A Taste of Russia

The Ballymaloe Cookery School operates throughout the year with everything from one day, two and half day and week courses as well as three, three month certificate courses every year. Students come from all over the world, this time there are 14 different nationalities, so our little village of Shanagarry becomes even more cosmopolitan. Some of the students have never held a wooden spoon in their hands before; and others are chefs and may be experts in a particular area but are anxious to learn the basics and some classic techniques.
Among the May students is a Russian girl called Katya Pal who has taken a three month sabbatical from her job with the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature.) She comes from a family that love to cook and eat together and although they live in the heart of Moscow, the also have a ‘dacha’ (a little house in the country) where they can grow fruit and vegetables in their garden.
Katya surfed the internet to find a cookery school and came across Ballymaloe. She explained that she was at once taken with the idea of attending a cookery school on an organic farm, where she could learn about food production and hone her cooking techniques.
“Since I saw the Ballymaloe website with its gardens and the farm and ecological approach to food, I could hardly think of anything else” Katya said. Hitherto I was hard-pressed to name more than three or four Russian dishes.
So what do I know about Russian Food – I’m embarrassed to say very little, I’d heard about blini and bortsh and Beluga caviar and the dreaded Russian salad but after that I was stumped.
Katya intrigued us with descriptions about the food of her homeland so I asked her to cook some of the dishes for a Slow Food event to raise money for the East Cork Slow Food Educational Project which teaches local children how to cook.
Katya made a list of 30 or 40 recipes that she desperately wanted to share with us. We had to whittle the list down to seven or eight that could be squished into a 2 hour cookery demonstration.
It was a totally inspirational evening and an eye opener to those who may have had a pre-conceived idea about Russian food. Katya told us about her food culture and wove wonderfully colourful stories of food and cooking in and out through the evening. We learned about the Russian stove, a unique type of fire oven which first appeared in the 15th Century and is designed to retain heat for long periods of time by channelling hot air through a complex labyrinth of passages thus warming the bricks, creating a cosy spot on top for some of the family to sleep during the winter. This unique Russian oven has spawned many slow cooked dishes. Food acquires a distinctive character by being cooked this way.
Here are just a few of the recipes that she shared with us.

Cold Beetroot Soup
Soups are very important in Russian cuisine and one can’t really have a proper lunch or dinner without it. This refreshing cold beetroot soup is excellent on a hot sunny day. Bortsh is more usual in Winter.

Serves 6

300 g (11 ozs) beetroot peeled
Beetroot stalks chopped 1 cm (½ inch) long
1 litre (1¾ pints) of water
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
2-3 teaspoons of lemon juice or vinegar

Accompaniments:
3 hard boiled eggs, free range and chopped
Bunch of parsley, dill, spring onions, mint – chopped
6-8 radishes chopped in cubes of ½ cm (¼ inch)
Half a large cucumber chopped into cubes of ½ cm (ۘ¼ inch)
1 small onion, finely chopped with salt and lemon juice
Salt

100 g (3½ ozs) sour cream

Optional:
Boiled new potatoes – either whole and hot on the side, or cool and grated in the soup
Horseradish
Mustard

Boil peeled beetroot in 1 litre (1¾) unsalted water. It is important not to add salt at this stage as this will spoil the colour. Just before the beetroot is fully cooked add the beetroot stalks and continue cooking until the beetroot is ready. Take off the heat and cool. Remove the beetroot from the saucepan and grate back into the cooking liquid. Add salt, sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice). Adding vinegar enhances the colour of the soup.

Mix the chopped accompaniments together and allow the guests to add as much of these as they want into their bowls with soup. Add a spoon of sour cream into each bowl.

