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Savory strudel

| Sunday, June 18, 2006

If you are lucky, you might just see Roxolana in her intimate garden, clearing tables or watering flowers to ensure a welcoming atmosphere for diners.

Roxolana is a youthful 13 years old, but if you speak to her, or to her brother, Ivan, 13, in English, French or Ukrainian, she'll answer. Perhaps you have a question about the variety of pierogies offered at Roxolana's Garden, the restaurant opened last summer by her mother, Irene Horajsky, along Western Avenue on the North Side. Or maybe you want to know the meaning of pyrizhky.

Horajsky -- who speaks her children's three languages, plus Polish -- brought her Eastern European style of cooking from Chicago, where her parents owned a restaurant during the 1960s and '70s. She is a native of the Ukrainian Village in the Windy City.

"The signs were in (Ukrainian), and people walking down the street would be speaking it," she says. "It was the same with other ethnic neighborhoods, such as the Italians."

Financial pressures brought Horajsky to Pittsburgh, where she worked as an interpreter to support her children until deciding to venture out on her own to share her culinary heritage. Roxolana's Garden -- a fully renovated townhouse with living quarters upstairs -- opened last August featuring Eastern European delights such as beet salad, chicken paprikash, potato pancakes, cheeze blintzes, borscht and several varieties of pierogies -- including fresh blueberry and cherry, in season.

She hasn't forgotten that Pittsburghers can be a meat-and-potatoes crowd; Black Angus hamburgers are offered, as well as Italian sausage and grilled chicken sandwiches, deli lunchmeat sandwiches, spinach and bacon salad and french fries.

Horajsky, who says she learned to cook from her mother -- "real Ukrainian food," she says -- also prepares savory and sweet strudels. For Cooking Class, she demonstrated her Asparagus Strudel. She flavors the strudel with tarragon, but admits she's "dill crazy -- there's no life without it."

Her apple strudel recipe, featuring aromatic spices, coconut, raisins and walnuts, was developed by her mother and grandmother. Harajsky's mother was famous in Chicago for a pork chop sandwich, but it didn't catch on with Pittsburgh customers. "I guess the times have changed," she sighs.

Roxolana's offers a full breakfast menu, from omelets to waffles to pancakes, with bagels, breads and muffins. Specialty coffees and espresso can be ordered at any time, especially served with ethnic sweets such as Ukrainian torte or cheesecake, Layered Wafers, chocolate torte, a variety of sweet quick breads and pyrizhky -- filled puff pastry.

Roxolana and Ivan work at the restaurant when they can, but Mom keeps them pretty busy. She's determined that they know their ancestral lineage, and that means language and arts, as well as the cuisine. They are students at Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon and attend a certified Ukrainian education program on weekends in Parma, Ohio.

Roxolana's Garden, 856 Western Ave., West Allegheny, North Side, is open for brunch from 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays; breakfast and lunch from 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays.; and dinner from 5:30-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays. Details: 412-231-7696, www.roxolanas.com .

Asparagus Strudel

Look for thin asparagus -- the thick stalks will be difficult to fold into the phyllo dough and too big for diners to eat in one forkful.

  • 2 pounds thin fresh asparagus (about 2 bundles)
  • About 2 1/2 sticks butter (2 1/4 cups) or more, divided (do not use margarine)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried tarragon leaves
  • 12 ounces whole mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (about 4 cups sliced)
  • 1 bundle green onions, trimmed and chopped
  • 2 ounces blanched slivered almonds, toasted, divided
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 sheets (18- by 14-inch) #10 frozen extra-thick country-style (horiatiko) phyllo dough, thawed according to package directions
  • Lemon slices, for garnish

Break off the tough woody ends of the asparagus. Cut the stalks of 1 bunch into bite-size pieces. Leave the remaining stalks whole.

Place the asparagus in a shallow dish in a microwave oven, cover and cook for 2 minutes on high power. Remove and set aside.

In a large skillet, melt 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter. Remove from the heat and add the salt, black pepper, garlic powder, tarragon and mushrooms. Stir to combine. Return the skillet to the stove and saute until the mushrooms begin to give off their juices, for about 30 seconds. Add the green onions and saute for 30-40 seconds.

Add the lemon juice and the asparagus. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the almonds for the garnish; add the remaining almonds to the skillet with the vegetables and herbs. Mix and cook over very low heat, until it just comes to a bubble ( see Photo A ). Remove from the heat, wait 5 minutes, then taste for seasoning.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt half of the remaining butter (melt more, as needed, to finish brushing the dough as the strudel is prepared). Line a large baking pan with foil and brush the foil with some of the melted butter.

Place 2 sheets of phyllo on a work surface and brush with butter to cover the surface. Place 2 more sheets atop the buttered sheets. (Wrap the remaining phyllo in its original container, then wrap in plastic wrap or cellophane. If using it within 2 weeks, refrigerate; otherwise, wrap it in plastic wrap, then in foil and re-freeze.)

Scoop the asparagus filling onto the phyllo dough along one side, leaving a 2- to 3-inch border on the side, top and bottom ( Photo B ). Begin folding the phyllo over the filling from the long side, then turn in the short sides as you go to encase the filling ( Photo C ). When the strudel is rolled, carefully transfer it to the prepared baking pan, seam-side down.

Pour a generous amount of melted butter over the top of the strudel to coat. Place the baking sheet on the middle oven rack and bake for about 20 minutes or until the phyllo slightly turns color. Remove from the oven and baste well with the butter in the pan. Mix some of the reserved almonds with the butter, then sprinkle the almonds on the strudel ( Photo D ).

Return the pan to the oven. Bake for about 10 more minutes: When the almonds are browned, the strudel will be done. Watch carefully so the nuts do not burn.

Remove to a cooling rack. Baste the strudel a few more times with the pan butter. Let rest a few minutes, then cut for serving, if desired. Serve with lemon slices.

Leftover strudel can be cooled, then wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated. Heat gently in a microwave oven.

Makes 4 lunch portions or 8 first-course servings.

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