Russia Day

Russia Day (June 12) is not a holiday I grew up with, as my entire childhood was spent in Soviet Russia. It has been celebrated only since 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s newly found independence (although it is hard to define from whom, exactly). At any rate, this holiday presents a perfect excuse to celebrate being a snooty Moscow girl :-).

This year I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington DC hosted by the Russian Ambassador and his entourage.

The focal point of the evening was Russian food. The spread was lavish and exquisite; it lacked the grotesque excesses of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy, and of the “new Russians” (as in, large tubs of caviar and champagne fountains). The event as a whole was in amazingly good taste, and it was marked by the conspicuous absence of scantily dressed leggy 20-year old Russian babes. Instead, it was full of classy and beautiful women who have managed to escape the curse of premature aging so common in Russia. (The unintended consequence of looking young is that some Russian women currently living in the U.S. still get stern looks from the cashier and demands to see some ID when buying alcohol at a grocery store :-))

The spirit was clearly celebratory. Delicacies abounded, – caviar, sturgeon, tongue, roasted piglet, you name it. They were served side by side with homey but amazing meat pies (“pierozhki”), shish kebabs (“shashlik”), dumplings (“pelmeni”), eggplant rolls, a shrimp-laden version of “Olivier” a.k.a. “Russian” salad…the list goes on almost indefinitely. 

Libations were as plentiful and potent as the Volga river, the traditional drink of choice being pure, unadulterated liquor (no mixers, no ice cubes). Those of you who have read “The Master and Margarita” may even recall Behemoth’s immortal line, “Do you think I would offer vodka to a lady? This is pure grain alcohol!”

Joking aside, we did toast with Rossijskaja vodka, – smooth as a baby’s bottom, with all the traditional chasers (caviar, smoked salmon, pickled mushrooms and cabbage, tongue with horseradish, herring, hot-smoked sturgeon, etc. The other “choices of a new generation” were whiskey and gin; this was no place for molecular mixology.

Thank God, there was no “Soviet Champagne” (“Sovietskoje Shampanskoje”), ubiquitous at every Russian gathering back in the day. Essentially an alcoholic grape soda pop, it bore as much resemblance to the real stuff as American pumpernickel bread to the Russian “black” rye bread . A “Soviet” sparkler would not be appropriate for the occasion, anyway.

After the party we did not feel the need to check off any additional boxes, and decided to skip the original plan of tasting blini, caviar, and premium vodkas at the nearby Russia House lounge and restaurant. It has one of those inviting façades marred by Russian bandit  bouncer types, sporting the mandatory bad haircuts, jogging suits, and gold chains. Instead, we just slowly walked home…

This holiday made me think of one of my favorite childhood treats: spoonfuls of homemade dulce de leche (soft caramel), made by boiling an unopened can of condensed sweetened milk for several hours (“var’onaja sgushenka”):

If I weren’t lazy (of course that would be starting with a counterfactual :-)), I would make something ambitious like a traditional cake called “The Count’s Castle Ruins” (“Grafskije Razvalini”), in order to celebrate the occasion. It is one big delicious mess featuring layered soft caramel, merengue, nuts, etc. that perfectly illustrates the aftermath of many political events of the past.

photo credit: nn.ru

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Purple Cauliflower Is a Cosmopolitan Polyglot

Emboldened by the postmodernist innovative ideas from our recent trip to Chicago, I embarked on culinary experimentation of my own. Inspiration was promptly provided by a beautiful purple cauliflower from Dupont Circle farmer’s market called SicilianViolet. I thought it to be a particularly appropriate choice, given the fact that my good friend The Blissful Adventurer has just returned from a trip to Sicily.

The idea was to start with a simple base (such as oven-roasted cauliflower florets), and to pair them with a few different flavors. Clearly, I was already nostalgic about playing with the succulent brine-and-butter Glidden Point oysters from Maine, and a set of tinctures at the Office on our Chicago trip (green peppercorns, smoke, curry, lemon, ginger, and fennel, for anybody interested :-)).

Speaking of Chicago, we had a tasty cauliflower dish at the Purple Pig (a “cheese, swine, and wine” kind of place, by their own description), which involved charred cauliflower, toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons, and parsley. I think it is only logical to eat purple cauliflower at the Purple Pig, if it is too hot to eat pig…

Our favorite homespun combination turned out to be furikake-seasoned cauliflower (a perfectly balanced Japanese mixture of sesame seeds, salt, sugar, and seaweed). This method is also perfect for Hakurei turnips that remind me of the Russian baby turnips (“repka”) that I liked to snack on when I was growing up. I ate them raw – they had delicate skin, and were as sweet as honey, as a Russian would say. As you can imagine, roasting makes them even sweeter.

The other two combinations involved dips: a Greek yogurt dip ( seasoned with lemon, salt, mint, red pepper, and sumac, which is one of my very favorite Middle Eastern spices), and Thai sweet and sour curry made with a Por Kwan-brand Tom Yum paste, light coconut milk, and kefir leaves.

