Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving in Moscow

I read a lot of food and recipe blogs, and most of the authors cite an almost identical source of initiation into the world of food.  Each recounts a childhood memory where she sat in her mother's kitchen soaking up every bit of activity going on around her. As she grew, her duties as assistant became more advanced, until one day, she was the one doing all the cooking, absorbed in every minute step.  These are all sweet stories, and I wish I could draw on one of my own, showing the clear linear path to my current obsession with all things food.  Unfortunately, I rarely helped my own mother in the kitchen.  Instead, I was the one waiting for her to leave and check her e-mail, sneaking in with a spoon to get a taste of whatever was on the stove.  I was the one climbing on chairs to reach the highest cabinet, where I knew the special treats and candies were hidden.  Often times during college when I'd return home for a weekend, my mom would buy my favorite salt and vinegar potato chips, among other things.  She'd always joke that before she could even show me what she'd bought, I'd already "sniffed everything out." So, yes, instead of that cute child trying her best to fill her mother's measuring cups, I was the one wiping crumbs from my cheeks and begging to lick the bowl.

After moving out of my parents' house, I quickly learned that in order to enjoy the foods I gorged on growing up, I had to learn to prepare them.  With each year of college, I grew more and more independent in my cooking.  I began experimenting in the kitchen.  I can still remember e-mailing my mom for the family chicken paprikash recipe.  My roommate and I used the shared kitchen of our dorm to attempt the meal.  I felt like such a real chef substituting skinless, boneless chicken breasts for bone-in chicken thighs.  I didn't even know what to do with bone-in chicken thighs. Somehow, the recipe turned out great, and we had leftovers for a week.

Gradually, I became infatuated with the process of cooking: searching for a recipe, gathering the proper ingredients, preparing for each step, improvising when necessary, then, best of all, enjoying the finished product. Soon my weekend visits home involved testing new recipes with my mom.  We discovered our similar liking to dishes that were unusual to the rest of our family.  Many times we'd prepare something for them, while experimenting with a little something for ourselves. My dad and Anna would look critically at our salmon burgers, then take a huge satisfying bite of their beef.

When I moved to Columbus, I was so excited to have a kitchen of my own.  I inherited many of my great grandmother's cooking utensils, many of which had purposes completely unknown to me.  I only learned last week what a pastry cutter is.  I can tell you that's not what I used mine for. I started simply with casseroles, pastas, and other easily-assembled dishes.  I was cooking for two 20-something college boys, for goodness' sake.  I had to cook something that would fill their bottomless stomachs.  Kyle bought me a fancy stand mixer, on which I tested cookie recipes from Halloween through the New Year.  I also began building up a collection of cookbooks.  This enthusiasm continued through our six months in Naples but took an unfortunate halt last February when we arrived in South Korea.  I had two burners, a microwave, and a sorry collection of ingredients to work with.  I continued cooking, but it was with the sole purpose of consumption. I felt a wave of relief when I saw a real kitchen with a working stove and oven when we first stepped into our apartment here in Russia, even if there was a washing machine in the thick of it all. But my excitement hasn't been the same.  Ingredients are difficult to track down, and when you have to walk a couple miles to the grocery store, you're less inclined to try new recipes. 

My second main obsession besides food is the holiday season, which in my calendar starts a week before Halloween and continues on until New Year's Day.  I have a strong feeling these two obsessions are intricately woven together, but regardless, Thanksgiving's approach struck an idea in me.  I decided to create, to the best of my ability, a Thanksgiving meal for us to share here in Moscow.  If we couldn't go home for family and food, I'd try to recreate as much of it here as possible.  I made an elaborate plan, which consisted of which ingredients to buy and at what time, what steps of each recipe to carry out on each day, then finally how to make it all come together Thursday night.  We had no time off work that week, so I needed to prepare as much in advance as I could.  Each working day contains only a few hours of free time, so I had to balance that as well.  Though I can certainly say my cooking skills have developed since my first chicken paprikash attempt, I've never made so many dishes for one meal in the middle of a full-time work week.  Most of the dishes for Thanksgiving I've never made at all. 

I scouted the ingredients in the three nearby grocery stores and compiled a menu: roasted dill chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, rolls, and apple pie.  I challenged myself to make as much from scratch as possible, which included everything except the cranberry sauce and rolls.  Green bean casserole is not really from scratch, at least not when you open a bag of frozen green beans and mix them with a can of cream of mushroom soup.  Somehow, some way, the meal came together without mishaps.  We sat down, as scheduled, around 10 pm on Thanksgiving night and stuffed ourselves silly. 

And, he liked it!

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely love the action shots :) Also... I feel famous for being the roomie who helped with the chicken paprikash!!!!