Quick poll: if you could travel anywhere in the early spring, where would you want to go? Ok, results are coming in… Looks like the most popular response is “any place warm,” followed closely by “the beach” and “the Caribbean.” In a shocker, no one said: “Someplace overcast and cold, where there is still snow on the the ground and the high temperatures are just barely breaking freezing. Like Russia. Yeah, Russia would be awesome in March.” And yet, I recently came back from a week and a half in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and let me tell you: it was amazing.
So, why Russia? I have to admit, it wasn’t really on my radar until one of my best friends from college and her family moved to Moscow last April, with the plan to stay for just a few years. I wanted to visit while they were still there, so another good friend and I made the trip out in mid-March. We thought we had packed enough winter clothes—long underwear, knee-length down coats, wool socks…—but it still took us about three days to figure out how to dress so that we were not miserably cold. A short week later, though, as temperatures soared into the low 40’s and the sun came out, we were already shedding our hats and gloves and exclaiming about how great the weather was.
I went in knowing little about Russian food, having low but uninformed expectations, and joking around about how I was going to survive on potatoes, caviar, and vodka. I did get to have caviar once (thank you, fancy brunch at the Hotel Metropole), and my friends and I of course enjoyed some obligatory vodka before falling back on our usual beer or wine.
Here is what I experienced: You can indeed get cured herring and potatoes in many restaurants, and it’s darn good. Dark bread (rye or wheat) with plenty of butter is a staple. Dumplings (especially pelmeni) are ubiquitous, and veal seems to always be offered as a possible filling. They are big on blini and crêpe-style pancakes. I tried borscht and it was delicious (this is coming from someone who thinks that beets taste the way that dirt smells), and there is also a beef soup called solyanka/solianka that is equally outstanding. And lastly, it’s practically impossible to get a meal that doesn’t include either a sprinkle of dill or a side of sour cream. The only disappointment was that fromagicide is real, and most of the cheese I had was pretty bland.
I came home with matryoshka dolls, adorably wrapped Alenka chocolate, and onion-dome Christmas ornaments, plus a raging sore throat from my friend’s kids and a serious craving for some restorative soup like the brothy ones I’d had in Russia. In the freezer, luckily, were four Ziploc bags of homemade chicken stock from this winter, just waiting to be turned into something good. What better way to use them than to make a soup with spring vegetables? I didn’t want to waste the homemade stock on something that it would just get so lost in that you couldn’t appreciate it, and I wanted to use it up before the weather got too warm.
I went with red-skinned potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and (not pictured) frozen peas for the vegetables in this soup. I am sure that fresh peas would be great; if you’ve got them, use them, but frozen peas worked just fine for me. I cut the potatoes the way I’d had them in my borscht and solyanka: sliced into short, thick matchsticks instead of chunks.
This result is a brothy, light soup that is nevertheless full of flavor, thanks to the homemade stock and also the fresh dill and sour cream that top it off. Obviously, to get the full experience, you have to enjoy it with with a slice of dark bread, spread generously with salted butter.
Note: This soup is pretty simple, and I am convinced that the homemade chicken stock played a big role in making it flavorful. My usual stock method is: in a stockpot, place a chicken carcass and 2 large carrots (cut into 3″-4″ sticks), 2 large celery stalks (cut into 3″-4″ sticks), one small yellow or white onion (peeled but root intact, quartered lengthwise), 3 large garlic cloves (peeled and smashed with the flat edge of a knife), plenty of salt (don’t be shy), a handful of whole black peppercorns (easier to strain later), and 2 dried bay leaves, plus a few springs of fresh herbs (I aim for parsley and sage but rosemary and/or thyme work too). Cover with water, bring to a boil, then simmer for as long as you can stand it—3 to 4 hours, preferably. If too much liquid evaporates, throw some more water in the pot. Taste it and adjust your seasoning—if you could drink a cupful plain, it’s good. Strain, then cool overnight in the fridge. Skim most of the fat off the top. Use in the next few days or freeze.
Spring Vegetable Soup with Sour Cream and Dill
makes about six 2-cup servings
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1/2 c. diced white or yellow onion
- 1/3 c. diced celery
- 1/3 c. diced peeled carrot (about 1 large)
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 6 c. homemade stock
- 3/4 lb. red-skinned potatoes (about 3 medium)
- about 4 medium carrots (1 c. sliced)
- 2 c. frozen petit peas, unthawed
- about 1 medium bunch of asparagus (2 c. chopped)
- sour cream, for serving
- 3 Tbsp. fresh chopped dill, for serving
- Heat the butter and olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat.
- Add the minced onion, celery and carrot (the minced carrot, not the carrot slices!) and the kosher salt. Sauté for about 15 minutes, or until really soft and starting to caramelize.
- Add the garlic and sauté just until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.
- Prep the potatoes and carrots while the broth is coming to a boil: cut cut the potatoes (no need to peel) into 1″ lengths that are about 1/3″ thick. (Basically, you want the potato sticks to be the same size and shape as your chopped asparagus.) Set them aside in a bowl. Peel the carrots and slice them diagonally into 1/3″ coins. Put them in a second bowl. Measure out your peas in a third bowl. Trim your asparagus, cut it into 1″ lengths, and place it in a yet another bowl. Why? These veggies cook at different rates, and you don’t want your peas to turn into mush while your potatoes are still raw.
- Once your broth is boiling, set your timer for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the carrots when your timer says 8 minutes. Add the peas when it’s down to 5 minutes. Add the asparagus at the 3-minute mark. When your timer goes off, kill the heat and remove the pan from the burner.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Before serving, top each bowl of soup with a dollop of sour cream and 1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill. Serve with warm bread (if you want to go homemade, I highly recommend Heidi Swanson’s black bread) and butter.