19 January 2010

Scrumptious Expat Casseroles in St Petersburg

Expat Cooking
... ¹ Shopping, preparing and savoring of food, motivated by expatriate nostalgia for a former time or place.... such as the American cooking he remembers when a child.       ²Expatriate attempts to replicate cuisine of his host country.       ³Expatriate cooking anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

An American  Mission of Mercy...

In 1950's America we had what my mother called the White Glove BrigadeWhen someone had a serious problem or death in the family, the women neighbors consulted not just about the crisis, but also to make sure that they didn't make duplicate casseroles. 

One would make the tuna casserole, another a Western with ground meat.  Then the women would put on their cloth coats, little round hats, and white gloves, ready to deliver their casseroles to the family in need.

Food nostalgia...


Casseroles recall home, neighbors helping neighbors, and church suppers.  Fifty years later, the look and smell of a casserole gives me  a feeling of security I felt when I was a lively kid of 11 in 1953. It's what Americans now call comfort food.

The Golden Age of Advertising... Campbell's and Kraft

The covered dish supper became popular with food shortages during World War I and the Great
Depression.  Campbell's introduced Cream of Mushroom soup in 1934, the first to be used in casseroles as a sauce. 

In 1937 Kraft Foods heralded KD, the Kraft Dinner of Macaroni and Cheese... A package of powdered processed cheese product ¹ and dry macaroni.  With World War II meat shortages, this became a menu item in many American homes.

¹  Cheese, processed cheese, and cheese product have distinct meanings.  Processed cheese, also called American Cheese, has components that are not cheese, while cheese product signifies real cheese is less than half of the product.

Magazine articles and lighter dishware make casseroles the icon of the 50's decade...

Women's magazines encouraged women to find time saving ways to cook.  Improved dishware was lighter and stronger. 
Casseroles were a convenient and tasty way to make a complete meal in one dish.

Tuna Noodle Casserole was a big hit!

... made with a can of condensed Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, an equal amount of milk, some Hellmann's egg noodles, a can of tuna, a package of frozen peas, Kraft shredded cheddar cheese, packaged bread crumbs,  and Kraft pre-grated Parmesan topping.

My mom cooked with basic ingredients... 

Thirty-five years after my mom died, I still have her recipe box, with a few casserole cards.  In her neat but hard to read writing she gives ample directions, with no mention of packaged, processed shortcuts.  Her cooking habits were established before Cream of Mushroom cans and KD boxes were introduced in the 1930's.

Many Americans now prefer a return to casseroles made from basic ingredients, as they are purer, tastier, and more Green... environmentally responsible.

Processed food is as American as apple pie...

American expatriates have no choice but to remember processed and prepared dishes.  The standard comment is that the French cook with butter, the Italians with oil, the Americans with cans.  I can see a creep towards convenience foods in Russia, but usually  all but baked items are made from scratch.

My family seems more curious than hungry about my Scottish meatloaf, Italian tomato sauce, and American casserole. Why do I cook dishes
за границу, so beyond the border ?

A trip to the market.

The challenge of finding ingredients or substitutes in St Petersburg is much of why Expat Cooking is fun.  I am not an Exact Measure type of guy.  We have an old cracked plastic measuring cup which I use instead of converting to metric.

Are you converted?  A metric chart!

One cup                                    240 milileters
1 lb wt                                        540 grams
1 cup chopped vegetables     450 grams

350 degrees                             175 degrees

 This Southern Casserole is a sure fire hit.

 Linda, a member of the International Women's Club from Tennessee and North Carolina, served it at a Peter's Tea.  

She had some left over, and sent it on to me.  I loved it and polished it off while sitting at a Teremok.  I wrote Linda for the recipe.
 We  served it to hesitant but appreciative family.  We shared it with a Ukraine/British couple in town who copied the recipe, since                                                                                         cooking it a few times.

