Last Friday afternoon Masha Kirilenko was busily cooking some of her husband's favorite Russian comfort foods. For a few moments the borscht and beef stroganoff may have taken his mind off the ache of his left wrist, broken the night before during the Utah Jazz game with the Washington Wizards. With his arm in a sling, Andrei Kirilenko ate one-handed. He said he had refused to take pain pills in an effort to build up his immune system and promote healing.
Despite the pain, Kirilenko was nevertheless in good spirits, playfully arguing with his wife about whether seasons change south of the equator and urging the Deseret Morning News photographer to stir in some sour cream when sampling Masha's borscht. "You need a little sour cream; it's like with sushi, every time you need a little soy sauce with it."
Sushi is just one of the many dishes the Kirilenkos have learned to enjoy while exploring the Utah culinary scene since they moved here in 2001. It's all been part of what Masha Kirilenko calls "the biggest adventure of my life." After a whirlwind six-month courtship, she married the basketball star and left her home, family and business behind in Moscow to embark on a new life as the wife of a Utah Jazz player.
American food was just one of the many adjustments the couple had to make.
"For Andrei and me it was pretty hard with food here," she said. "The taste was different even the taste of a potato or carrot or fish tasted different from Russia. I think there are different ways of producing food, the chemicals that they put in or if they don't use any chemicals at all. It reflects on the taste of the foods. And in Salt Lake City there are no good Russian restaurants, so we had to get used to all of this."
Now fully acclimatized to the United States, Masha enjoys cooking at her home in the Cottonwood area. (The house is up for sale: The Kirilenkos are building a new home on Capitol Hill.) She showed off her measuring cup that helps her convert ounces to milliliters, the measurement used back home.
"I found it at Target; I'm addicted to that place!" she laughs. "But now I don't measure things as much, I can just look at it and tell."
They also enjoy eating out especially Italian and Japanese cuisine, as well as seafood.
"I love cooking, but it's also great to know you have a choice, you don't have to cook, you can go out," she said. "For me, creating a good dish is an art; it's not like a job you have to do, like cleaning the house."
She has many interests, including marketing and nutrition. And as a pop singer who's well known in her native land, she has a music video and CD that topped Russia's charts. But she said her top priority is Andrei and their 3-year-old son, Fedya.
"For (Andrei) it's vital to have high calories but healthy calories, instead of so much cholesterol and fat. He doesn't eat much on a game day, but on a day off or practice day, he will eat four times at least. He likes variety. If I repeat something during the week, he'll say, 'I had that yesterday. I don't want it.' "
She adds, "I'm actually not a big fan of Russian cuisine. I'm very into nutrition, and I think Russian cuisine is mostly very unhealthy. It has a lot of fat and carbs. I only take 2 percent milk here, but in Russia they always have whole milk and half and half. Sour cream is huge there. Even the salads have sour cream in them."
Masha met Andrei when her sports marketing company asked him to play in a charity event. She was impressed that he offered to donate his time and was soon charmed by him.
"Six months isn't a lot of time to get to know a person and leave everything," she said. "But at one point I realized he is the one. I could feel it was a real thing. I thought, 'I've got to try to live his life now and dedicate some of my time to someone else.'"
The daughter of Russian hoop star Andrei Lopatov, Masha said she doesn't miss a Jazz game, whether in person or watching on television. (She said coach Jerry Sloan doesn't like wives traveling with the team for road games.) "My son started recognizing Andrei on TV when he was 12 months old," she said.
The Fisher-Price basketball hoop near the kitchen gets a workout from Fedya, who even scribbled on his ball, as if autographing it. If anyone tosses the ball near his hoop, Fedya's hand comes up to the basket; the grinning 3-year-old is ready to block the shot."I was teaching him how to block shots," said Masha. "I said, 'Daddy is the best in the league for this, so you've got to do it.'"
Although borscht is one of Andrei's favorite soups, Masha didn't seem to share his enthusiasm. "You have to be born and raised in Russia to like borscht," she said. But her rich, flavorful addition of filet mignon chunks could win over some Americans. "It's a very expensive borscht," she notes.
Another typical Russian dish: thin, crepelike pancakes wrapped around black osetra caviar and sour cream. "Caviar is expensive here, but in Russia it's pretty cheap."
He also likes a Russian spinach soup with some egg and sour cream stirred in. "But the spinach in Russia is a little bit sour, and the spinach isn't that way here. So I can't make it here," she said.
Another favorite is the Italian salad Caprese, made with slices of tomato and mozzarella.
Does Andrei ever do the cooking? "Only when I am really sick; then he will fix something. On International Women's Day, on March 8, all the women get presents and flowers that's when he'll cook for me, and he does a very good job. He'll cook scrambled eggs with a big tablespoon of sour cream. And then he'll go get take-out."
What she cooks during the NBA season depends on whether her husband is on the road and whether it's game day.When he's gone she might cook simple things for herself and her son.
On game day the Kirilenkos follow a set routine, even down to which shoe he puts on first, how many minutes he stretches and how long he shoots around before the game, Masha said. "Every single minute of the day I know what he does. There's no way he violates that rule."
