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?
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen some recent tweets about my upcoming talk on the Future of Food at TED@IBM. One of themes I’ll be discussing is food waste, and how recipe-generating Chef Watson can help. About 1/3 of the food produced worldwide is wasted, and consumers have their share of responsibility. According to a recent article on Yahoo, the five most wasted foods at home are sour cream, produce (especially celery), fresh herbs (like parsley and cilantro), citrus, and bread. So I decided to give Chef Watson a spin. I tried to input all five ingredients and create something with a Russian influence. The system offered me a few options. Crostini was probably the most straightforward dish to use large amounts of these ingredients, but sandwiches and burgers seemed more creative to me. I went for the awkwardly named “Russian celery, parsley, lemon juice, sour cream and bread” burger.
Chef Watson got back to me with ideas that were both inspiring and slightly puzzling. I have to admit some of the ingredients aren’t all that quintessentially Russian. Fennel and olives, really? That might make sense in Bulgaria, but much less so in Russia. However, a) all the ingredients go really well together, b) I can live with a Russian-Bulgarian burger, and c) there are indeed many Russian elements: the tomatoes, pickles, sour cream, rye bread, and veal. Besides, all in all, this is a really good burger.
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.
During deer hunting season last fall, when Huntsman Stan mentioned that he’d had a success rate of 100% during the 2013 spring turkey season, I was a bit skeptical. I’ve seen firsthand how hard it can be to find those gobblers and bring them into gun range, and yet there was Stan, telling me he guided for turkey in multiple states for three whole months, and got at least one bird with every single one of his clients.
I had to find out for myself if he could really pull that off, or if he was just bragging. So the first weekend in May, off I went, all the way up to Pulaski for the fourth time in the last eight months (read about my previous jaunts here, here, and here). Guess how it went:
Some readers may remember the tourtière du lac from M. Wells Steakhouse, a debauchery of game meat encased in pie crust that fits quite well with my somewhat idealized conception of Eastern European cuisine — the one wherein everyone hunts for their own food, and then spends their days making excessive yet elaborate recipes overflowing with meat, root vegetables, rich sauces, and pie crust.
As much as I loved the idea, I was a little disappointed that the various meats in M. Wells’ version were hard to distinguish from one another and suggested offering fewer meats, with variations on texture instead. Putting my money where my mouth is, I started working on my own venison-centric version.
I’ve already posted recipes for goose sausages, lake trout sausages, salmon sausages (with beef fat). With two deer in the freezer, venison sausages were the natural thing to do next, and I might very well come up with more than one version. Today’s venison sausages are made with beets.
Beets contain a flavor compound called geosmin that’s responsible for their earthy taste. In fact, the word geosmin comes from “earthy smell” in Greek. This is the same compound that you find in red wine with earthy notes, and fish with a muddy taste (more on this here). I couldn’t find a list of the flavor compounds in venison, but in my sausages, the smell from the beets serves as a subtle reminder of the deer’s natural habitat. While you can’t really pinpoint the beet flavor in the final product, you do taste something that complements the flavorful venison meat.
A whole deer, even if you keep the backstraps and legs whole, yields a lot of ground meat, mostly from the neck and the belly. This is nothing to worry about: these are the perfect cuts to make burgers. All you need is a good repertoire of burger recipes. And of course, if you don’t like venison, ground beef from your favorite butcher or CSA (what, you don’t have a CSA???) will do.
I’ve already blogged about Bohemian Venison Burgers and Hungarian Lángos Goulash Burgers. This time, I’m doing a Polish / Belarusian / Ukrainian version. Hey, with enough deer meat, I might post one burger recipe for each country of the Eastern Bloc!
Back when I wrote of my adventures in wild Abkhazia, I talked about shashlyk, spices, cheese, honey, and wine. And of course lodochka (aka Adjaran khachapuri). But there can be more to Abkhazian cuisine. Some time ago, I published a recipe for Honey Cake Gagra with Mandarin and Black Tea. Here is another original recipe that combines many local flavors into a more elaborate dish.
- Yes, there are deer in Abkhazia. I even remember that the driver who picked us up at the Ingur border was a hunter. I suppose that people have got to find a use for all their guns, now that they’ve (sort of) got their independence!
- The idea for a blackberry sauce comes from a sadly unidentified Abkhazian cookbook, though the recipe below is mostly adapted from Michel Roux’s Sauces. I believe the Abkhazian version contained garlic and adjika; I’m keeping it for another time.
- The cheese polenta is called abista in Abkhazian. In Georgian it would be called elardji (it’s particularly popular in Mingrelia). The cornmeal is traditionally white, but yellow polenta works just as well. If you don’t have the courage to make your own cheese, and don’t have a Russian supermarket in your area, you can substitute mozzarella for the sulguni.
After the debacle of 2012’s deer hunting season, when I spent 3 days on a tree stand and 3 nights in a tent in the middle of the Adirondacks without seeing a single deer or bear, and eventually rushed back home to NYC on deserted roads moments before Superstorm Sandy hit the shores… I needed a better plan for 2013.
I thought I was all set once I convinced huntsman Wayne to take me to a property on the Finger Lakes, a top deer-producing area in New York State, but fate decided otherwise. Only two months away from opening weekend, I suddenly found myself with no plans, no doe permits, and limited options…
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 one 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…