Several years ago the Russian embassy held a reception in honor of the publication of a book on Russian cooking. Several hundreds Washingtonians had a chance to find our how good the cooking of that vast country can be.
In the ornate high-ceilinged dining room of the U.S.S.R's 16th Street mansion, the guests not only elbowed their way to the delicacies at the elaborate buffet table, toward the end of the evening they snatched the food from the trays as the waiters attempted to carry them from the kitchen to the table.
As a member of a cooking club whose participants produce from scratch dinners for each other and a few invited guests every two months or so, it was my turn to do so recently. Remembrance of that Russian embassy feast and a recent dinner at the Serbian Crown restaurant made a Russian dinner seem like a good and unusual choice.
After consulting several cookbooks, both modern and old, it became abundantly clear that - no more than there is any standard recipe for any ethnic cooking - is there such a thing as a standard Russian recipe. Authenticity seems to depend solely on how the author's mother did it. Even such texts as the Time-Life Russian Cookbook have taken their recipes from old cookbooks, with or without adaptations.
Russian cooking is really a melding of several cultures: What is served in the state of Georgia is very different from what is served in Azerbaijan and there has been considerable borrowing back and forth among neighbors. There are many similarities to dishes from the countries that border modern Russia. In addition there are some French influences brought first by Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century and later by various noble families.
Beef Stroganoff, the first Russian dish that comes to most people's minds, was devised by a French chef. The key ingredient is sour cream, which is a must when thinking of Russian food. So are potatoes, beets, cabbage, kasha and caviar.
One distinctly Russian custom, which resembles an American cocktail party somewhat, but isn't really, is the zakuska . Zakuska means "small bites" and consists of food invariably accompanied by vodka served sometime before dinner. In the past it became so elaborate that foreigners often mistook it for dinner, stuffed themselves and often were unable to eat the meal that followed.
While the men drank the vodka, and replenished their glasses frequently, the women drank sherry.
A drastically cut-down version of the zakuska can be served before a Russian dinner today, but it must contain herring and vodka, the two essentials of any well-dressed zakuska table.
Another essential people are likely to think of when Russian eating is mentioned is Russian drinking and the downing of small glasses of ice cold vodka in one swallow.
The Russians do a very interesting thing with their vodkas: They flavor them with such seasonings as lemon peel, caraway, anise, cherries and buffalo grass, the last item being rather difficult to come by.
The flavored vodkas were certainly the cornerstone of the Russian dinner served to the cooking club, recipes for which are given below. RUSSIAN DINNER Zakuska (Hors d'oeuvres) Flavored Vodkas Pickled Mushrooms Georgian Pastries Chopped Herring Eggplant Caviar Cheeses and Dark Breads Koulibiac Asparagus with Bread Crumbs Pickled Beets White Wine Guriev Kasha Kissel (Cooked Fruits) FLAVORED VODKAS
Use one pint of 80 proof vodka for each kind. LEMON VODKA
The peel of one lemon, without the white pith which is bitter. Allow to soak in vodka overnight. Remove and chill vodka. PEPPER VODKA
Crush two teaspoons of black peppercorns and add to vodka. Allow to stand overnight. Strain through cheesecloth and chill vodka. ANISE VODKA
Add one teaspoon of anise seeds to vodka. Allow to stand for 4 hours; strain through cheesecloth and chill vodka.
Vodka can be served from bottles which have been frozen in ice blocks.Fill an empty 1/2 gallon paper mild carton with an inch of water which has been boiled and cooled. Freeze. Place filled vodka bottle in carton; fill with boiled, cooled water and freeze.
Serve vodka with zakuska, using a towel to wrap around the ice block when pouring. Vodka is served in small straight-sided glasses, but other small glasses certainly can be substituted. MARINATED MUSHROOMS
(4 dozens) 2 cups water 1 cup olive oil Juice of 3 lemons 1 stalk celery 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1 small bay leaf 3/4 teaspoon ground coriander 3 peppercorns 3/4 teaspoon salt 4 dozen small whole mushroom caps
Combine all ingredients but the mushrooms and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile clean mushrooms, removing stems for later use. Add the caps to the hot marinade and simmer 5 minutes more. Pour into a bowl or jar, cover tightly and marinate 2 to 3 days in refrigerator. Drain and serve on a bed of greens. GEORGIAN BREAD
(About 24 pastries) 1 cup warm milk 2 packages fresh yeast 1 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 pound butter, softened CHEESE FILLING: 1 1/4 pounds Meunster cheese, grated 2 tablespoons butter, softened 2 eggs
Sprinkle yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar over 1/2 cup warm milk. Allow to stand 2 to 3 minutes; then stir to dissolve yeast. In warm place allow yeast to double in volume, about 8 minutes. Place flour in large bowl. Make well in center, add remaining milk, yeast mixture, 1 tablespoons sugar, salt and butter. With large spoon blend flour in with other ingredients, until too thick to stir. Then, using fingers, blend to form dough. Add more flour, if needed to gather into ball. Kneed dough on lightly-floured surface for 6 to 10 minutes, until elastic, sprinkling on more flour as needed to keep from sticking.Form into ball and place in lightly-oiled bowl. Cover and allow to rise in warm place, about 45 minutes, until doubled in bulk. Punch dough down and allow to rise again for 30 minutes, until doubled in bulk again.
While dough is rising, prepare cheese filling. Combine cheese, butter and one egg in large bowl and beat with spoon until blended and smooth.
