Thursday, February 23, 2012

Week Seven: A Journey to Russia

Not surprisingly, a country as large as Russia offers a breadth of cuisines to review and consider for one week’s journey. Its large expanse and terrain provides a plentiful basis of grains and proteins. To add to its diversity, many chefs and cuisines were “imported” from France and Austria to serve the court of Catherine the Great, which led to fusion dishes, such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Kiev, and Veal Orloff. Before my research, I imagined Russian cuisine to include lots of cabbages, potatoes, beets, and boiled meats. Then, I remembered blini and caviar, which brings to mind a much more luxurious image. As I read of its diverse ingredients and influences, I hoped to find an exciting element that I hadn’t expected, but alas, most of my first impressions closely resembled much of my reading. I struggled to find that spark. As I read soup recipe after stew recipe after soup recipe, I considered turning down the air conditioner, piling blankets around me, and donning an ushanka atop my head for inspiration. Everything sounded so heavy, which makes sense, because if I lived near Siberia, I’d love hearty warm soups, too. I continued reading, and I found a few points of inspiration. While part of my motivation for these weekly projects is to discover amazing new flavors, I also strive to understand the basic, everyday dishes. Where I grew up, pinto beans and collard greens is a meal my mom made on snowy days, and I still love that dish. It’s home and comfort for me but certainly not the most amazing, surprising flavors. My Russian journey was a little like pinto beans and collard greens on one day…and royalty the next!

Friday Night Dinner: Shchi (Cabbage Soup), Wild Mushroom & Onion Kasha
a.k.a my pinto beans and collard greens dinner

I knew that my Russian journey would only be complete if I prepared one meal of peasant food, because so many of the recipes fell into this category. I learned that a Russian meal is not complete without soup, and the most popular soup is Shchi, a cabbage soup made with both fresh cabbage and sauerkraut. After reading several versions of Schni recipes, I determined that Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World felt like the most authentic. I prepared it 48 hours before I planned to serve it based on his recommendation. The soup included cabbage, sauerkraut, beef chuck, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, mushrooms, and potatoes. In the recipe, Bittman recommends serving with fresh dill and sour cream (or Smetana as they say in Russia). When I served the soup, we tried it first without the sour cream. It was good, but honestly, it tasted so much like sauerkraut that my brain kept hoping for a hunk of sausage or hot dog in the bowl. Then, I added the dollop of sour cream. The whole flavor profile elevated. Just that additional creamy element with a hint of sour and freshness transformed this soup. I kept going back for another bite and being more satisfied each time. Those are the little touches that great chefs understand.

Although most references to Kasha note it as simply Eastern European, the RusCuisine blog notes that it is a native Russian dish and also includes fifteen variations on it. As a matter of fact, I found multiple blogs and articles referencing this Russian proverb, “You can’t feed a Russian without a Kasha.” One of the hub’s favorite dishes is Wild Mushroom Risotto, so when I decided to make a version of Kasha with Wild Mushroom and Onion from Epicurious. Kasha is a warm salad made with buckwheat groats. Although the wild mushrooms added a nice, earthy richness to the dish, it still tastes like something heavy one would only eat to fill up and warm up in the cold.

Saturday Morning Breakfast: Syrniki and Tea with Jam
Wikipedia defines this dish as “fried curd fritters,” but I think they are better described as cheesecake pancakes….and they are good! In Russia, they include Tvorog, which is a product similar to cottage cheese. In Miami, I made Mark Bittman’s version with cottage cheese that I squeezed in cheesecloth until it was as dry as possible. I added sour cream, egg yolks, flour, and a little sugar to make a batter that sits in the refrigerator overnight. Then, I basically just cooked them like pancakes and served them with sour cream and jam. We had red raspberry preserves in the fridge, so that was our jam of choice.

Tea is a popular beverage in Russia, and I found it interesting that in addition to using customary enhancements like sugar, lemon, and honey, Russians also commonly add jam for flavoring. I added raspberry jam to my hot mug of tea, and I must say that I quite enjoyed it as a sweetener and a flavor boost. Interesting touch!

Saturday Night Dinner: Braised Veal Shanks in Cherry Sauce over Buttered Egg Noodles, Paskha (Russian Cheesecake)
a.k.a my “eat like Catherine the Great” dinner
After Friday night’s peasant food, I needed a seriously amped up Russian dinner on Saturday. Originally, I planned to make Beef Stroganoff, because I’d read several accounts about how flavorful, and even refined, “real” beef stroganoff can be. (Apparently, the 1950s American housewife casserole version is not quite the same.) As I sat down to leaf through Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World to review his recipe for beef stroganoff, I happened across “Braised Veal Shanks with Cherry Sauce” and suddenly remembered that I had seen some nice, thick, center-cut veal shank slices at Whole Foods on my last venture there. I changed course immediately. What’s not to love about a recipe described as “Russian Osso Buco”? Plus, in my freaky English-Major mind, I thought cherries were a perfectly Russian addition to the dish. In hindsight, that was more assumption based on my many readings of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard than fact. (Wikipedia notes that Russia was the seventh largest producer of cherries in 2009.)

Nevertheless, I forged ahead and made this dish, which is certainly a meal fit for an empress! Thankfully, I didn’t have to eat this big, gorgeous meal while wearing a corset though. This is a meal best served to someone wearing stretchy pants. The Veal Shanks braise in a sauce of onion, carrot, cardamom, and sour cherries. Just before serving the sauce, a touch of lemon zest is added to boost its flavor and add a hint of freshness. The resulting dish is decadent and delightful.

Paskha is Russian Cheesecake. The authentic version is made in pyramid-shaped molds, steamed, and served for the Easter Holidays. (Epicurious has a great picture on its site.) As with the Syrniki, the dish traditionally includes tvorog cheese, but in this case, I made Mark Bittman’s version with farmer’s cheese, which is baked without a crust. The filling is simply farmer’s cheese, sour cream, butter, eggs, vanilla, cornstarch, and golden raisins. After baking, I added toasted, slivered almonds to the top of the cheesecake. As a result, I finally made a successful international dessert that we loved!

All in all, my journey into Russia included some odd twists and turns, but as always, the surprises made the experience memorable.  The hubs already asked me to make the Paskha again next week when we have family visiting, so I know that recipe is officially in permanent rotation of sweets he adores and Russian cuisine will forver be a part of our lives.

1 comment:

  1. The Kasha with Wild Mushrooms and Onions sounds scrumptious!