Saturday, November 29, 2014

Trinity celebration 4: Zakuski spread for dinner

The fourth of my celebratory repostings in honour of the Russian setting of Trinity: The Koldun Code, is about putting on a fabulous 'zakuski' or aperitif spread, Russian style--but making it dinner!

Zakuski spread for dinner
The other day, I bought this gorgeous book called 'Culinaria Russia', which like the other titles in this series, is not so much a recipe book(though there are recipes) as a marvellous journey through the culinary culture of this richly varied and extraordinary part of the world. For in fact it's not just Russia, ie the Russian Federation, that's covered, but also Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan(not sure what the latter four would think of being lumped in with 'Russia', but never mind!) There's wonderful articles and photos on all sorts of aspects of food, drink, folklore associated with food, festivals, looks at sub-cultures, and lots more. It's fascinating stuff!
But as I said, there's also recipes, and there's also the most mouth-watering pictures of food you can imagine. Four such pictorial spreads are devoted to the Russian tradition of zakuski, which can be usefully compared to the Spanish tradition of tapas, or the Scandinavian one of smorgasbord. Like those ones, it accompanies drink,(usually vodka, in this case) is often presented in small dishes(though it can be in bigger ones) and features both cold and hot dishes. Zakuski can be as simple as olives, gherkins and pickled herring, or as elaborate as you like. Salads also feature strongly; colour and pleasing pattern is important.
So, inspired by those pictures, I put together a bit of a zakuski-style spread for dinner the other day. Not all of it was traditionally Russian, but I was still inspired by the concept, the colours, the patterns. And it all tasted great, was simple and quick to prepare, and elicited many admiring comments, both as to the look and the taste!
This is what I made(see photo):
In foreground to right of photo, a Georgian-inspired chicken dish, with tomatoes, tomato puree, onions, dill, chicken stock, Tokay(supposed to use Madeira, but I didn't have any, so I substituted), lemon juice, sour cream. Added chorizo too as didn't have enough chicken! Basically, you just cut up the chicken and chorizo, brown in a little butter along with chopped onions, then add tomatoes, lemon juice, dill, stock, wine, and tomato puree, cook till done(about half an hour). Sauce should be lovely and thick, don't let it burn
In foreground to left of photo, is a mushroom salad. Slice button mushrooms thinly, toss with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice, dill, chives. Do this at least an hour or so before you eat the salad, as then it absorbs the flavour of the dressing most deliciously.
Behind the chicken dish, on right, in mid-field, is a grated carrot salad decorated with capsicum and sorrel. Vinaigrette for the salad is made with Dijon mustard, white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. To the left of the carrot salad, are smoked salmon rolls on a bed of sorrel: slices of smoked salmon simply stuffed with small gherkins and caper-berries.
Far left in background is the other hot dish, which is a Russian-inspired dish of finely cut lamb slices, sauteed in some oil with onion, then vodka added(not too much), cranberries, finely chopped garlic, caraway, and finally sour cream(and salt and pepper of course). Delicious! To the right of that, is a salt herring salad, made of chopped up salt herring slices(which I'd soaked in water first, and then in lemon juice as otherwise find them too salty), mixed with chopped apple, chopped walnuts, finely chopped fresh garlic, and chopped cucumber. Made a dressing for this out of a little olive oil, a little white wine vinegar, sour cream, dill, and wholegrain mustard, it went perfectly with the flavours. Then to the right of that is a warm (but not hot) salad made of braised scallops cooked in a little butter, a little white wine, with garlic, salt and pepper, decorated with capsicum, tomatoes, etc. To the right of that, just behind the bottle of Russian Standard vodka, a salad of avocado, tomato, olives and capsicum, with a dressing like the carrot salad(yes, I know, not very Russian, the avocado, but never mind, improvisation is the key in zakuski!), and finally, in the far background, a green salad with lettuce right out of the garden and a vinaigrette made of olive oil, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, with chives and garlic chives. For dessert we had the remaining half of a delicious strawberry tart David had made the day before.
It was a wonderful feast!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Trinity celebration 3: Russki a la frangourou

The third of my repostings celebrating the Russian setting of my new novel, Trinity: The Koldun Code, is about creating a Russian-style meal back in Australia!

