I decided that I am going to create a different theme each week for my recipes. So this week it's my favorite of Russian foods! Traditionally, Russian cuisine used hearty ingredients to give people energy during the long winters. Many of the staple foods include whole grains, potatoes, eggs, pickled vegetables, different smoked meats, including a wide array of sausages and smoked fish. People think of Russian food and think of 3 things: Vodka, Borscht and Herring. Well there is quite a bit more to it than that.
Pickling, canning and preserving has been a staple of the Russian way of life for generations. Ordinarily people would pickle, cure and salt their foods to preserve them for the winter. My grandmother and mother would spend days canning everything from jams to pickled watermelon! (Now, before you cringe, pickled watermelon is actually quite delicious. You just have to eat it with your eyes closed because your eyes cannot believe that watermelon and salty would go together, but it does and it's awesome!)
I grew up in Moldova, a country next to Romania, where we had plenty of seasonal fruits, vegetables and great wine, at least that's what the area was known for. The one beauty of growing up there was that everything that I ate was always in its peak season, so it always tasted as it should. When I tasted a tomato in Chicago for the first time, I didn't know what it was. It just did not have the same aroma or flavor. In fact, it took me quite some time to get used to the taste of meat and fresh produce here.
Russian recipes have stayed the same for generations. There have definitely been times when I wanted to lighten up recipes and change them. However, it never turned out quite right. I realized that although Russian food can be very fattening, (for example, one of the best things that Russians eat is something called "salo" which is the equivalent of Italian "lardo". Basically it is bacon, but with a little less meat and a bit more fat...mmmm I can almost feel the pounds piling up on my thighs!) sometimes a little bit is all you need. Russian food, is ultimate comfort food and we all need a little bit of that fromt time to time. Originally food was meant to keep energy and spirits up in the winter and that it certainly does!
It has come to my understanding that most people do not know the vast number of countries that influence this part of the world. When the Mongols took over they left their imprint on the region with dumplings known as "pelmeni", noodles and smoked sturgeon. When Peter the Great took over he introduced trade with France and therefore a bit of classical French cuisine and preparation techniques were evident, especially with royalty. Elegant desserts and elaborate buffets were all part of this time era and still remain as a cultural staple. Tea was introduced in the 18th century by the China trade. Southern Russia, which is located next to the Caspian Sea, is the producer of some of the world's greatest caviar, Osetra. Ukraine (where my fiance' is from) popularized breads and grains and introduced the first recipe of Borscht, the traditional Russian beet soup. Lastly and my personal favorite is the Caucus region. Countries like Georgia and Armenia, introduced spices such as saffron, pepper, cumin, and coriander and my favorite meat of all, Shashlyk: large cuts of meat cooked on an open flame over natural wood and served with fresh onions.
Most Russian food I love for its simplicity of flavors and preparation methods. It's a shame that people do not know about Russian culture or its cuisine because I gotta tell you, once the vodka starts pouring and the food starts coming, the party isn't ending!