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Teen shares recipes from her Russian heritage

HOMETOWN: Voorhees

AGE: 17

FAMILY: Parents Irina & Dmitri; brother Jonathan, 13

SCHOOL: Eastern Regional High School

FAVORITE CUISINE: Mediterranean

FAVORITE MOVIE: “Forrest Gump”

Claire Sklar has been in love with the art of cooking since she was five years old and trying to reach over the kitchen countertop. Growing up, she learned how to cook basic recipes with her nanny and by binge-watching television shows like MasterChef. When Covid hit last year, her parents de ella had a lot on their proverbial plate, so Sklar volunteered to unload their burden by making dinner for the family five nights a week. Having that license to try new recipes and experiment allowed her to explore Thai recipes, French cuisine, and Mediterranean food. It also rekindled her love of Russian food, the cuisine that had shaped her youth.

“I grew up cooking Russian food like borscht soup and a bunch of other foods that don’t really translate to English,” she said. “It was those foods that made me so curious about food in the first place.”

Last August, both of Sklar’s Soviet Union-born parents encouraged her to publicize her budding passion with a wider audience. So she created “Cook With Sunshine,” a cooking blog inspired by her bright-feathered pet cockatiel named Sunshine. Every Friday she shares a personally curated recipe through her weekly newsletter from Ella; recipes like rainbow avocado corn salad and lemon Dijon salmon. She also offers staple recipes from her unfamiliar Russian heritage to the average American palette.

Russian shuba salad, for example, colloquially known as “herring under fur coat,” contains a layer of beets over potatoes and herring which was often served by Soviet Jews on Shabbat and after Yom Kippur, when Jewish rituals had to be kept confidential. Other Russian delicacies Sklar highlights on her blog include meat pies called samsi and dumplings similar in shape to pierogis called Pelmeni.

Sklar is on a mission to make cooking more accessible and affordable for the average person. “I want to spread the notion that you don’t have to spend a ton for groceries to eat well,” she said. “Most of my recipes are under an hour and I just want to stress that anyone can cook and that time and money shouldn’t be a barrier.”

Beyond her joy of cooking, Sklar has an abundance of impressive interests and skills. Hailing from a family of concert pianists, she’s been playing classical piano since first grade. At the Golden Key Music Festival, an international competition, she was placed in the winning group on three occasions, earning invitations to perform piano recitals at Carnegie Hall.

“I compete just to give myself a goal to reach,” she said. “I really like Grieg and Tchaikovsky, and I’m currently learning how to play Clair de Lune by Debussy.”

If that wasn’t enough to keep her occupied, Sklar sought a volunteer for a community service project last fall during Covid. She signed up to tutor for the non-profit Strive2thrive, a program devoted to leveling the playing field in disadvantaged communities. Once a week for three months, she tutored English to a class of seventh grade Ugandan students over Zoom, teaching them the building blocks of the English language. Sklar loved the experience so much that she’s already committed to tutoring another program in Kazakhstan, where her fluency in Russian can be put to good use. “We’re still working through dates and times, but hoping to start in September,” she said.

Tutoring, piano, and cooking are only serious hobbies for now, not to mention her affinity for playing tennis. At school, she’s most drawn to the fields of biology and chemistry and she hopes to combine the two disciplines somehow in her future career. At the beginning of last school year, she enrolled in a virtual cancer research course through Columbia University, which she had to juggle on the weekends.

“I try to find time to balance everything. I can’t really procrastinate because it stresses me out more than actually doing the work,” Sklar said. “So a lot of time management goes into it.”

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