On November 12th, I’m catering for an event at Beth Jacob Synagogue featuring the cuisine of rural villages in turn of the century Western Russia. Or, at least, inspired by – I’m 90% sure it will not taste like what people were actually eating in those villages. I won’t, for example, be foraging in Russian forests for the mushrooms. The kasha would surely be considered stale by the discerning Russian farmer. I feel I need to be honest about these things. However, the menu will illustrate some key ingredients and techniques and it will be fun.
It’s been a while since I’ve been called upon to do quick culinary research for menu design; I’m sharing some of the things I learned below. Sources are linked. I also used the lovely cookbook Mamushka by Olia Hercules and the survey of all things culinary 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die by Mimi Sheraton. And information that I already had from searching for recipes for the Hel’s Kitchen Slovakia Week this past winter.
The dinner is celebrating Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler on the Roof, in turn, is set in then-Western-Russia (today that includes many independent Eastern European countries) in the early 1900’s. The food is fascinating, even leaving out the politics of who got the food and who didn’t (which is fascinating, and very depressing, and also not useful in making a menu for an event where people expect to be fed). Just by sheer size it’s interesting, covering a vast sweep of culinary terrain. The Russian Empire at its largest (1895) encompassed 1/6 of the world’s landmass. Granted, a lot of that land was steppes growing buckwheat, but nonetheless. . . . and also let’s not dismiss buckwheat, which is a key ingredient in everything from French crepes to Japanese soba noodles.
The menu for November 12th focuses on what would have been called peasant food in style (okay, fancy peasant style). This food was running in parallel with palace cuisine that was historic in grandeur; the ruling Romanov family of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were (and still are) the world’s poster children for inequality and excess. There’s an abundance of records online for what they were doing and eating during their final years in power, such as this description of Dining with the Tsars, replications of menus from specific meals, fine art images of what celebratory menus looked like, and even digitized copies of the family photo albums. (I am not, by the way, a particularly skilled historian – I got most of my reading from this Family Romanov classroom guide).
This food was grand defined not only by quantity, but also by technique. At the time French cuisine was regarded as the pinnacle of gastronomic sophistication- however the influence went both ways. The famous / infamously difficult dish coulibiac de saumon (aka kulebyaka, aka fish wrapped in many many layers of other things) came from the kitchens of the tsars. So did the croquette. And buckwheat traveled through Russia to become a standard ingredient for French sables and crepes. For an example of the techniques chefs needed to cater a true feast in imperial Russia, you can read about coulibiac in this 2013 New Yorker article Cooking With Daniel.
I’m not making kulebyaka next Saturday. I am making many other tasty items, including pierogi and a poppyseed roll that is exciting to me because it uses a very old-school pastry method of “floating dough”. I’ll talk a little about my thinking behind the menu at the dinner, but in case you are not in a position to attend that event, I’ll give you my cheat sheet below. Per the hosts’ request the menu is vegetarian, which isn’t exactly authentic but didn’t throw me off badly. (On a side note relevant to the theme of what people were eating in Fiddler on the Roof, there was a recent Gastropod podcast on keeping kosher that I enjoyed (but not so much so that I was going to acquire a kosher kitchen)) .
NOVEMBER 12th MENU
Vegetable Caviars – Aka “poor man’s caviar” really is a historic dish, I always thought it was a more modern vegetarian thing but I was wrong.
Buckwheat Crackers – Russia has been the world leader in buckwheat production for centuries.
Red Cabbage Soup – This is a similar taste profile to borshch (which I now know I’ve been spelling wrong all this time) but since there’s beets in other things on this menu I’m going with the Slovakian version which doesn’t use beets (it also doesn’t use red cabbage – the broth is red, the cabbage is green). This soup has a common sweet & sour taste profile, there are also simply sour profile soups in Russian cuisine. According to one source, Russian cooking is, globally, the most sour-dominant cuisine. Lots of sour cream and pickles.
Brown Bread & Butter – What we think of as the “classic” country bread.
Pierogis – Since pierogis where originally a way to use up tough meat and meat scraps to stretch them into a meal, I’m going to do the vegetarian version of that by flavoring them with scraps from the rest of the food prep.
Pierogi Trimming Noodles with Mushrooms & Sour Cream Sauce – Gets in not only the frugality of pierogis, but also the key Russian ingredients of mushrooms and sour cream.
Kasha Croquettes – Kasha, of course, continuing with the buckwheat theme – and meat croquettes of various forms originated in Western Russia, so this is paying homage to that cooking style.
Two Side Salads
My understanding is that normally you’d have pickles as a side, but since I did not pickle lots of things from a kitchen garden this summer (much to my mother’s chagrin) I’m going to do quick pickles supplemented by veggies to get a similar effect.
Beet & Pickle Salad
Pickled Carrot Stuffed Eggplants
Poppyseed Roll There are dozens of dessert possibilities, but I feel like there’s enough food to cover here that everyone will be stuffed at dessert time. I could add more (or do something different) if you want. This particular roll is made with an interesting technique I’d never heard of “floating dough” – you put your dough in a bag in a tub of cold water and when it floats it is ready to make your roll. I assume this was a way to retard the rising process and deepen the flavors held over from the time before you could just put it in your fridge overnight.
The question now is whether I have the courage (and the Department of Health blessing) to serve Bread Kvass . . . it also may be too far into the “alcohol” range for me to do it legally (in which case, for the record, I won’t).