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!!!!!

IMG_7868IMG_7879

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.

 

cold soups made with a magic elixir called kvass

IMG_5306My new addiction is an old Russian fermented drink called kvass. It’s great as a breakfast juice or as an afternoon refreshment on a hot day: slightly sour, ice cold, a strong nose of beery grain or funky beet.  it’s a drink for those of us who like deep, dark, barnyardy flavors.  Or beer!

As discussed in my Russian zakuski party post, kvass is a healthful tonic full of enzymes and the lactobacilli that are the new popular kids on the block.  Whey can be added to rye bread or raw vegetables and fruits with nothing more than water, and the liquid will magically be soured to your taste.  Like lacto-fermented pickles, kvass sits on the counter until the good bacteria multiply and give it a characteristic tang.

I’m at work on my first blackberry kvass and a fermented version of tomato juice that I’m planning to push on an unsuspecting friend for bloody marys, and I will report back.  Until then, I wanted to share some easy cold soup recipes using kvass as the base, since I’ve already gone on about it and I can’t get enough.

IMG_5201Easy Beet Kvass

Chop up two big red beets; add to a half-gallon jar with two teaspoons of salt and a 1/4 cup of whey, sauerkraut juice, or a similar fermented liquid to hasten fermentation.  I used fermented dill pickle juice in the photo above, which is why you see a juniper berry floating on top.

Fill jar 3/4 to top with water and stir. Let sit on the counter for 2-4 days, depending on how sour you’d like the mix.  (I went for 4 days and the flavor was great for soup.)  Skim off any mold bits daily.  Strain and refrigerate.  Drink as is, or use uncooked as a liquid for cold soups, correcting for salt.

Beet Kvass Borscht

Serves 4.

There are various names for soups like this in Russian and Polish, but let’s just keep it simple.  You have two choices here: you can add your vegetables and let sit in the stock overnight for improved flavor but a thoroughly hot pink color; or you can add your vegetables just prior to serving for pretty colors (above).  It’s, as they say, all good.

To a quart of cold kvass, chop up and add some or all of the following: cooked beets of various hues, cucumbers, scallions, chives, dill weed, apples, hardboiled eggs.  Serve immediately or let flavors develop in the refrigerator.  (But if you decide to add eggs, place on top just before serving.)  Taste and salt if necessary.  A gamechanging addition, should you have it on hand, is a good slug of dill pickle juice.  Or try kimchi juice?  Optional garnish: more herbs, a dollop of sour cream.

IMG_3596Rye Bread Kvass

This recipe is slightly more complicated and gooey than beet kvass, and yields a mildly alcoholic brew. You’ll need to get your hands on decent rye bread, either light or dark, with no preservatives.  Darker rye, such as the thinly sliced German or Russian stuff that’s bursting with grain and almost moist, is terrific but will yield a darker color for the kvass. In the picture, my kvass is a combination of about 1:3 dark:light rye. Alternatively, you can make your own rye or buckwheat mash, but I’ll leave it up to your powers of the internet to find a recipe for that.

I’m going to play with yeast types (I’ve heard ale and champagne yeasts make better kvass) and did not bother to secondary-ferment my kvass, as I wanted it for soup and fizzy soup sounds kind of gross to me, so let me know if you have any advice.

  • Half gallon jar or crock
  • 5-6 slices good quality bakery or German rye bread
  • packet of active dry yeast or piece of sour dough or 1/2 cup whey
  • fresh juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • handful of raisins
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • (For secondary fermentation, you will also need a 2-liter plastic bottle or similar)

Dry bread in the following manner: (1) let it sit on your counter until hard; or (2) toast in the oven until hard and golden brown.  If it burns a little, that’s ok, since it will add to the flavor.  Place in half-gallon jar.

Boil 7 cups of water and pour over bread in half-gallon jar.  Cover and let sit overnight.

Strain bread and press very gently to get as much liquid out as possible.  Discard bread and pour liquid back into jar.  Add yeast or sourdough or whey, lemon juice, honey, salt, and some raisins.  Cover and let sit on the counter for 2-4 days, checking for bubbles (good) and skimming off any moldy bits (bad) daily.  It should smell a little like beer once it gets going and look like the photo below.

IMG_3642For secondary fermentation, strain the kvass through cheesecloth and pour into a 2-liter bottle.  Add a few raisins to bottle.  Seal the cap and let sit for a few days.  Fermentation will build up inside the bottle.  When the raisins float to the top, it will be done.  Refrigerate and use as a drink sweetened with more honey, or as a delicious cold soup stock.

IMG_3664Okroshka (Cold Rye Vegetable Soup)

Serves 4.

Similar to the borscht recipe above, add chopped vegetables to a quart of cold rye kvass.  Since this is a clear soup, don’t add beets or the color will be ruined. Season with a bit of and a healthy dose of dill pickle juice, whole grain mustard, salt, and parsley.

There are as many versions of this soup as there are Russians.  Sandor Katz offers a version with potatoes and turnips in addition to the apples and cucumbers, but I’m not sure I like the texture of potatoes in cold broth because they are softer than the crisp apples and tend to taste merely waterlogged to me. I might try a version that is only cold cooked veg, though: yellow or chioggia beets, tiny waxed potatoes, tiny turnips, steamed Dutch round carrots. Several recipes call for the addition of chopped fermented dill pickles, a brilliant touch if you ask me.

In any case, the soup is even better with more dill and sour cream mixed in.

