herring under a fur coat, or, a portrait in damnation, or, russian food is the greatest

IMG_8210Russian food is the latest and greatest trend.  OK, I don’t really care what the latest and greatest trend is.  But I am gaga over Russian food right now in this, the endless Oregon summer…

It must be, I think dreamily, like an endless Russian summer, so impossibly short and crammed with fresh berries and beets and onions and herring and sweet new potatoes and greens that one can’t believe it will ever be dark and cold and time for fur hats again…

…then I’m off to St. Petersburg and I’m Anna Karenina, pining with love.  The injustice.  The peasants in the fields drinking kvass.  And I’m Orlando on the ice, spinning, spinning…

Oh wait, that’s not summer.  Or happy.  Nvrmnd.

I’m a dacha garden, smartly lined rows, outgreening my brethren in the smiling sun.  And I’m a yellow kvass truck, chugging down the thoroughfare, children chasing me.  And I’m billows of rich, sour cream.  And I’m a squat dumpling filled with beef and veal and chives, waiting to be bitten and my juices drunk. And I’m soft loose berry preserves, waiting for tea.

Sigh.

IMG_7883 IMG_7864I have taken the opportunity to indulge in Portland’s trifecta of Russian eateries (as reported by my dinner companion, ex-Eugenius and current Merc food critic Andrea Damewood here): Chef Vitaly Paley’s glorious pop-up, DaNet; the Sellwood food cart Russian Horse; and the truly marvelous Kachka.  And I can’t get enough. (Above, pirogies at Russian Horse and a cocktail featuring a fur coat of olive oil and smoked trout salad at DaNet.)

A quick Russian luncheon dish, then, a 20th century working man’s classic, Seledka pod Shuboi, or more familiarly, “Herring Under a Fur Coat.”  According to legend (and the link above), salted herring symbolizes the proletariat, potatoes symbolizes the peasantry, beets symbolize Bolshevik blood and the mayonnaise symbolizes, um, French people who also did that whole Revolution thing.  Shuba is not only the acronym for “Shovinismu i Upadku – Boikot i Anafema,” or familiarly, “Death and Damnation to Chauvinism and Degradation,” but also the word for fur coat.

Death and Damnation to Chauvinism and Degradation!!!!!

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Luckily, I happened to have on hand some salted herring in oil, purchased at the Good Neighbor Market in Portland after being yelled at by a little old Russian man for my idiocy in not understanding that he wanted me to help him thread his arms with his grocery sac so he could carry it like a backpack.  I’ve bought salted herring at Newman’s in Eugene, but not in oil — perhaps you’d need to oil it yourself.  (Above is the market’s sign and some beautifully burnished metallic-hued smoked mackerel).

My version of death and damnation contains yellow beets, since I didn’t have any Bolshevik blood handy, and it substitutes homemade sour cream with just a touch of Hellman’s for the mayo.  Vive la Résistance!

You might think of this as a herring-laced version of the midwestern modern classic, 24-hour salad.  It’s a pressed, molded savory cake of love.

Herring Under a Fur Coat

Using a plate as a base, mound up layers of cooked grated veg and chopped salted herring in oil:  potatoes on the bottom, then herring, then onion.  Rest.

Pour a little sour cream over.  And a little dill?  Or a grated dill pickle?  Then add carrot, beet, and the rest of the sour cream.

Grate some hardboiled egg on top and add a bit more dill.

Carefully mold into a cake shape, pressing with your hands to solidify the shape, and wrap in saran wrap then refrigerate overnight to let the layers combine.

Eat as a crowning achievement, or as a centerpiece to a workaday zakuski party.

 

first impressions: riffle nw in portland

I’ve never been satisfied with the realities of the seafood restaurant, perhaps because the concept is so promising but the execution so terribly difficult.  A new restaurant in the Pearl, Riffle NW, takes on the challenge.  The menu is promising with very fresh fish entrees, a handful of raw offerings and small plates, and simple sides.  I like it that they restrain from the temptations of a huge selection, or worse, taking the lazy route of the deep fryer.

Riffle seems as if it’s been around longer than just a few months.  The restaurant is not too loud, which is nice and surprising given the concrete floors and open design, but there are some kinks in service and communication that will be worked out over time, I’m sure.  One can see the raw bar and a brick oven from the dining area.  The bar is small and hard to approach if patrons are clotted at the bar tables, but it looks like a very friendly, open space once you get there, with a projection of old cooking shows on one concrete wall.  The main restaurant seating is slightly too crowded, with some seating around the side of the restaurant perched on platforms that give me vertigo (something exacerbated by my wheelchair vantage point, no doubt), and an area that opens out to the street that looks better.

