I’ve only known two Russian cooks in my life.
First there was Olga, the cook who sustained me during my Peace Corps years, whose Russian roots rarely extended to the table of her Paraguayan pension. Always tripe and manioc and beef à caballo, never borscht or blini or piroshki. Sometimes meat laced with chimichurri, a green sauce from Argentina, which reminded Olga of home, as we shall see.
And then there was Marina, who only cooked for me once. She roasted a chicken and baked a whole salmon and kept popping up from the table to run into the kitchen because of severe anxiety. I never learned her real story. And perhaps I ought to be glad of that, considering the Russia she escaped from.
I don’t know about you, but for me the best “foodie” thing since sliced bread is the Köneman Culinaria regions-of-the-world series (now published apparently by H. F. Ullmann).
These heavyweight volumes cover most of Europe — Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Hungary — as well as other parts of the world. I ask myself how best to describe the feeling that comes over me when I open up one of these books. And my answer has to be this: Imagine going to a beloved friend’s house, stepping through the door, smelling a delicious cake cooling on the kitchen counter, being greeted by people you really like but haven’t seen for a long time, handing you a refreshing cool drink, and then as you walk into the living room, noticing the colorful table heavy with all sorts of food artfully displayed on heirloom plates.
A feast, that’s it, a veritable feast awaits you with each volume in the Culinaria series. That and a magic carpet, as it were, for you’ll journey from place to place without even leaving your favorite reading chair.
So take Culinaria Russia, the twelve-pound tome I borrowed last week via an interlibrary loan through my local university library. From the very first page, Culinaria Russia* simply mesmerized me. I could start by comparing this book, with its 900 color illustrations, to the Time-Life cookbooks of the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the volume Russian Cooking, by Helen and George Papashvily (1969). But I won’t. It wouldn’t be fair. It would be like holding up a fallen soufflé to the real thing. Time-Life began just under the cusp of the surging interest in foods from the rest of the world and I cherish every copy I own.
But I’ve moved on to bigger and, yes, better things.
Turning each page of Culinaria Russia led me into Russian forests, rivers, wineries, churches, making visible much of the food described in Elena Molokhovets’s A Gift to Young Housewives (1861). Aside from the sixteenth-century Domostroi, Sergei Drukovzov’s Cookery Chronicles (1779), and Katerina Avdeeda’s The Experienced Russian Housewife’s Handbook (1842), many of the cookbooks used in upper-class Russian households came from Europe. Some were translated into Russian, as was the case with Menon’s La cuisinière bourgeoise (1746), published in Russia in 1790-1791. (Menon’s work influenced British cookery a good deal, too.) One of the ingredients in these dishes, aspic, did not apparently come from France as one might think, but represented an age-old method of food preservation prior to the days of refrigeration. Culinaria Russia provides a short history of the use of aspic, and Molokhovets gives readers nine recipes for foods in aspic, including suckling pig. Culinaria Russia mentions suckling pig as being a very popular Georgian dish.
The gamut of easily do-able recipes in Culinaria Russia runs from detailed directions for a zakusa (hors d’oeuvres) table — herring plate to Salad Olivier to meatballs with mushroom filling — to varenyky (Ukrainian ravioli) to simple sauces and soups. Many of the recipes are similar to those found in Molokhovets’s book, including green sauces of various types.
As a matter of fact, Molokhovets’s green sauce closely resembles Italian green sauce with anchovies, but she includes green olives, cornichons, and spinach. Other areas besides Russia also use herbs in sauces, as the following recipes taken from Culinaria Russia attest: Ukrainian Green Sauce — similar to Olga’s chimichurri — and Georgian Green Ajika.
Reading Culinaria Russia is like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, taking you to another place, maybe a place of memory, but certainly a place of endless and wondrous culinary delights.
If you know any homesick Russians, be sure to share this book with them.
1 whole head of garlic, peeled and minced
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 T. unrefined sunflower oil
3 T. water
Grind garlic, parsley, and salt in a mortar and pestle. Stir in oil and water; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of Pampushky, doughnut-like breads served with borscht.
Georgian Green Ajika (from Culinaria Russia)
7 oz. hot green chiles
Whole head of garlic, peeled
2 bunches each cilantro and parsley
1 bunch white basil
Handful of celery leaves
1 ½ T. salt
Finely chop the vegetables and herbs. Mix. Stir in salt. Serve with fried meats.
*Augmented with forays into Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
© 2010 C. Bertelsen