You can also serve this soup with hot boiled new potatoes on the side, or add some cold grated potatoes to the soup (this way the soup will be more filling). Adding some horseradish or mustard to the filling or mixing it with sour cream before serving is also delicious
Tip: the accompaniments of this soup also makes a great salad on their own – dress it with sour cream and mayo (half and half)

Katya Pal’s Salmon Cake

A variation of popular Russian salads that use boiled potatoes and mayonnaise as a base. This salmon salad is also great to serve as a starter at a dinner party. It is called a “cake” because of its cake-like shape (but it is neither sweet nor baked).

Serves 8-10

3 large boiled potatoes grated (largest grate)
300 g (11 ozs) salted salmon, thinly sliced and chopped in pieces of about 2 cm (¾).
1 onion, finely chopped
150 g (5 ozs) grated semi-hard cheese (Gruyere or Cheddar)
2 carrots, boiled and grated
2-3 green eating apples, grated
3 hard boiled eggs, free range, finely chopped
1 can (100-130 g) salted salmon eggs
½ litre (18 fl ozs) of home-made mayonnaise (should not be too thick – you may want to add some lemon juice and sugar, sour cream or water to make it more runny)

Take a flat plate and assemble a round layer of grated boiled potatoes in the middle. Drizzle some homemade mayonnaise over the potatoes. Then put some sliced salmon on top.  Add more mayonnaise. Add layers of finely chopped onions, cheese, carrots, apples, boiled eggs one by one, drizzle with mayonnaise in between each layer. Cover the top of the salad with salmon eggs. Cool in refrigerator for at least 3 hours before serving. Cut into cake-like slices to individual plates.

Blini
Blini (plural for “blin”) are traditional Russian very thin pancakes. Blini had a somewhat ritual significance for early Slavic peoples being a symbol of the sun, as they are round, yellow and hot! They were traditionally prepared at the end of winter to honor the rebirth of the new sun (Butter Week, or “Maslenitsa”).  This tradition was adopted by the Orthodox Church and is carried on to the present day. Maslenitsa week is held just before the start of the Big Lent (which would come to its end at Easter). Huge piles of blini are eaten in this week.

There are many ways to make blini and each household in Russia would use a different recipe. Below is just one –  it uses milk as a base, but you can experiment by adding buttermilk or yogurt or water instead of milk, or, if you have time and courage, making traditional yeast batter. A blini is somewhat similar to a crêpe, the main difference being that traditionally yeast has been used for blini.

For 12-15 blini:
3 free range eggs, separated
700 ml (1¼ pints) of milk
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon non-scented oil
250 g (9 ozs) of white flour

To fry:
oil
half onion, chopped

To Cover:
100 ml (3½ fl ozs) cleared butter

Mix egg yolks, a cup of milk, salt, sugar, oil and flour – stir till smooth, add rest of the milk. Beat the egg whites stiff and add to the mixture. Stir carefully so that some of the foam stays in the batter.  The mixture should be quite runny.

Put a saucepan with water on a low simmer and cover with a plate. As each blini is cooked place on the plate and cover with a with a lid – this will keep the blini hot while you are frying the rest of the blini.

Place half an onion on a fork, dip into some cooking oil and spread just enough oil to cover a heavy cast iron frying pan.. Using a large spoon pour some of the batter in a circular motion into the pan. Remember that blini should be thin. My grandmother used to say that a real blin is the one you can read a newspaper through. If the batter is too thick – just add water.

Once fried, brush each blin with some clarified butter to prevent them from sticking to each other and place on the warming plate until ready to use. Brushing the blini with clarified butter also gives a wonderful taste! Blini are served with smetana (sour cream), caviar, salmon eggs, herring, salmon,  jams or coulis.

Blinchiky
Once you have mastered blini it is easy (and very tempting) to make “blinchiky” – which are blini filled with different types of fillings, folded and refried.

Meat filling:
200 g (7 ozs) cooked minced beef
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oil
Salt
Black pepper

Heat some oil or clarified butter in a pan and fry the onions gently until they caramelize.  Add the cooked minced beef, season well. Put 2 generous tablespoons of the mince filling into each blin, fold into envelopes, fry on cleared butter or oil on two sides. Serve with sour cream.

