Chef Boy Ari was high in the mountains of Western Siberia, above the shore of Lake Baikal. His companion was a bear of a man who works as a researcher at the Barguzin Sable Preserve. They skied up to a lookout. Ari was skiing, anyway. Ura was on kamoos, which are like skis, but wide and short like water skis, with nerpa seal skins glued to the bottoms. Instead of poles, Ura carried an angura, a single eight-foot staff made from a birch sapling.
Lake Baikal is shaped like the new moon, a long, thin crescent ringed by mountains, and is the largest, deepest, and oldest lake in the world. Two-thirds of the lake’s aquatic species exist nowhere else, including the world’s only species of fresh water seal, the nerpa, as well as the transparent lamp-oil fish. I watched a lamp-oil fish on the ice, dropped by a fisherman, melting into a puddle of oil around a skeleton with guts.
Night fell on Chef Boy Ari and Ura, shortly after a panoramic sunset from the lookout. Ura hadn’t brought gloves and his hands were cold, so he built a fire. It happened so fast the fire appeared out of nowhere.
Earlier that afternoon, the March sunshine had been warm on the snow. That night as we descended, stars burned bright and the moon cast shadows and the soft March snow froze bulletproof. My steel-edged skis skittered like epileptic Mexican jumping beans. As for the face plants, it was hard to tell which was worse: breaking through the crust or not. I built a sweat each time I extracted myself from a crater. In between crashes my sweat would freeze.
Meanwhile, Ura sailed through the trees with his wide and slow ice breakers, levering his angura against his hip and leaning back on it like a rudder in the wake of his break. Only the language barrier prevented Ura from singing zippity doo-da. That, and the fact that for Ura, this was all no big deal.
Finally we reached home, the little hamlet of Dafsha, and I melted like a lamp-oil fish on the hard bench in front of the fire. Ura was in the kitchen whipping up some grub, the caliber of which I cared not.
The food in Siberia is extraordinary. Despite a short, moving target of a growing season, Siberians have elevated the concept of “food security” to a level all their own. Practically every house has an attached greenhouse. Pantries are swollen with canned goods, including wildcrafted delectables such as pickled mushrooms, ginseng vodka, pine nut product, berry syrup, caviar. The lake provides many fish, including the super-oily omul, eaten raw. Never has Chef Boy Ari looked forward to meals as in Siberia. And perhaps nowhere has he learned so much about food. In Siberia he fell in love with pickled vegetable product, consumed with all meals, as well as the concept of putting mayonnaise on everything.
On that bench by the fire, I could not move, except when offered a bowl of beef broth. Nothing but bone, fat, salt, water and maybe some onion...so very mild, and as absolutely fulfilling as food can be—especially with Ura in the kitchen frying trout and potatoes and grating onion and garlic. The broth did more than warm me. It reconstituted my tissue. Soon, I could sit up.
It’s been four years, and I have never made Ura’s pure and simple broth, though many times I have tried. I start with water in my cast-iron pot. To this, I add about two pounds of beef soup bones. Since I don’t eat mystery meat, and I don’t have any good farmer-direct beef bone connections, I go for organic beef bones (available at the Good Food Store and Orange Street Food Farm).
I lightly salt the water and add the bones and some olive oil (not sure why), and let simmer about two hours. Sooner or later, I start adding stuff: red wine, vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers. With the pickle jar out, I realize I should chop some pickled hotties. Then I poke around the dried pepper box and maybe add some Indian chilis or poblano or crushed cayenne flakes. I chop a big onion, and a head of garlic. Save some garlic until almost-the-end. Other spices can be good: sage, marjoram, rosemary...but not so much that you can identify any one flavor, except maybe black pepper.
At some point, take the bones out of the water and let them cool on a plate. When they are cool, cut the meat off the bones and into small chunks, and add it all back to the pot, including the bones, which continue to give.
Already I am hopelessly beyond Ura’s broth, and I haven’t even added potatoes. And I also like to add the kohlrabi, and even the radish from time to time. More red wine. I don’t know why I don’t add carrots. Last time I added frozen kale from summer. Keep adding water as you go, so the pot is always full. Cook it until you can’t stand it any longer, and don’t forget the mayo.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: Flash@missoulanews.com