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McDonald’s has a new ad campaign in St. Petersburg promoting its breakfasts. Until a couple of years ago, Russian McDonald’s didn’t even have breakfast food. Anand can testify to that – when he was visiting in January 2005, we ate hamburgers at the Red Square McDonald’s at 7 a.m. For Russians this wasn’t so weird – while there’s a clear distinction in my mind between “breakfast food” and “lunch and dinner food”, Russians don’t seem to make this distinction. They can eat a ham- and mayonnaise-based salad for breakfast. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that, but whatever.

I kind of despise McDonald’s in principle and think that it should be avoided (and everyone should watch Super Size Me – why can’t I find the official site? Did McDonald’s shut them down?), but I have been known to go to a St. Petersburg McDonald’s on occasion, usually for take-out coffee. This breakfast ad campaign, however, has been working on my subconscious and awakened fond memories of Egg McMuffins from my childhood. The other night Kostia and I had the following conversation:

Me: We should go to McDonald’s for breakfast sometime.

Kostia: Why?!?

Me: You should have an Egg McMuffin once in your life, they’re tasty.

Kostia: I’ll do it when I’m old and bored.

It’s not likely to happen in any case. They stop serving breakfast at 10 a.m. We wouldn’t have time on a weekday morning, and the likelihood that we might make it out of the house before 10 on a day when we’re not working is approximately zero.

After a spate of rain and other unpleasant weather, on Sunday the sun came out and ever since it’s been zolotaya ocen’ – golden autumn. That’s when the air is crisp but the sun is warm, and the leaves are reaching their peak of color.

The equinox has come and gone, which means it’s going to get dark fast. Because of St. Petersburg’s location in the extreme western end of its time zone, sunrise is already after 7 a.m., but the twilight still stretches well into the evening, for now.

Yesterday I taught just one lesson, a new student, an adorable little girl whose family is from France but lived in the U.S. for 5 years. French is her native language but English is a close second. She’s really bright and a joy to teach.

Kostia had a student at the house so I took my time getting home. At the metro stop where I got off there was a Belarusian Clearance Market, selling tacky Belarusian goods at not particularly low prices. Even if I had found something worth buying, I wouldn’t have. I’m not going to support Lukashenka’s economy. It’s bad enough our apartment has a Belarusian stove and fridge (which are crap, by the way. The oven doesn’t have a temperature setting. It’s like a large toaster oven. It’s proving a challenge to my gastronomy project).

I took the bus homeward, but went two stops beyond to the end of the line. There there’s a newly-landscaped park with an awesome pirate ship jungle gym, a little beach on the bank of a tributary to the Gulf of Finland, a tangle of paths designed by a landscape architect on hallucinogenics, and most impressive of all, a little trash hut with separate windows for glass, plastic, paper and metal. God knows if the stuff actually gets recycled, but we’re going to pretend that it does – though we’re still going to take beer bottles and paper to the more reliable return stations.

Here are some pictures of this park that we took in August. I’ll have to go back and take a picture of the crazy paths and the pirate ship.

The recycling hut.

A list of newspapers, radio and television stations – the park’s sponsors? The park is on the “Alley of Journalists” and I wonder what it says about the current political situation that the Alley of Journalists is a new and empty street on the absolute edge of the city and not in the center.

Anyway, as I was strolling through the park yesterday, I saw someone familiar on the beach – a co-worker and friend from the British Kindergarten, who I had last seen more than a year and a half ago when he left for his native South Africa on short notice. It turns out that he, his wife (a St. Petersburg native), and their three sons live in my neighborhood. Actually, I live in theirs, since they’ve owned their apartment for several years. And here I thought I was the only non-CIS foreigner in this remote area of the city.

… of 66% of my immediate family, the translation of the penne with beet sauce recipe. In other foodblogging news, I attempted a Latvian Apple Soup recipe that turned out way too bitter and lemony. But I think the “broth” will actually make a good sauce for duck.

Penne with beet sauce
4 portions

Ingredients:
500 grams penne pasta (I recommend whole wheat pasta)
2 large beets
large handful of walnuts
2 tablespoons dry white wine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
150 grams brynza or feta cheese
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig of basil
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

Directions:
Wrap each beet tightly in foil and bake in the oven at 200°C (400°F) for 40-50 minutes. Put the cooked beets in cold water and peel them. Let them cool and cut them into very small cubes. (Actually, the first time I made this recipe I used beets that had been boiled and grated that were leftover from another recipe, so you can also prepare the beets in this way. Just boil the unpeeled beets until they are a bit soft, let them cool and peel and grate them.)

