a ukrainian delight ::::
After moving to California and soon after giving birth to my son, I have been lucky to meet many of my neighbors with young children. Peach rides her bike with #5 and #8, waves to little #4, and says hello to #14. Number 14 is my friend Ruslana’s daughter, too young to jump on a bike with Peach but old enough to squeal at the sight of Grub and nice enough to share her toys with him.
The babies roll around as we mothers, Ruslana and I, discuss job-hunting tactics and frustrations with the work-life balance of the working mother. Since my days often revolve around what we will eat for dinner, and whether Peach will actually eat said dinner, the conversation often falls into that predictable pattern of my food blog and any new recipes I might try. I’ve always expressed interest in authentic ethnic cooking, and Ruslana has been nothing but supportive and informative about her family’s cuisine.
When shuffling through a local Russian market with Ruslana, I noticed jars of Danube Salad. Ruslana explained it is typical dish made where she grew up in the Ukraine, also mentioning that her mother would make bottles of it, storing them for enjoying in the wintertime when such vegetables were more scarce. “Let’s make THAT,” I said to Ruslana, as I fingered a jar. I’m not sure what possessed me to say that, or even assume that it would be possible. I’m not a marinated-salad kind of person. Jarred vegetables aren’t exactly aesthetically appealing. But it started from there. A time was set. The ingredients were bought. And we began.
Amid the flurry of washing the vegetables thoroughly, chopping them, was Ruslana translating her mother’s utilitarian instructions from Russian to English. She always began with “Leeza!” to catch my divided attention to the kids’ mischief. It was a little difficult for me to tear my eyes from the fast-moving Inchworm (nee Grub), after he decided to attempt ingestion of a large dust bunny and ended up choking and puking on the floor. You know, the normal stuff that freaks a mother out when she thinks turning her back for a SECOND is okay. After getting gist of the recipe and writing copious notes, I decided I’d need to test the recipe, from the beginning by myself. One test was to go into a Russian market, unassisted, and ask for the 9% vinegar (“uksus”) and actually get it.
“I’m looking for ‘uksus’?” I said, trying to look like I knew what I was doing and why I’d be asking for Russian vinegar. The elderly Russian-speaking gentleman manning the cash register popped up, wide-eyed, showed me the aisle, and studied it for a minute. He shuffled off, gathering the eyes of a bifocaled female colleague, who confirmed which vinegar was correct, though so subtlely, I stood around for another 5 minutes, assuming there might be another, perhaps younger, English-speaking clerk who could help. No such luck, so I grabbed my treasure and headed for the check-out queue.
Danube salad is special in that it is deceiving. Despite the jar and the ability to keep for months at room temperature, it is full of fresh flavor and crunchy like a spring-fresh salad. The broth can be used for soups (I saved and froze mine, waiting for a chilly soup-inducing day to use it). Cilantro and dill complement each other well. The bay leaves are sweet and strong, seeping flavor through all of the crunch. Very satisfying.
Mind you, this is a lot of work. When I did this on my own, I somehow I managed to do this with a fast-moving almost 10-month old crawling on the floor. When I did the hot work, he was in the high chair, sometimes watching, sometimes screeching like a pterodactyl, demanding my eyes on his ever-present (now seven-toothed!) smile.
Our sterilizing set-up
Be thankful for your neighbors. They may be your greatest teachers. I would have never learned how to make such a great dish if I hadn’t connected with Ruslana. And you know what? My salad passed muster with Ruslana’s family. I had excellent teachers.
