Here’s a bite-sized dish to kick-off the holiday season in style! This very Russian combination seamlessly mixes poor and rich man’s ingredients, with potato and brains on one hand, and king crab and sturgeon caviar on the other. It’s not the first time I’ve paired crab and caviar (see here), and I’ve also posted recipes for pork brains and veal brains before. Combining the brains with crab, however, proves to be particularly successful, resulting in a creamy mixture that’s both delicious and approachable — the brains are nearly unrecognizable.
This makes for a great amuse-bouche with a drink before dinner. It’s just salty enough to make you thirsty, and rich enough to help you absorb the alcohol. And so you won’t be mistaken, this is to be consumed with moderation: after excluding water content, almost 50% of both pork brains and caviar is fat. And I won’t even talk about the potato chips and butter…
I’ve been using natural wood for grilling shashlyks and other kebabs for quite a while now (I explained the process in my lyulya-kebab recipe post). The wood smoke certainly imparts some flavor, but the relatively short cooking time of a kebab means that the exposure, especially on an open grill, isn’t sufficient to achieve the same results as, say, traditional American barbecue. While I don’t want to turn my meat into something that only smells like smoke, I’ve been searching for some middle ground.
Looking at other smoked products, there’s one prominent example where tradition turned to a different combustible, more for reasons of availability than flavor in the beginning: Scotch whisky. You might not think of Scotch as a smoked product, and yet… Historically, peat was used in places where it was the only consistent source of fuel, such as Islay. The peat smoke would permeate the malted barley drying in the kilns, and the flavor of the whiskies produced owed so much to that smoke that distilleries retained the practice even after technology rendered it no longer necessary. The aroma of burning peat is so intense in fact that it’s called peat-reek. You can read more about the influence of peat on whisky here.
This is all well and good, but this is a Russian food blog, not a Scottish food blog. But wait — aren’t there other parts of the world that have peat?
Although my last ice-fishing trip brought back 100 yellow perch, some of them were smaller than others, to put it mildly. Once the heads, tails, skin, and bones were removed, I often ended up with fillets the size of my pinky. Lots of them. So just as when I made fish cutlets in a recent post, I decided to call my blender to the rescue once again, and make a fish mousse.
Since this is a Russian food blog, I had a good idea of the flavors I wanted to pair with the fish:
- Buckwheat. I must say I’m very happy with this buckwheat puff pastry. I’m sure I didn’t invent it (a quick Googling shows a handful of matches), but it really tastes quite good.
- Eggplant and parsley. You might recall a previous eggplant caviar recipe of mine, but this one is different, as the vegetables are 100% eggplant and I use gelatine to hold it together before sprinkling it with chopped parsley.
- Dill. In Russia, the dish would probably have called for an entire bunch of dill. Here I’m just adding a little bit in my whipped cream rosettes. You could also try skipping the dill cream and adding the dill directly to the terrine instead.
Back in February, I wrote about Cognitive Cooking, a project that I work on at IBM wherein computers help humans create flavorful, never-seen before recipes, such as this Baltic apple pie or this Russian beet salad. We’ve been quite busy since then, and our prototype, renamed Chef Watson, is getting ready for prime time. We released our first beta of the application to the public about a month ago, in partnership with Bon Appetit magazine. You can read all about it here, and register here.
One Chef Watson creation that’s drawn a fair amount of attention is the Bengali butternut BBQ sauce, a recipe that we designed just before the IBM food truck went to SXSW. But we actually tested two recipe ideas back then at the Institute of Culinary Education. The second one, a Russian sour cherry sauce, was never completed because we decided to go with the first one, but I still felt that it could be a great recipe with a little more tweaking of the proportions. Plus, it fits this blog’s theme perfectly! So I worked on a few more batches myself.
As we’ve eaten our way through the deer I killed last fall, I’ve started cooking some of the backstraps, those beautiful 20+-inch-long pieces of loin. I’m thrilled to say that this is without a doubt the best venison steak I’ve ever eaten, and it has totally justified spending three days in a tree strand. The meat is both pleasantly gamy and butter-tender, thus surpassing beef filet mignon. And unlike restaurant servings that often consist of one tiny little medallion, for once quality comes with quantity!