Chop the basil, the garlic, and the walnuts and put them in a blender with the white wine and the olive oil. Grind them into a puree. (You don’t need to grind too much, you can actually just mix everything by hand if the walnuts and the garlic are chopped small enough.) Mix the puree with the beets.

Cook the penne according to the directions on the package, drain, put on plates. Put the beet sauce on the penne and top with the cheese (I recommend warming the sauce a bit after mixing the beets and the pureed ingredients so the flavours become more co-mingled). Serve.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I changed the header art. This is the view out my window. It is not photoshopped. I know the rainbow’s a little cheesy, but it’s real!

I’ve added a section on the sidebar of links to blogs that are not in English. Some of them are in languages that I don’t speak myself, but they are blogs of real-life friends and acquaintances who link to me. I visit these blogs and look at the pictures sometimes. I put my Russian LiveJournal down there as well – now I only have to update it more often.

Since getting back from my trip a week ago I haven’t done anything noteworthy. I’ve been meeting new students (including one corporate group at 8 a.m., ugh, though the students themselves are nice), I bought new shoes yesterday, and I seem to be coming down with another cold, which isn’t much of a surprise, since Kostia’s been ill (which he almost never is) and the chilly rainy weather has been a bit of a shock to my system after two weeks of real summer weather in the U.S.

The only other thing of any interest whatsoever is that I made another recipe from Gastronom magazine, which turned out much better than expected – penne with beet sauce. Its a chunky sauce which, in addition to beets, contains walnuts, garlic, and a lot of olive oil. It’s topped with a cheese called “brynza”, which is a bit like feta. I really liked it. Kostia was not as taken with it as I was, but he seemed to like it well enough. In addition to being tasty, it’s nutritious (I used whole wheat penne) and vegetarian.

Gastronom’s website doesn’t list this recipe, but I’ve scanned it in for your viewing pleasure. (click to enlarge)

penne-beet-sauce.jpg

If you don’t speak Russian and are actually interested in making this, leave a comment and maybe I’ll post a translation…

I used to cook a lot, mostly recipes from The Moosewood Cooks at Home, but sometimes fancier stuff as well. Over time, I became lazier and I seemed to have less free time and I spent a lot less time cooking and ate a lot more sandwiches and cereal. In Sweden last year I did cook quite a bit because we couldn’t afford cafes or convenience foods, and if there was one thing we did have it was free time, but the meals were pretty simple affairs, since we weren’t buying fancy ingredients.

Another problem I’ve had with cooking in recent years is that I was vegetarian when I was teaching myself to cook, so although I eat animals now (with a guilty conscience), I’ve been sort of wary of cooking meat. I wouldn’t mind cooking vegetarian all the time, but it’s hard to find tofu and wide varieties of beans in Russia. Furthermore, usually I’m not cooking only for myself, and Russian friends find this kind of food weird. 

Besides this, it’s also been sort of hard to motivate myself to cook in Russia because even when I think I have found the right ingredients, things don’t turn out right. I baked several cakes which tasted overwhelmingly of baking soda before giving up on baking in Russia – I think Russian baking soda must be stronger or something. And I think the flour is coarser.

While I was in the U.S. on vacation recently I had this idea that I should buy fancy Russian cooking magazines and follow their recipes. If they’re Russian magazines, the proper ingredients should be available in Russian shops, right? Plus, I might learn some new vocabulary, for obscure foods and verbs for cooking.

On Thursday during one of my runs to the airport to pick up my lost luggage, I bought a magazine called Gastronom. On Friday I read through it and dog-eared the pages of things I wanted to try cooking, skipping the large section on rabbit dishes because I just don’t think I’m ready to cook rabbit. I did learn lots of new words, like razrykhlitel (baking powder), gorst (a handful), tsukat (those nasty little green dried fruits that are in fruitcake, what are they in English anyway?), among others. One recipe called for a star of “badyan”, but nobody knew what that was, not Kostia, not Vadik, and not the woman working in the spice aisle at O’kay*. Now I see that it is a type of anise:

Star Anise

So yesterday I made a mushroom cream soup, a turkey stew with apples, apricots and carrots (minus badyan), and beet cake. Everything turned out fine, even the beet cake, the batter for which was quite shockingly pink, but turned out golden brown like any other fruit/vegetable bread, like zucchini or pumpkin or banana bread. (Any chemists reading this blog, can you explain what happens to the red pigment of the beets in the oven?)

