St. Petersburg, Russia -- My sister and I are brawling, our disagreement partly masked by the soulful strumming of a balalaika duo behind us. We glare over leather-bound menus at The Tsar, a pricy and traditional Russian restaurant here.
We hardly ever argue. This is a few weeks ago on a girl trip, organized by my sister's daughter, Jenny.
At issue is the Assorted Cucumber Plate.
My sister: "No! It's $42!"
Me: "For three to share! It has salted and pickled cucumbers and the pink cabbage we love. We liked them so much at the Vodka Tasting Room. We need it with our vodka."
"Right, Jenny?" I say underhandedly to my niece, an apt student of food.
I order it. Chekhov is on my side.
The Russian novelist said a century ago: "Every wise man since the beginning of the world has been trying to invent something better with vodka than salted cucumbers, but no one has succeeded."
The oddity is these "salted" cukes, bumpy as alligators, are not pickles at all. They're whole cucumbers left in a brine bath for a couple of weeks, which turns them a preternaturally bright green with a crunch and flavor unlike any others. Fermented pickles and cabbage are always served alongside them.
An artful someone in the kitchen has arranged a beautiful plate: cabbage in white shreds and fuschia leaves, pretty against the fiercely green cucumber. My sister is won over.
As for the liquid half of Chekhov's equation, we'd been in pig heaven sipping fascinating Russian vodkas, many of which, like those untranslateable cukes, never make it to our shores.
Also giving a boost to vodka is the fact that wine in Russia proves to be a frustrating option unless you are an oligarch. There are plenty of global wines on restaurant lists, but the price for a bottle of American bar wine dwarfs the food bill for the table.
We thought about Georgian wines. A 2006 Russian ban on importing wines from that former Soviet republic was lifted this summer. But try to find them. We found only a sweet home-brew at a Georgian restaurant near our hotel.
So back to the bomb: Russian vodkas, which turn out to reveal real personality.
Make that plural: clean nuanced flavors setting one product apart from another.
Set aside for now the zillions of fruit-, herb- and spice-flavored vodkas, infused with berries, horseradish, birch, or honey and black pepper. They are delightful aperitifs -- the glowing cranberry would be a hit for the holidays. But you are missing a piece of the Russian "soul" if you don't move on to subtle flavors of plain premium Russian vodka.
You'll get a nod if you choose vodka to drink right through a meal or, as we often did, to accompany that magical flurry of appetizers called zakuski.
The zakuska table is a gastronomic tour of this country's glory: the subtle art of pickling and curing, perfected over a thousand years. Flavors are as pure and fresh as the colors, the better to point up the vodka.
Food preservation saved lives well into modern times where weather, war, civil unrest, crop failures and distribution shortfalls meant people had nothing for the winter table that had not been soured, salted or smoked. This is true for many to this day outside the cities.
Vodka remains the time-tested partner for Russia's wealth of pink and silver fish, orange roe, beet-stained cabbage, emerald cucumbers, dark breads, mushrooms, berries, grains, snowy cheese and sour cream.
No question, this ardent spirit works best served the Russian way.
That means icy cold, in chilled, tiny, stemmed glasses, with lots of food.
Even casual restaurants take pains.
At neighboring tables we see these almost-2-ounce shots going down with a gulp and shudder, the approach favored by open-collared Russian males in jeans and blazers.
Better for us -- two of us are babushkas, after all -- is thoughtful sipping that gently warms and "illuminates." We set up rounds of vodkas to share and compare, toasting our vodka-loving, Polish-born friend who followed his own sage advice into great old age: "Eat leetle tings, dawnse, drink all night." We keep the "leetle tings" coming and an eye out for dance partners.
Here is the Russian prescription: Sniff a slice of black bread. It'll clear your head for more vodka.
The plates arrive:
• The half-raw cukes and cabbage, so strangely delicious with vodka. Raffia-thin cabbage shreds, a bit sweet, flecked with carrot and dill, is fermented to a delicate "pre-kraut" stage -- no longer crunchy but not yet sour. Ditto for tender pieces of beet-sweetened, pink cabbage, pickled to an al dente chew.