I’m not sure the drink menu slid into a wooden bar that slides into a slot on the tabletop is a good idea, but they’ll figure that out once someone spills a glass of merlot down through the slot and on to her Jimmy Choos.

The cocktails are mature and sophisticated, unsurprisingly given the team behind the bar. And this country bumpkin is still enchanted by gigantic ice cubes.  I’m not too proud to admit it.  I was also tickled to see my darling Becherovka incorporated in an interpretation of a Beton called a Room D (rye, Becherovka, tonic water, and lemon and grapefruit).  We also enjoyed a Riffle Collins, which incorporated another of my cocktail favorites, celery juice, with gin, lime, and absinthe, and comped Vieux Carrés, a perfect version of the classic, when our entrees were late.  Excellent waiter.

If I have only one suggestion, it would be to boost the boldness of the sides and sauces, and work on matches made in heaven.  The seafood is very good, but the mains and sides seemed not to have much chemistry, and I suspect stronger spices and vinegared salads might complement some of the lighter fish. I don’t think this is a cardinal sin by any means, just a quibble, since the food is good and can be even better.  It’s miles better than the last new place we tried, Smallwares, which had the extremely odd problem of having too much umami in everything — the chef is enamored with seaweed and fish sauce and other glutamates, enough so that it blunts the palate and makes you want to wash out your mouth with fresh water.

But at Riffle, everything we had was mild, including the beet-cured salmon carpaccio with a bacon aioli, ice lettuce, and hazelnuts.  The beet flavor wasn’t even noticeable and it would be wonderful if it was — perhaps with a beet salad instead of the insipid, broken aioli?  The mackerel, allegedly served with a “summer vegetable salad,” had a red pepper-fennel slaw that was bright and cheery and excellent with this deliciously strong, oily, fish, but also a weird, slightly sweet and taupe vegetable purée of some sort that didn’t work at all.  We ate clean, cold little kusshi oysters with a “bloody mary” sauce, which was too much like cocktail sauce to be interesting.  Just a lemon would have been better, now that I think of it.  We both loved the smoked tomato broth with the ling cod, but wish the fish had been poached in it, as the broth didn’t really permeate the flesh, and it was difficult to eat the full-length frenched green beans nestled under the fish.  The kale and beans side was our fault — it didn’t work with anything, but it was tasty, if not Miss Oregon 2012.

Probably the star of the night, which negates much of what I’ve said about stronger flavors and even fish, was the giant mountain of shredded brussels sprouts with walnut, a citrus dressing, and some kind of snowy white cheese that might have been pecorino or a relation.  I would have been happy just eating that all night.

Desserts looked appetizing for the sweet tooth, especially if “semifreddo” doesn’t mean “half a baguette” as Retrogrouch claimed it did (thank you yet again, Google), and instead is a frozen chocolate concoction.  We opted for sugared donut holes with a very vibrant, raspberry-forward raspberry curd, and we were glad we did.

I’ll be watching this restaurant with curiosity.  It’s the first new one I’ve seen in a while in PDX that seems like it has potential for longevity.  Tonight they’ll be debuting “Neighborhood Night,” which really does seem like fun: they’ll serve house-made spicy sausage with a melange of peppers on a semolina roll with a salad.  Next time I’ll have to come up for that…I’ll be the neighbor from the wrong side of the tracks, or the poor relation, or something.  Best of luck, Rifflers, and see you again!

local presents for the boozy

One of the things I hated most about being relatively attractive in my 20s was that it was impossible to sit and get lost in my thoughts in public. It always really, really bothered random men — became a veritable challenge — to see how fast they could interrupt my reverie.  Does this kind of thing still happen to young women?  I wouldn’t know.  But I’m guessing yes.

So that famous quote by Luis Bunuel about English gin and reverie in bars (I’ll refrain) was always well out of my reach, by virtue of accident of birth.  There was no way I’d be left unmolested to stimulate a reverie in a bar, English gin or no English gin. Feminism, young ladies, is being able to drink unmolested like a crotchety old surrealist filmmaker in a dark bar.

Nowadays, thankfully, I am only interrupted in my reveries in the aisles at Safeway (HELLO, MA’AM, ARE YOU FINDING EVERYTHING YOU NEED!?). Conclusion: less shopping at Safeway, more time alone in dark bars.  Make up for lost time.

