A well seasoned approach to travel and food

Cooking With Svetlana

July 26, 2019

Only on holiday would you be trusting enough to get in an unknown guy’s car not knowing where you are going merely because he is holding a sign with your name on it.  That’s what I did this morning and it was a delicious decision.

Within the last two years, I’ve tried to add a food tour or cooking class to my itinerary in cities visited overseas.  It’s a great way to get to know the people and the city.  So, when I decided to visit Ukraine on this trip, I knew I wanted to try cooking some of their specialties.  An online search through Viator came up with a Ukrainian Cuisine Cooking Class offered by Green Tour Ukraine.  The little blurb said that I would learn to make Borsch and Varenyky (dumplings).  It sounded good to me.  Looking back, it wasn’t just good- it was great!

The aforementioned guy in the car drove for about 25 minutes, crossing one of the bridges onto the Left Bank where a lot of Kyiv’s 2.9 million residents live (population is much higher if you add in refugees, mostly from Crimea).  The classical and baroque architecture of the old city gave way to apartment building after apartment building, some new and some from the Soviet-era.  Eventually, we pulled up outside an older apartment building and I met Olga.

As we made our way upstairs, in a tiny elevator, Olga explained that she is a sales manager for Green Tour and that her mother, Svetlana, would be my instructor for the day and she, Olga, would translate.  My instructor?  Yes, it turns out that it wasn’t a group lesson; it was a private cooking class – just us gals!

Svetlana, Olga, and me.

We arrived at Svetlana and Olga’s apartment (owned, not rented), took our shoes off and went straight to work.  Svetlana is a lovely lady with rosy cheeks, a very clean, orderly apartment, and can cook up a storm.

After being offered a glass of juice (they call it compote), we got straight to work making borsch/borscht.  Svetlana had already started boiling the meat in water before I arrived (it takes the longest and makes the foundation of the broth).  She showed me how to chop and shred all the vegetables and then had me do the rest.  There were potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, beets, and garlic to be prepared. 

Some of the veggies went straight into the pot, while others I fried in a pan in sunflower oil.  A little bit of ketchup, yes ketchup, was added to the veggies.  Svetlana (through Olga) explained that if you have sweet tomatoes, you could use fresh tomato puree instead of ketchup.  But, the tomatoes have to be sweet.  When reproducing the dish at home, I think I’ll go with the ketchup trick.  Ultimately, everything (plus spices and a little vinegar) were mixed together in the pot and boiled some more.

While the borsch’s flavors were blending together in the pot, we set to making the dough for the varenyky.  Butter, flour, salt, and water – first hot, then cold to make it just the right “warm” temperature – were mixed in a bowl. 

The mixture was a little soupy, but Svetlana started adding a bit of flour at a time until she deemed it thick enough (I’ll be getting recipes from Olga because there were no absolute measurements, only Svetlana’s feel).  Then we started to knead the dough – well, I started to knead the dough after being shown how to do it.  Kneading and more kneading and more kneading until Svetlana put her hand up indicating I should stop.

While I was kneading, Svetlana had set up a large cutting board and a smaller one sprinkled with flour.  The big board was for cutting circles out of the dough, the smaller board would be where we placed the formed varenyky.  The first batch, she rolled out a portion of the dough and then showed me how to cut the perfect sized circles with the top of a small glass – probably the size of the smallest juice glass.  Circles were cut using the edge of the last one to cut down on any wasted dough.

Then the hard part began.  Svetlana placed a small bowl of mashed potatoes on the table – the first batch would be stuffed with potato (usually favored by men).  She showed me how to stretch the dough into an oval, place a certain amount of potato in the middle, stretch two ends together over the mixture and then pinch all the edges together.  Voila, Svetlana’s varenyky sample was perfect.  My turn … I was not as successful.  I either had too much potato so that it oozed out the ends as I tried to pinch it closed or too little and the piece was all dough.  After about 10 tries, however, I got a little better and my varenyky were not such a mess.

I thought we were done, but Svetlana cut another portion of dough and handed it to me to roll out.  Circles cut, she placed a bowl of sautéed shredded cabbage and onions on the table for the next stuffing (usually favored by women).  Placing the mixture on the dough and keeping it inside when pinched closed was a little bit more difficult because the cabbage pieces were longer and had to be tucked inside.  By this time, my dumplings looked pretty good for a novice.

But, we weren’t done yet.  Another portion of dough was cut.  I rolled it out and dutifully cut circles with Olga.  The third batch would be stuffed with black currants.  (Men, women, and children favor dessert varenyky.)  For these little dumplings of goodness, we spooned a bit of sugar on the dough, then a few black currants and then pinched them up.  The only problem was that my dumplings were a mess because the red juice leaked out onto my fingers and when I pinched the edges, they were stained.  Svetlana’s varenyky looked pristine, Olga’s were not as perfect as her mother’s, and mine looked like modern paintings splashed with color.  When I was able to get a “clean” dough pocket, I exclaimed in victory.  Small things amuse me.

After making several batches of the dessert varenyky (all of them can be frozen), Svetlana ladled up the borsch before placing the dumplings on to boil.  Olga told me to add a dollop (or more) of sour cream to the top of the soup and then we dug in.  The borsch was so, so good.  Eaten with dark rye bread, my stomach was doing a happy dance.  I was afraid that the flavors would be too strong, but it was mild and so soothing. Olga also told me that while it is good steaming hot right out of the pot, it is usually better the day reheated after once the flavors have melded in the refrigerator overnight.  I thought to myself that this was something I definitely could and would recreate at home. 

It was Varenyky time!  Sound the trumpets!  First came the potato stuffed ones.  These bundles of dough joy can be eaten plain, with a smattering of sour cream, or with golden brown sautéed onions.  I tried them all three ways.  I’m not a big onion fan, but I truly enjoyed the flavors together.  My favorite was with the sour cream though because … well … dairy and potatoes in one bite.  Yum!

The sautéed cabbage could also be eaten in the same three ways.  These I liked plain because the filling itself was so rich (the cabbage was sautéed in butter).  Between the potato and cabbage, I had to agree with Olga, the cabbage were my favorites.

But, the crowning glories were the black currant varenyky.  I mean really sugar, dough, and berries, what could be better.  I tried to limit myself to three of the small dough pockets of heaven, but somehow a fourth slipped onto my plate and it had to be eaten.

As we ate, Olga and I talked about family, life, and travel.  Both she and Svetlana were fascinated to learn about my trip and traveling solo.  It was just three women bonding over food.  This is what travel, and life is all about.  Good food, good friends, and good times.

Although not the most complicated of the cooking classes I’ve taken (see Paris blog posts), I think this class was the most special.  A private lesson in someone’s home is so personal.  I loved every moment of it.  If you ever get to Kyiv, I suggest you look Olga and Svetlana up and become a part of their culinary family.   

Thank you Svetlana, Olga, and Green Tour Ukraine for a special day I won’t soon forget.

P.S.  Yes, the unknown, unnamed gentleman picked me up and returned me back to my hostel without a word – my streak of strong, silent types continues.

P.P.S.  I was not compensated in any manner for this glowing review; my opinions are my own and straight from the heart.