Once or twice a week, Yana Morgan and her two temporary roommates, Natalia Bireeva and Anna Kozina, would opt-out from a take-out and opt-in for a homemade Russian meal for dinner. These young women, all in their mid-to-late 20’s, and Yana’s four-year-old son, Justin, share a two-bedroom apartment in a building on the border of Sheepshead Bay and Midwood neighborhoods.
Everything inside of the apartment has a “Russian soul,” including an omnipresent clutter somehow peacefully combined with a cozy feeling of homeyness, that Eastern European women seem to create anywhere they go to.
Though Russians inhabit the apartment, the neighborhood is not “extremely Russian,” according to Morgan. “If you travel south to Brighton Beach, that’s where you’ll literally get USSR,” she says. “It seems that people who came there in the 90’s, still live in the 90’s.”
The ladies’ Thursday dinner includes baked “potatoes in a cheese coat” and a garden salad. The meal takes about an hour to prepare, and it costs about $20 to $25 to buy all of the ingredients, such as potatoes, shredded cheese, and vegetables.
“We love this meal, because it’s quick and delicious,” says Bireeva, while cutting potatoes into perfect thin slices. Then she puts them in layers into a pan, covering each layer of potatoes with a layer of shredded cheese. “There is no limit to a number of layers. You can add as many as a pan could fit,” she says. Once the pan is stocked with four layers, Bireeva places the dish into an oven for 30 to 40 minutes.
An atmosphere of collaboration and quiet understanding reigns in the kitchen, while each woman does her part of work. “Although I would not call this specific dish purely traditional, a whole family would usually get together to make the famous Russian dumplings ‘pelmeni,’ and each person would participate,” says Kozina.
While chopping veggies for the salad, Morgan shares her story. “I have lived here since 2012, while Natalia and Anna have moved in a little time ago,” she says. “Natalia is a tourist and Anna is a college student.” It appears that Yana is the “mother-hen” in this household, and everyone else is her child in a way.
Morgan’s story is quite striking. She graduated with multiple degrees from schools in Russia and from the City College of New York. After internships with a prominent New York politician’s office and with United Nations, Morgan founded a non-profit, Pulsse Incorporated. Through Morgan’s non-profit, American kids from poor families are able to prepare for the SAT and other tests, while the kids in places of conflict and poverty in the world would receive school supplies.
Morgan holds Justin on her lap and continues, “I was born into a wealthy family and I had everything I needed. Now I want to help those who don’t have a so-called ‘birth privilege.’ I want to give kids from poor families a chance to study and get farther in life.”
When it comes to her food choices, Morgan calls herself “green.” She is a fan of healthy organic food. Morgan shops at Whole Foods and at a local farmers’ market. She infuses the garden salad with the special Argan oil that she brought all the way from Morocco. She adds salt only “for veggies to pour their juices out.” She also rarely adds lettuce to her salads. “It seems that the lettuce that I bought several times here in New York was born before me,” Morgan explains. “If I need to add leaves, I stick with spinach, arugula, and dandelion.”
Once a 40-minute mark has passed, the “potatoes in a cheese coat” dish is out of the oven. Almost like dough, this dish has risen inside the pan.
The household sits down for dinner at the same built-in table where the cooking and cutting took place. In the blink of an eye, dishes, silverware, napkins, and wine appear on the table, and the “family” is ready to eat. Jokes, laughs, and girly chit-chat take place during the food “ceremony.”
But where is little Justin? Morgan’s son doesn’t join the table. “He snacks all the time, so he wouldn’t eat a full meal,” says Morgan. Justin loves pizza, pasta, and sweets. His mom takes him to a private pre-kindergarten school and to horse-riding lessons.
Four other inhabitants, who do not join for the dinner, are three cats, Pipa, Suri, and Dennis, and a puppy, Barry.
The only males in the apartment are Dennis, the male cat, and Justin; otherwise, it’s all women’s territory.
Less than three weeks ago, Morgan, Bireeva, and Kozina suffered in a car accident, which was someone else’s fault. All three are going through intense therapy. Nevertheless, they have kindly agreed to show off their cooking skills. One must admit that Russian women are strong!