Cauliflower and turnips were washed down with a Spanish Verdejo, which, to me, is the ideal summer wine. It tastes of the salty ocean and tropical fruit, and has the acidity and backbone to stand up to garlic, spice, aged cheese, char, and just about anything else you throw its way. Besides, you can get a very tasty version for as little as $12.

To complete my light lunch menu, I made a super-quick summery Russian-style sorrel soup with new potatoes. Just in case you are unfamiliar with sorrel, here is what it looks like:

The fastest way to make sorrel soup is as follows: cut up new potatoes (I don’t bother with peeling them), and cook them in vegetable organic stock. Once they are very close to being done, add the sorrel, and lots of lemon juice. Cook for another minute. To serve the soup, add quartered boiled eggs, and sour cream, or crème fraiche, to ramp up the tang. You can eat it hot or cold.

So, to recap: a Sicilian cauliflower variety with a Japanese seasoning, also served with a Greek dip with a Middle Eastern spice, and with a Thai curry. A Japanese turnip as a Russian childhood food memory. A Russian soup with American cage-free organic eggs, stock, and French-style crème fraiche.

This is one tasty melting pot…

From Russia with Food

The infamous newly renovated Bolshoi…

I am back from my travel-and-sloth-induced hiatus, to finally report on my trip to Moscow!

Russia is in the process of emerging from the culture of almost exclusively eating at home (unless someone is getting married!), and is slowly transitioning to the type of place where people can learn to appreciate the art and convenience of eating out. And I am not just talking about the exceedingly well-heeled “New Russians”. Over the last decade, restaurants of every imaginable cuisine have been springing up all over Moscow.

That being said, wine is still quite an expensive pleasure, sporting considerable mark-ups, both retail and on-premise (retail prices seem to be twice the US retail). For me to satisfy my Burgundy tooth in Moscow would be quite detrimental to my finances. On the same note, Vinosyr (http://vinosyr.ru/) is the only true wine bar I am aware of in Moscow; I must say the selections are not very exciting, especially when compared to the NYC wine bars (so perhaps I am a little spoiled :-)). They hold wine tastings every Wednesday; the one I attended earlier this month showcased the relatively inexpensive but enjoyable champagnes by a small grower-producer Yves Louvet (including their latest 2002 Millesime).

A few comments about my food experiences:

The highlight, without a doubt, was Russian imperial cuisine at Café Pushkin and Tsentral’nii Dom Literatorov (Central Writers’ House), – for those of you who have read “Master & Margarita”, the latter was featured in the immortal novel by Mikhail Bulgakov under the name “Griboyedov”. It has an amazing legacy, and it is arguably the most exciting dining destination in Moscow.

On a practical note: “business lunch” prix-fixe is a nice and inexpensive way to sample this level of cuisine; but you cannot go wrong with any of their a la carte selections.

I absolutely loved their luxurious soups: ukha (rich, amber-colored traditional fish soup with sterlet, zander, and salmon); sorrel soup with beef tongue, cold-boiled pork (buzhenina), and egg; smoked goose soup with cabbage and pickled apples, and the incredibly fragrant, 24-hour steeped veal schi made with a specialty sauerkraut. After having soup with pierozhki (individual-size savory pies) filled with cabbage and egg; with fish; and the incredible lamb pies, I seriously wished for a bigger stomach to be able to savor all of their delicacies: homemade duck dumplings served in a duck broth; roasted piglet with stuffed apples; braised rabbit with cranberries; – too many others to enumerate here.

Unfortunately no photography was allowed 😦 , so please see the pictures on their respective websites. Be certain to check out the interiors of both places, – they are pretty incredible:

http://www.cafe-pushkin.ru/gallery.php

http://www.cdlrestaurant.ru/

Other notable food experiences included shopping (and subsequently eating the purchases) at Armenia retail shop featuring a number of traditional Armenian prepared food items. I picked several kinds of basturma (Armenian spicy dry-cured beef), lavash (flatbread), pickles, several varieties of cheese, walnut preserves, dolmas, lentils, yogurt, etc.

Basturma

Homemade-style pierogi (sweet and savory pies) at café/bar Nicholai, available by the slice or half/whole, for eating in or for takeaway, made a perfect snack.

Another great memory was a midnight home meal of tongue and lightly cured semga sandwiches. “Semga” is steelhead salmon, which is known as “the Mercedes of salmon”.

And of course, there were countless fabulous varieties of milk products (cow and goat milk-based): prostokvasha, ryazhenka, kefir, tvorozhok, tvorog, and smetana.  Some of them are related to yogurt; the rest – to cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese, or sour cream; yet, they have little in common with their American counterparts. They represent a variety of flavors and textures depending on whether they are made from fermented milk, baked milk, skim milk, using a culture, etc. Quality varies considerably as well, depending on where they were made and procured; the best specimens come from farmer’s markets and high-end supermarkets such as “Sed’moi Kontinent”.

Ryazhenka