• The fish: Delicate salmon, salty fresh from the ocean. Herring salted -- not pickled -- finds its traditional partner in small boiled potatoes rolled in butter and dill. Delightfully "buttery" in a different way is lightly smoked white fish. Salty little sprats, our least favorite -- frankly fishy -- get an assist from raw onion.
• Buckwheat blini: Lighter than pancakes, fluffier than crepes, to fill with caviar if the budget allows and sour cream. We opt for coral-colored salmon roe and share a big heap with the dusky pancakes. Russians say anything that fits into a blini belongs in a blini, so branch out.
• The world beyond pickles and salted fish: Cured fatback, called salo, is an age-old gesture of hospitality in this part of the world -- and one my niece Jenny, traveling with us and a fearless student of food, fears she may have to turn down. Salo is pure white fat, a cousin of lardo -- with not a streak of lean in sight. But the fatback is firmer than its Italian cousin, and a curl of it resting on a nice dab of horseradish mustard on dark bread makes Jenny a convert. Ditto the lush chicken-liver mousse, piped with threads of mayo, served with raspberry coulis and seared toast points.
• DIY: Small open-face sandwiches, buterbrod, or "butter bread," are traditional zakuska, to be made from any of these cured things, including pale ham, on superb Russian breads from dark sweet rye to tawny sour rye to light wheat. Layer what you like, perhaps topped with hard-cooked egg or raw onion -- and don't forget the fragrant dill.
You probably aren't going to St. Petersburg, but why not bring a Russian spread to your house for a holiday gathering? The zakuska table is fun and friendly. It comes together fast: you can buy almost everything on it ready to go. See "Your vodka shooting party" for shops with Russian specialties -- even blini and a New York version of the salted cukes. "All vodkas taste alike, don't they?" suggests vodkas we can get here. If you are making decorated holiday cookies, a plate of those will be Russian as can be.
So that's your holiday party -- but not all there is the St. Petersburg food.
Russians say, "Eat breakfast, share lunch with a friend and give dinner to your enemy." Of course they don't do it and neither did we, but breakfast is a happy meal indeed.
Our Nevsky Grand Hotel, modest but in the middle of things, prides itself on a breakfast included in the room price.
Morning jam-ups could occur with tourists from Finland and Kazakstan tripping over touring Russian school kids, on their haunches, yawning, in the hall. I didn't notice a "please wait outside" sign, and, at the hands of a rock-faced, hulking manager, was seized by the shoulders, spun around and propelled out. Not unkind but unconditional was the crew-cut Igor, whom we grew to know and like a lot. He'd once worked construction in New Jersey, picking up as little English as we had a little Russian.
We grew to appreciate that this is not a smiley country. If you get no gushy greeting it's not necessarily "you." No vacuous have-a-nice-days cross Russian lips. At the same time, they take hospitality seriously and do it admirably -- even at our self-service canteen.
The choices: first a steaming tureen of "porridge." So good, so heavy. Roll back a sliding lid for whopping fat wursts lolling on earthy kasha. So good, even heavier. Then baked zucchini (Russians love squash), an egg scramble, some not very interesting middle-European cold cuts and cheese, some seriously vinegary cabbage slaws and beet salads, and always the iconic Olivier salat, a cubed potato/vegetable salad of Soviet years. We would see "Olivier" everywhere, at every meal at every price point, including the Hermitage Museum snack bar.
Now roll back a lid for buckwheat blini, folded in quarters. Next to them a basin of sour cream thickened up with fluffy tworog, Slav farmer's cheese. A little sweet, a little tangy, ladle this onto your pancakes along with a spoonful of indigo whortleberry sauce. Russian jam is soupy, perfect for saucing -- so some for your porridge and why not on these cheesecake squares with yellow raisins, labeled simply, "casserole."
Wortleberries are zestier relatives of the North American blueberry. In Russian they are chernika.
Make a night of it
You shouldn't leave the city without a rollicking night at the Vodka Tasting Room No. 1.
