Monday, October 12, 2009

Belarus - Potato

Have you seen the movie Defiance? It came out in 2008 and stars Daniel Craig, the current 007 in the James Bond movies. Defiance is about the Bieski brothers, Jewish brothers who fled to the forest when Hitler invaded Russia. They built a village in the forest from which they rescued over a 1,000 Jews and mounted guerilla attacks against the Nazis. This village was referred to as “Jerusalem in the woods,” and the Bielski brothers are said to be three of the greatest unsung heroes of the Holocaust – equal to Oscar Schindler. The location of “Jerusalem in the woods” was the Belarusian forests. The Bielski brothers were from a small village near what is now Navahrudak, Belarus.

Belarus is a land lock country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. During World War Two Belarus territory was completely occupied by Nazi Germany and the Belarusian people resisted the Nazi occupants. This resistance made a great contribution to the victory over the Nazis, but 25% of the Belarusian population was lost and most of Minsk, its capital, lay in ruins. It took many years to restore the city. It wasn’t until 1991 when Belarus declared independence from the USSR. In 1994 Alexander Lukashenka was elected the country’s president and remains president to this day.

One of the most popular dishes of Belarus cuisine is draniki, thick pancakes, prepared from shredded potatoes. Mushroom stuffed draniki is what I prepared for our Belarusian meal. Belarusian forests are plentiful of mushrooms so we were in keeping with the staples of their cuisine. I used a variety of dried mushrooms and I don’t know if they were indigenous to the Belarus forests or not – probably not. But, there was no second-guessing when it came to the potato pancakes. The people of Belarus call the potato the second bread and there are over 300 recorded Belarusian potato recipes. They have songs and dances about the potato and in the Soviet Union Belarusians were scornfully called potato eaters.

On our Belarus night we were potato eaters and enjoying every moment, though I did not have much luck stuffing the potatoes with the mushrooms. I couldn’t quite figure out how to flip the potato mixture without my draniki falling apart and my mushrooms falling out. So I suppose you could say we had draniki with mushrooms. The kids loved it. Anything involving potatoes are a big hit in my family. You can also top your draniki with sour cream and cheese, but unfortunately I did not figure this out until we were done with our meal.

Later, Kevin, John and I watched Defiance. It was about revenge, loyalty, and survival. Like most Holocaust movies it showed the worst of humanity and what humans can tolerate when pushed to the brink. The movie made us wonder if we could be just as brave, just as determined to survive in such horrible circumstances. Now we know what happened in the woods of Belarus. I wonder if you can still feel the anguish in the cold forest air.

Mushroom stuffed Draniki

4 potatoes
2 tsp flour
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil for frying

For stuffing:

1/2 oz. dried mushrooms (dried because they are more flavorful than fresh)
1 onion, finely sliced
oil for frying

Wash the dried mushrooms and soak in cold water for 3 to 4 hours. Wash the mushrooms again and return to the water you used to saok them. Pour water with mushrooms into a saucepan and boil for about 1 hour (this didn't work for me. All the water boiled away). Remove mushrooms from the stock.

Meanwhile, fry the slice onion until golden. Add the minced mushrooms and 1/2 cup of the mushroom stock and mix well.

Shred the raw potatoes and wring them out. Add the flour. egg, salt and pepper and mix. Shape the potato mixture into small balls, flatten with your hand, put a little bit of filling on top, and cover with more potato mixture, Flatten into patties and fry until golden brown. Place in oven for a few minutes and serve. You can top the draniki with sour cream.

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