And that’s my Christmas message to you, dear amateur mixologist.

If you’re looking to be lost in reverie or revel with young women, provocative men, Safeway clerks, or old surrealist filmmakers on a bender — or someone you love may appreciate the opportunity — two Oregon craft spirits should be at the top of your list.

Krogstad Aquavit is absolutely the perfect gift for a holiday party.  Drink it cold and neat. It’s distinguished from its fellow aquavits, always tinged with caraway, by the addition of star anise.  It’s a marvelous combination that evokes baking, Scandanavian snow, and tall young blond men in reindeer sweaters.  Delicious.  Made in Portland by House Spirits, so you know it’s good, and under 30 bucks a bottle.

But if you really want to impress, Calisaya, a relatively new girl on the scene, should be seized immediately.  Local distiller and bon vivant Andrea Loreto has perfected his formula, and now produces it in Eugene.  Like the bigger, gingerbreadier, jammier, and more complex Italian Antica Formula, Calisaya is a digestif in the tradition of Italian sipping bitters.  The difference is the base of cinchona bark, the same stuff that gives us quinine.  Calisaya has a cleaner, woodier profile, but is just as smooth and balanced as Antica.  It doesn’t hit you upside the head like Fernet Branca or remind you of 19th century health spas like Becherovka.  It’s worth every penny of the $45ish you’ll spend on it.

Both can be had at Big Y liquors on 6th.  They only have a couple bottles left of each.

Krogstad aquavit has found its way into some wonderful cocktails, my favorite of which is Jeffrey Morganthaler’s Norwegian Wood, which he served me long long ago while it was still in the development phase at our late lamented Bel Ami.  (Bel Ami, I might add, was the first bar I felt truly comfortable sitting in by myself.  Thanks, Jeff.)  There’s also the Viking Quest, also served by Jeff at Clyde Common, but a creation of Beaker and Flask’s Tim Davey.  It also adds a brilliant note to homemade gravlax.

Calisaya can be used as any Italian herbal bitter — with tonic, soda, on the rocks, etc.  If you’d like to try it, Marché’s Le Bar serves a Calisaya cocktail with (I think) just a few drops of bitters and maybe an orange peel (ugh, failure of memory clearly means I need to go again for research purposes.).  But it’s worth experimenting with cocktails.  Loreto provides a few on his website, the best of which is the Calisaya Negroni, which has both Antica and Calisaya, and the added bonus of being created by local bartender Justin Wafer, formerly of Eugene’s Belly and now of Tasty ‘n’ Sons in PDX (congratulations, Justin!).  Another Negroni interpretation, an all-local “Oregroni” most generously provided by the folks at Boozenik.com, will be perfect for locavore drinkers on your Christmas list.

You will be directed to the original sources for these recipes by clicking the titles, if you want to make sure I haven’t changed anything.

Viking Quest

Recipe by Tim Davey.

  • 1 oz. Krogstad Aquavit
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. Barolo Chinato

In a pint mixing glass add all ingredients then ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange disc after expressing the orange oil over drink.

Norwegian Wood

Recipe by Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

  • 1 oz. (Krogstad) Aquavit
  • 1 oz. (Laird & Co.) Applejack
  • 3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Cinzano Rosso)
  • 1/4 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a large twist of lemon peel and serve.

Calisaya Negroni

Recipe by Justin Wafer.

  • 1 oz. Calisaya Liqueur
  • 1 oz. Antica Formula sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz. gin

Stir, strain into cocktail glass and flame orange zest over the drink.

The Oregroni

Recipe by the Boozeniks.

  • 1 oz. Ransom Old Tom Gin
  • 1 oz. Calisaya Liqueur
  • 1 oz. Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth

Combine in a mixing glass with ice, stir for 30 seconds; pour into a chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish with an orange or lemon peel that has been rubbed around glass rim and squeezed over the cocktail. Do not neglect this, or the cocktail will seem a bit too one-note without the oil from the citrus.

While component-wise the Oregroni is similar to a Negroni, it is far drier and lighter. Plan any accompanying snacks to be lighter and saltier and with a bias toward seafood, rather than what you might serve with a Negroni.

are you up to date on your ramen trends?

