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Russian Kotleti Revealed: The Truth behind Russian Hamburgers

Russian Kotleti Revealed: The Truth behind Russian Hamburgers

Anya Von Bremzen, the author of a cooking memoir in the USSR, unveils the story behind the Kotleti recipe.

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We've recently interviewed Russian author Anya Von Bremzen on her book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing (Random House, September 2013), here is what she has to reveal on Kotleti, the Russian "hamburgers" followed by an original recipe.

"Russian "Hamburgers" Kotleti for lunch, kotleti for dinner, kotleti of beef, of pork, of fish, of chicken—even kotleti of minced carrots or beets. The entire USSR pretty much lived on these cheap delicious fried patties, and when comrades didn't make them from scratch, they bought them at stores. Back in Moscow mom and I harbored a secret passion for the proletarian six-kopek variety produced by the meat processing plant named after Stalin's food supply commissar Anastas Mikoyan.

Inspired by his 1936 trip to America, Mikoyan wanted to copy Yankee burgers in Russia, but somehow the bun got lost in the shuffle, and the country got hooked on mass-produced kotleti instead. Deliciously greasy, petite, with a heavy industrial breading that fried up to a wicked crunch, Mikoyan Factory patties could be scarfed by the dozen. Wild with nostalgia mom and tried a million times to recreate them at home, but no luck: some manufactured treats just can't be duplicated. So we always reverted back to mom's (far more noble ) home-made version. Every ex-Soviet cook has a special trick for making juicy savory patties. Some add crushed ice, others tuck in pats of butter or mix in a whipped egg white. My mom likes her kotleti Odessa-style (garlicky!), and adds mayo as binding instead of the usual egg, with delightful results. The same formula works with ground turkey or chicken or fish. Buckwheat kasha makes a nostalgic Russian accompaniment. Ditto thin potato batons slowly pan-fried with onions in lots of butter or oil. I love cold kotleti for lunch the next day, with some dense dark bread, hot mustard, and a good crunchy dill pickle.

Here is Anya's secret recipe (serves 4):

1/2 pounds freshly ground beef chuck (or a mixture of beef and pork) 2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed, soaked for 5 minutes in water and squeezed, 1 small onion grated 2 cloves garlic, crushed in a press, 2 tablespoons finely chopped dill or parsley, 2 tablespoons full-fat mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste 2-3 cups fine dried bread crumbs for coating Canola oil and unsalted butter, for frying 1.

In a mixing bowl, combine the first 8 ingredients and mix well into a homogenous mixture. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

With wet hands shape the mixture into 3-inch oval patties. Spread bread crumbs on a large plate or a sheet of wax paper. Coat patties in crumbs flattening them out slightly and pressing down for the crumbs to adhere. 

In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with a pat of butter until sizzling. Working in batches fry the kotleti over medium-high heat until golden-brown, about 4 minutes per side. Cover, reduce heat to low, and fry for another 2-3 minutes to cook through. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the patties. Serve at once.

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