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Classic Russian Cotletas (Cotelettes)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Russian cotleta is not to be confused with American cutlet. Cotleta (french cotelette) is one of Russian traditional and very much loved dishes made of ground meat. It came to Russia from Europe and initially was a deep-fried slice of meat with rib bone, but later became a ground and spiced  meat patty, coated with bread crumbs and pan-fried. Since the 19th century it was so popular that even Alexander Pushkin, the genius of Russian poetry, mentioned cotletas in his immortal poem Eugene Onegin, in a description of a ball feast.
Cotletas are traditionally made of 3:1 ground beef and pork (very often fatty pork), but there are many variations of meat that are equally or even more successful. To Alex and me it is a very warm dish  reminiscent of our childhood and our mothers' hearty kitchens.
There are many ways to make colletas. Here's the classic recipe.

What you need:
1.5 lb ground beef
0.5 lb ground pork (with some fat)
2 slices of white bread soaked in milk
2 medium onions, finely diced or grated
2 eggs
Salt, about 1 tsp
Black pepper
Bread crumbs
Oil for frying

Mix well with your hands (your best tool!): meats, onion, soaked bread, eggs, salt and pepper, until it comes of the mixing ball easily. It should be soft consistency and easily workable (it shouldn't fall apart in your hands though). Form oval or round meat patties with wet hands, about one heaped tbsp of meat per one patty. This quantity of meat will yield about 15 cotletas.
Heat the oil in a frying pan on medium to high heat. Ideally oil should reach half the thickness of cotletas, so that the sides are well fried. Roll each patty in bread crumbs, form  nice cotletas, and put them carefully on the frying pan one by one.
Watch cotletas closely, since they can over fry and burn easily (no telephone chats at this time!). Turn them over when one side is nice and golden. When both sides are ready transfer cotletas to a serving dish. The dish should be heat resistant so that you could put it in the oven to keep the food warm. while you make the sauce and lay the table.
Cotletas go well with different sauces. This time I made my favorite tomato sauce, with addition of some sweet peppers. In a small sauce pan saute 1 diced onion, add 1 big diced tomato, 1 tsp sugar, salt, pepperoncini, and simmer for 10 minutes, then add yellow, red or green peppers (or all of them), diced or cut in small pieces, add about 1/2 to 1 cup water and simmer about 5 minutes. At the end thicken with flour to desired thickness (1-2 tsp flour mixed well with 1/2 cup water - no lumps), and add more salt if necessary. Voila!

Over the time I changed this classic recipe and substituted white bread with finely grated potato. Very often I add garlic and greens for more flavor. I also prefer to bake them instead of frying (this way you can also omit eggs), to make it more healthy - every time to Alex's deep disappointment :) It's easier and faster, and there is no mess on your range. Just oil the baking sheet, place raw cotletas (no bread crumbs!) leaving some space between them, spray with oil and bake on high heat (about 400 F) until they are golden, about 20 minutes, then reduce heat, cover loosely with foil and bake another 30 minutes. Then I put all cotletas in a rather shallow sauce pan, pour my sauce over to cover them and simmer 15 minutes on low  heat.
Cotletas will be very tender if you finely grate the onion and potato. It will take some courage on your part (and maybe some tears), but it's well worth the suffering.
You can use different meats and their combinations: beef and pork (classic); beef, pork and lamb; beef and chicken; beef and turkey; etc., etc., etc. The form and size of cotletas also could be different. Classic size is about 2" by 3". But there is also another type of cotletas, about 1.5" in diameter, they are called banquet cotletas and served as finger food at parties. They resemble Italian meatballs, but are usually served without any sauce.
Sauces make a separate story. With classic cotletas tomato sauce is the best, to my taste. Sour cream sauce is also very good, but I will share it in another post.
Cotletas are such a versatile meat treat that numerous side dishes go perfectly well with it. Mashed, fried or baked potatoes, pasta, buckwheat, rice, other grains, all kinds of greens and vegetables, pickled cucumbers...
Cold cotleta can be sliced in half, placed on a buttered toast and topped with tomato paste/ketchup to make a substantial and yummy breakfast.
There are many versions of vegetarian cotletas, but this is reserved for another post.:)
Truly, one could write a cookbook just about cotletas, their recipes, sauces and other unexpected uses. Viva cotletas!

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