Kostia nearly had a heart attack at the O’kay checkout. But really, half of the bill was for pots and pans, and the bulk of the food cost was the wine that Kostia himself picked out, plus there were things like spices and oils that will be used for many meals. The actual cost of the ingredients for the meal was less than $30, it fed three people, and we have leftovers. It was nice to cook a fancy meal again and I intend to continue the project.

*Some readers may remember that I started a one-woman boycott of the O’kay supermarkets two years ago because I was so fed up with their cashiers’ incompetence. I reluctantly went to the one on our bus line a few weeks ago and realized that it really does have the widest selection of products to please the expatriate palate. When I saw that they have frozen Swedish cinnamon buns I officially decided to end the boycott (I haven’t bought any yet, but I like knowing that they’re there). And the customer service has gotten better. This particular O’kay has 49 cash registers, so no more waiting in line for an hour and a half.

That’s what was written on the tags on my luggage when I finally got hold of it, after taking a mere 78 hours to get from Canandaigua, NY to St. Petersburg. I personally made it home about 24 hours sooner, after a brief visit with Mari and Jyrki and Tapio and Vuokko in Finland. Despite my inability to speak Finnish, 2.5-year-old Tapio declared that I was his friend (or so his mother said), which was very nice. Vuokko isn’t old enough to say much of anything yet, but she did flash her four and a half teeth at me several times, so I think that we are friends too.

Despite my fondness for most things Nordic, I have to say that I don’t recommend Finnair. Not only is their food not very tasty, especially after British Airways (with which I was generally impressed, except for their part in losing my bags), but their customer service is terrible. It was nearly impossible to get any information about my missing bags while I was in Finland, despite repeated phone calls, checking the website, and returning to the airport.

Well, I’ve got more interesting things to write about, but I seem to be either running around the city or trying to sleep off jet lag recently, so I’ll try to write more tomorrow or Sunday.

Just a quick update as I’m on dial-up in cow country. Today’s my dad’s birthday, and he and my sister and I are in the same place for the first time in several years. At his birthday dinner tonight I promised to give blog recognition to my stepmother’s cooking, so: Thanks for all the tasty meals, Dianne!

Even though we’re a week into September, it’s mid-summer hot here in Upstate New York.  I even managed to get my back sunburned yesterday washing the family cars in my bathing suit. I don’t mind; I know when I get back to St. Petersburg next week it will be chilly and autumnal.

On the drive back from Boston on Tuesday I stopped by Simon’s Rock College, where I got my B.A. So much has changed in the 11 years since I graduated and the 8 years since I last visited. They’ve built a new science building, athletic center, student union, dormitory, and arts building. They’ve expanded the library, built practice rooms behind the music center, paved the roads and pathways and generally spruced the place up. It looks great. I envy the kids who are studying there now! I got to have lunch with several professors who I consider friends and have kept in touch with through the years. It was really nice, like a homecoming.

I’m spending Labor Day weekend with Aunt Kelly in Boston, where the weather has been outstanding and every other person on the street speaks Russian. Since I’ve been to Boston many times before, we’ve been mostly shunning tourist activities in favor of eating. I wanted to eat all the ethnic food that St. Petersburg doesn’t have or Russifies too much. Yes, I know that international food in the U.S. is adapted for American tastebuds and not necessarily authentic either, but that’s what I grew up with, and Indian and Mexican food with copious amounts of dill in is just wrong.

We met up with fellow blogger Wally Shedd of The Accidental Russophile and his family. We went to Stoli. Maybe it was silly for me to eat Russian food while here, but for everyone else it was an unusual treat, and it seemed appropriate to meet at a Russian place.  The borsch and vareniki were pretty good, and everyone else seemed happy with their food as well. The service was a bit weird (and sexist) but I suppose I could recommend Stoli for Russophiles in the Boston area.

OK, on the positive reverse culture shock front, I had forgotten just how friendly and helpful salespeople and waitstaff are here. I can understand how Europeans coming to the U.S. can find it overwhelming and fake, but I don’t really think it’s fake, just kind of exaggerated, and I think all parties involved tend to have a sense of humor about it. Our waiter at Tapeo last night, “Gordon”,  was certainly over-the-top, but it was funny.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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