Russki a la frangourou:
Traditional Russian dishes are great, and I've had a go at making lots of them--but I've also created my own new dishes, inspired by that distinctive flavour and style. The other day, I made a meal that was entirely Russian in inspiration, but not all the dishes in it were classic Russian--rather they were 'russki a la frangourou'. I used ingredients that are easy to obtain and economical as well. All the vegetables for it came out of our garden but of course can be got in the shops(with the exception of sorrel, which might not be easy to find--but you can substitute a little chopped rocket with the addition ofa little lemon juice, to approximate it.)

Incidentally, before the meal we had a small aperitif--a shot of vodka accompanied by a small dish of olives and gherkins--a very minimalistic zakuska. You can also add chopped rollmop herrings, smoked salmon, etc etc if you want to go more elaborate for that part of the meal. The vodka we usually buy is 'Russian Standard', (standard meaning 'top quality' here), from St Petersburg--it's made on a base of pure cold water from the vast sea-like Lake Ladoga, near 'Peters'. It's an excellent vodka with a good clean flavour--we first tried it in Russia but you can easily get it anywhere now. But there are other good Russian vodkas easily available, like the famous Moscovite vodka Stolichnaya, as well as Polish and Swedish ones which aren't bad(though this is considered heresy in Russia!) There are even vodkas made in France these days! If you want real Russian--which I recommend--check the back of the bottle for provenance.

Here's the meal:

Entree: Green 'shchee' soup made with sorrel and spinach

Main course: Chicken breast fillet in a vodka and cranberry sauce

Vegetables: Roast beetroot with garlic and sour cream

Carrots in milk sauce


Dessert: (not illustrated): Meringues with coffee cream.

For the entree:

This is a traditional Russian dish--'shchee' soup could almost be the national dish--it is basically a hearty vegetable soup, most often on a base of cabbage. But green 'shchee' is a spring dish made when the cabbages etc have finally run out and you get the first of the spring vegies popping up, ie sorrel and spinach. It is very simply made. Take a medium potato, cut into small dice. Chop an onion. Crush a clove garlic. Take a handful spinach, about eight leaves sorrel, and some dill. Fry the onion in some butter, add the potato, then the garlic. Stir till beginning to go golden. Add the spinach and sorrel, chopped. Add salt and pepper and some dill, stir well till softening. I then add a small splash of white wine or vodka(this is not traditional but tastes good!)and then some good stock--chicken or vegetable stock. Let it simmer till potato is soft, then either process or mash and sieve. Take a little milk--about 100 ml, mix in two egg yolks, beat. Stir through soup, and warm but do not boil. Serve soup with a dab of sour cream, and some chopped dill or chives.

Main course: This dish is my own invention but based on traditional Russian elements. Cranberries are frequently encountered in meat dishes. Fry the chicken breasts in a mixture of butter and olive oil till beginning to colour. Add a good splash of vodka to the pan, then some cranberry juice and dried cranberries. Salt, pepper to taste, also I add a little chopped tarragon. Cook gently in the sauce till the meat is cooked through. Add a little more vodka or juice as needed. (Sauce should be thick and glaze the meat nicely--you can also remove the fillets when they are cooked and reduce the sauce till thick then pour it over the chicken.)

Vegetables: Beets are often served with sour cream and garlic. This is my version: Parboil some small beetroot for about ten minutes, cut into pieces, sprinkle with olive oil and some garlic--either crushed or a couple of whole cloves can be nice. Roast for about 20-25 mins or until the beet is nicely glazed and the garlic is soft. Serve with a dab of sour cream and chopped herbs like chives. You can also use preserved beet for this if you like but it will have a different, more acid taste.

Carrots: this is a very traditional, and delicious, way to eat carrots. Cut some carrots either into sticks or rings, as you prefer. Cook them in a little butter till softening, then cover them with stock, either chicken or vegetable. Let them cook till completely tender, then drain off the liquid, add a nub of butter, a little flour, to make a roux. Stir around then slowly add a little milk till the sauce thickens up nicely around the carrots. It should coat them but not drown them.

You can also have boiled potatoes, if you wish, and/or rye or pumpernickel-style bread to sop up the vodka and cranberry sauce!

