Devout Orthodox Christians often fast more than 200 days throughout the year. From the Great Lenten Fast in spring to the Apostle’s and Dormition fasts during the warm months of summer, times of austere fare far outnumber those of decadence and plenty. During the long Christmas fast, which lasts from late November until January 7 (the Russian Orthodox Christmas), no meat, dairy or red-colored foods reminiscent of blood may be eaten: tomatoes, beets, red peppers and even carrots are forbidden. Fish is allowed only on Saturdays and Sundays.
Such dietary restrictions may seem daunting, but throughout the ages, clever Russian cooks have developed a varied–and delicious!–repertoire of dishes to enjoy during these prolonged fasts. Cabbages stuffed with flavorful vegetables, turnips covered in currents, crisp rice cutlets in mushroom sauce and savory pumpkin puddings are just a few of the dishes that grace the Russian table during the dark months of the Christmas fast. The Russians use different oils (hemp, nut, poppy seed and pumpkin being just of a few of their favorite oils) and herbs like nettles and sorrel to change the flavor of a particular vegetable dish. The combination of flavors is endless and the resulting meat- and dairy-free dishes are as complex and satisfying as their more decadent counterparts.
Here’s a traditional recipe for kartofelny gribnoy sup (mushroom soup with potatoes) from Culinaria: Russia. It’s a dish commonly served during the long Christmas fast. Serve it with a dense sour rye bread and a green salad (but no sour cream, please!).
Kartofelny Gribnoy Sup (Mushroom Soup with Potatoes)
9 oz/250 g fresh mushrooms (porcini, chanterelles, button) cut into bite-sized pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 tbsp. oil
1 lb 2 oz/500 g potatoes boiled in their skins, peeled and finely diced
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 tbsp finely chopped dill
1 1/2 quarts/ 1.5 litres water or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Fry the mushrooms with the onion and carrot in the oil; add the potatoes and herbs; pour over the water or vegetable stock and leave the soup to simmer 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper.