delicious, but not in a knock-your-socks-off-organismic sort of way. It’s hearty, comfort food that you would prepare for your family but probably would be embarrassed to take to a potluck (unless you are cooking for Russians!). Here’s how I made it.
.25 pounds of pork stew meat
half a head of cabbage – or sauerkraut
.5 pounds of mushrooms
Chop the onion, potato and mushrooms into small pieces, about an 8th of an inch large. Cut the cabbage into pieces that are about 1 square inch.
I make most soup in my trusty cast iron stew pot. Sauté the onions in butter until they are transparent, then add the pork meat, which should be cut into pieces that are about a quarter of an inch cubed. After you add the meat, add the mushrooms and continue to sauté everything until the mushrooms have cooked (authenticity alert! Most people I knew in Russia cooking with cheap sunflower or canola oil, but I think that kind of oil is gross so I always use butter or olive oil…).
Cook until the meat looks uniformly cooked. Add the cabbage, potato, bay leaf and pork bones, and then pour water over everything until you’ve covered the top with water. Cover with a lid and let it simmer away for 1.5 to 2 hours.
Serve garnished with sour cream, chopped dill and, if you’re feeling particularly Russian, chopped raw garlic.
The only glaring omission in my recipe is carrots. My husband hates carrots, so I left them out so that he would eat the soup. I used fresh cabbage for my shchi, but you can also add sauerkraut, which gives the soup a sour flavor that is also delicious.