In summertime, when the weather's steamy and company's coming, few cooks would think of grabbing a cookbook filled with recipes from the Soviet Union for their culinary inspiration.
Soviet cooking means heavy cooking to most of us. It's cabbage and caviar and hearty stuffed dumplings. Not what you'd want for a cookout or cold buffet.
For summer, we'd like something a little lighter, something like olives. Maybe eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber. Or maybe some rice-stuffed grape leaves, some spiced feta, cold tuna in walnut sauce, Cornish hens with dried fruit, tahini dip, pilaf, walnut sauces and zesty fish casseroles.
But the surprise is that these are not just Mediterranean foods, they're Soviet as well, the foods and recipes from a new cookbook that celebrates the incredible diversity of Soviet cooking: "Please to the Table" (Workman, paperback, $18.95) by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.
"People here don't realize how different the different cultures are in the Soviet Union," Ms. von Bremzen said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "They think it's something like America, which is a melting pot. But it's actually a conglomerate of different countries, kind of thrown together, which have very, very different foods."
The food of the Soviet Union, she explained, embraces "a vast confection of styles, tastes and ingredients from the robust fare of the Ukraine to the delicate fruit pilafs of the Azerbaijan."
But the authors, who live together in New York City and have traveled to Soviet communities throughout the world to gather recipes for the book, admit to a fondness for the foods of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are, they say, related to the cooking traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
These countries form a crescent around the southern part of the Soviet Union beginning with Georgia in the west next to the Black Sea, then moving into Armenia along the border with Turkey, then Azerbaijan, then jumping east of Iran to Turkmenia and to Uzbekistan which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Because of immigration and because of trade, culinary traditions have merged with one another. In the Caucasus -- Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan -- there are influences of Turkish and Persian cuisines, the authors write. In Uzbekistan, Chinese and Indian influences can be felt, but there are many more. Here, they continue, you might find people from Afganistan, Turkey, Iran, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia and the Ukraine.
"These cuisines share a healthful emphasis on all kinds of tempting vegetables and legumes; rice in a thousand disguises; bulgur; refreshing yogurts; tart, piquant flavorings; freshly grilled meats and fish; prodigious sheep's cheese; and preparations that work magic with fruit and nuts."
Ms. von Bremzen, who was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States nearly 20 years ago, is a food and travel writer as is Mr. Welchman. They both write extensively on the Soviet Union and spent three years working on "Please to the Table."
The book was inspired by Ms. von Bremzen's childhood memories of growing up in Russia, in particular, memories of the huge central market in Moscow where she followed along as her grandmother shopped for food. "The market is like the meeting place of all the peoples. You'd go to the market and there'd be Korean pickles, all kind of kimchee, there'd be Uzbeks eating pilaf on their lunch break, Latvians and Lithuanians selling homemade berry products, pork from the west and lamb from the east and so forth and so on."
Family recipes formed a core for the book. "My maternal grandmother was from Odessa and she was Jewish so she cooked a Jewish repertoire. My other grandmother was Russian, but she grew up in Central Asia. There was a lot of migration of people, especially during Stalin, people ended up in all sorts of strange places," she said.
To capture the best of all the various cuisines, the authors traveled not only throughout the Soviet Union but to many places throughout the world where large communities of Soviet emigres had settled, to Turkey where there are large Russian and Armenian communities in Istanbul. "And of course we visited the White Russian emigrants in Paris, London and California."
Much of their research began right in New York, from people who had come there from all over the Soviet Union. "The good thing about getting recipes in New York is that they're all adjusted to the local produce," she said.
When she and Mr. Welchman began their travels abroad, they found they could find contacts throughout the world from the friends they had in New York.
"I asked a friend, do you know anyone in Georgia and he said, 'Yeah, you can stay with my friends and they'll put you up.' And when we arrived, they met us already in two cars and whisked us off to some picnic and from that time on it was incredible.
"We traveled all over Georgia in three Jeeps with these 18 friends. And we'd just be dropping by on people. And this is what you do in Georgia, you know. Among 18 people, they knew people all over Georgia, so we'd just drop by overnight to stay with some of their friends. People here would be really shocked. But we were just greeted with such joy and pleasure. And everywhere we went they would slaughter a lamb and they would make us a feast."
