The first time my Russian cooking teacher, Alla Zagoruyko, tasted smoked potato soup was at her family’s summerhouse in Tver, Russia. The house was a simple log cabin with moss stuffed between the logs. Down by the river, someone had built a wood fire to heat the banya, the family’s traditional Russian steam house. Wood smoke wafted with the smells of summer — young green leaves, grasses and chives and parsley in the garden.
In preparation for her favorite home spa treatment, Alla had collected young birch tree branches, tied them into little bunches like miniature broom heads, and soaked them in in boiling water. Nina, her daughter-in-law, had already prepared dinner.
As the sun sank in the trees, the women of the family entered the steam house. They sat there talking, laughing and sweating out life’s impurities. Then Alla put eucalyptus essence on the birch bunches and passed them out to the others. The women used them to gently hit each other’s backs, releasing the minty eucalyptus scent and waking up their skin. When the women were finished, they stepped out of the banya and poured buckets of cold river-water over their heads, relishing in the tingling frenzy of renewal.
Back up at the main house, the family drank hot tea and cold beer and ate Nina’s smoked potato soup. It wasn’t thick as potato soup might suggest. It was a vegetable broth base with small cubes of potato and round slivers of carrot. Fresh dill from the garden floated on top. The soup was creamy in color, but light and fluid. The smoke flavor was subtle, and yet it gave the all-vegetable soup real depth. Alla wondered how Nina smoked the soup.
Perhaps any meal prepared by someone else for your enjoyment after a riverside spa treatment would have tasted amazing. Even so, Alla asked for the recipe and Nina jotted it down. Ever since then, smoked potato soup has been one of Alla’s favorite things to make. One afternoon this spring, Alla and her daughter, Yulia Converse, offered to teach me how to make it in their home in Yarmouth, Maine.
“What I like about this soup,” Yulia said, “Is that it’s easy to cook, but it has a sophisticated taste.” She is so right. You simply fill up a soup pot almost all the way full with water and add carrots and celery. You sauté sliced onions separately in oil until they’re soft and translucent and add them to the soup along with bay leaf, salt, pepper, garlic and small cubes of potato. You grate the smoked cheese (in the U.S. they like to use Trader Joe’s Smoked Gouda) and add it to the soup once the potatoes are cooked. Then you sprinkle whatever fresh herbs you have on top: dill, parsley, or chives are all great.
As we were about to eat our creation, Alla brought out some homemade fermented cabbage that she’d made with the unusual addition of cranberries. Sauerkraut is usually so wan looking. Now it looked like a thing of blushed beauty. Over lunch as we talked, Yulia and Alla tried not to get too upset about the unfortunate current affairs in Russia and the fact that their family was separated, some here, some there. At least they had fond memories of good times together and this delicious smoked soup.
For the recipe, visit www.immigrantkitchens.com.