In the beginning

Anya von Bremzen came to Northeast Philadelphia with her mother in 1974. She was happy to find Bell's Market, a Russian grocery store, on a return visit.
Anya von Bremzen came to Northeast Philadelphia with her mother in 1974. She was happy to find Bell's Market, a Russian grocery store, on a return visit. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Russian cookbook writer Anya von Bremzen recounts her years in N.E. Philly in her memoir.

Posted: February 07, 2014

Among the top 10 phrases former Philadelphians first utter upon returning to the city, "Oh look, it's the Roosevelt Boulevard!" is usually not one.

Then again, food writer Anya von Bremzen's world was small when she first arrived with her mother as an 11-year-old Soviet émigré to the farthest reaches of Northeast Philadelphia in 1974. And as we drove from 30th Street Station, where she arrived for the day from Queens where she now lives, she was doing a fine job embracing this long-overdue revisit to her first American home with chipper optimism. Especially considering the Boulevard was leading us toward the backdrop for her traumatic culture shock - courtesy of Pathmark, Oscar Mayer, and Wonder Bread - as detailed in her brilliant new memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Crown, 2013.)

"I wanted to come back here before I did the book, but it was just too sad," says von Bremzen, who wrote in her prologue: "I'm pretty sure I lost my sense of taste those first few Philadelphia months."

Having left her friends, family, and historic Moscow neighborhood behind without the right of return ("a kind of dying," she writes), von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa Frumkin, arrived at an anonymous brick apartment block at 9200 Old Bustleton Avenue with only $200 and used clothes from Jewish Family and Childrens' Services, their sponsor.

"I remember it being bigger," she said, gazing at that very apartment building from the snowy sidewalk on this day, four decades later. "Can you imagine arriving here from a beautiful European city - with no car to get around?"

That's how von Bremzen and her "elfin" mother ended up one humid November night in 1974 trudging beside the cars along Cottman Avenue after a visit to Pathmark. ("Apparently there [were] no sidewalks in Northeast Philadelphia.") She remembered that night, as rain suddenly came down, melting their brown paper bags and sending chicken parts and "squishy white bread" tumbling into the honking traffic. And little Anya began to cry.

"Come, isn't this an adventure, Anyutik?" her mother said, valiantly clutching the blueberry Pop Tarts. "Aren't Americans nice?"

The distinctly different perspectives mother and daughter continuously bring to their shared story is a charming, insightful, and recurring theme in von Bremzen's book. Built around the chapter-by-chapter quest to re-create dishes that symbolize each decade of Soviet history, from the elaborate layered kulebiaka fish pastry of the Czarist 1910s to the "uber-borshch" her eager-to-impress father cooked upon their return visit to Moscow in the 1980s, this is less a cookbook than it is a lyrical memoir and multifaceted reflection on Soviet (and American) cultures.

Frumkin is the book's heroine, ever "yearning for a world beyond the border," determined to find better medical care for her daughter, who suffered from scleroderma, and escape the anti-Semitism and Cold War privations that, at worst, left them eating udder and whale meat - the last straw before applying for their exit visa.

Von Bremzen, meanwhile, acknowledges the national bread lines and the "nuclear winter" that left a greenish-white slime on the beets. But, looking back, she also romanticizes everything from the Provansal brand Soviet mayo ("approved by Stalin himself") to the impressive list of resourceful uses for those empty Provansal jars (growing onions, spittoons, specimen transport) to the elaborate Salat Olivier potato salad assembled by neighbors in her communal apartment kitchen - of course, "loosely cemented with mayo."

As we drove south down Bustleton Avenue, it's clear much has changed for von Bremzen in the intervening decades. Having recovered from a wrist injury that cut short her Julliard-trained career as a concert pianist, she has achieved renown as a food writer, with five cookbooks to her name (the famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, with whom she'd dine that night, "is an old friend"), along with a contributing editorship with Travel + Leisure magazine, and an apartment overlooking the Bosporus strait in Istanbul ("my dream city") where she splits time with her home in Queens.

