Vepřo-knedlo-zelo — literally “pork-dumpling-cabbage” — is Czech Republic’s national dish, but you’ve probably never heard of it. Maybe because the dish name contains of the most difficult to pronounce letters known to mankind (the ř, affectionately called a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill in linguistics circles, is apparently shared only with the Kobon language of Papua New Guinea).
Or it could just be that most of the time, there’s really nothing about this dish to wax lyrical about. In many restaurants, you’re likely to receive dry slices of roasted pork, a heap of plain, soupy cabbage, and enough bread dumplings to smother you to death, even when there’s no sauce to mop up with them.
Let’s try to make things a little bit more interesting…
On my way to Moldova this past summer, I decided to brave the Russian bureaucracy (the eternal visa schemes) and traffic jams (2 hours from Sheremetyevo Airport) to spend one evening in Moscow. To make it count, I looked for restaurants serving cuisine that I was unlikely to eat anywhere else in the foreseeable future — this excluded the many Georgian and Uzbek joints. I found a small handful of Kazakh and Tatar restaurants, but the place that captured my attention served Buryat cuisine.
Located in the former space of an iconic Soviet jazz club, restaurant Selenge calls itself a Buryat-Mongolian restaurant. The Republic of Buryatia is an area of Russia that borders Mongolia, and indeed their two cuisines are very similar — one difference being that Buryats prepare several dishes with Baikal omul. The food at Selenge was a bit uneven, but one of the better dishes we tried was the buuzy, a local variation on Mongolia’s national dumpling.
Although I’ve already posted plov recipes here and here, I wanted to go back to a more canonical version that I could submit on Ingredient Matcher. A plov that’s very traditional in its ingredients, and at the same time easy enough to prepare. No sous-vide lamb, no need to kill your own turkey, and no useless rituals à la Stalik.
A cousin of pilaf and pulao, plov (also called osh) is the national dish of Uzbekistan, and to a certain degree, Tajikistan. Almost every region has its own version, even if the differences can be quite subtle sometimes. Tashkent plov, for example, is made with yellow carrots, and can be served with kazy, horse sausage. The bases are more or less invariable, though. Expect all or a subset of the following: carrots, onions, garlic, currants, chickpeas, lamb, and a fair amount of animal fat. And of course, the essential Uzbek spices, cumin and coriander.
Tajikistan claims mainly two national dishes: plov (aka osh), and qurutob. While plov is more famous and is also the national dish of neighboring Uzbekistan, qurutob is specifically Tajik.
Tajik culinary literature is pretty scarce. Pan-Soviet cookbooks typically included a short section about Tajikistan, a handful of booklets must have been published with very small circulations in Dushanbe in the early 1990′s, and a few bloggers have posted recipes here and there. But overall, with Tajikistan being one of the poorest countries in the world — and with its independence immediately followed by many years of civil war — circumstances haven’t encouraged such recreational endeavors as cookbooks.
Shashlyk po-karski (Kars-style shashlyk) is a rather mysterious dish. Every time I’ve ordered it in restaurants, I’ve been served either a rack of lamb or individual grilled lamb chops. What made either version specifically from Kars, a Turkish town that once belonged to medieval Armenia? Why not call it chalakhach, another dish of mysterious origins that seems to consist of grilled lamb chops?
Pokhlebkin sheds some light and gives a pretty different definition of the dish — and unlike Brighton Beach restaurant owners, he was a food historian. In his essential Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, he explains what distinguishes a shashlyk po-karski from other kebabs:
- The dish requires round chunks of lamb loin of similar shapes, each weighing about a pound.
- The marinade is different from what you use in Georgian mtsvadi (Georgian kebabs tend to be minimally marinated).
- The shashlyk is cooked progressively, and thin pieces are cut off the outside while the rest keeps grilling.
This still doesn’t explain why Kars Armenians decided all of a sudden to invent this Turkish-sounding dish, but I think I have a theory.
Labor Day’s already over, a week behind us, and you probably think you’re done with barbecues until next year. You’ve spent the past two (three?) months reluctantly pigging out with wrinkled beef franks and shoe-sole patties prepared by self-proclaimed Grill Masters who swear by their kerosene-soaked charcoal briquettes. You’ve hung out in 100+ temperatures next to a burning hot charcoal fire when you could have been inside sitting in front of the AC. You’ve guzzled all the mediocre beverages that marketing campaigns have disguised as summer drinks just because they need to be served ice-cold (I’m looking at you, Provence rosé).
There is a better barbecue life out there, and it’s not too late! And no, I’m not talking about tailgating season.
When I published my recipes for lángos and goulash sauce, I promised that these were the building blocks for more complex dishes. The wait is now over, as today I present my own version of Korzo Haus‘ famous Korzo Burger.
The Village Voice elected Korzo Haus “Best Burger Joint of 2011.” Now, thanks to Food Perestroika, you can reproduce and improve upon this Eastern European take on the most emblematic of American dishes. Yes, now you can make your own artery-clogging beef patty wrapped in fried dough, away from the over-gentrified East Village and in the comfort of your home. All you need is a little bit of time on your hands…
For as long as I’ve been reviewing restaurants, I’ve been complaining about the mediocrity of their Beef Stroganoff: “the filet mignon was chewy, cooked beyond well done”, “another example of how to transform an expensive and tender cut of beef (the tenderloin) into shoe sole”, “the overabundant mushroom sauce had the gooey texture of something made with a store-bought mix”, “the leftovers sit unclaimed in our fridge”. While some restaurants have fared a bit better (here and here), I felt like I should give my own version to justify my criticisms and prove that yes, you can make a good Beef Stroganoff, and it’s not even that hard.
At long last, my Latvian hare trio is complete! I started this project when I discovered those mysterious recipes for hare cheese. If you run an internet search for hare cheese in English, Russian, or Latvian, you probably won’t find much; for one thing, you won’t see a single picture. This in itself required further investigation.
Because I don’t spend my time dining on wild Scottish hare from D’artagnan, and because my own attempt at hare hunting could easily replace “wild goose chase” in proverbial parlance, it took me a couple of years to reach a point where I was satisfied with my result. Early on, it became clear to me that a whole hare yielded way too much hare cheese, and so I looked for other dishes of Latvian inspiration that could use hare. In particular, I determined that cooking the leg meat in fat ensures that it doesn’t get dry, and hare loin really shouldn’t be cooked more than medium-rare.
This curious dish — which has very little to do with actual cheese — was actually what first motivated me to start my Latvian Hare Trio. The final result may look like a traditional pâté, but the preparation is quite different. Lesley Chamberlain’s Food and Cooking of Russia and Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples both contain fairly similar instructions: take a hare, roast it, braise it, grind it, then cook an omelette, grind it, and mix everything together with mushrooms and butter before baking in a dish, optionally wrapped in pastry.
I found that the result of this procedure had an unpleasantly dry mouthfeel, so I made several changes to improve it. In particular, cooking the leg meat as a confit was a big improvement, and it made little sense to use the precious hare loins. I also got rid of the bizarre ground omelette and used raw eggs to bind the forcemeat like a normal person. Finally, the onion jam and cornichons bring welcome touches of sweetness and acidity.