- 1½ kilograms (3 lbs 5 oz) firm tomatoes (I used Roma tomatoes)
- 1 bunch (115 g) fresh dill
- 1 bunch (108 g) fresh cilantro
- 1 bunch (88 g) parsley
- a few celery leaves (optional -- use if wanting to fill out your bunch of cilantro)
- 8 large carrots (1134 g = 2 lbs 8 oz)
- 3 medium onions (469 g = 1 lb)
- 3 colored sweet peppers (591 g = 1 lb 4.8 oz)
- ¼ cup sunflower oil
- 5 heaping teaspoons granulated sugar
- 9% vinegar [Үксус столовъій] (You can find this in any Russian store. Ask for "uksus")*
- 4 bay leaves
- 6 peppercorns
- 1-2 tablespoons iodized salt (I also used kosher without a problem)
- Yield: about 3 quarts (after bottled) [NOTE: your yield will depend on the amounts of all of your vegetables. The tomato weight is a guide. I've listed the weights of all of my vegetables in the recipe; my yield was just over 3 quarts. Also, for the best taste, it is preferable to use organic vegetables only.]
- Special equipment: enamel or glass bowl to hold 8.1 quarts (7.7 liters) of vegetables, 2 large clean towels, 3 to 4 1-quart canning jars, vegetable steamer (see photo above)
- Wash tomatoes twice and remove all blemishes. Slice them <1cm thick. Set aside in large 8.1 quart bowl.
- Remove brown ends from parsley, cilantro, and dill and wash well, discarding any yellowed or brown leaves. Add these to the bowl.
- Chop herbs like little trees, but chop stems finely.
- Peel carrots and grate. Avoid grating your knuckles.
- Wash peppers well and slice in half, then half lengthwise again. Then slice on the width into small slices.
- Peel and halve onions, then slice into half moon thin slices.
- Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon salt, mix with clean hands and taste to see if more is needed. I added another ½ tablespoon.
- Cover and allow to sit. Drink a glass of tea. Taste vegetables again and add more salt if needed. Refrigerate 5-6 hours (up to 12 hours).
- After adding in bay leaves and peppercorns, put vegetable mixture into a large pot and cook on medium-low heat for 15 minutes to release juices.* Keep track of the bay leaves, as you will use these for another step later.
- Meanwhile, sterilize jars (you will need 3 to 4 1-quart jars). Here's how we did it (see photo above): fill pot with about 1 centimeter deep of water and a vegetable steamer. Place jar upside down on steamer and allow to heat up until too hot to touch. Remove carefully and cool on clean towel. To sterilize lids and screw tops: boil immersed in water for 2-3 minutes.
- Remove bay leaves and reserve for later. Taking care to press out air bubbles, pack vegetable mixture into sterilized jars, filling up to bottom of jar neck (leave head space for expansion of food with heating). Allow to cool completely (3 hours or longer, depending on the size of your jars). Before cooling, wipe lips of jars with a clean towel to remove vegetable pieces or juicy bits.** Cover LOOSELY.
- Place reserved bay leaves into small saucepan with oil, 9% vinegar, and sugar and boil for 10 minutes. Revel in the sweet, earthy scent of the bay leaves.
- Removing lids very carefully, pour marinade into each bottle, dividing evenly. If you spill any marinade onto the jar lids or lips, wipe again with a clean towel. (Reminder: If there are vegetable bits or marinade on the lids or lips, they will not seal properly.) Replace lids and screw on to "fingertip tight." This means NOT tightly, but just enough that the screw cap won't topple off into the sterilization water.
- Put bottles into a tall pot (I used a 16 quart one) so bottles and immerse almost fully in water, water being two finger-breadths below the lower edge of the jar lid (neck).
- Start heating the water on low heat, then boil for 20 minutes.***
- Carefully remove and cool on wooden surface or towels. Close lids more tightly (but not too tightly). Listen for the "pop" or "ping" of the top sealing; this may take up to 12 hours. Turn jars upside down (or not).**** Canning imperialists know to say a special "Thank you!" when the lid ping is heard. I said thanks four times.
- Cover jars with towels and newspaper to allow for slow cooling.
- Keeps for months at room temperature unopened. Refrigerate before eating and after opening. Eat with a side of mashed potatoes, buckwheat porridge, or corn porridge.