Monday, August 5, 2013

Cooking for Comrades: A Russian Feast

Having volunteered to host the second dinner event of my new social dining circle, I sought out a choice of cuisine that was novel, but would appeal to six palates, and also ideally be one I had not previously attempted. I researched various options, and decided on a Russian menu.Despite Russia and India having been allies of sorts for decades, there has been very little culinary cross-fertilization between the two countries. It is true that Russian food is somewhat mild, but I would not call it bland in the least. It is perfectly suited to the climate up north, flavored warmly and subtly by the likes of celery, garlic and onion, and given hearty body by sour cream, roots and tubers. It also includes a rich baking tradition, with plenty of breads and cakes from which to choose. Better still, most of the ingredients are not terribly difficult to find.

For the starter, I made pashtet iz pecheni (паштет из печени), a sweet-savory chicken liver pâté. Preparing it involves sauteing about 500g of chicken liver with two sliced onions and a minced garlic clove in butter. Then comes the messy process of blending it with two slices of crustless bread, a half cup of chicken stock, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of pepper, and a fresh egg.

The blended mixture is put in a shallow pan and baked at 180C for about an hour, then cooled and refrigerated for a couple of hours. I garnished it with dill and served it with quartered slices of white toast, but it will also go well with Russian black bread.

For the soup course, I wanted to make something more specifically Russian than borscht, so I picked the Russian staple praised in the saying "Pодной отец надоест, а щи – никогда!" i.e. you can tire of your own father, but never of shchi (щи). To prepare this, saute a large chopped onion in butter until translucent, adding a chopped celery rib, two medium grated carrots, and a shredded medium head of cabbage, followed by 3 small bay leaves, 6 whole peppercorns, and about 2 litres of hot water, simmering for 15 minutes.

A couple of chopped large potatoes can then be added, and the soup boiled and simmered again for 10 minutes. After adding two cans of diced tomato, the soup is boiled and simmered yet again for 10 minutes, after which it can be seasoned with salt and pepper. The ideal garnish is a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped fresh dill. The warmth of this soup is great for helping brave Russian winters, and maybe even Dubai office air-conditioning.

Vesenny salad (весенний Салат) is a crunchy spring salad that's fairly easy to make. Two large split peeled cucumbers are de-pulped with a teaspoon and sliced, then combined with two bunches of sliced radish, two minced hard-boiled eggs, a bunch of chopped scallions and a small bunch of chopped dill. The salad is seasoned with salt and freshly-ground pepper, and dressed with a little sour cream.

For the main course, I made a hearty oven stew called zharkoye (жаркое). I improvised a slightly different method of making it, starting by chopping 3 ribs of celery and dicing three medium carrots, six medium potatoes and a large parsnip root. While sauteing a kilo of lean beef cubes in butter with two sliced onions and 6 minced cloves of garlic, I lightly oiled the vegetables and pre-baked them at 180C in a large casserole dish.

When the beef was properly browned and the onions were soft and translucent, I dropped the pan's contents over the vegetables, and added little over a cup of stock (enough to fill the dish halfway). I let this bake for about 20 minutes until the beef on top was visibly roasting, after which I displaced the vegetables from the sides, pushed the beef down into the stock, and put the displaced vegetables on top. I popped this back into the oven for another 20, so the beef could stew in the vegetables, and the vegetables on top could roast. Garnished with sour cream, dill and parsley, and served on black bread slices as trenchers, this was just delicious; the beef had been thrice-cooked, and the vegetables had been roasted and stewed so that all the flavors intermingled.

I can't say the dessert of medovik (Медовик), or honey cake, turned out as intended. I did prepare an excellent frosting of 3 cups of sour cream whipped with half a cup of sugar and a tablespoon of honey, and readied the toppings of ground walnut and crumbled biscuit. And I prepared the dough of two eggs beaten with a cup of sugar and a tablespoon of honey, blended with 150g of liquefied butter, mixed into 2 cups of flour and a teaspoon of baking powder. Unfortunately, I did not have the equipment to multi-layer it, so I ended up baking a very large honey scone instead of a honey cake, and frosting/topping in a single layer instead. Not exactly honey cake as we know it, but still very good.

I was so pleased with this dinner that I repeated the menu the following week for another party (albeit with a store-bought honey cake).

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