In Russian, we call them KOTLETY (cutlets). They used to be standard fare in any student or workman cafeteria. Cheap and fast, they are definitely not cutlets since they are made from ground meat – any meat you can lay your hands on. In reality – in Soviet reality! – there was very little meat in KOTLETY served to students and workers. Mostly, cafeteria cooks used stale bread soaked in water, for volume. Lots of onion, garlic, salt and pepper went in to camouflage dire lack of meat.
This colossal stainless steel statue created by a famous Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina for the World Fair in Paris in 1937 was exhibited right next to the Eiffel Tower. It represents a worker and a kolkhoz (collective farm) woman raising up hammer and sickle, the emblems of the triumphant communist governance by working class. According to the Trip Advisor, “This magnificent monument to the rise of Soviet economy” is “a classic example of Soviet socialist realism.” We all know what happened to the famed Soviet economy! It eventually collapsed under the weight of the omnipresent corruption combined with artificially created shortages. The true socialist realism necessitated pilferage as a way of life and bartering as a way of survival.
A good place to work was a place that had something of value you could sneak out and bring home, either to use or to barter. An alternative was a service you could provide privately and get paid under the table. For instance, my father, a dentist, was getting a monthly paycheck that would buy exactly half of a pair of ladies’ winter boots, i.e. one boot. If he were to depend on his official government salary, by the time he would earn enough to buy a second boot for my mother, a short Odessa winter would be over. A curse on your worst enemy was that he should live only on his official salary. And everybody felt sorry for poor teachers and engineers who had nothing to pilfer but pencils and erasers.
I remember watching a change of shifts at one of the meat-packing plants. It’s a very hot summer afternoon, but women workers come out swathed in bulky long-sleeve jackets. They make a beeline to a small crowd of eagerly waiting citizens, quickly open their jackets, and flash… meat wrapped around their torsos under the jackets, “Ribs, anybody?” A voluminous skirt is hiked with lightning speed and modestly lowered, revealing for a split second a sizable bulge tucked into ballooning old-fashioned drawers, “Veal tongue, women, veal tongue!”
The brilliant satirist Arkady Raykin had a routine called “Deficit” (shortage), where he claimed that only through shortages did the country function. He was ordered to stop performing it. So next he came out on stage wearing an elegant suit and a very expensive fur hat, carrying a shopping bag stuffed with delicacies that most Soviet citizens couldn’t even dream of. He walked to the forefront of the stage and just stood there, looking at the audience, without saying a word, for a full minute. The audience collectively held its breath. Finally he said, in his soft non-assuming manner, “Well, I am silent, I have everything, but why are you?” He was most sternly ordered to seize and desist this joke. He had a heart attack. Fortunately for us all who loved him, he recovered and performed for a few more years. He had not lived to see “deficit” gone together with the economy it had propelled for 75 years.
It is no small wonder then that those cafeteria KOTLETY had merely a hint of meat in them, compensating for the required volume by fillers. Cooks also had families to feed, and just like the meat-packers, they had private clients who bought meat through the back door. For some mystical reason, Russian emigrant kids consider KOTLETY a great delicacy, and our American friends call them Russian hamburgers. They are different from American hamburgers, though, as they are juicy, fluffy, and flavourful. And, or course, my kitchen is certainly not a Soviet worker cafeteria, so bread is a part of the recipe, but meat prevails.
I prefer to use ground turkey as it is much healthier, but any kind of meat will do, whatever you like. I once made a bunch of those for a shul barbecue using lean ground beef, and they vanished within minutes – whoosh! Whole wheat bread is also healthier than white, and I only use a couple of slices. Leftover challah chunks will work as well, and sometimes, when I have leftover spelt challah rolls, one roll will be roughly equal to two slices of bread. You can soak it in water, like the Russian cooks used to do, but it’ll be a lot tastier if you use a pareve milk substitute of your choice, such as soy, almond, or rice milk. My favorite flavors are onion, garlic and cilantro, but feel free to season it to your taste. Just don’t leave it bland, like American hamburgers, and then slather with ketchup. By the way, traditionally it goes with spicy mustard, not ketchup. You need an egg to bind it and some salt and pepper.
Crumble the bread or tear it into small pieces and soak until very soft. Old or frozen bread will work just fine, but defrost it just a little, to make it easy to crumble. Mash it up with potato masher or food processor to consistency of mashed potatoes. Add the rest of the ingredients.
This is what it should look like before you start throwing in the rest of the stuff. Don’t forget to check your egg, unless you are buying eggs with a hechsher. Start mixing.
If should be so soft and fluffy as to slide off the spoon, as you see. And now I will reveal a secret: I don’t even own a fleishig frying pan. I have a pareve electric grill for fish and veggies and my trusty griddle that I use for meat. Time for griddle! Just like it slides off the spoon into a bowl, slide it onto a lightly misted with oil preheated griddle surface. You can also fry, of course, but – I try not to fry!
Adjust the shape of the patties on the griddle or frying pan using your spoon or spatula. Mine are traditional oval shape, but if you are planning to stick them in a bun, you can make them round. You won’t be able to use a hamburger press, though, as the mix is quite liquefied. Watch them and flip them on time – these guys get ready pretty fast!
They are usually served with mashed potatoes or green peas, but any side dish will do just as well. I thought about pairing them with a nice Shomron Cabernet Sauvignon, playful and fruity, but truthfully, any Russian will tell you to get vodka or beer, or both. Since I don’t drink either of those, I will take the 5th on the topic.
- 1 lb lean ground meat or turkey
- 2 slices of bread
- 1/2 cup of pareve milk substitute (soy, almond, or rice milk)
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 finely diced onion
- 2 – 3 cloves of garlic, squeezed
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- Salt and pepper to taste
Crumble bread or tear it into small pieces. Pour milk substitute and soak bread until very soft. Mash it up with a potato masher or food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Preheat griddle or frying pan to medium, lightly mist with oil. Slide mix onto griddle or frying pan, flatten and adjust shape with spoon or spatula. Fry or grill on both sides until golden brown.