“Some will win, some will lose;
Some were born to sing the blues…”
Sure, “Don’t Stop Believin'” predates our June Cookbook Challenge by roughly 28 years. Even so, it’s like Steve Perry and Journey were singing just what we were feeling when we tasted botwinia, a cold sorrel soup we found in “The Best of Russian Cooking” by Alexandra Kropotkin.
As we’ve mentioned previously, we took it upon ourselves to cook at least one recipe from each of the cookbooks we’ve been collecting over the years. Some – like Tom Colicchio’s “Think Like a Chef” – rarely steer us wrong. Others…not so much.
If you’re thinking “Hey, wait a minute! Maybe June isn’t the best time of the year to be attempting the best of Russian cooking,” you’re absolutely right. Most of the dishes I grew up eating with my father’s side of the family are hearty fare: hot soups thick with barley, pierogi still glistening with oil in which they were fried, stuffed cabbage. The idea of trying to make any of them in a hot kitchen on a humid evening is enough to send us out for ice cream instead.
So we looked through Kropotkin’s cookbook with an eye toward something simple and light. A side dish, maybe? Turning to the chapter on vegetables, we eagerly sought something uniquely Russian. What we found was a collection of recipes that was heavy on root vegetables (six recipes for potatoes, four for turnips) and cabbage (four recipes including one that also highlights potatoes) but not so good on the fresh and light stuff. Apparently the Russian palate craves cream and/or butter constantly, as one or both show up in just about every vegetable dish in the book.
Vegetables were clearly out; what about soup? As luck (ha!) would have it, there were several recipes for cold soups in the book; we had such luck with the tri-color tomato soup we tried earlier, we figured we’d try the soup route again.
And that’s where things went horribly wrong.
Take a second and Google botwinia…I’ll wait. Not much there, is there? There’s a reason for that.
Botwinia is a cold sorrel soup, not to be confused with the Polish botwina (a cold beet-green soup…clearly VERY different). While sorrel may be readily available in Russia, the bitter-tasting green is not so common in American grocery stores. Rather than selling it in bunches, like spinach or watercress, Harris Teeter only carries packaged leaves from Katseri’s, a label supplied by local Shenandoah Growers. As such, this soup becomes far more expensive to make than it would be were sorrel available in bulk. So there’s not a lot of call for sorrel recipes.
Additionally, the bitter flavor of the main ingredient is one that we don’t really get a lot of in our day-to-day diets. Our palates have sweet down cold; salty and sour, too. Even umami, the ‘savory’ flavor found in parmesan cheese and soy sauce, is familiar – if not readily identifiable. But we don’t do bitter too often or too well.
That was really the best part of our botwinia experience. The soup had a deep, complex flavor. Unfortunately, most of the components had distinctly bitter notes. Pureed sorrel and spinach, white wine, horseradish, vinegar, lemon juice and sparkling water all make an appearance. Diced scallions and cucumber gave texture and a refreshingly clean taste that shone through from time to time, and smoked salmon added salt and fattiness to the mix.
Elizabeth hit the nail on the head when she first tried it: “I can taste a lot of different flavors…but I’m not sure if I like any of them.”
It’s possible we just chose poorly when it came to picking our representative recipe. But it wasn’t just the taste that gave us problems. The recipe was poorly written, too. Directions like “Cook the leaves without water for 12 minutes” lack clear guidance. What temperature? What kind of vessel? What should they look like when they’re ready? And although the ingredient list calls for 2 cups of consomme, the directions never really get around to telling you what to do with it.
If you want to try this epic fail yourself, the recipe follows in its entirety. For us, though, this was the first cookbook we both agreed deserved a special place atop the “give away” pile.
1 lb. sorrel
1/2 lb. spinach
3 small cucumbers, diced
3 Tbsp minced scallions
1 tsp prepared horseradish or mustard
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp vinegar from pickled beets (we used pickled ramp vinegar)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup ice water
1 cup cold cooked salmon or 6 slices smoked sturgeon
2 cups consomme (white or canned)
1/4 cup sparkling water
1 cup diced cold meat (optional and oh-s0-appealing sounding)
Wash the sorrel and spinach till entirely free from sand. Cut off the stems. Coke the leaves without water for 12 minutes, then rub through a sieve. Set aside to cool.
Peel and dice the cucumbers, which should have very small seeds. If the seeds are large, discard them. Mince the scallions very fine and add to the sorrel-spinach puree. Also add the horseradish (or mustard), the lemon juice, vinegar from the pickled beets, salt, pepper, wine and ice water.
Have the salmon flaked in large flakes, free from bones and skin. Or if you use smoked sturgeon, cut it in 1-inch squares. The fish must be well-chilled. Add it to the soup together with the sparkling water, just before serving. Allow 1 ice cube per plate – 6 cubes in all.
Use beef or veal if you want to add cold meat, and put it in at the same time with the fish.