Friday, July 6, 2012

The Sauce (Eastern European vegetable stew)

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My friend Vova is a beautiful and passionate cook. When we met several years ago he was the first to introduce me to, say, Jamie Oliver books. He lives in Moscow, but his origin has to do with Ukraine and Odessa in particular. Recently he told me about a the "Sauce" and this gorgeous summer dish really intrigued me.

The thing is that my origin also has to do with Ukraine. Since I remember myself something casually named "squash sauce" is cooked in my family on a weekly basis. In fact it is not a sauce but a kind of vegetable stew though (with some squashes, potatoes, onions and carrots). The dish came from my Ukrainian grand grandma. I never had any idea why it was named "sauce" and if asked, I'd say it was probably a weird family thing.

When I found about Vova's "Sauce" it turned out that it wasn't. Similarities between the two are apparent, but it looks like in our family the dish got simplified more significantly through generations. Vova's version is way more interesting and he kindly shared it with us. Thanks Vova! - Maria


Last month (or last year…) I promised Masha to write about Spanish gazpacho for her blog. Unfortunately the weekend turned out windy and cool, and gazpacho didn’t seem like a good idea. That’s why I cooked another fantastic summertime dish which is very special to me.


The "Sauce" (that’s how it is always named in our family) was a favorite dish in my childhood, so I spent a lot of time searching for its origin. It turned out that my mom learned this recipe from her mom, and my granny learned it from her mom, you know... So now nobody knows exactly where it came from, but many of my dad’s folks from Odessa also prepare this “Sauce”.


I think it may be a Moldavian variation of Turkic dish "basma" or of a Georgian dish "sauce". However it is also strangely close to layered ratatouille. I wonder how an Occitanian dish could come to the Ukrainian coast of Black Sea! But who knows… Marseille – Odessa trade routes… Since ratatouille is a rural dish it seems unlikely that Pushkin tried it at Hotel du Nord in Odessa. However the recipe itself may have come through the local French communities that owned most of the restaurants in Odessa in the XIX century (along with Italians and Greeks).


Well, that’s enough about history. Let me show you how causal vegetables can become a delicious main course! You may vary some of the vegetables as you like, but onions, squashes, carrots, potatoes and peppers are necessary. Needless to say that in the early summer you should only use young vegetables for the "Sauce" (as well as for the other summer dishes).


I tried many ways of preparing the "Sauce" and found that it is very important to slice all the vegetables very thinly and then layer them repetitively. The fantastic taste I am addicted to emerges only if the dish is made this way. If you like slicing you will enjoy the process – it is 99% of the job you will need to do that evening (apart from opening a bottle of wine).

The Sauce

serves 6-8 (though in our family it always gets finished by 3-4)

2 squashes
2 onions
2-3 carrots
1-2 green bell peppers (try to find the fragrant light green variety)
2-3 potatoes
handful of chopped greens (parsley, dill, violet basil)
250 ml of sour cream or unflavored yoghurt
1 table spoon of salt (or to taste)
1-2 table spoons of olive oil
extra vegetables you may like to add: eggplant, fennel, cabbage, zucchini, garlic, turnip, spinach, peas etc.

For serving: fresh white bread, extra 250 ml of sour cream and a bottle of dry light white wine (e.g. Portuguese vino verde)

Slice the squashes and eggplants 4-5 mm thick and all other vegetables 2-3 mm thick. Note: If you like, you can get a bit more sophisticated and fry each sliced vegetable in a dry pan for 1-2 min (or even slightly grill them) before layering. My mom typically does that, but I prefer doing this after the end of summer only. Tender young vegetables do much better when they are simply steamed.  


I use a small kazan (a kind of wok with a lid from Central Asia, in the picture above) to prepare the dish but any casserole or heavy base saucepan with a lid will do. If you are using a typical casserole (around 3 liters in volume) it makes sense to have around three repetitive layers. You can just go by eye, layer the vegetables thinly and get as many repetitive layers as will fit into your casserole (there can be from two to five). In this example we will assume there is three layers so that everything is easier to understand.


Brush the casserole with olive oil. Layer the bottom with 1/3 of the prepared onion slices and season with salt. Then layer 1/3 of the carrots in and season again. Do the same with potatoes, cabbage, bell peppers, squashes and other vegetables you are using.


Press the vegetables down from time to time to help the juices out and utilize the space of the casserole efficiently.


Top with 1/3 of the sour cream and 1/3 of the greens. Note: You may also try to use chopped tomatoes instead of the sour cream but then avoid putting them close to the potatoes (otherwise the potatoes won’t get cooked properly). 


Repeat all the vegetable layers topped with sour cream and greens for the second time and then for the third time. Now the "Sauce" is almost done!


Set the casserole over medium heat, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low and cook covered for about 40 minutes. Really young vegetables will be done earlier (in 20-30 minutes) and it is important not to overcook them. Note: Instead of using the stove you can cook the "Sauce" in the oven. That's what my grandma does.


Serve with fresh white bread, lots of sour cream and white wine and enjoy! Note: You can also serve it cold as a starter (yes, that's my grandma too).

Related:

Ukrainian borsch
Zrazy (Ukrainian potato croquettes with mushrooms)