After I returned from a year in Japan in 1994, I used to have to go to San Francisco’s Japantown for ramen.  Sure, I could make it at home, and I often did.  One of the mainstays of my college years was Sapporo Ichiban ramen, original flavor, which was fine for the gourmet because it was about double the cost of the cup-o-noodles you could buy at Safeway.  I’d take my poison doctored with spices and topped by vegetables. My favorite? Diced okra, Brussels sprouts, and tofu.  Good times.

Sadly, the chewy noodles and traditional toppings ubiquitous in Japan were, unlike soba or udon, hard to find.

You can now buy ramen in all manner of places, including Toshi’s Ramen in Eugene, and in the high-concept izakaya in Portland, like Biwa.  I credit the popularity lately in no small part to Lucky Peach magazine, which tackled ramen for its first hipper-than-thou, swaggery, Bourdain-infused issue (next one out any day now, can’t wait).

But there’s providing delicious ramen to the American masses, and then there’s jumping the shark.

meal of the week: portland izakaya shigezo

Unbeknownst to me, my partner in crime Retrogrouch had bought tickets to a concert in Portland this past weekend, so we journeyed up there for one last fling before school started.  Concert was not great, but we did enjoy our meal of the week at Shigezo, an izakaya (Japanese pub) that apparently is the Japanese chain’s first U. S. location.  I didn’t find it chain-y at all.  We enjoyed the sushi and robata grill tsukune (meatballs), homemade bacon, and ume shiso chicken breast skewers.

But the nicest stuff?  The cold apps.  We noshed on hiyakko dofu (cold tofu with ginger and bonito flakes), a wonderful dish of quick pickles, an octopus/cucumber and a seaweed sunomono (vinegared salads) over a tall cool Ninkasi on a wonderfully warm evening.  And I got to look at my handsome husband, who makes hipsters seaweed green with envy with his stylish ways.

hank shaw dinner at castagna: wild

I had the pleasure, recently, to attend a foraging dinner at Castagna in Portland, in honor of hunter, angler, gardener, and cookbook writer Hank Shaw.  Hank is currently on tour for his new book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten FeastHank’s blog, like his book, is a rare find, a must-read for anyone interested in wild foods and foraging. The blog has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award twice, for good reason. His recipes are unusual and creative, and his chef background and intimate knowledge of ecosystems converge like stars made of abalone and sea beans.

Hank is maintaining a crazy schedule of foraging dinners and book engagements for the entire summer, but I knew he’d be a great speaker for Eugene, so I contacted him and met him in PDX.  I’m happy to report that we’re fortunate to have him come to Eugene in November, for the last date on his tour.  (I’ll tell you the details later, since we’re just beginning to organize the visit.)

But you want to hear about Castagna!  This was kind of a poignant dinner for me, in retrospect, seeing that Chef Matt Lightner is leaving the restaurant for (boo!) New York.  I hope other young chefs take up his torch.  Hank and Chef Matt share affinities for foraged food, and we ate some of the finds of their foraging trip in the woods the day before.  It was an eight-course dinner, accompanied by Brooks wines.

Above: chicken mousse liver, Oregon grape, poppyseed, rye cracker.  This was one of four amuses bouches.

And here are three others, from top to bottom.  Brown butter bits garnish butter for the rye rolls (also served with lardo).  White asparagus look like rather silly worms wearing onion flower leis, waiting for a dip in the tarragon-mossed lemon sabayon pool.  Black sesame cookies with a butter-sesame glaze and rose hip jam.

For all his experimental visuals and molecular experiments, Matt’s flavor palate is really quite light, his color palate muted with whites and darks accented by a single bright burst.  The sixth course, morels stuffed with rabbit sausage with pine nut gravy over spinach and under sea beans, illustrates both aspects of his palate.

The smoked cured black cod raft held a scoop of frozen cod powder and more unfrozen cod powder around it.  The green strawberries and pine tips provided a needed contrast, perhaps even too mild to balance the cod.

Our main course was a barbecued collar of lamb, a succulent, almost lacquered chunk of tender meat.  It was served with what I thought was the best part of the entire meal: toasted grains dressed with wheatgrass puree.  The little leaves are oxalis, wild licorice, violets, and other edibles collected on the foraging trip.

And dessert?  It was a bit of a jumble of gingered tidbits.  Wild ginger ice cream, marshmallow, meringue, foam, and tuile cookie.  We got some figging relief with a dill frond and chewy bits of rhubarb, candied and dried.

Not bad for a trip to the woods, eh?  I was so excited to meet Hank, and hope we can have just as much fun in Eugene when we see him in November.