The Food Perestroika Manifesto

When I started this blog over two years ago, I never took the time to write a mission statement. So I’ll kick off 2013 by fixing this. Here is the Food Perestroika manifesto! I’m also adding it to my About page.

The word perestroika may be forever associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformation movement in the late eighties, but in Russian, it simply means reconstruction. To understand what it is that needs to be rebuilt, I suggest we start with a brief look at culinary history in the former Eastern Bloc.

Food Perestroika Manifesto

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Salad Olivier

After my recent complaints about the lack of originality of Onegin‘s salad Olivier, I figured I would bring my humble contribution to this Russian salad’s already extensive literature.

Salad Olivier can contain many ingredients, but it is at its core a potato salad with a variety of vegetables and proteins, bound by mayonnaise. It was invented in the second half of the 19th century by Chef Lucien Oliver at the restaurant Hermitage in Moscow. Although the recipe was secret, there are many versions circulating, with possible seasonal variations. Here’s one from the site of the School of Russian and Asian Studies:

Olivier Salad (“Tsarist” version)

This early recipe for Olivier salad, prepared during the height of the Hermitage restaurant’s
popularity (this recipe was written out in 1904, according to the description of one of the
restaurant’s frequent customers):

2 boiled game hens
1 boiled veal tongue
Approx 100 grams of black caviar
200 grams of fresh lettuce leaves
25 boiled crayfish or one large lobster
200-250 grams of small gherkins
Half a can of “soy kabul” (soy paste)
2 thinly sliced fresh cucumbers
100 grams of capers
5 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs

  • Provencal Sauce: beat 400 grams of olive oil with two egg yolks until light and smooth, then add French vinegar and mustard
  • Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in the Provencal Sauce.

In A Gift to Young Housewives, Elena Molokhovets gives a very vague recipe:

Take various cooked meats: game of wild fowl; veal or beef; or boiled fish such as sturgeon,
pike or salmon.

There follows a long procession of ingredients, from cucumbers to sauerkraut, mixed with diced potatoes in a mustard sauce. This may be a lot of ingredients for a single salad, but a) that was true about the original, too, and b) the refinement was still there.

Then things started to go downhill for Mr. Olivier’s signature dish. As it transitioned from decadent high-end restaurant dish to housewives’ meal, ingredients were drastically simplified. Limited ingredient availability in the Soviet Union would go on to further aggravated the matter, turning the salad into an assembly of mostly factory-produced food items. Here’s another recipe from the site of the School of Russian and Asian Studies:

Olivier Salad (“Soviet” version)

Ingredients used in equal amounts
Potatoes (boiled and peeled)
Canned green peas
Hard-boiled eggs

  • Chop up all the ingredients into small cubes. Mix in mayonnaise. Add fresh dill, salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I have to wonder what’s the scariest thing in this recipe: the canned peas that traumatized generations of children, the mystery meat bologna, or the fact that all ingredients, mayonnaise included, are used in equal amounts!

So! I wanted to create a recipe for special occasions that restored some of the splendor of the original, but without combining as many flavors. A lot of the original elements have been preserved: a full-flavored bird (a whole duck), some seafood (my favorite king crab legs), a mayo made with mustard and olive oil, and of course diced potatoes. The proportions are well balanced so that you can taste each of them. Looking back at the result now, I’m thinking I could push the envelope a little bit more by adding sautéed cubes of foie gras…

While there are a lot of steps in this recipe, each of them is easy. Since I’m using a whole duck, chances are you will not get the exact amounts of breast, legs and thighs specified below, which is fine. You can prepare the duck confit one or two days ahead, but I would try to time the breast to finish cooking just a bit before service. The rest of the salad can be assembled a few hours beforehand. The smoked salt I’m using is the Yakima applewood smoked salt by Artisan Salt Co.