Fried mushrooms and onion, “tvorog” (Russian curd cheese), apple and cinnamon, potatoes and mushrooms all make delicious blini fillings. It is important that the fillings have a dry texture so that it does not run out of the blinchiky. All types of blinchiky as well as blini are served with smetana.

You may freeze your blinchiky after filling and then fry them later.

Katya Pal’s Medovik – Layered Honey Cake
Russian cakes are numerous and each family have their own secret recipes. This Honey Cake is an easy and delicious cake to make. This cake should be made one day in advance and kept refrigerated.

Pastry:
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 tablespoons of honey
1 teaspoon of soda
½ teaspoon of vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
320 g (11 ozs) wheat flour
200 g (7 ozs) sugar
2 free range eggs

Filling:
500 g (18 ozs) sour cream – look carefully labels to ensure it does not contain starch. (we used Glenilen)
100 g (3½ ozs) castor sugar

Chocolate Icing (optional):
6 teaspoons of cocoa powder
6 teaspoons of sugar
1tablespoon of butter
70 ml (2¾ fl ozs) milk

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Melt butter in a small saucepan, add honey and soda (mix soda with lemon juice or vinegar – this will create a foam, add this to the butter and honey and stir.)

Beat the eggs with the sugar, add the flour then add the butter and honey mixture. Split the dough in 5 equal parts. Spread one part on the bottom of a round baking tray and bake for 5 minutes in the preheated. Take the pan out; allow to cool, take the pastry out. Bake all five layers one by one.

Beat sour cream with sugar until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is steady. Put the first layer on a cake plate, cover with beaten sour cream, put next layer and so on. If you wish to make chocolate icing leave last layer without sour cream.

To prepare icing melt the butter in milk in a small sauce pan, add the sugar and cocoa powder and stir  continuously until it is rather thick but still liquid. Pour the hot icing over the cake. Cool and put into a fridge until tomorrow’s feast.

Katya Pal’s Klukovka – Cranberry Vodka

This is a fun party drink for those who prefer lighter drinks to straight vodka. Sour cranberries work well as they neutralize the alkali in vodka.

Makes 1 litre (1¾ pints)

500 g (18 ozs) of cranberries (fresh or frozen)
150 g (5 ozs) of sugar
700 ml (1¼ pint) of vodka
350 ml (12 fl ozs) water

Mix the cranberries and the sugar in a food processor. Add the water and vodka. Leave for 3-5 days and pour through a sieve or a cheese cloth (depending on the level of clarity you’d like to have) Serve cold in frozen shot glasses.

If you don’t have time and patience, bring the cranberries, water and sugar almost to the boil, cool to about 30 C, add vodka, strain, put into a freezer and drink when cold.

Non-Alcohol Klukovka

500 g (18 ozs) cranberries
1.5 litres (2½ pints) water
200 g (7 ozs) sugar

Bring the cranberries, water and sugar to the boil. Wait until it cools down and strain.

Hottips

Experience the wonderful food and culture of Cork – tasting Cork city with Alice Coyle of Fabulous Food Trails. Every Saturday morning they set out to discover the best local tastes of Cork, often veering off the beaten track to discover some little gems. The Cork Trail is a relaxed but highly-focused two and half hour walking tour for enthusiastic foodies or those who are just interested in seeing and tasting the best of Cork. The tastings are generous and frequent, taking in different markets, cheese mongers, fishmongers, butchers, bakers… meeting the people who produce some of the best food in Ireland. The Food Trail leaves every Saturday morning at 10am – contact Alice Coyle on 086 8090456 or visit www.fabulousfoodtrails.ie

Garden Workshop with Susan Turner – Designing Herbaceous Borders – good plant choices for a long season of interest with vibrant colour combinations and contrasts in texture and form. Half Day Course on Monday 18th July, 9:00am to 2:00pm €95.00 including lunch at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co Cork. 0214646785