Russian Cooking. The phrase conjures up crimson red bowls of borscht garnished with a dollop of snow white sour cream and a sprig of fresh dill, caviar-topped blinis, ice-cold vodka, and maybe the mayonnaise creation referred to as “Russian Salad.” I’ve been to Russia a few times and have eaten some of these things. I’ve also been served steaming bowls of soup with meat dumplings, brown bread, tart jam and tangy yogurt, and other dishes that now escape my memory. I think the best part was always the vodka toasts before, during, and after the meal.
When I was doing research for my trip to London this week, I visited the website for one of my favorite cookbook stores, Books for Cooks. They have wonderful one-off workshops on a variety of cuisines and techniques, so I was just hoping that this time our schedules matched so that I could take one of their courses. Fortunately, it did and the title of one of them, “Russia on a Plate” intrigued me, based upon my previous experience with this food. What could they be teaching?
Karina Baldry has put together a book of the dishes she grew up with while living in the Soviet Union and which she has adapted to ingredient availability in the UK. She openly acknowledges that these are her interpretations of these recipes. The workshop I took today focused on the things that she ate based upon her grandmother’s cooking from the Caucasus region.
One of the facts that I took away from the lesson was that this cuisine relies very heavily on herbs and spices. In fact, except for the sweet at the end of the meal, cilantro was in every dish that she demonstrated for us. It added an herbal freshness to the Khachapuri na skoruju ruke (Cheat’s Quick Khachapuri) or Cheese Puffs. In the Lobio (Kidney Bean Spread), cilantro was a refreshing counterpoint to the meaty, dense beans. The fragrance of the steaming Chakhokhbili (Chicken in Tomato and Onion Sauce) was perfumed with its citrus notes, as well.
For the dessert Baddam Buri (Georgian Pastries with Walnuts and Cardamom), she made a shortcrust pastry using beer in the dough to give it a bit of a lift. The filling was spiced with toasted, ground cardamom, which I’ll have to figure out how to replicate once I get home. This added a wonderful spicy balance to the sweetness of the sugar in the filling making it sort of a savory sweet which would be perfect with tea or coffee. As she promised, they were irresistible and disappeared as quickly as they were brought out from the oven for us to try.
Getting to see Karina make these dishes first-hand and hearing her talk about the memories that they brought back of her family and the gatherings that they would have has inspired me to see if I can bring some of that warmth into my own home. I’ve never been that fond of most of the dishes that I had eaten when I was traveling in Russia, finding it too heavy and sometimes greasy, so it’s never really occurred to me to try to explore it further. Today’s luncheon showed me that I’ve been overlooking some of the wonderful dishes that the cuisine and culture have produced that probably weren’t as well known in the West due to the political climate. I’m looking forward to lifting my own “Iron Curtain” and making some of her recipes at home.