"I have felt a kind of guilt writing about indulgent restaurants," she concedes, "especially coming from a place where food was existential, scarce, and fetishized."

But Northeast Philadelphia and its close suburbs have also changed, becoming a thriving commerical hub for Russian-speaking immigrants - many of whom are too young to even remember the former Soviet republics.

"There was nothing like this when I lived here!" she said, amazed at the variety of restaurants, fur boutiques, and markets now lining the avenue near her old home.

At the sprawling Bell's Market, manager Lora Kushnir led her to the sweets department, where an entire wall of retro candies from the Red October chocolate factory (including a delightful pineapple-flavored bonbon) triggered a kindergarten flashback. The trays of cabbage-stuffed pirozhkis, samsa meat pies, and the vast selection of smoked fish ("Chilean sea bass half the price of New York!") launched von Bremzen on a long list of suggested purchases for the zakuski snacks of a proper Russian-themed feast. Smoked sturgeon and salmon caviar for the blinis. Georgian vegetable-and-nut spreads from Bell's extensive pickle bar. Frozen Latvian berries for signature cocktails. (Alternatively, she flavors good vodka with the peel of a lemon for two days.)

And then there were the poppy-encrusted and sweet cheese pastries that Bell's bakes daily, which we devoured before even making it to the register.

And so one could only imagine how her Philadelphia story might have been different in another, more recent, era. At lunch at Uzbekistan, a restaurant nearby, von Bremzen appreciatively held a juicy char-grilled lamb rib between her fingers.

"Well, if we'd had these when I lived here . . ." she said, ravenously diving in before finishing the thought: "These were worth the trip from New York."

Larisa Frumkin's Salat Olivier (Russian potato salad with pickles)

Serves 6

For the salad:

3 large boiling potatoes, peeled, cooked, and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled, cooked and diced

1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced

2 medium dill pickles, diced

1 medium seedless cucumber, peeled and finely diced

3 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped

One 16-ounce can peas, well-drained

1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (with 3 inches of the green tops)

1/4 cup finely chopped dill

12 ounces lump crab, flaked; or surimi crab legs, chopped (or substitute chopped poached chicken or beef)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the dressing: 

1 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste

1/3 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon white vinegar

Kosher salt to taste

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the salad ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients, season with salt and taste: It should be tangy and zesty.

3. Toss the salad thoroughly with the dressing, adding a little more mayo if it doesn't look moist enough. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve in a cut-crystal or glass bowl.

- from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Per serving: 445 calories; 18 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 128 milligrams cholesterol; 983 milligrams sodium; 9 grams dietary fiber.

Anya von Bremzen's Dad's Uber-Borshch

Serves 10 to 12

2 pounds beef chuck, shin, or brisket in one piece, trimmed of excess fat

14 cups water

2 medium onions, left whole

1 large onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, left whole, plus 1 large carrot, peeled and diced

1 bay leaf

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 medium beets, washed and stemmed

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed of grit and soaked in hot water for 1 hour

2 slices good smoky bacon, finely chopped

1 large green pepper, cored, seeded, and diced

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more as needed

2 cups chopped green cabbage

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes, with about half of their liquid

One 16-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, or more to taste

2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste

For serving: sour cream, chopped fresh dill, and thinly sliced scallions

1. Combine beef and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim and reduce heat to low. Add the whole onions and carrots and the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, until the meat is tender, about 11/2 hours. Strain the stock, removing the meat. You should have 11 to 12 cups of stock. Cut the beef into 11/2-inch chunks and reserve.

2. While the stock cooks, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the beets separately in aluminum foil and bake until the tip of a small knife slides in easily, about 45 minutes. Unwrap the beets, plunge them into a bowl of cold water, then slip off the skins. Grate the beets on a box grater or shred in a food processor. Set aside. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid and save for another use. Chop the mushrooms.

3. In a large, heavy soup pot, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. To the bacon drippings, add the chopped onion, mushrooms, diced carrot and green pepper, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes, adding a little butter if the pot looks dry.

