Russian Language Blog

“Котлета” – It is What Hamburger Always Wanted to Be Posted by on Dec 2, 2010 in Culture

Do you love Russian language? Of course or else why would you be reading this blog, right? Do you also love «готовить еду» [to cook] or «читать о еде» [to read about food]? Then «я настоятельно рекоммендую» [I strongly recommend] to immediately get a copy of a wonderful book called «Книга о вкусной и здоровой жизни» [Book About Delicious and Healthful Life].

This is not at all a typical cookbook or even a food diary. Instead, as the authors explain, this «книга посвящена не только еде, но и всему, что с нею связано (а связано с нею всё [book is dedicated not just to food, but to everything connected to food (and everything’s connected to food)].

But why am I talking about this book? Well, as days have been getting «всё короче и короче» [ever shorter] and the temperatures have been dropping «всё ниже и ниже» [ever lower], I’ve been craving some good ol’ comfort food of my childhood. I’d close my eyes at imagine a bowl of steaming «борщ» [borscht] or fluffy «картофельное пюре» [mashed potatoes] served with «вызывающий оскомину квашенный зелёный помидор» [sour green tomato that causes one’s mouth to pucker].

Well, we’ve already talked «о борще» [about borscht], Russian mashed potatoes aren’t much different from the American ones and Brighton Beach, NY is still the best place outside of Russia to get your sour tomatoes (or any other pickled veggies) fix. So instead, why don’t we talk about «котлеты» [ground meat patties]

But first, let’s get something straight: with the exception of «котлета по-киевски» [Chicken Kiev], Russian «котлеты» are not “cutlets”. Russian-style «котлеты» are «кулинарные изделия» [culinary creations] made out of «фарш» [ground meat] or «рубленое мясо» [minced meat].

«Котлета» is unglamorous. In fact, none of the “coffee-table” style books on Russian food that I own even mention the humble «котлета». I should probably double-check for recipes for «биточки» [small round ground meat patties] or «фрикадельки» [small meatballs, usually steamed] that are essentially «котлеты» that have taken on a different form.

Back to the “Healthful Living” book. Here’s what it has to say on the subject: «Котлета – пища бедного человека: порой в ней хлеба больше, чем мяса.» [Ground meat patties are food for the poor: sometimes they contain more bread than meat.] Not to mention the kind of meat that’s used for the purpose, definitely not «бифштекс из вырезки» [filet mignon].

Yet, the book goes on to say that «И котлета может быть хорошей! И в котлете есть красота [Even a ground meat patty can be good! There’s beauty even in the ground meat patty!]

It’s up to the cook to uncover this gustatory beauty and bring it to the table. Properly done, humble «котлета» can be remarkably «нежная» [tender], «пышная» [here: rich], «сочная» [moist], and «пикантная» [zesty]. It’ll be nothing like «дежурная котлета» [lit: routine patty] – a tasteless and flavorless lukewarm creation served by many «забегаловки» [fast food places]. Instead, it can be «гастрономический шедевр» [magnum opus of gastronomy].

There are quite a few «котлеты» recipes out there, varying in complexity, number of ingredients, types of ground meat used, etc. But the basic ratio stays the same – 2.2lbs of «мясо» [meat], 2 «яйца» [eggs], 1 medium «луковица» [onion] (grated finely), 1 medium «картофелина» [potato] (also grated finely) and 2 slices of «чёрствый хлеб» [stale bread] (soaked). Oh, and of course, «соль» [salt] and «перец» [black pepper].

Note that you can use whatever meat you prefer – «говядина» [beef], a mix of «говядина» and «свинина» [pork], «курятина» [chicken], even «рыба» [fish]. You can even skip meat altogether and make purely vegetarian «котлеты» (although then you have to modify this recipe significantly and grate lots and lots of veggies).

To these basic ingredients you can then add «натёртые» [grated] or «мелко порубленые» [finely chopped] vegetables – beets, carrots, pumpkin, zucchini, even swiss chard. You can try different spices. You can use either «булка» [white loaf] or «чёрный хлеб» [rye or even pumpernickel bread] and soak it in either «молоко» [milk], «бульон» [stock] or even «вода» [water]. You can add chopped «сливочное масло» [butter] or «сало» [bacon or lard] to the mix. As you can see, «возможности воистину безграничны» [indeed, the sky is the limit].

Then you form little oval patties (please, do NOT flatten them hamburger-style; they are meant to be plump), coat in «мука» [flour] or «панировочные сухари» [bread crumbs] (you can skip the breading step entirely), and fry in «растительное масло» [oil] until browned on both sides.

Speaking of sides, perfect and perfectly nostalgic sides to «котлеты» include mashed potatoes or «гречка» [buckwheat], «солёная капуста» [sauerkraut] or something else crunchy and pickled, and maybe a simple «салат из помидоров и огурцов» [tomato and cucumber salad], dressed with «сметана» [crème fraiche]. Oh, and do me a favor, leave that ketchup bottle in the fridge just this once. «Приятного аппетита!» [Bon Appetite!]

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  1. Rob McGee:

    Господи, как я люблю “гамбургер по-русски”, именно котлеты!
    (Lordy, how I love “hamburger done Russian-style,” namely kotlety.)

    I have long wrestled with the question of how to translate котлеты with a single word, if indeed that’s possible — obviously, they’re not American-style hamburgers, which ideally are made from 100% ground beef, without “stretchers” such as bread or oatmeal.

    They’re sort of like “meatballs,” except that they’re not шаров’ы’е (spherical). They’re sort of like “meatloaf,” except that they’re formed into отд’е’льные к’о’мья (individual blobs), and are fried в сковород’е’ (in a skillet) instead of being baked in the oven. And they’re sort of like “Salisbury steak,” except that they’re not necessarily покр’ы’тые грибн’ы’м с’о’усом (covered with mushroom sauce).