Signature Russian Amuse-Bouche: Potato Chip, King Crab, Brains, and Caviar

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…

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Grilling with Peat, Russian Pork Shashlyks and Potato Lyulya-Kebabs

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?

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Venison Steak, Red Beet-Cranberry Purée, and Country Fried Potatoes

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.

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Potato Waffles with Salmon Roe and Goat Cheese

I was recently reading about potato waffles in Culinaire Saisonnier, and it sounded to me like an original, yet also forehead-slappingly obvious, alternative to potato pancakes. I started to picture a decadent waffle oozing with caviar, though down-to-earth material considerations soon had me downgrading to salmon roe. I wanted to transform the idea into a recipe quickly, instead of putting it in my to-do queue where it might have sat for years. This is also a good recipe for Valentine’s Day, your last big excuse to overindulge until next fall’s holiday season!

Salmon Roe and Potato Waffle

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Tokaji-Cured Lake Trout and Mozzarella-Potato Pancakes

About two years ago, I posted a recipe for vodka-cured lake trout. Since I once again find myself with a profusion of trout — this time from Lake Ontario — I wanted to try a different kind of alcohol cure. (Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to compare the bright orange color of the Ontario fish to the pale pink-beige shade of the trout from Keuka Lake.)

Unlike the vodka cure, Hungarian Tokaji wine brings some subtle fruity notes to the fish. I’m not using just any Tokaji table wine, but an Aszú 4 puttonyos to get the right amount of sugar. However, I highly doubt that anyone would taste the result and exclaim, “Wow, this trout really tastes like Tokaji!” So to make this more than a gimmick, I serve it with small cubes of Tokaji jelly — and wow, these cubes really taste like Tokaji!

Eastern European Cuisine - Tokaji-Cured Lake Trout and Mozzarella-Potato Pancakes

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Perfect Potato Buns: The Epic Quest

Potato BunsWhen I started working on the Salmon and Pork Belly Burger, I thought making a good potato bun would be a no-brainer. After half a dozen trials and several pounds of patties, I acknowledge the task was harder than it seemed.

Though I won’t name names, the commercial potato rolls I’ve looked at are a bit of joke, as they use about as much potato flour as yeast (understand: not a whole lot). Check the labels yourselves! The main ingredient is wheat flour, and food coloring does the rest. There aren’t any eggs either, so that oh-so-potatoey yellow color is 100% Yellow #5, or 6, or whatever.

Pictures of my first attempt would not speak highly of my baking skills. Whoever wrote the recipe at King Arthur Flour should try to eat their own dog food some day — the result tasted fine but was too heavy for a burger. Both Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and Further Adventures in Search of Perfection offer pretty similar recipes for regular, potato-free buns, but they each take over 24 hours. I understand the importance of flavor development when you work with yeast, but will one really taste a difference once the bun is sandwiching a flavorful patty, some cheese, and condiments? Especially with a potato bun? I’m not so sure. (Note: I tried, of course.)

Well, take THAT, messieurs Nathan Myhrvold and Heston Blumenthal! My potato bun, though inspired by your recipes, can be ready to eat in under 3 hours, and it tastes pretty damn good. Continue reading

Latvian Hare Trio, Part 2: Leg Confit, Potato Pancakes, Sauerkraut

After last week’s hare loin, this post features the hare legs with another group of typical Latvian winter flavors: potato, sauerkraut, and animal fat. The recipe is pretty short, because most of the work has been done during the hare preparation.

The only non-trivial element left is the potato pancakes. I’ve already talked about deruny here, but I’m taking a different approach today, simply slicing the potatoes and relying on the starch and salt to bind them all together.

Finally, if you want to make the dish a little bit healthier but still recognizably Latvian, you could prepare a wine reduction to drizzle on the meat, instead of the fat!

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Moldovan Turkey Gratin

It all started with Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine, a book that one might call obscure for rather obvious reasons: 1) it’s written in Russian, 2) it was published in Chișinău, and 3) I found it in a bookstore in Kiev. Overnight, I went from not knowing a single Moldovan dish to having at my disposal “500 ancient and contemporary recipes” — at least that’s what it says on the cover. I’m afraid that this sudden profusion of choices (many of which didn’t sound all that different from one another), plus the fact that the book contains no index or detailed table of contents, left me a little bit confused. I completed my reading with the vague notion that I should be trying a dish with turkey, pumpkin, and prunes, and labeling it as Moldovan…

Moldovan Cuisine - Turkey, Butternut Squash and Prune Gratin

So, there! My Moldovan turkey gratin is full of what appears to be quintessential Moldovan ingredients, and it’s layered and baked like a Moldovan moussaka. Moreover, for my American readers, it’s an instant Thanksgiving classic that doesn’t even require you to be able to spell / pronounce / locate Chișinău on a map — and if you can’t wait till next year, you can always prepare it for Christmas. This makes a sophisticated side for roasted turkey breast, or a whole bird minus one leg. Or you can easily adapt the recipe to use your leftovers.

