The most sobering experience you’ve ever had, and I mean literally. Rassol means brine, the liquid that you have when you pickle something, and it is considered the best remedy for hangovers. Hangovers are historically taken very seriously in Russia. At the end of 10th century, Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, a wily politician who consolidated what became known as Kievan Rus, realized that consolidated power required consolidated religion and undertook converting his pagan subjects to … oh, something monotheistic, bur what? So he sent emissaries on research and exploration missions.
Says the Chronicler Nestor:
Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no gladness among them. Islam was undesirable due to its taboo against alcoholic beverages and pork. Vladimir remarked on the occasion: “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” (Moss, Walter G. (2002), “A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917”)
A monument to Vladimir the Great standing high on Vladimir Hill in Kiev, overlooking his city whose population, as well as the rest of Rus’, is still enthusiastically engaging in the joy of drinking.
Boris Yeltsin, the first President of post-communist Russian Federation, was eminently and invariably joyful. Undoubtedly, there is still a great demand for an historically proven hangover remedy!
During the infamous Ivan the Terrible’s times, even meat, fish, and cabbage pies used to be served soaked in brine. The soup was only one of the wide array of “rassol’nye” dishes, or dishes using brine either as an ingredient or a condiment. It was a poor relation at best, a true “poor man’s soup.”
As you see, the two main ingredients are barley and pickles – with brine. You use carrots, to sweeten it up a bit, onion and garlic, to balance the sour flavor, and any kind of herbs and spices you prefer. My grandmother used bay leaf, but I prefer cilantro. To make a really thick and filling soup, you need to soak barley, at least for 24 hours, if not for a couple of days. If it starts fermenting, and the water gets murky and gives off a sour smell, that’s great. You’ll just use less brine from the pickle jar!
But there was one more important ingredient, the ubiquitous Russian vegetable, potato. I worked very hard on trying to replace it. I was able to get rid of potatoes and substitute something much less carby and much more nutritious in all my recipes – come on, rassol’nik, give! No, this obstinate peasant soup refused to cooperate! Sweet potato? No fancy-shmancy stuff, please. The sweetest thing those peasants in G-d forsaken villages knew was a carrot, but potatoes were a staple, the stuff of life. I am more recalcitrant, though, so I finally figured it out.
Chick peas, and you don’t even have to precook them. Just soak the dry ones, since you are soaking barley anyway, but in a different dish, please. You don’t want them to ferment! Then you cook them together with barley and the rest of the ingredients. I was very proud of myself, until I found a recipe on one of the Russian sites http://eda.ru/recepty/rassolnik that has chick peas instead of potatoes. Then I felt even more proud – hey, I did it right!
Start your barley cooking, including the liquid it was soaking in, together with chick peas. Slice or cube pickles (some recipes suggest grating them, but that just gives you more brine and less texture) and add them to the pot. Yes, I hear you, these are not cucumbers on the picture. Did I say they had to be cucumbers? Nope, any pickles will do, as long as they are crunchy and not mushy. These are my cute little Tindora pickles, and we love them! Grate your carrot, mince onion and garlic, and throw them into the pot as well. Add brine to taste, then add water to full two quarts and bring to boil.
The classic rassol’nik was made of kidneys, hearts, pancreas, and other animal innards that would otherwise be thrown away. However, vegetarian versions are becoming more popular, so again I feel that I am not alone with my soup powder instead of … well, whatever. Season it with salt, pepper, and a pinch of cinnamon, add chopped cilantro together with stems, stir, and bring to boil again.
Now you have two options. One is to reduce the heat and stand over the stove for about an hour while it’s simmering, stirring the soup to make sure barley doesn’t stick to the bottom. It will do that the moment you turn you back on it – this is the most obstinate soup ever! The other way is to do what I did, transfer it to a crock pot set on low, and forget about its existence till dinner time. Your choice!
I couldn’t help but to include this photo that comes from Google images, even though it has chunks of potato swimming in the soup. Not only does it convey the spirit of rural Russia, with its traditional richly decorated lacquered wooden bowls and spoons, but it also shows a couple of slices of traditional black rye bread, the poor man’s bread, that goes with Rassol’nik like Prince Vladimir with Vladimir Hill.
- 1 cup pearl barley, soaked
- 1 cup dry chick peas, soaked
- 1 cup sliced or cubed pickles
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1/2 onion, minced
- 2 – 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup brine
- 1 heaping tablespoon soup powder
- A pinch of cinnamon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Soak barley for 24 hours or more. It may start fermenting, depending on the temperature and humidity. Do not discard liquid.
- Soak chick peas overnight separately from barley. Drain and rinse before cooking.
- Transfer barley into 2-quart pot together with liquid, add chick peas. Start cooking.
- Grate carrot, mince onion and garlic. Add to pot.
- Slice or cube pickles, add to pot. Add brine, add water to full 2 quarts, bring to boil.
- Add soup powder, season with cinnamon, salt, and pepper, add cilantro. Stir and taste. If you like a more sour flavor, add more brine.
- Bring to boil, stir, transfer to crock pot on low setting, cook for several hours or more. If it becomes too thick, add water.
- Alternatively, reduce heat to simmer, cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring constantly.
- Garnish with cilantro sprigs.