Salad: Whatever you normally have--we usually do lettuce and other salad greens plus tomatoes, with vinaigrette.

Meringues: This is a simple gesture towards a spectacular special-occasion meringue cake known as 'The swallow's nest.' The meringues can be home made or shop-bought. The coffee cream is made from whipping cream up with a little coffee powder, a little softened unsalted butter, and some sugar to sweeten it but not excessively(as the meringues are plenty sweet enough).

White wine goes well with this dinner. A good tea, like Russian caravan tea, can add an extra touch at the end, with caramelised (Vienna-style!) almonds and perhaps a nip of cherry brandy or similar, if you want to!

Prijatnovo appetita! (Bon appetit!)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trinity celebration 2: Russian markets

Second in my repostings, this one's about markets: in Yaroslavl, and in Moscow.

Yaroslavl markets, 2010
Yaroslavl is an ancient provincial town in the Golden Ring, on the Volga River about 300 km north of Moscow. We were really impressed by the amazing range of food available at the market, and how beautifully it was presented. The colourful fruit stalls--both fresh and candied fruit, which came from all over Russia-- were particularly attractive!
But there were also excellent fish stalls, which sold not only fresh but smoked and salted fish, and lovely red caviar(salmon roe); stalls selling pickles of all sort--gherkins in all sizes, pickled cabbage, pickled garlic, pickled onions; stalls selling nuts and spices like caraway and a variety of Caucasian spices..Vegetables included root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beetroot--cabbages, red and white--lots of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, sorrel--and lots of garlic(Russian cooking uses quite a lot of garlic) and onions, and herbs such as parsley and dill. Olives and olive oil(which surprisingly are also used a lot) and dried mushrooms(it wasn't the mushroom season) were also sold and there were various preserves of fruit, and jams. There were also dairy products--there's apparently a famous Yaroslavl cheese, though we didn't taste it, and butchers sold local lamb(there is a famous local breed)and beef, chicken and pork from further afield. There were also stalls piled high with Russian-produced biscuits, sweets and chocolates, and a stall selling, among other grains, the pearl barley which is used to make 'kasha', the famous Russian porridge, of which the charming (modern, English-language)Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow says, 'Man's thankful attitude to his daily bread is expressed in beautiful and tender names given to dishes. Take for example a pearl barley kasha. It is not a mere chance that the word pearl is present in its name. The dish bearing such a poetic name came to us from the distant past.'
I love it!

Danilovsky markets, Moscow, 2012:
 I was really impressed by Russian produce the last time I was there, two years ago; now, two years later, back in Moscow and renting a flat for 2 weeks, I've had even more of a chance to explore Russian culinary delights. And the Danilovsky markets was one of those delights, with the most gorgeous food presented in eye-catching displays. We wandered for ages!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

To celebrate the release of my new novel, set in Russia

My new adult novel, Trinity: The Koldun Code, first in the Trinity series, which is set in modern Russia, comes out as an e-book today, November 13, and in paperback on December 4. To celebrate it I'm going to be republishing over the next couple of weeks earlier posts of mine about Russian food and cooking, starting with a couple of posts about a trip to Russia I made in 2010, where I first discovered the pleasures of Russian cuisine!

