OPENING HER GRANDMOTHER'S COOKBOOK: Sasha Prygoniuk.
In a wind-bound seaside cottage rental where she’s been living this year, Sasha Prygoniuk, a 25-year old Ukrainian, has volunteered to teach me (and you) how to “kook,” (as she so charmingly pronounces it) three things from her homeland: blini, large flat pancakes like crepes, which are eaten with sweet toppings or savory stuffings; pounded thin roasted pork chops with melted cheese; and mimoza, a nine-layer salmon salad served buffet-style on many Ukrainian holidays.
The Ukraine is east of Poland and Romania, south of Russia, and north of the Black Sea. She pulls out a brown leather-bound journal, pages filled with neat cursive I can’t decode. “My mama has a book. My grandmother have a book. In Ukraine, women don’t think, ‘I’m lazy today, I go to restaurant.’ Everyday most population they cooking at home.”
Today she folds the blini around a filling of slow-sautéed button mushrooms and onions in olive oil, and boiled chicken breast, all blended finely in a Handy Chop (like a mini Cuisinart). The blini contain the filling kind of like a burrito contains rice and beans, but because the blini are less stiff than tortillas, you eat these with a fork, dipping bites in sour cream.
Sasha’s American husband and stepdaughter do not like a lot of Ukrainian food, but they love the pork chops (and my family concurred). She doesn’t know why, but in the Ukraine they call this dish “French meat.” Thin cut pork chops are pounded thin, and mounded with diced tomato, green onion, shredded cheddar, and mayonnaise spread over the cheese, then roasted in the oven until the mounds sink into the pork and the cheese browns.
The mimoza is like taco salad, only the layers are made up of quite different ingredients: grated hard boiled eggs, canned salmon, grated cold butter (yes, you read that right), green onions, and mayo. The salad is named after a fuzzy yellow spring flower that is the same color and texture as the finely grated egg yolk on top of the salad. The salad is richer than anything I’ve tasted, perhaps ever — too rich for my blood when eaten by the spoonful on its own, but probably fantastic scooped on thick grilled bread or crackers. It might blow the minds of tuna-salad lovers.
Each of these dishes is very different than anything I’m used to largely because of the high amount of mayo. I came of age in the ’80s when low-fat frozen yogurt nearly replaced ice cream because we thought, based on what the media and marketers were telling us, that fat made you fat. Sasha, who is tall and slender, adds to the mounting evidence that Americans are often misled against their best intentions about what they should and shouldn’t be putting in their mouths.
I looked again at her leather-bound hand-written book of recipes, taught to her by her mother and grandmother, and taught to them by theirs, and figured, what’s a little mayo?
Ukrainian blini with mushroom-chicken filling
FOR THE BLINI In a medium mixing bowl, mix two cups of milk, a half-cup of flour, four eggs, a teaspoon of salt, and just under a quarter-cup of oil with a fork until you get all the lumps out. Preheat a six-inch nonstick sauté pan until it very hot and cook the blini one by one, like large thin pancakes. Make a stack of cooked pancakes, which you’ll then stuff with filling.