Here are some recipes from "Please to the Table," beginning with a spiced feta appetizer popular in the Caucasus:
Spiced feta Serves 6.
3/4 pound feta cheese, preferably Bulgarian, sliced medium thick
2 teaspoons tarragon vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon hot Hungarian paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
generous pinch of sumakh (see note)
6 to 8 sprigs each of fresh cilantro, basil, tarragon, mint and chives
Arrange the feta slices in a shallow serving dish.
In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar with the olive oil, paprika, and dried herbs. Drizzle this mixture over the feta slices.
Sprinkle with sumakh and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Serve accompanied by the herbs.
Note: Sumamakh is a tangy powder made from berries. It is available at specialty markets that carry Middle Eastern foods.
The next recipe, which the authors say makes a great buffet dish, comes from the republic of Georgia.
Cold steamed vegetables with walnut sauce Serves 8.
3/4 cup walnut pieces
2 large cloves garlic
1/2 small dried chili pepper, seeded
6 small sprigs cilantro
1/8 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 1/4 cups chicken stock or canned broth
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed in a mortar and diluted in 1 teaspoon warm water
1/4 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 1/2 pounds mixed vegetables (such as small new potatoes, baby carrots, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower florets, wax beans)
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make the sauce, process the walnuts, garlic, chili pepper, cilantro and coarse salt in a food processor until pulverized
Transfer to a medium-sized saucepan, add the chicken broth and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring. Add the saffron, paprika, coriander, fenugreek, and more salt if needed and stir without allowing the mixture to boil, for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vinegar. Cool and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
Fill a large pot with 2 inches of salted water and fit with a steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil and steam each vegetable separately to desired doneness. Refresh under cold running water. Drain well. Pat dry with paper towels and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use, but no more than 1 day.
To serve, place the bowl with the walnut sauce in the center of a serving platter. Arrange the vegetables attractively around the bowl.
Ms. von Bremzen calls the next recipe "my favorite pilaf," and writes that it comes from either Armenia or Azerbaijan, but she can no longer remember which one.
@My favorite pilaf Serves 4 to 6.
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup grated carrots
1/3 cup slivered almonds
grated zest of 2 oranges
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
3 cups boiling chicken stock, canned broth or water
salt to taste
Melt the butter in a heavy 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the carrots and stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Stir in the almonds, orange zest, raisins, and turmeric, and continue to stir for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice and keep on stirring until the rice is well coated with the butter and takes on some color, about 2 minutes.
Pour in the boiling stock in a steady stream and let boil for about 2 minutes. Add salt, reduce the heat to very low, cover tightly, and simmer until all liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand, covered, for 10 minutes.
Fluff the rice with a fork, transfer to a serving platter, and stir gently before serving.
To go with the many pilaf recipes in the book, she offers this recipe from Azerbaijan, which can easily be doubled for a larger crowd, she writes.
Cornish game hen with dried fruit Serves 6 to 8.
4 Cornish game hens (about 1 pound each), halved, well rinsed, and patted dry
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots, preferably Californian
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 1/3 cups chicken stock or canned broth
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed in a mortar
cooked rice or pilaf
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the Cornish hens between two pieces of waxed paper and gently pound with the flat side of a meat cleaver or a meat pounder to flatten. Rub with salt, pepper and paprika.
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add as many Cornish hen halves as will easily fit and brown well on both sides until deep golden and crisp. Repeat with the rest of the hens.
Transfer the hens to a rimmed baking sheet, sprinkle with the butter in which they were browned, and place them in the oven until the juices run clear when the meat is pricked with a skewer, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a heated platter and keep warm.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and toast, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the dried fruit, spices and orange zest and reduce the heat to low. Saute, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Stir in the stock and honey and cook, uncovered, until the liquid reduces somewhat and the fruit is plump, about 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice and saffron. Remove from the heat and let stand for 3 minutes. Stir.
Arrange the Cornish hens over a mound of rice or pilaf and spoon the dried fruit sauce over them, or serve it separately.
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