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Varenyky, Ukrainian Ravioli

I’ve already posted a couple recipes for varenyky here and here, so I figured I’d come up with a third one — and write an entry with everything you’ll ever want to know about these Ukrainian ravioli.

Giant Pierogi - Glendon, Alberta

Picture courtesy of Fracture

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 sameThe Ukrainian и is similar to the Russian ы, hence the transliteration with y’s. Big deal.

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Cayuga Lake Salmon Burgers and Warm Potato Salad

A few weeks ago, we took another fishing trip with Fisherman John on Cayuga Lake, with the idea of spending one half-day focusing on carp, and another targeting landlocked salmon. The carp turned out to be too elusive for us to catch. We didn’t even see any, partly because of the chaotic weather this year — it was snowing the day before! The salmon fishing was going equally badly for the first 4 hours. I was starting to lose hope, when suddenly we got our first strike. Once the school was found, we promptly caught enough fish to feed our little family for a week, and even released a few, including the 25″ beauty you see on the picture.

Landlocked salmon are among the tastiest cold-water game fish one can catch in NY state, and the season lasts from ice-out through spring. In Cayuga Lake, they’re usually the same species as Atlantic salmon, but with a non-migratory life cycle. The flavor is similar to that of its sea cousins, but milder. The flesh is quite pale and turns almost white when cooked.

It came to me that while a burger made with beef requires a ground meat patty so that one can bite into it, a whole salmon fillet is tender enough that it doesn’t need to be ground. In fact, ground salmon often results in a dry or very fragile fish cake. This is why I’m using small portions of salmon fillet without additional processing. If purists object that it’s not a burger, then they can call it a hot sandwich!

I wanted to make a salmon burger that was easy enough to prepare, and of course with an Eastern European flavor — hence the warm potato salad, for one thing. The way I cook the salmon (on a plate, with butter, at a very low temperature) produces the best result. In my opinion this is even better than sous-vide, as it comes out slightly warmer and less soggy.

Potato salad
Yields 4 servings

18 oz peeled fingerling potatoes
salt
2 oz butter
8 oz thinly sliced onions
1.2 oz cornichons
2.2 oz crème fraiche
0.6 oz whole-grain mustard
4 tsp finely chopped chives

  • Place the potatoes in a pot with salted water, bring to a boil, and simmer until fully cooked. Drain, cut into large chunks, and reserve.
  • Melt the butter with a little bit of water in a small saucepan. Add the onions, cover, and cook over low heat for 30-40 minutes, until very soft, stirring regularly.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over high heat. Add the onions and the fat from the saucepan, then mix in the potatoes, and cook until golden brown, stirring constanly.
  • Transfer the potatoes and onions to a bowl, and let cool for 5 minutes. Dry the cornichons with a paper towel, and cut into a brunoise. In a plastic container, combine the crème fraiche, mustard, and cornichons, then mix into the bowl.
  • Serve immediately, with chopped chives sprinkle on top.

Salmon mousse
Yields about 8 servings

6 oz cleaned salmon fillet
1/4 tsp smoked salt
black pepper, ground
0.3 oz butter, sliced
2 oz heavy cream
0.5 oz lemon juice

  • Season the salmon with the smoked salt and black pepper, then place on a plate with the slices of butter spread on the top and bottom sides. Cover the plate with plastic wrap, and cook in a 200 F oven until medium-rare.
  • Transfer the salmon and any grease from the plate into a blender, add the cream and lemon juice, and process until smooth. Let cool and refrigerate.

Salmon burgers
Yields 4 servings

4 oz baby bok choy leaves
0.5 oz water
1.5 oz butter, sliced
salt
black pepper, ground
4 portions of cleaned salmon fillet, about 4 oz each, trimmed into an octagonal shape
4 brioche buns, about 3.5″ diameter
4 oz salmon mousse
2 oz cream cheese
2 tsp finely chopped chives

  • Place the baby bok choy leaves in a small saucepan with the water and 1/3 of the butter. Add some salt and pepper, cover with a lid, and cook over low heat until soft. Reserve.
  • Season the salmon with salt and pepper,  then place on a plate with the remaining slices of butter spread on the top and bottom sides. Cover the plate with plastic wrap, and cook in a 200 F oven until nearly done to your liking (I say nearly, because the fish will be finished in a frying pan). This will take between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the plate you’re using, the thickness of the fish, and the doneness you want to reach.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat, add the fat from the plate, and quickly sear the salmon on both sides.
  • Toast the brioche buns. Spread the bottom halves with salmon mousse, and the top halves with cream cheese sprinkled with chives. Assemble each burger by stacking the salmon fillet and the drained bok choy leaves. Serve immediately.