Excursion to Russia:
I was drawn magnetically to this extraordinary country, its colourful, passionate, turbulent, imaginative people, their frightening and inspiring history, and magnificent literature, music and art. As a child and adolescent I read lots of Russian fairytales, plays, novels and short stories, and listened with delight to recordings of Russian folk music we had at home. For years, I dreamed of going there, but it wasn't till May 2010 that I was finally able to fulfill that dream. Not only did the country meet my expectations, it far exceeded them. Even the things I was expecting: the awe-inspiring scale of rivers and lakes and forests and plains, the gorgeous distinctiveness of the architecture, the scary relics of the past, the amazing richness and depth of the artistic traditions that still remain, had a huge impact, at first hand. But other things were quite unexpected: a combination of dry humour, nonchalance and exuberance; riotous spring vegetation and clothing and bright blue skies; the charming,intimate beauty of smalltown houses, the vibrant energy of the cities. And the excellent food.
Food wasn't really something I'd ever thought about in connection with Russia. Aside from caviar, vodka, pickled fish and borscht, I had no real image of it. And of course during the long Soviet dictatorship, there were so many food shortages and privations that the notion there was such a thing as Russian cuisine fell by the wayside, at least in Western minds. The few tourists who braved Soviet restaurants reported stodgy, badly cooked, badly presented food, and though the upper classes of the Soviet system ate very well out of the public eye, the majority of people certainly did not. And that did not improve but actually worsened for a while after the regime finally crashed in the early 90's. We kept hearing horror stories from people who'd visited Russia in the past, and resigned ourselves to an amazing cultural experience but bad food. So it was wonderful to be surprised into the discovery that things had completely changed. In my opinion, it's as good a sign as any of a country's recovery from hard times, when people start taking pleasure and pride in preparing and cooking food again, not only for themselves and their families and friends, but for strangers. And not just for tourists, or the wealthy, either, but for ordinary locals looking for a meal out. But the excellence of the food wasn't the only surprise; the other was the discovery that this was no modern phenomenon, and that travellers in pre-Soviet times had also commented on the excellence of the food.
A fascinating 1857 English book I own called Russians at Home, by Sutherland Edwards, describes the menu at a typical modest restaurant in Moscow then: 'the usual dinner supplied for three-quarters of a rouble(half a crown) consists of soup, with a pie of minced meat or minced vegetables, an entree, and some kind of sweet. That, too, may be considered the kind of dinner which persons of moderate means have every day at home. ' Edwards also talks about a popular Russian cookbook of the time, entitled 'Forty-Two Dinners' which rather in the manner of the successful Four Ingredients cookbooks of today, centred around a gimmick: four dishes only per dinner, up to dinner 42, with always a soup to start with(starting with soup is very much a Russian tradition.)Edwards quotes some of the menus: Dinner Twenty-Seven, for instance features a/batvinia, a hearty soup made of boiled beef, boiled beetroot, spring opinions, caraway seeds, and a puree or sorrel or spinach, with some chopped boiled egg; b/stuffed carrots; c/roast mutton with mushrooms; d/ Compote or jelly of almonds. Thirty-Three, a Lenten dish(Russian Orthodox tradition strictly observes the no-meat fast all through Lent), was: a/Oukha, or sterlet soup(the sterlet is a popular fish found only in the Volga); b/Fish cutlets with a sauce of oil and vinegar; c/Fried perch; d/Kissel(a kind of blancmange made with almond milk and fine oatmeal.) Other foods he mentions include various sorts of game, icecream, gingerbread(he makes the intriguing remarks that in pre-Christian times pagan Russians used to makes offerings of carved gingerbread to their deities—the tradition of shaped and decorated gingerbread endures to this day.) He also lists traditional drinks, from gallons of tea of course; kvass, an effervescent drink made from the flour of black bread and malt and served very cold(though rather an acquired taste for foreigners, it is still very popular in Russia); vodkas of all sorts, from the plain kind to flavoured ones(there are many kinds: for instance in Dr Zhivago a red rowanberry vodka is mentioned; and in Russia we sampled a honey and pepper vodka from Ukraine)and champagne, of which, he says, the Russians are very fond and consume in great quantities. While wealthy people drank French champagne, most people then as now drank the bubbly made in the Crimea or the Don River area, which cost only a fifth of the French variety.
By contrast, while Edwards extols these home-grown champagnes, the Frenchman Etienne Taris, in his 1910 book, La Russie et ses Richesses, sniffily says that the Russian wines can appropriate French place-names all they like, 'one can always tell their true origin'! Grudgingly, he admits that the soups are very similar to peasant soups in France; that the mushrooms are excellent, the fish and game very good; but otherwise he is not enamoured of Russian food, with its sweet and sour dishes, pickled fish, sour cream and black bread, tastes which are foreign to the French repertoire: and he makes the acid observation that 'no wonder there is such a fashion for French food in Russia!' But in both books, the exuberant Russian attitude to food—and life—is amply documented and obviously delighted in by the writers; but that's even more obvious in the quintessential Russian cookbook, Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives, which was the massive best-selling cookery tome of its day. It was an amazing compendium, a mix of hilariously extravagant, slapdashly insouciant and thriftily careful recipes, and a good deal of household advice, written by an extraordinary woman who ran a country estate. Reprinted umpteen times from its first appearance in 1861 to 1917, it became a huge cultural phenomenon, cherished by generations, carried into exile, and lovingly parodied by Chekhov, among others. Repudiated by the Bolsheviks as a symbol of 'bourgeois decadence', the book went underground after 1917, was circulated in 'samizdat' copies, and was never officially reprinted in its entirety during the whole of the Soviet period. But a few short months after the crash of the Soviet regime, reprinted copies of the book were being sold on the streets of Moscow, and today the book has once again taken its place as the great classic of Russian food writing. (It is now available in English, translated by Joyce Toomre, as 'Classic Russian Cooking', Indiana University Press)
That exuberance and abundance has come back now; and so we discovered a Russia where markets and shops are again filled with colourful arrays of fresh ingredients from every corner of this vast land; where even modest restaurants offer simple, fresh and delicious traditional menus and street-corner vendors sell smoked sausage hot dogs, cold glasses of kvass, caramelised almonds and luscious icecreams. We discovered the most spectacular and tasty candied fruit ever, specialities of southern Russia, from whole cumquats to apricot and strawberries; beautiful salads, from grated beetroot with garlic and vinegar to spectacular bowls of greens, tomatoes and olives; fantastic smoked and fresh fish from the cold northern lakes; a wide variety of soups; mushrooms served in all kinds of ways(Russians are very very fond of mushrooms—it's a favourite family outing, gathering mushrooms in the forest) a tempting array of zakuski, the tapas-like nibbles served with vodka, from olives and gherkins to pickled fish and little pies and dumplings; lovely berry and nut tarts; and the prettiest gilt gingerbread outside of fairytales. We also discovered that Russians, like Australians, love cooking outdoors, and a favoured recipe for a good meal out with friends consists of a handy river bank, a barbecue constructed of stones and charcoal, some freshly-caught fish, lamb shashliks with spicy sauce, various salads, some loud music on a radio, and plenty of beer!
Traditionally, Russian cuisine is dominated by the bounty of waterways and forest, by fish and game and mushrooms and nuts and berries and honey, but also by the necessities of long winters: by lots of pickled and smoked and salted fish, meat and vegetables. But because of the vastness of the land and its many climactic zones, it has access to an extremely wide variety of other things: the Caucasian vividness of fruit, vegetables, wine and lamb, for instance, and rich dairy products, especially cream, but also good yoghurt, and some cheeses. And the imaginative quality which has always characterised the Russian temperament is being fully applied now to local cuisine, so that traditional dishes are not only being cherished for what they are, but also experimented with, and new ways of highlighting the country's excellent produce, borrowing from all kinds of culinary traditions, are being tried.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lovely mixed-season meal