Duck fabrication
Yields 6 servings + rendered fat and stock

1 duck, about 6 lb

  • Separate the wings and legs from the carcass, and reserve. Cut the breast from the carcass, trim the extra fat, and reserve.
  • You can render the extra duck fat and freeze it, and use the carcass and the neck to make duck stock.

Duck confit
Yields 6 servings

duck legs and wings (about 2 lb)
0.5 % curing salt
1.5 % smoked salt
0.25 % fennel pollen
0.5 g black pepper
1 thinly sliced garlic clove

  • Weigh the duck legs and wings, and measure the above percentages of that weight in curing salt, smoked salt, and fennel pollen. (The amount of black pepper is so small that it is more practical to measure it in grams.) Season the meat with the curing salt, smoked salt, fennel pollen, and black pepper. Place into sous-vide pouches with the garlic, and cook in a water bath at 171 F for 12 hours.
  • Let cool, then remove the skin and bones. Transfer the meat to a plastic container, add a couple tablespoons of liquid from the sous-vide pouches, and refrigerate.

Duck breast
Yields 6 servings

duck breast (about 1 1/4 lb)
1.5 % smoked salt
black pepper, ground
1 1/2 oz red wine
4 oz duck skin

  • Weigh the duck breast, and measure the above percentage of that weight in smoked salt. Cut a cross-hatch pattern on the skin of the duck breast, and sear in a very hot pan, skin side down, until brown and crispy. Remove from the pan, season with the smoked salt and black pepper, and place into a sous-vide pouch with the red wine and duck skin. Cook in a water bath at 136 F for 3 hours.
  • Let cool to room temperature and reserve.

King crab fabrication and crab oil
Yields 6 servings + some extra crab oil

2 lb cooked king crab legs, shell on
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp cognac (or Armenian brandy)
12 oz canola oil

  • Pick the meat from the crab legs and reserve in the refrigerator.
  • Cut the shell into small pieces, and sauté with the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the cognac and light with a match. Add the canola oil, simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let steep for another 15 minutes.
  • Pass through a chinois, let cool and reserve.

Yields 6 servings

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp mustard
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
6 oz crab oil
3 oz light olive oil

  • In a bowl, mix the egg yolk, mustard, salt, and piment d’espelette with a whisk.
  • Add the crab oil followed by the olive oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Refrigerate.

Potato salad
Yields 6 servings

4 1/2 oz frozen green peas
1 1/2 lb peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
6-7 tbsp mayonnaise
king crab meat
duck confit

  • Defrost the green peas in the refrigerator for a few hours.
  • Cook the potatoes in cold salted water for about 25 minutes, until done. Drain and let cool to room temperature.
  • Cut the potatoes into medium to large dice and adjust the seasoning. In a bowl, mix the potatoes with the peas and mayonnaise. Shred the crab meat and duck confit between your fingers, mix into the salad and refrigerate.

Yields 6 servings

Potato salad, taken out of the refrigerator 30 minutes in advance
6 eggs, hard-boiled and cooled to room temperature
duck breast, room temperature

  • Distribute the potato salad between the plates. Quarter the hard-boiled eggs and arrange around the salad.
  • Take the duck breast out of the sous-vide pouch, slice on a bias, and fan the slices on top of the salad, pouring a spoonful of cooking liquid on top of the meat on each plate.
  • Serve immediately.

Vodkas from the Vanished Empire

During my recent trip to France, I spent some time unearthing forgotten vodka bottles scattered across my parents’ apartment in every possible cabinet and closet. Most of these bottles, acquired in the late 80’s and early 90’s, have been gathering dust ever since, quite often because of the dubious nature of the spirits they contained. Here’s a selection…

Let’s start with the most venerable member of today’s collection: a bottle of Russkaya vodka, purchased in the Soviet Union circa 1985 by my late great-aunt. Despite the level having dropped somewhere behind the neck label, this vodka was still surprisingly drinkable. It’s possible that at the time, the actual proof of alcoholic beverages matched the 40% announced on the label (by 1990, you were getting something closer to 35%). For a little history, the Russkaya brand was created in the 60’s, and by the early 80’s the production and sales rose to an impressive 1.68 billion liters, apparently making it the highest-selling hard liquor in the world.