Punch dough down and roll out on lightly-floured board to a thickness of about 1/16 inch. Cut into 4 1/2 inch circles. On each round of dough spread 1 1/2 tablespoons cheese, leaving about 1 1/2 inch border uncovered. Draw edges of dough up over filling to center, covering it and forming 6 pleats to make a hexagon-shaped pastry, or fold over sides and then fold in edges. Arrange on greased baking sheets; brush tops with remaining egg which has been lightly beaten. Allow pastries to rest 10 minutes then bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.
These can be prepared ahead several days and reheated at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or prepared further in advance and frozen. To serve, defrost said reheat. EGGPLANT CAVIAR 3 large eggplant 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 large onions, chopped fine 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 medium green peppers, chopped fine 2 cans (6 ounces each) tomator past 2 teaspoons white vinegar Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Thin slices pumpernickel
Bake eggplants at 425 degrees on rack in center of oven for about an hour, turning a couple of times until soft and skin is charred and blistered. Remove skin from eggplants and chop meat fine. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil and cook onions, garlic, and green peppers in oil until soft but not brown. Add tomato paste and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. Atir vinegar, salt and pepper and chopped eggplant and cook slowly for 30 minutes in skillet. Cool and serve thoroughly chilled with thin slices of pumpernickel.
This may be made three days ahead. KOULIBIAC
(10 servings) 7 tablespoons butter 2 pounds fresh salmon 1 cup chopped onion
1/2 pound mushrooms chopped 1 1/2 cups cook rice 5 hard-cooked eggs, coarsely chopped 3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped 3 tablespoons freshly parsley, chopped Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste Sour cream, optional
Cut salmon into thin slices and saute in 4 tablespoons butter until cooked. Saute mushrooms and onions in 3 tablespoons butter. Combine with eggs, rice, parsley and dill and mix well. Carefully mix in salmon. Season with salt and pepper. Chill until ready to make Koulibiac. PASTRY FOR KOULIBIAC
4 cup unbleached flour 1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut in small pieces 2 tablespoons rum 1/4 cup ice water, about 1 egg, beaten
Combine flour and butter and work in butter with fingertips until mixture resemble coarse cornmeal. Add rum with water and mix; toss together. If dough is crumbly, add more water. Dough should be stiff. Divide dough in half and wrap well; refrigerate for several hours. It can be refrigerated for several days as well.
Place one ball of dough on floured board and roll into rectangle about 1/8 inch thick, brushing with more flour, if needed. Trim into a rectangle about 10 to 17 inches. Place dough on greased cookie sheet and place filling on dough, leaving an inch border all the way around. Brush border with beaten egg. Roll remaining ball into rectangle 8 by 15 inches. Drape over rolling pin and place over filling. Seal bottom edges of pastry border over top. Using fingers, flute edges as for pie crust.
Top can be decorated by rolling out remaining scraps of dough and cutting into shapes. Burush top of pastry with beaten yolk; decorate with cutouts, if desired.
The Koulibiac can be put together several hours ahead. Remove from refrigerator one hour before baking. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes; reduce heat and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes longer, until golden brown. If pastry becomes too brown, cover lightly with aluminum foil while baking. Serve at once with sour cream, if desired.
If Koulibiac is to be baked as soon as it is assembled, then it should be refrigerated for 20 minutes first. PICKLED BEETS
(About 4 cups) 2 pounds beets 1 cup wine vinegar 1 teaspoon salt Pinch salt 5 peppercorns 4 whole cloves 1/2 bay leaf
Cut off tops from beets, leaving one inch stem. Wash. Place beets in boiling water to half-cover them. Cover and cook about 45 minutes, until tender but still firm. If necessary, add more boiling water. Drain beets, reserving 1 cup of beet liquid. Plunge beets into cold water to stop cooking process.Drain. Peel off skins and cut into slices. Place in container with tight cover. Combine reserved beet liquid with remaining ingredients in pot and bring to boil. Pour over beets; be sure they are completely covered. Cover and chill. Serve drained and chilled.
These should be made several days ahead. ASPARAGUS WITH BREAD CRUMBS
(8 servings) 4 pounds asparagus, cooked and drained 1/2 cup butter 4 tablespoons bread crumbs Salt and pepper to taste
While asparagus are cooking, melt butter and stir in bread crumbs and cook, until brown. Drain asparagus and season. Lay in serving plate and sprinkle with bread crumb-butter mixture.
While there are dozens of different versions of the following dessert, everyone seems to agree that it is the "supreme magnifico," as one old book calls it, of Russian desserts. It is also quite heavy and rich. GURIEV KASHA
(8 to 10 servings) 6 cups "half and half" or 3 cups milk and 3 cups light cream 1/2 cup sugar 3/4 cup farina, semolina or cream of wheat 1/2 cup seedless raisins 1/2 pound ground walnuts, skins removed 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1 cup mixed dried fruits, cut up dates, apricots, apples, pears 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs Confectioners' sugar for topping
Combine half and half and sugar and bring to boil. Add farina, very slowlu, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture thickens, over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in raisins, nuts and extracts.
Grease 8-inch spring form with a little butter. Spoon in layer of kasha (farina mixture); spread over it a layer of fruits. Then a layer of kasha and another layer of fruits, repeating until both mixtures are used up, ending with kasha. Sprinkle top with bread crumbs which have been mixed with cinnamon. Sprinkle confectioners' sugar over top.
Dish may be refrigerated at this time, up to 2 days ahead of serving. To serve, return to room temperature and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes; remove spring form and serve warm, not hot.