It’s funny that I’m so big on cooking Russian food these days. Between the ages of, say, 10 and 19, I didn’t get all excited about borsht or sirniki. I didn’t spend my Friday nights sparring with sweet yeast dough for vatrushki. And I certainly wasn’t looking forward to summer so I could make kvas—rye bread beer.
No, what I really wanted to eat as a kid was American food—-or what I thought of as American food. It began with fast food. My mom’s first job in America was at McDonald’s, and I fell in love with Happy Meals, chicken McNuggets and fries. Then we got a toaster and I toasted countess slices of Wonder Bread, which I ate with Kraft cheese slices. After that came the microwave and along with it frozen pizza and frozen dinners, followed by potato chips and Doritos, gummy “fruit-snacks,” fruit roll-ups, Lunchables and other highly processed goodies.
When I started getting into cooking, I had little desire to cook or eat cabbage and beet-based dishes. I wanted to make what Americans eat. And what do Americans eat? Tacos made from taco kits, Hamburger Helper and burgers on cottony buns, of course. Sometimes I tagged along with my mom when she went grocery shopping and cajoled her into buying and making this stuff. We’d have it once or twice before going back to classic Soviet weeknight food—-soups, kotleti (beef patties, kind of like burgers but served without the bun) and fried potatoes.
Occasionally I would hit upon better ideas, including homemade meatloaf, Asian-style stir-fries and lasagna. My favorite was, of course, the lasagna. It didn't matter that lasagna wasn't exacty American. I just knew that it was unheard of in Russian cooking and that the freezer aisle at the grocery store was full of frozen lasagna dinners. Lasagna marks my food evolution because I would usually guide my mom in making it rather than the other way around. It’s also one of the few non-Russian dishes my mom still cooks even though I’m not around to pester her to make it. Our lasagnas went through many variations and food-fad stages over the years—ground beef lasagna, ground turkey lasagna, chicken lasagna, veggie lasagna, low-fat lasagna and others.
It took years of practice but I think I made one of my best lasagnas yet tonight. No recipe—I don’t keep track of proportions and I’ll make it a different way next time. The filling was made of extra virgin olive oil, a huge, sautéed onion, sautéed red, yellow and green bell-peppers, sweet Italian sausage, a couple of garlic cloves, a couple of handfuls of chopped parsley and a can of San Marzano tomatoes. Mozzarella and Parmesan between the layers. The filling was so good that I half-considered ditching the lasagna and just eating it with pasta. But I carried through and had a perfectly good American dinner.