The rich also cry, as we all know. It is less known, however, that the classics also quarrel. We tend to perceive them as larger than life, rather not susceptible to flaws and frailties of us, ordinary humans. Take, for example, Leo Tolstoy, “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced” (Mahatma Gandhi), staunch defender of the peasants’ rights, and a patriarch of a huge family.
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of all times, a philosopher and proponent of social justice, the barefoot Count Tolstoy had a judgmental, unforgiving personality. A brilliant officer, decorated for bravery, he became disillusioned by the tragedy of warfare, resigned his commission, and repaired to Tolstoy family estate Yasnaya Polyana. The famous “War and Peace” epic appeared a few years later.
The Coming Out, known as “Natasha’s First Ball” from the remarkable 1967 Mosfilm production of “War and Peace” by Sergei Bondarchuk, enchanting music by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is the high society, aristocratic atmosphere surrounding young Count Leo Tolstoy (Tolstoys considered themselves more ancient, and thus more truly princely, than the Romanovs).
From the same film: Natasha Rostova is visiting her uncle in his estate, uncle is persuaded to play guitar, and Natasha spontaneously breaks into a Russian folk dance. Peasant women, at first skeptical of a young aristocrat faking simple peasant moves, eventually smile with obvious pleasure and approval. The voiceover reads straight from Tolstoy’s text: “When, where, and how did this little Countess, raised in silks and velvets, brought up by a foreign governess, absorbed – it must have been from the Russian air itself! – the spirit of this dance, the inimically, unmistakably Russian movements?”
Leo Tolstoy Working in the Field by Ilya Repin.
By the same token, how did a dashing young officer, a scion of the creme-de-la-creme of Russian aristocracy, transition from roaming St Petersburg ballrooms to ploughing the fields? Many had asked this question, but none more insistently than his closest friend, another Russian classic, Ivan Turgenev, who, although criticizing useless aristocracy in the character of Oblomov, continued leading the same lifestyle himself. Best fiends for many years, they had a squabble caused by one of Tolstoy’s contemptuous comments and Turgenev’s vehement reaction to it. They didn’t speak for 17 years. You can find many fascinating details in a post by lovely Yulia who runs a “Literary Food Blog” https://gingerpage.com/2018/06/28/tolstoy_turgenev. I found her through another great blogger, Brigitta Moro of https://alksnisvindans.wordpress.com. Both ladies blog in Russian, but Mr Google is always ready to help – believe me, it’s worth it!
Leo Tolstoy with His Wife by Ilya Repin.
Eventually, Tolstoy made the first move by writing to Turgenev. Turgenev eagerly responded, and Tolstoy’s wife, the eternal peacemaker Sophia Andreevna, cooked a very special “truly Russian” dinner for two literary giants. Turgenev had requested a chicken pot pie, her specialty, and it was gladly made for him.
This is not the pie made by Sophia Tolstoy, but the one made by Yulia, who tweaked the original recipe somewhat (photo credit is hers). I picked up her recipe and tweaked it a lot more. I must admit that Yulia’s pie looks gorgeous – much prettier by far than mine!
The first tweaking step was my decision to use fish instead of chicken. You can use chicken, if you wish, and follow the same recipe, but fish pies have always been a major part of traditional Russian cuisine, and that salmon filet in my freezer just begged to be used. So I listened to it and cut it into bite size pieces. I sautéed some onion and quickly seared my salmon pieces with onion.
While the barely cooked salmon was cooling, I got the rest of the staffing ready. Contrary to American pot pies, full of vegetables, Russian pies are stuffed with rice or buckwheat, in addition to meat or fish. I prefer to use brown rice, and I added some Smart Balance to it, and lots of fresh cilantro (coriander). Meanwhile, I hard-boiled an egg and left two more eggs raw.
At this point, you might decide to do layers, alternating the fish or meat with rice, or you can go the lazy way, which is what I did, by mixing fish, rice, fresh dill, chopped hard-boiled egg and one raw egg, adding salt and pepper, and putting it aside for a while.
I am making cut dough in my food processor by pulsing Whole Wheat flour (another tweaking) with Smart Balance (tweaking #3), and I think you can see the crumbles. When you achieve this consistency, turn it over to a floured board, add some cold water and the remaining raw egg, and kneed until soft, pliable dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Wrap it in wax paper and refrigerate for about half an hour.
Meanwhile, we can take care of the last and most important part of this creation – the sauce. The original Sophia Tolstoy’s recipe, repeated by Yulia, calls for chicken stock, but I was cooking fish, and I didn’t have any fish or vegetable stock on hand. I did have some lovely white Zinfandel (it’s actually pink, as you know), and that’s what I whisked together with some more Smart Balance and very little flour, while heating it up on very low flame. That was my final tweaking.
Assemble this pie as you would any other closed pie: roll out approximately 2/3 of the dough, press it into pie form, fill it with stuffing, pour sauce over stuffing, and seal the lid, which is the remaining 1/3 of the dough. Glaze it with whisked egg yolk, punch a few holes to let steam out, and 40 minutes later – voila! – you have this beauty.
It has proven to be quite versatile; served hot right out of the oven, served reheated the next day, or served cold as a leftover, with strong horseradish on the side, it was equally delicious and so very Russian!
- 1/2 lb chicken or fish
1/2 cup cooked rice
3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1/5 large onion, diced
1 cup + 1 tbsp. whole wheat flour
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp Smart Balance or any butter substitute of your choice
- 1/5 cup chicken stock or white/rose wine
Cilantro and dill, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
- Cut flour with cold butter substitute until crumbles. Add 1 raw egg and 2 – 3 of cold water. Kneed until soft and pliable doesn’t stick to hands. Wrap into wax paper, refrigerate for 30 minutes.
If making chicken stuffing, cook chicken in water with a pinch of salt until ready. Cool, debone, cut into bite size pieces.
- *Note: fish does not have to be pre-cooked.
Mix warm rice with 1/2 cup butter substitute and cilantro. Hard boil and chop 1 egg.
Sauté onion until soft, add chicken or fish pieces, sear for a few minutes, cool.
Combine chicken or fish, cooked with onion, with rice, chopped hard-boiled egg, one raw egg, and dill. Add salt and pepper, mix well. Put aside.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter substitute in sauce pan, add chicken stock or wine, gradually add 1 tablespoon of flour, whisk to avoid curdling. Simmer until thickens.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Oil pie form. Roll 2/3 of dough, press into pie form. Fill with stuffing, pour sauce over stuffing. Roll remaining dough, seal, paint with egg yolk whisked with water. Punch several holes to let out steam.
Bake for 35 – 40 minutes until golden. Serve hot or cool and refrigerate.