I guess it’s the season: I’ve been cooking a lot of Russian food recently. From Russian Californians with a food nostalgia to families who never tried Russian food and want something different for their special occasion dinner, everyone is requesting traditional Russian dishes. I’ve even been working with a fine restaurant that decided to offer zakuski spread as a part of their appetizer menu.
There is very little information available on traditional Russian cuisine. A friend (of Russian background!) asked me a few days ago: “What do you mean by Russian cuisine? Isn’t it all just French food made with available local ingredients?” The answer is “No”. The French cuisine became a huge influence in Russian cooking in the 19th century, when French chefs immigrated to Russia to escape the revolution, and were hired by aristocratic families and fancy restaurants; but there are distinctive tastes and cooking techniques that make Russian cuisine stand on it’s own, and reflect the character of the people and the land, even after absorbing multiple influences from the neighbor countries. I am going to put together a series of posts about Russian cuisine, with recipes, techniques, and serving ideas, for easy reference.
Contrary to what most restaurant menus would make you think, Russian cuisine is much more than borscht, beef Stroganoff, blini with caviar, and cold vodka.
The short growing season and long winter in most regions forced the cooks to make creative use of vegetables with long storage potential (cabbages, potatoes, turnips, beets, onions) and grains (wheat, rye, buckwheat, rice, barley, to name a few), to develop an assortment of pickled, marinated, and fermented vegetable recipes and smoked and dried meats for storage. During the short spring and summer growing season, fresh young vegetables and herbs are praised and presented in salads, cold and hot soups, or prepared simply to accompany the main course.
Wild mushroom hunting is a favorite national pastime and a competitive sport, and boiled, sautéed, pickled, marinated, dried mushrooms add their charm to many dishes. In modern times, when wild mushrooms are unavailable, cultivated varieties take their place in recipes, but they are never as good as the real thing!
Fish, both salt- and freshwater, was always popular. Two specifically Russian ways to prepare fish are whole de-boned fish or slices of fillet baked in pastry, and cooked fish, covered with jelly, served cold as an appetizer. There is a number of fish soups and salads, using both fresh and smoked fish. Pickled herring, a Scandinavian influence, is enormously popular, as it goes so well with vodka.
The most used meats are beef and pork, both served hot, or cold as an appetizer. Organ meats, such as tongues, harts, livers and kidneys, are cooked in soups, pates, baked in pastry, or made into sausages. Lamb and mutton are a recent fashion brought from the South. As part of Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Uzbek dishes they are very popular now.
Poultry and game – chickens, duck, goose, rabbit, pheasant, quail, grouse – are reserved for festive holiday roasts and stews. They are presented nicely, and grace the holiday table. Organ meats are also used. Chicken liver mousse is everyone’s favorite.
What really sets Russian cuisine apart from the rest of the world is it’s extensive use of yeast dough to make all kinds of bread, filled bread, pastries, pies, rolls, etc, baked, fried, boiled. Vatrushki (cheese pies) for breakfast. Small piroshki with meat and vegetable fillings as a part of the appetizer spread. The soup is usually accompanied with piroshki with a filling that compliments the soup. A meat or a fish pie can be a main entree at a family gathering, or one of the dishes served at a formal dinner. To finish, hot tea with sweet pastries and fruit preserves.
Assorted meat selyanka
There is no recipe for this soup. It can be made with anything.
In the old times, selyanka (means “village girl”) was a soup made with a hearty beef stock, the meat used to make the stock, and any pickled vegetables on hand. 19th century restauranteurs dresses the girl up with tomatoes, olives, capers, and fancy smoked meats, and they called it “assorted meat selyanka”. Still, she didn’t lose her rustic character. Anything goes. If you serve a cold meat plate at a dinner party, make a selyanka the next day. It will show the meat leftover to their best advantage, and it will cure the hangover, if any.
After you invested time and effort into making beef stock, this soup comes together in minutes. At home, I usually make a lot of beef stock once in a while in my 8-quart stock pot, then freeze whatever I don’t use immediately in 1-quart ziplock bags for soups, and in ice cube trays for sauces. This way, I have my “bouillon cubes” at all times.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 cup roasted tomato sauce (substitute tomato paste)
2 quarts beef stock
3 medium kosher pickles, cut into small cubes
1 pound assorted smoked or cooked meats and sausages (smoked pork shoulder, smoked ham, dry salami, summer sausage, frankfurters, boiled beef tongue, cooked kidney, Canadian bacon, smoked chicken, smoked duck), the more the merrier. If making stock from scratch, include the boiled beef from stock. Cut into small cubes.
2 Tbsp capers, rinsed
1 cup olives, rinsed
1 lemon, cut into thin slices, to garnish
Flat parsley leaves, to garnish
6 Tbsp sour cream, to serve
Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onions, sauté until golden, 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce or tomato paste, sauté 10 minutes more.
Add stock and pickles, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low. Add meats. Heat through. Add capers and olives.
Pour soup into hot soup bowls or small crocks, add capers and olives. Garnish with lemon slices and parsley. Serve hot. Pass sour cream at the table.
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Location:San Rafael, CA