Russian Cuisine For A Rookie
Preparing for an upcoming first visit to Russia, over the weekend I joined a friend who was born in Moscow get a quick crash course in Russian Food 101. So often Russian food falls into the same category of bland, heavy, comfort cooking with no life and no adventure that other cuisines like German fall into. As I have been researching where to dine in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the most frequent response is to sample the other cuisines from former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Armenia. Another usual response is that all the high end “critical favorite” dining restaurants are really just forma, decent French and Italian restaurants, the type of stale Continental cuisine that was prevalent all around the world back when Eisenhower was President.
The research goes on as to where to eat while not visiting the Kremlin or catching a ballet. As to there being more than caviar and vodka to Russia’s cuisine, the answer is very much: yes.
Cinderella Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco’s Richmond District is a postage stamp sized operation, with twice as much seating outside along Balboa Street looking at parking meters than the two tables inside next to the cashier and lavish display cases for piroshki, pastries, and bread.
This is the humble, “peasant” style of cooking often seen in Russian homes. For special occasions, meals can last easily four hours, complete with Beluga caviar in the middle, enough vodka for a year, and dancing off the goose entree before dessert. Indeed, Russian cuisine is heavy for the most part and does rely heavily on sour cream and cream in general. There is plenty of life to spark up a traditional meal, however.
Start the meal with some marinated fish, pickled vegetables, or a headcheese Holodetz, mixing cooked beef, pig’s feet, and chicken’s feet. Salads are not of the pristine Little Gems and so and so farm yellow beets variety. Salads mainly consist of a lettuce wedge as the base for potatoes and cold cuts, with plenty of mayonnaise. Winters I hear are harsh in Siberia.
For those harsh winters, soup is a necessity. Borsch is the most famous of them, warm and comforting with its vivid purple hue from beets long simmered with beef stock and tomatoes. Solianka is a traditional spicy mixed meat soup. Barley soup with mushrooms and spinach soup are very common. Kharcho is a soup consisting of lamb and rice with a heavy dose of garlic. All of these soups are garnished, of course, with a dollop of sour cream. Why? I’m still not sure.
Piroshki are nothing like the similar Polish kinds, which remind you more of potstickers. These are fried behemoths that look like battered and fried haddock pieces in fish and chips. Piroshki can be filled with anything from beef to green onions and egg. The same pastry dough is used for vegetarian and meat pies, common in the Siberian regions of the country.
For dumplings, I prefer the pelmeni, which are similar to a less doughy and smaller tortellini. The meat filling is pristine with no filler or juice along the lines of Shanghai’s xiao long bao soup dumplings. These don’t explode upon impact. The skin is a little firmer than most dumplings. Pelmeni can also be served in a soup broth. Vareniki is more along the lines of blintzes– heavy, densely stuffed dumplings filled to the brim with potato and fried onions.
Blinchiki is in the crepe family, filled frequently with caviar (caviar and blinis). My favorite was a blinchiki pre-filled with mushrooms and onions, simmered with enough sage for a forest. Then sprinkled with the ubiquitous dill and alongside the ubiquitous cup of sour cream, the twin parcels of blinchiki are every bit as enriching as a French crêpe or Dutch pancake. The batter seems a touch more sour, a nod to Russia’s rye bread tradition possibly. Cinderella offers salmon eggs as caviar instead of the $150-300 Royal Beluga caviar you may find at high end restaurants in Russia and San Francisco (Gary Danko among the many). The proper way to fill the blini is a 2 to 1 ratio of the sour cream to caviar I learned so that the sour cream absorbs the syrup of the eggs. Be certain that the sour cream doesn’t dominate the eggs however. The showpieces are the blini and the caviar– not the sour cream.
Bread is very basic, usually cooked loaf style like sandwich bread, often rye based. The dark rye bread at Cinderella has a beautiful depth and is more sour than actual rye tasting. The light rye bread is no more exciting than traditional white sandwich bread.
Entrees are the hearty sort, ranging from fried Cornish game hen Tabaka to cabbage or bell peppers stuffed with ground beef in tomato sauce. I was told beef stroganoff, the common stew of thinly sliced beef in a creamy mushroom laced sauce, isn’t even Russian. It might be based out of the Danube region if it isn’t a 1950’s American creation. My guide had never seen beef stroganoff before in Russia. Being one of the world’s more passionate anti-beef stroganoff advocates, that’s a good thing.
Finish with one of many tarts, hamentashen, and strudels filled with apples, cherries, or poppy seeds. Napoleon cakes are key, alternating layers of pastry and cream like a French mille-feuille. Cinderella offered several cookies that were as American as apple pie, but nonetheless terrific. I appreciated the “Bird’s Milk Cake,” with a frozen chocolate shell on top, then strawberry mousse, moist vanilla cake, vanilla cream, and a layer of strawberry jam. It’s far from exciting and the frozen chocolate is a nuisance to cut, but the cake itself was enjoyable.
A common formal dessert with dinner would be more of the vareniki dumplings, filled with sweet cheese curds or sour cherries. The best sweet I sampled was vatrushka, a small square “baker’s cheese pie” that had a pastry more like a sugar cookies and the cheese filling was much sweeter than a typical cheesecake. In general, the sweets are much less “sweet” and decadent. You won’t find desserts like “chocolate decadence” in Russian cuisine. The cakes and cookies even go lighter on the sugar to the point you wonder if they are borderline savory courses.
To drink? Vodka of course. Well, at Cinderella you get some excellent coffee with beans from Ritual or the housemade kvas, similar to beer with more spices making the drink seem like a winter tea. It weighs in at a whopping 1% alcohol. I’m told it’s what school children drink. One can also go even lighter with no alcohol and sample kompot, where raisins, prunes, and apricots are boiled in water, then cooled.
In Moscow I’ll look forward to caviar, blinis, and vodka. Fortunately, there will be a lot more to enjoy at the table in the Russian cuisine repertoire. Maybe some Georgian wine and kebabs too? I can handle a fair amount of caviar. Vodka is another story.