Oh, and one more.  I already posted my cold melon and cucumber soup made with kvass recipe here, but for sake of completeness…

Melon Cucumber Soup with Shiso

Serves 6.

  • 1 honeydew or other pretty green-fleshed melon
  • 3-4 medium pickling cucumbers or one firm, medium-sized cucumber
  • 1/2 cup kvass
  • 1/2 stale dinner roll or a slice of white bread
  • a pinch or two of salt
  • 1/4 cup any chopped green or banana pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons tarragon
  • 5-6 green shiso (perilla) leaves, plus more for garnish, optional
  • crème fraîche for garnish, optional

Wash and peel melon, cut into chunks.  Peel and seed cucumber only if using one of those grocery store kinds with leathery skin and big seeds.  Tear bread into pieces and soak in kvass.  Add to food processor bowl or blender melon, chunks of cucumber, kvass/bread, salt, peppers, tarragon, and shiso.  Blend until as smooth as possible.  You might try pressing through a food mill or chinois after this step, if you and your guests are fancy.

Refrigerate for several hours, up to overnight but not more, to blend flavors.  Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a chiffonade of shiso in each bowl.

cool as a melon cucumber soup

IMG_5304I’m really into cold soups this summer.  It’s like mainlining vegetables.  And my latest love, kvass (yes, yes, a recipe soon forthcoming, I promise), is making them all the better.  Kvass, a fermented drink made from bread, beets, or fruits, sours up a sweet soup and gives it depth.

This melon-cucumber soup, when done with a meltingly ripe melon from Eastern Oregon, will be too sweet, so you need the balancing agents: kvass, cucumber, green pepper, salt.  Be careful with your garden cucumbers — they can be bitter in this hot, dry weather.  Taste each one before using.

Shiso is an herb everyone should grow, both the green and purple kinds.  Its flavor is a little like basil, a little like tarragon, a little like holy basil, a little like mint.  The purple stuff provides a great dye for pickles, and dried, produces a traditional topping for Japanese rice.  The green stuff can be salted to preserve and used fresh on seafood and, as you shall see, in cold soups.

Melon Cucumber Soup with Shiso

Serves 6.

  • 1 honeydew or other pretty green-fleshed melon
  • 3-4 medium pickling cucumbers or one firm, medium-sized cucumber
  • 1/2 cup kvass, should you be lucky enough to have it, or hefeweizen or other light-flavored beer
  • 1/2 stale dinner roll or a slice of white bread
  • a pinch or two of salt
  • 1/4 cup any chopped green or banana pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons tarragon
  • 5-6 green shiso (perilla) leaves, plus more for garnish, optional
  • crème fraîche for garnish, optional

Wash and peel melon, cut into chunks.  Peel and seed cucumber only if using one of those grocery store kinds with leathery skin and big seeds.  Tear bread into pieces and soak in kvass.  Add to food processor bowl or blender melon, chunks of cucumber, kvass/bread, salt, peppers, tarragon, and shiso.  Blend until as smooth as possible.  You might try pressing through a food mill or chinois after this step, if you and your guests are fancy.

Refrigerate for several hours, up to overnight but not more, to blend flavors.  Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a chiffonade of shiso in each bowl.

from russia with love: zakuski party

IMG_3664When we think of Russia, we think frozen tundra, right?  Fur muffs, velvet, vodka to stay warm, mushrooms, ice fishing, big bearlike men with frost in their beards, hunkering down in a sleigh, etc.  But Russia in the summer flowers open and bloom, just as Oregon does, and Russians swiftly adjust to a lighter palate in the heat, just as we do.

Thus, it should be no surprise that there are wonderful specialties, all inflected with that particularly Russian kaleidoscope of assertive flavors.  One of these is okroshka, a mixed-vegetable cold soup based on the fermented rye beverage called kvass (pictured below).  There are as many version of okroshka as there are Russians; after making kvass earlier this month, I knew I’d have to try an adaptation of Sandor Katz’s recipe in Wild Fermentation, with apple, new potatoes, baby turnips, spring onion, cucumber, carrot and dill (above).

IMG_3596So what better way than to have a casual zakuski party?  Zakuski are small plates, served up as a buffet, usually as a prelude to a larger meal. Pickled and fermented foods are crucial: sweet-sour beets, sauerkraut salad, marinated herring, half-sour pickles, caviar.  And it’s not a Russian party if there isn’t sour cream — I made do with my homemade crème fraîche.  We suffer.  There are usually hot and cold dishes among the variety. But it was a summer night and time was short, so we went with cold salads, smoked fish, and the lovely okroshka.  Vodka cocktails and a dense chocolate cake with brandied cherries made by my fabulous neighbor bookended the meal.

IMG_3666IMG_3670And yes, my bowls do say “Hustle Cat.”  Translated in Russian, it means “Only The Finest China Used Here.”  I’ll drink to that.

Zakuski Party Menu

  • Black Cherry Vodka Shrub Spritzers
  • Half sour cucumber pickles and California wine-marinated kalamata olives
  • Okroshka cold kvass soup with apple
  • Dilled tiny new potato salad
  • Sweet-sour marinated beets
  • Sauerkraut and carrot salad
  • Creamy marinated herring
  • Lox
  • Crab and roe spread (thanks, Ikea!)
  • Bread from Noisette Pastry Kitchen
  • White Bordeaux, French rosé of some sort, Beaujolais, another bottle of red? It grows hazy at this point.
  • Chocolate cake with brandied cherries
  • Port