Location: Northern Europe and Asia
Population: 146.8 million
Geography: Varied mountain, steppe, tundra, forest, and coastal ecosystems across the largest country in the world
Signature flavours: Dairy, pork, dill, cucumber, beet, hazelnut, beef, fish, mushrooms
Eric’s parents met and married while studying abroad at university in Moscow (in what was then the USSR), and Eric spent his first year there, before moving first to Cuba, and then six years later, to Venezuela. His parents still speak some Russian around the house (how handy to have a “secret” language when their kids were young), and have fond memories of the food they enjoyed there.
Eric got three Russian cookbooks from the library, but ended up working almost exclusively from the excellent Kachka. This beautiful book was written by a second-generation Russian immigrant who runs the Kachka restaurant in Portland. Eric expected there to be overlap between this assignment and my Ukraine assignment, but found so much variety in the recipes on offer that he needn’t have worried.
Apart from borscht, Eric had little familiarity with Russian food, but he did know he wanted to make kasha (called grechka in Russia), which he enjoyed in Poland and which is also eaten widely in Russia. He also knew he wanted to include a salad that reminded him of the Russian-inspired salads his mother makes to this day.
Cholodnik: A summer version of borscht — a beet soup (made from both the root and leaves of the vegetable)with Russian sour cream (smetana) and plenty of dill, served cold.
Prep and cooking time: 90 min
Dacha Salad: Fresh cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and radish with herbs and pickled red onions, served with a lemon juice and smetana dressing.
Prep and cooking time: 15 min (up to a couple of days if pickling onions, as Eric did)
Mushroom Shaslik: Roasted mushroom, onion, and bell pepper skewers in a lemony garlic mayonnaise sauce.
Prep and cooking time: 40 min + 4 hours marinating time
Grechka: Buckwheat (kasha) cooked until tender in butter and mushroom stock and then tossed with toasted hazelnuts and more butter.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Kulebyaka: A common way to use up leftovers, this puff pastry dish can contain just about anything found in a Russian fridge. Eric’s kulebyaka featured rice, egg, chard, shallots, and salmon.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Plombir with Caramel Sauce: Homemade vanilla frozen custard drizzled with an Earl Grey tea-infused caramel sauce and sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min + overnight freezing
Chocolate Kolbasa: A melt-in-your-mouth chocolate “sausage” made from cocoa powder, condensed milk, toasted hazelnuts, and crushed graham crackers.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min + at least 6 hours refrigeration
The Shopping List
Eric found smetana, a Russian-style sour cream, at a Ukrainian store at St Lawrence Market. All his other ingredients came from our local supermarket and bulk store.
Eric did quite a bit in advance for this assignment, since many of his recipes required several hours of freezing, cooling, and pickling. He made both the desserts a day ahead, and started pickling the red onions for the dacha salad a few days earlier.
This assignment contained a lot of firsts: Eric’s first time using puff pastry was daunting, so he asked me to step in with my puff pastry know-how when it came to making the kulebyaka. Plombir was the blog’s first foray into ice cream, though while it has an ice cream consistency, plombir is in fact a frozen custard made from whipped egg whites, egg yolks, sugar, cream, and vanilla, all folded together and frozen overnight.
The day-of prep found Eric busy with the rest of his dishes, and his table was laid with an abundance of Russian foods, from the bright pink cholodnik to the chocolate kolbasa, which Eric chose for its unique look.
We started our dinner with soup and salad: The cholodnik was refreshing — we could see why it makes a good summer soup — and with a mild beet-y flavour complemented by dill and sour smetana, it went well alongside the rest of the meal. The dacha marked our continued love affair with lettuce-less salads, which are typical of the region. Heartier and more of a main attraction than its leafy counterparts, dacha salad was a zesty and colourful addition to Eric’s table.
The mushroom shaslik were outstanding — roasted to perfection and scrumptious in their simple marinade. Eric adapted this recipe from one that called for porcini mushrooms and pork belly. Porcinis were not to be found fresh anywhere he looked, and he substituted pork belly for bell peppers to keep the dish vegetarian-friendly for my sake.
We cut open the golden brown kulebyaka to reveal Eric’s carefully-constructed layers. The Russians are on to something with this: Stuff your family’s leftovers into puff pastry, and who’s going to complain? Eric was won over by the pictures of the dish in Kachka, but opted to use a simpler online recipe that did not call for from-scratch pastry. Though he was somewhat let down by the appearance of his final product (too much like a big pop tart, he said), the kulebyaka did not disappoint in flavour.
And the grechka, oh, the grechka! It really tied the meal together, going perfectly with everything and adding a deeply comforting nutty butteriness to our Russia experience.
The plombir was velvety and elegant, with its the Earl Grey sauce and hazelnut topping. Eric’s use of a makeshift double boiler — another blog first — helped create the perfect creaminess. It was an ideal accompaniment to the rather punchier flavours of the chocolate kolbasa, luxuriously rich and enjoyed in thick slices.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.