Complete ingredients...
  •  smoked ham пченая ветчина 2 cups cubed.
  •  green pepper зеленый перец 1 cup chopped.
  •  sharp hard cheese острый твёрдый сыр 2 cups shredded
  •  red onion красный лук 1/2 cup chopped.
  •  garlic чеснок 3 cloves chopped.
  •  spice cloves гвоздики 10 pieces ground.
  •  oregano орегон 1 pinch crushed.
  •  basil базилик 1 pinch crushed.
  •  bread хлеб 5 pieces cubed.
  •   butter  масло  2 large spoonfuls.
  •  spicy mustard пряная горчица 1 large spoon heaping.
  •  eggs яиц 6 medium.
  •  milk молока 2 cups.   

I add spices according to the tastes of guests.  Ground cloves powder is my fantasy.
Shopping notes...

Just ask for slices of ham.  Smoked may not be available. 

Cheddar cheese is an unknown here, and it's hard to find anything that approaches the hard category.

Spice cloves  come unground.  I chop them fine with a paring knife until they are close to powder.

Recently the bakery section includes something called  American Sandwich Bread. This bread is more substantial than icky-squishy white bread in the States, but still I prefer oatmeal bread,
овсяный хлеб.

Grey Poupon and Champagne are not available so I substitute  a strong  Russian mustard.

Step by step...

Saute peppers, onions, garlic.

Sprinkle bread with  one hand, cheese with the other... mixing evenly... into a large casserole dish, greased lightly with scraps of fat from the ham.

Whisk eggs, milk, mustard.  Mix in spice cloves.  Add oregano and basil (crush them in your palm first).

Pour the whisked mixture evenly over the bread and cheese.

Cover casserole and put it to bed in the refrigerator to marinate overnight.

Next day let the casserole stay on the counter for 30 minutes, and put in a preheated oven.

Cook at 350 F, 175 C, for 1 hour... making sure it has cooked enough to set.

Let it stand for 5 minutes, and serve. 

Here people make their food from scratch...

In Russia there is small temptation to take ingredient shortcuts.  I see a trend by international food companies to push expedient products. The Russians scorn canned soups and sauces, processed cheese food (an oxymoron), and use little margarine.

Fortunately Russians still prefer spending hours in the kitchen over having business do it                                                                                    for them with most of the ingredients already
      A Tempting Casserole is Quickly Gone!                         in a can or frozen package. 

An indication of low interest in prepared foods is that our local supermarket has many types of canned and bottled tomato paste, but only one brand of prepared tomato sauce.

Our basic foods are better...

Our eggs still have dark orange yolks, and most prefer milk with 3 1/2 to 5 % milk fat.  Taste is the first consideration.

Who's afraid of
high fat food, cholesterol, and calories?  Not the Russians!

The phony danger of high fat food could only scare impressionable people in the United States.  Russians, as a rule, are afraid of nothing, especially if someone says it is bad for them!  Many Russians have no idea what calories are, or the comparative metabolism of foods.

American convenience foods are not popular here.  Salty Campbells, Velveeta (Kraft Foods pastuerized processed cheese  spread) and other low value products have yet to have any effect.

Lucious, Tasty, Plentiful...

So, while American cuisine is improving, I worry that the quality food  we now have in Russia will be undercut by the multinational food companies, and the temptations of convenience.  In the meantime we will continue to enjoy some of the best food in the world!


  1. Making my mouth water for some of my Mother's home cooking! Sadly a bit late for her now.

  2. Cheddar cheese is not "unknown" in Russia - you just have to know where to get it. In fact there is a new line of regional English cheeses now being marketed in Russia - types that you can't even find in the United States (except in New York City). The availability of foods in Russia improves with every passing month. Ten years ago it was almost impossible to find shrimp, but now they are in every little corner store. No one used to know what lobster or foie gras is in Russia, and now it is quite easy to find.

  3. Yes the Brits have bought some glorious culture to Spain: Baked beans, Marmite, marmalade, fry up breakfasts, The Sun (newspaper)and illegal cars.

  4. Ah, the mystery of Marmite! Totally natural, but elusive in Russia. Hope to taste it soon!

  5. Thanks Anonymous for the up-to-date information. Season supermarket labels a variety of cheese Russian. Just now we have a wedge that is cheddar like.


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