4. Add the remaining butter and cabbage and cook, stirring, for 5 more minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds. Add the stock, potatoes, tomatoes and their liquid, apple, and the reserved beef, and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any froth, season with salt to taste, cover and simmer over low heat until the potatoes are almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in half of the reserved beets and the beans, and add a little water if the soup looks too thick. Continue cooking over medium low heat until all the vegetables are soft and the flavors have melded, about 25 minutes more. (The borshch can be prepared a day ahead up to this point. Reheat it slowly, thinning with a little water if it thickens too much on standing.)

5. Before serving, use a mortar and pestle and pound the garlic and parsley with 1 teaspoon of ground pepper to a coarse paste. Add to the simmering soup along with the reserved bacon, the remaining beets, vinegar, and sugar. Adjust the seasoning and simmer for another 5 minutes. Let the borshch stand for 10 minutes.

6. To serve, ladle the soup into serving bowls, add a small dollop of sour cream to each portion, and sprinkle with dill and scallions. Invite the guests to mix the sour cream well into their soup.

Per serving (based on 12): 446 calories; 36 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 87 milligrams cholesterol; 223 milligrams sodium; 10 grams dietary fiber.

Blini from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Serves 6 to 8

1 package dry active yeast (21/4 teaspoons)

1 cup warm water

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar

23/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

21/2 cups half-and-half or milk, at room temperature

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for brushing the blini

2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste

2 large eggs, separated, yolks beaten

Canola oil for frying

1 small potato, halved

For serving: melted butter, sour cream, at least two kinds of smoked fish, caviar or salmon roe, and a selection of jams

1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, water, and 2 teaspoons sugar and let stand until foamy. Whisk in ½ cup of flour until smooth. Place this "sponge," covered, in a warm place until bubbly and almost doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

2. Into the sponge beat the half-and-half, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 2¼ cups flour, egg yolks, the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and salt. Whisk the batter until completely smooth and set to rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, stirring once and letting it rise again. Alternatively, refrigerate the batter, covered with plastic, and let it rise for several hours or overnight, stirring once or twice. Bring to room temperature before frying.

3. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes.

4. Pour some oil into a small shallow bowl and have it ready by the stove. Skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bottom of a heavy 8-inch nonstick skillet with a long handle liberally with the oil. Heat the pan over medium heat for 11/2 minutes. Using a potholder, grip the skillet by the handle, lift it slightly off the heat, and tilt it toward you at a 45-degree angle. Using a ladle, quickly pour enough batter into the skillet to cover the bottom in one thin layer (about ¼ cup.) Let the batter run down the skillet, quickly tilting and rotating it until the batter covers the entire surface. Put the skillet back on the burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the underside is golden, about 1 minute. Turn the blin and cook for 30 seconds more, brushing the cooked side with melted butter. If the skillet looks dry when you are turning the blin, rub with some more oil. The first blin will probably be a flop.

5. Make another blin in the same fashion, turn off the heat and stop to taste. The texture of the blin should be light and spongy, and a touch chewy; it should be very thin but a little puffy. If a blin tears too easily, the consistency is too thin: whisk ¼ cup more flour into the batter. If the blin is too doughy and thick, whisk in ¼ to ½ cup water. Adjust the amount of salt or sugar to taste, and continue frying.

6. Repeat with the rest of the batter, greasing the pan with the oiled potato before making each blin. Slide each fried blin into a deep bowl, keeping the cooked blini covered with a lid or foil.

7. Serve hot, with the suggested garnishes. To eat, brush the blin with butter, smear with a little sour cream if you like, top with a piece of fish, roll up, and plop into your mouth.

Note: Blini are best eaten fresh. If you must reheat, place them, covered with foil, in a bain-marie in the oven or in a steamer. Or cover a stack with a damp paper towel and microwave on high for 1 minute.

Per serving (based on 8): 503 calories; 10 grams protein; 49 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 30 grams fat; 111 milligrams cholesterol; 724 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.




comments powered by Disqus