It's the time of the year when all sorts of lovely mild-weather produce is coming out of the garden--the last of the spring things, the first of the summer ones, whilst in the pantry, the last of the previous year's jars are coming off the shelf. And last night we had a meal that represented very much that delicious between-seasons abundance: an entrée of gazpacho made of last year's bottled, herbed and chilli'ed preserved tomatoes, mixed with this year's new basil, onions and garlic; a main course of all kinds of spring and summer vegs: the last of the asparagus and broad beans, with sugar-snap peas and artichokes, the lot all simply sautéed in olive oil with a little salt and pepper, just for a minute or two, accompanying chicken thighs marinated in garlic, olive oil, lemon, lemon thyme, and basil, and then flash-fried, and deglazed with a little white wine. Dessert was fresh garden strawberries, with home-made strawberry icecream, flavoured with home-made strawberry syrup. The recipe for the icecream is my classic one, which you can find at this earlier post of mine.
It was all absolutely delicious, and very pretty into the bargain too!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nectar of the gods: Alpine strawberries

This year, we've got a very special treat in the garden: the five Alpine strawberry plants have begun producing. And these tiny bright red beauties are a sheer taste revelation, quite a different sort of fruit to the normal strawberry(which I love too!)
The taste is perfumed, so sweet it's almost like a fondant candy, with a hint of vanilla fudge in the strawberry. The texture inside is creamy, and outside the seeds are crunchy. And they look fabulous. A true wonder, and worth celebrating!