The broken wrist has sidelined Andrei for the rest of this season. But when he's playing, this is what his usual game-day diet is like:
He eats breakfast usually a hot cereal like Cream of Wheat around 7:30 a.m., then goes to practice. He comes home for lunch, often Masha's homemade borscht or another soup made with chicken, vegetables or beef. "It's fresh, not the kind from cubes that you just add chicken to," Masha added. After lunch he spends a few minutes with his computer or video games and then takes a nap from 1:30-4 p.m. He has a sandwich or snack with some tea before heading to the game.
They eat dinner after the game, often at 10:30 p.m. or later. "His schedule is not a regular person's schedule. They come home very late, and I always wait for him, and we'll stay up pretty late."
Often Russian dumplings will be part of the meal. "It's a very traditional dish that comes from Siberia. Minced meat, a mixture of pork and beef, wrapped in a pastry. You boil it for five or 10 minutes with black pepper and a bay leaf, and you serve them with sour cream. He can eat them anytime, for breakfast, dinner, lunch, at night. It's very easy for me when I don't feel like cooking for him at 3 a.m.; I just boil them."
When he's on the road "he's a room-service person. He will order New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, Caesar or Caprese salad, salmon or maybe New York steak. Sometimes he likes an Italian spinach soup."
She adds that Kirilenko doesn't like airline food. "On the private team jet the food is nicer, but on regular flights he starves himself for 12 hours flying to Russia."He likes everything cooked fresh, and he's not a fan of American junk food. "Well, sometimes he does have cravings for a Filet o' Fish sandwich or Chicken McNuggets. And there's one dish that he loves that's really terrible, full of cholesterol hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise. If you are a professional athlete, that's a killer."
Masha notes that most restaurant kids' menus consist of pizza, hot dogs, corn dogs, hamburgers and french fries. "No good foods, from my point of view."
At home she often feeds Fedya fresh soups and simple salads like chopped cucumber and tomato. He also likes baked vegetables such as butternut squash, carrots and zucchini. Already Fedya is taking skiing lessons while Masha learns to snowboard.
"I'm pushy by nature, and I'm more into the Russian way of bringing kids up. They put them in classes drawing and music lessons and sports and make sure their kids don't have a spare minute to get in trouble," she said. "I'm very much into developing my son in different fields, and then he will pick up what he likes the most."
When the Kirilenkos are home in Salt Lake City, they go out to movies, museums, playgrounds, parks and pools. "We like to go to the restaurants and movies, but we are very social; we like communicating with people and learning how other people live," she said. "Also, Andrei is a big fan of spas. He loves to go when he has a free day. He loves being pampered."
In fact, Masha has considered opening a spa in Utah.
"I'm very into beauty, and I love to learn about the different massages, facials and other beauty treatments. I think Utah women are the most attractive in the U.S., but I want them to preserve that beauty for as long as possible. It's amazing how many beautiful faces I see here."At the end of April the couple will go back to Russia to see friends and family and to work with Andrei's Kirilenko Kids Foundation. She said their charity work helps orphans, sports clinics, a cancer hospital and a home for the severely mentally disabled.
Masha the pop star
On their visit home in the summer of 2002, Masha recorded an album of pop music on a whim. After coming back to Utah, she was surprised to hear that the music video of the single "Sugary," in which Andrei also appears, had climbed to No. 1 on Russian MTV.
"Before I met Andrei, I had the sports marketing company, and it was also dealing with some musicians too, and we had a production company where we could record commercial spots and so on," she said. "As a child I was singing in a chorus and played the piano. And it was something I was interested in, so I just recorded it for fun. Very unexpectedly the album was a success."
Neither the album or video are sold in the United States. "You can't imagine how much effort that would take with copyright problems and distribution and everything. And I don't think anyone would want it here, except maybe for the curiosity, because different countries have different styles of music," she said.But she's not pursuing a recording career. "People like Britney Spears do it 24/7; they have to keep it going. That is their life, but I choose something else. Probably if I were by myself I would concentrate on music, but I can't imagine traveling back there and doing my stuff while (Andrei) is here. I am totally living his life right now, and I am very happy with that."
MASHA'S BEEF STROGANOFF
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup beef stock or broth
A 1-pound piece filet mignon, sliced in 1/4-inch thick slices
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced or halved
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a 1-quart heavy saucepan. Whisk in flour and cook, while whisking, for 2 minutes to make a roux. Add stock while whisking constantly, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cover.Season beef with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet. Add beef and brown on both sides but leave it pink inside. Transfer to a plate. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon each butter and oil in skillet. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are browned. Return meat and its juices to skillet; stir to combine. Reheat sauce over low heat; then whisk in sour cream, mustard, dill, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Do not let boil. Pour sauce over beef mixture and serve. Masha Kirilenko
QUICK BEEF BORSCHT
This "quick" version calls for canned beef broth. Masha prefers making her own broth by boiling a soup bone with onion, carrots, salt and pepper for about a half-hour, then adding chunks of filet mignon and cooking until the meat is tender. "That's a very expensive borscht," she notes. She often adds cabbage to the soup as well.
4 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and halved
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can beef broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3 fresh tomatoes, peeled, diced and mixed with a little olive oil
Several fresh beets, thinly sliced
3/4 cup sour creamFresh dill
Boil potatoes until tender; drain and cover to keep warm. Heat oil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over high heat. Add carrots and onion, and then cook, stirring frequently, until begins to brown. Add broth, tomatoes, and beets, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender. Ladle borscht into four bowls, and add potatoes. Top with sour cream and sprinkle with dill. Masha Kirilenko