A St. Petersburg institution, the restaurant prides itself on a 200-vodka tasting menu and vodka museum. But we gave it highest marks for traditional Russian food and service, as did "Time Out St. Petersburg." Russians dress for dinner, making for great people watching. A long table set with festive pitchers of mors, or cranberry juice, plus pickles and kraut, comes alive with toasts from a Russian family party. Young Russians and American ex-pats behind us are chic and voluble. Seeing and being seen are an oligarch (we presume) and his sparkley lady. Grizzled and merry, pale arms protruding from a shapeless white tee that does little for his paunch, he's as riveting in this crowd as a biker in Bernardin.
We had hoped to see a Russian pech here. A pech is the age-old oven/furnace that once cooked food, heated the house with a convoluted system of vent pipes, and kept babies warm in shelves carved into its walls.
Back in Pittsburgh, Legume chef owner Trevett Hooper is planning a Russian restaurant -- he's a quarter Russian -- and intends to build a pech in it. We'll have to wait for the Pittsburgh pech. The Vodka Tasting Room's manager, Artem Tcukanov, comes out to explain. His kitchen "emulates the effects of pech cooking for the 48-hour braised reindeer tongue," but doesn't really have one.
Softening the blow, he sends us off with a package of black salt, chetvergovaya, which turns out to be a product preserved in the Slow Food Ark. Its name comes from the Russian word for Maundy Thursday, the date it is traditionally made. Ordinary coarse salt is "roasted with kvass (beverage brewed from rye bread) sediment, eggs, cabbage, rye flour and wild herbs." The process "burns out impurities" and blackens the salt. A taste on a fingertip reveals a lively taste of hardboiled eggs. Russians sprinkle it on Easter eggs and on zakuska year round. Mr. Tcukanov also gave us a lacquered matryoshka doll concealing a vodka bottle, elegant house-made apricot fruit jellies, and mermelade, the candy, another testament to the Russia genius for preserving summer.
To our St. Petersburg friends, until we meet again, we select our favorite of your many toasts: "Zustrinemosja pid stolom" -- "we'll meet under the table."
Beet Caviar with Walnuts and Prunes
Even better made a day ahead -- this salad brings a delicious blast of color to your zakuska table.
3 large beets, with skins on, but stemmed, washed and dried
1/3 cup brandy
7 pitted prunes
3 medium-sized cloves garlic, cut in half
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup walnut pieces, finely chopped
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and bake until tender, about an hour and a quarter. Meanwhile, bring the brandy to a boil in a small saucepan. Pour over the prunes in a bowl and let soak for 30 minutes. Remove the prunes from the brandy, reserving the brandy. Finely chop the prunes and set aside. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and chop coarsely. Process the beets and garlic in a food processor in quick pulses until finely minced but not pureed. Transfer the beets to a bowl and add the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the reserved brandy, the chopped prunes and the walnuts. Toss thoroughly with the mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- "Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook" by Anya Von Bremzen (Workman, 1990)
Kotleti: Mom's Russian 'Hamburgers'
This is a 1930s recipe. Kotleti literally means "cutlets" but they turn out to be patties, whether meat, fish or veggie. This beef/pork version is a meatloaf mixture formed into patties a little smaller than a burger, then breadcrumb-coated and fried to a delicate crunch. Every member of our extended family loved them. Ms. Von Bremzen likes "cold kotleti for lunch with dense dark bread, hot mustard and a good crunchy dill pickle." Me too. She suggests that the mayo used here to bind the mixture instead of the usual egg works well with ground turkey, too.
1½ pounds freshly ground beef chuck or a mixture of beef and pork (I used both)
2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed, soaked for 5 minutes in water and squeezed.
1 small onion, grated
2 medium garlic cloves, crushed in a press
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill or parsley
2½ tablespoons full-fat mayonnaise
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 to 3 cups fine dried bread crumbs for coating
Canola oil and unsalted butter for frying
In a mixing bowl, combine the first 8 ingredients and blend well into a homogenous mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
With wet hands, shape the mixture into oval patties approximately 3½ inches long. Spread bread crumbs on a large plate or a sheet of waxed paper. Coat patties in the crumbs, flattening them out slightly and pressing down for the crumbs to adhere.
In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with a pat of butter until sizzling. Working in batches, fry the kotleti over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes to cook through. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the patties. Serve at once. (I froze leftover breaded patties and cooked them later with excellent results.) Serves 4.
