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"...Presently the Baba-Yaga turned toward the wall and began to snore and Wassilissa knew that she was fast asleep. Then she went into the corner, took the tiny doll from her pocket, put before it a bit of bread and a little shchi that she had saved, and burst into tears."
--from the Russian folktale "Wassilissa the Beautiful"


(Russian cabbage soup)

Shchi can be made with meat or without it--with sauerkraut or with cabbage or with both. The only thing all cooks seem to agree on is that it should sit and cure for as long as possible, up to a day or two, before eating. This particular recipe is meatless--and can be vegetarian if you use water or vegetable stock instead of beef stock--but it is unusually rich and hearty, full of flavor and textures, using both sauerkraut and cabbage. Serve hot as a meal to 6-8 people, with lots of pumpernickel or rye bread and butter on hand.

Souptale: There is evidence that shchi was known in Rus long before 988 AD, when Christianity was accepted--so long before that shchi actually meant "liquid food" in the beginning, and only came to mean specifically "cabbage soup" when that vegetable was cultivated there. As has been described in Faves of the Stars, shchi has been a favorite soup of characters as diverse as a 13th century Mongol khan, Ivan the Terrible, Nicholas II, his assassin Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Alexander Dumas liked it so much in the 19th century that he included it in his cookbook. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, found it "quite drinkable, though it contained some sour element, which perhaps is necessary for Russian palates." When Russian soldiers marched into France in 1812, they were so desperate for the taste of fermented cabbage that they picked vine leaves and started pickling them so they could make shchi. Its associations, always, are with peasants, the earth, common soldiers, ordinariness. Thus when Russians call someone "a professor of sour shchi," they mean he's a fraud--cause you can't earn respect by making something so common.

To see Turgenev's use of it in a devastating indictment of 19th century Russian aristocracy, see the SoupTale Shchi. And here's how the Russian writer Edouard Limonov had his hero Edichka (from the novel That's me, Edichka) describe surviving on it in New York City: "'The advantages of shchi are as follows,' Edichka explains. 'There are five of them: 1. It is very cheap--a saucepan [of it] costs two or three dollars, and it is enough for two days. 2. It doesn't get sour without refrigeration--even when it is very hot. 3. It is cooked quickly--only one and a half hours. 4. It is possible and even necessary to eat it cold. 5. There is no better meal for summer, because it is sour.'"

Garnish: chopped fresh dill mixed into sour cream

Begin by soaking the mushrooms in water. In a large Dutch oven, melt 3 Tablespoons of butter over medium high heat, then toss in the cabbage and sauerkraut and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the tomato paste and 1 cup or so of stock, cover, and simmer of low heat for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, squeeze the mushrooms dry and slice finely. Melt the other 3 Tablespoons of butter in a skillet and sauté the carrot, onions, celery, turnips, and mushrooms until soft and slightly brown--about 15 minutes. Seed and chop the tomatoes, reserving them.

When the sauerkraut and cabbage are nicely stewed, stir in the sauteéd vegetables, the tomatoes, and the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low heat--cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook 5 more minutes.

Let stand at least 15 minutes--but ideally a day or so in the refrigerator to cure. When ready to serve, reheat slowly. Ladle into bowls and garnish with spoonsful of dilled sour cream.