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?
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.
On the heels of yet another recent trip to Pulaski, I went fishing with Captain Troy and came back home with two walleye. Walleye is the North American cousin of European pike-perch, a species found throughout Eastern Europe in places such as the basins of the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. And so, my catch begged for an Eastern European recipe, such as… fritto misto.
Just like picking fruit and making preserves, gathering mushrooms and marinating them is a Russian classic. The weekend pastime harkens back to a time when communist citizens were free from the dictatorship of consumerism and social networks, and Muscovites could enjoy the simple comforts of their suburban datchas without spending hours in traffic jams and taking out half a dozen bank loans.
This recipe is loosely adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table. I like my marinated mushrooms with a relatively low level of acidity so I can still taste the mushrooms. The downside is that the brine probably isn’t suited for long-term preservation, so be sure to eat them all within a few days. Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to see me using wild mushrooms. Porcini work great, and can be coupled with other spring vegetables. Chanterelles are equally suitable, and it seems that they’re available year-round nowadays, most likely as imports from all corners of the world.
So spring is here (sort of — it was still 35 F in upstate New York yesterday). While I still have dozens of yellow perch from a recent ice fishing trip, I’m starting to see spring vegetables here and there. As the freezer must be emptied and the vegetables consumed in the name of seasonality, I wanted to create a dish to celebrate the transition from winter to spring.
By now, you have doubtlessly made pounds and pounds of the Imeretian cheese I blogged about earlier this week. You must be wondering “oh, what to do with all this delicious cheese?” Brush aside all the fuss about seasonal cooking, and try this very simple salad, one of the simplest posts on my entire blog! The dish is inspired by something I found in Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book; I only found the one recipe interesting. But this salad tastes great, and uses typically Georgian ingredients.
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.
I recently adapted a recipe for Jarred Salmon In Olive Oil from a Russian cookbook titled Pro Okhotu I Rybalku [Of hunting and fishing]. Here’s another idea I yanked from this book: adding pork fat to fish to make burger patties. Although I’m using salmon today, you could choose almost any fish you like.
The rest of the recipe is my own invention: baked tomato halves for additional juiciness, a kind of bean ketchup (with a lot of olive oil to balance the beans’ dry mouthfeel), and potato buns. There will be a recipe coming for my homemade potato buns very soon, but in the meantime you’ll have to cope with the store-bought ones that don’t taste like potato (because they contain nearly as much food coloring as potato flour) and are pre-cut in a less than optimal fashion (see my picture above). On the side, whole fingerling potatoes are deep-fried exactly as for the perfect fries, and topped with fried parsley. The result isn’t quite as crispy as real fries because of the lower starch content of the fingerlings, but is still rather excellent.
Kutabs are among the most popular Azeri dishes, together with plov, dolma, and of course kebabs (kebabs being a distant first: virtually the only meal you’ll ever eat in a restaurant outside of Baku). A kutab — not to be confused with kutap — is essentially a lavash filled with savory stuffing while still raw, then folded in half and pan-fried. It is often served with a sprinkling of sumac on top, a red spice which imparts a lemony note.
Classic lamb kutab, as served at Mugam Club in Baku
The most common kutab fillings are ground lamb and greens, with the occasional cheese or winter squash, but you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as the layer of stuffing remains quite thin. In addition to the four above-mentioned classics, all of which I’m presenting here with some personal tweaks, I’ve also created two new “signature” kutabs.
My first new kutab uses foie gras and pomegranate in a nod to all the Brooklyn restaurants that feature the fattened duck liver on their menus for no apparent reason other than it’s expensive and French. Baku Palace serves kutabs and foie gras as separate dishes, so why not put them together?
The second contains actual duck meat. I recently posted a duck breast kebab, and now you can use the legs (and the wings if you’d like) to make a kutab. Then you’ve got the whole bird turned into an Azeri dinner for 4!
But first, is it varenyky or vareniki? Well, it depends. The Russian word, вареники, should be transliterated as vareniki. But since this is in fact a Ukrainian dish, it makes sense to transliterate the Ukrainian word instead. And the Ukrainian word is… вареники. Even if you can’t read Cyrillic, you probably noticed the two are spelled the same. But they’re not pronounced the same. The Ukrainian и is similar to the Russian ы, hence the transliteration with y’s. Big deal.