-- "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by Anya Von Bremzen (Crown, 2013)
Salat Olivier: Russian Potato Salad with Pickles
This is a 1970s recipe. Ms. Von Bremzen's mother doctors Hellmann's mayo "with various zesty additions" to make it taste and behave like its thinner, more tangy counterpart, the Russian mayo, Provensal. You will have to force yourself to dump in the canned peas, but do it. The end result, with mom's crunchy additions, is irresistible. Don't skimp on the dill. I omitted the protein for a lighter take and loved it.
For the salad
3 large boiling potatoes, peeled, cooked and diced
2 medium carrots, peeled, cooked and diced.
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
2 medium dill pickles, diced
1 medium seedless cucumber, peeled and finely diced
3 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped
16-ounce can peas, well-drained
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (with 3 inches of the green tops)
1/4 cup finely chopped dill
12 ounces lump crabmeat, flaked; or surimi crab legs, chopped (or substitute chopped poached chicken or beef)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the dressing
1 cup Hellmann's mayonnaise, or more to taste
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white vinegar
Kosher salt to taste
In a large mixing bowl combine all the salad ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients, season with salt and taste: it should be tangy and zesty. Toss the salad thoroughly with the dressing, adding a little more mayo if it doesn't look moist enough. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve in a cut-crystal or glass bowl.
-- "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by Anya Von Bremzen (Crown, 2013)
Kulebiaka: Fish, Rice and Mushrooms in Pastry
This is a 1910s recipe. The sour cream in the yeast dough, her mom's special touch, Ms. Von Bremzen says, "adds a lovely tang to the buttery casing. Inside the flavors of wild mushrooms, dill and two types of fish mingle seductively. Serve the kulebiaka for special occasions, with a green salad and lemon flavored vodka," she suggests. "Lots of it."
1 package active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large raw egg; plus 2 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; plus 4 tablespoons for the filling
2¼ cups flour, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
8 ounces boneless, skinless salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces boneless, skinless cod fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, finely chopped
10 ounces wild or cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and finely chopped
1 cup cooked white rice
3 tablespoons finely chopped dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons vermouth or dry sherry
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons chicken stock
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons dried bread crumbs
Glaze: 1 egg yolk whisked with 2 teaspoons milk
Make the pastry: In a medium bowl stir together the milk, yeast and sugar and let stand until foamy. Whisk in the raw egg, ½ cup sour cream, and the salt. In a large bowl combine the 8 tablespoons of cut-up butter with the flour. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Add the yeast mixture and stir well with your hands to make a soft dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Bring the dough to room temperature, about 1 hour. Grease a mixing bowl with a little butter or oil. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead, adding more flour as needed, until smooth and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Make the filling: In a large skillet heat the oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add the salmon and cod and cook, turning once, until fish just begins to flake, about 7 minutes. Transfer the fish to a large bowl. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add the onions and cook until light golden. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are golden and the liquid they throw off has evaporated, about 7 minutes, adding more oil if the skillet looks dry. Transfer the mushrooms and onions to the bowl with the fish. Add the remaining ¼ cup sour cream, the hard-cooked eggs, rice, dill, parsley, vermouth, lemon juice, stock and nutmeg. Mix everything well with two forks, stirring gently to break up the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Let the filling cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack set in the center. Halve the dough and form two logs. On 2 lightly floured sheets of waxed paper, roll each dough log into a 10 by 16-inch rectangle. Transfer one dough sheet to a large foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, leaving a 1-inch border. Spread the filling over the bread crumbs in a neat compact layer. Drape the remaining dough over the filling and pinch the edges to seal. Trim excess dough from the edges, and reserve scraps. Fold up the edges of dough and crimp decoratively. Let the kulebiaka rise for 15 minutes. Brush the top of the pastry with egg glaze. Roll out the dough scraps, cut into decorative shapes, and press on top of the dough. Brush again with the egg glaze. Poke small holes through the top of dough for steam to escape. Bake until golden and beautiful, about 35 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, cut into slices and serve.
-- "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by Anya Von Bremzen (Crown, 2013)
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