Next up, here’s a pretty rare vodka that was one of my favorites, Krepkaya, which means “strong”. It contained 56% alcohol, and the bottle suffered some severe evaporation. In my opinion, 60% alcohol is about the limit that separates liquors that provide a pleasant, warming sensation from booze that burns your throat. The Krepkaya brand doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but bottles of unknown provenance can still be purchased from U.K. websites like this one or this one. Notice the Beriozka store price tag on the bottle cap, which seems to have been changed multiple times, maybe to cope with inflation. Depending on the year it was bought, the 6.50 price could have been in rubles or in dollars.

We’ll now enter the world of flavored vodkas — and serious food coloring. Zubrovka was (and still is) flavored with bison grass, and is famous for giving wicked headaches (granted, it’s not the only one). To be precise, the flavoring comes from an alcoholic extract of Hierochloe odorata. While the better-known Polish version is much lighter in color, the Russian one is a suspicious yellow. You can see on the picture the label’s transition from USSR to Russia. Both were still very drinkable.

As far as coloring goes, Limonnaya vodka is certainly the worst offender. The laughably yellow beverage is a complex mix of alcohol, lemon oil, lemon peel, lime alcoholic extract, sugar syrup, and water. I’ve never found that the result met the expectations of the recipe (regardless of whether the current recipe is the same as 20 years ago), so I preferred pouring the bottle down the drain. Notice that at the time the label was printed, inflation was already galloping, and the price exceeded 15 rubles.

I also found a couple of faux aged spirits. Starka is a curious blend of alcohol, water, sugar, port, and “cognac” (i.e. Soviet brandy), infused with apple and pear leaves. Not bad but not really worth the trouble. The Streletskaya was a sweeter beverage whose exact composition I couldn’t tell. This was a rather obscure brand, and although the name is still in use, I’m not sure the recipe’s the same.

And now for something completely different! Here’s a bottle of balsam. If you think chartreuse is vile / brilliant, try balsam, and imagine shooting the whole bottle with one or two friends. One old friend of mine probably still has cocktail recipes mixing balsam and brake fluid. There are so many wicked plants in this abomination that the resulting spirit is nearly pitch black. The most famous kind is Riga Black Balsam from Latvia, but various other regions also produce their own. This ones comes from Karelia, and the label represents the Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi Pogost.

Finally, not quite from the Soviet Union but nearby, Orzechowka was an interesting Polish walnut cordial. Unlike many other Polish brands of the time, it is longer produced. The occasional bottles turn up, once again on U.K. websites like this one. But fear not! Former top-secret government courier Jack King has a recipe!

That’s all for now. If you’re looking for more Soviet paraphanelia of all kinds, check out this site, which has a very impressive collection of pictures!

Blueberry Jam

Blueberries are mostly found in North America, but their cousins, bilberries, are found all across Europe and are highly praised in berry-gathering, preserve-loving Russia. The Russian Wikipedia informs us that in 1964, Soviet Union issued a stamp representing bilberries, and the Great Soviet Encyclopedia mentions that bilberry juice can be used for the dubious purpose of coloring wine.

This blueberry jam is pretty low in added sugar — I find that many jam recipes are overly sweet. Try it with blini and tvorog!

Blueberry jam
Yields 1 pint

3 cups blueberries
1 tbsp lemon juice
5 g powdered pectin
12 oz sugar

  • Crush the berries with a hand blender or a food processor. Do not process too long, as you want to keep chunks. Add the berries and lemon juice to a saucepan, sprinkle the pectin and bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Add the sugar progressively, bring back to a boil, and boil for 1 minute. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, seal and process in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes.
  • Let cool for 30 minutes, refrigerate upside-down for 30 minutes, and flip.