Summer may just have started, but read this post again in a month when the temperature hits 100 F and your AC breaks down. Imagine yourself in your mythical Russian dacha in the fall. After a fructuous hunt some previous day, you decide to hit the woods again to look for mushrooms after last night’s storm, and fill a basket within a few hours. You happen to walk by a cranberry bush on your way home, and fill another basket, patting yourself on the back for never leaving the house without two empty baskets. Before going into the kitchen, you stop in your garden, where, of course, you always grow beautiful red beets. And you still have potatoes from the last harvest. Skipping the part where you milk the cow, you collect the cream and make butter, you contemplate nature’s bounty as you pause between two chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you notice, almost in passing, that you now have all the ingredients for a dish that combines the five tastes: steak that will be properly seasoned with salt, a beet-cranberry purée that’s acidic, bitter, and sweet at the same time, and umami-packed mushrooms.
When I posted about my recent yellow perch frenzy on Lake Ontario, I forgot to mention one important fact that connects my ice fishing endeavors to the theme of this blog: yellow perch is closely related to the European perch, which is very popular with anglers in Eastern Europe.
In kitchens back in Mother Russia, perch is often smoked, fried, baked, or boiled, and served with all kinds of vegetables and mushrooms. It’s often the fish of choice for making ukha, a Russian fish soup that’s almost as thin as a broth.
Since I’m spending a week at the IBM food truck for the SXSW festival in Austin and don’t have a kitchen to work on my own recipes, let’s turn to Watson to make us something. (If you wonder what a food truck created by IBM looks like in the field, check out this article and video on Engadget.)
When I introduced the Cognitive Cooking technology, I explained how computers could be creative, and create novel and tasty recipes. It’s worth noting that rather than making all the decisions by itself, our technology engages in a dialog with the users, with repeated back-and-forth interactions between people and the computer. Yes, a machine can be creative, but more importantly, it can help humans be more creative themselves.
The Russian beet salad that James Briscione created is a great example. We started with beet as the main ingredient, and naturally chose Russian cuisine for inspiration, due to beets’ long association with Eastern European cuisine. James decided to make a salad, because this was sufficiently vague that he could have more flexibility in the preparation and the plating. The system came back with the following list of ingredients: beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, parsley, red wine vinegar, butter, white beans, pickles, prunes, black pepper (no margarine this time ;)). Sure enough, these were all very Russian. But did they really all go well together? We certainly hadn’t seen a salad quite like this anywhere else.
Many of you have probably noticed by now that this is a Russian food blog. But it never hurts to state the obvious once in a while. And to drive my point home, I just bought russianfoodblog.com (note to Google: it spells Russian food blog).
So from now on, and until I get tired of spending my money on not-quite-random-yet-not-quite-necessary domain names, you can access all the contents of this blog using russianfoodblog.com. Like my About page: russianfoodblog.com/about/. Or my reviews of Russian restaurants: russianfoodblog.com/category/restaurants/russian-cuisine/.
Let’s go through the recent posts that truly make this blog a Russian food blog, the Russian food blog, the blog of the Russian food…
Two and a half years after publishing my recipe for baked paskha (one of my first blog entries!), I finally posted my kulich last week. So you can now prepare the two traditional Russian desserts for Orthodox Easter — or any other day you feel like having them, of course.
Once again, Orthodox Easter came and went, and I didn’t have the time to finish my kulich recipe on time. At least now I’ll have it ready for next year!
A kulich is a kind of Easter bread, somewhat similar to a panettone, but usually denser. Just as with panettone, you’ll find many different recipes with varying degrees of richness. On one end of the spectrum, the more bigoted recipes consider it sacrilegious to have too much of a good thing, and therefore result in something that’s still close to plain bread and pretty dry. On the other end, the better recipes from the most reputable sources tend to resort to common tricks for achieving sinful dessert decadence: push the amount of butter to stratospheric levels, and liberally add more egg yolks, more sugar, more fruits.
My rendition belongs, of course, to the latter category. It distinguishes itself by the variety of dried and candied fruits I’ve chosen, to reflect the diversity found on Russian markets, and by the use of saffron, in accordance with traditional kulich recipes that recommend the use of a dominant spice (other possibilities include cardamon and cloves). I also serve it with a rum-raisin crème anglaise.