Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Russia -- A Real Place 3: Homefried Food

Here's the third in our continuing series on the wonder that is Russian cuisine:

In uninspired times, it’s best to stick with the basics—efficiency, sustenance, food in patty form. This needn’t be a death sentence for the connoisseur in you, the one sulking in the corner of your consciousness as you plunge a fry into mayonnaise or sip your cola through a licorice straw. Someone’s grandmother pushed you getting onto the metro, you saw a pregnant dog sprawled on the pavement, the nation’s leader attended a “no-rules” cage match with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Silvio Berlusconi while protesters were mauled in the street. You need a meal you can cradle in your hands.

Let’s complete the pancake trinity. In fact, this sphere of the Russian diet is an elegant multi-pointed star, but bliny, oladi and seerniki are empresses supreme. Before bowing under the third sister’s heavy touch, it’s necessary to delve deeper into dairy. I’ve mentioned kefir, the falsetto in oladi’s song, but there’s also tan, another digestive ally that I find tongue-numbingly salty. Open-mindedness aside, that stuff is gross. Smetana is numero uno. When I translated it as “sour cream” for some of my students, they were justifiably appalled. Smetana is light and simple in flavor, more than a guest-star on taco night. Russians dollop it into soup and tomato, cucumber and radish salads freshened with dill. Tvorog, on the other hand, is “curd” according to my dictionary. Sometimes it’s like cottage cheese, but it can also be sweet, packaged like cream cheese, fruit-flecked and eaten on its own, on a little plate, with a little spoon, topped with smetana, so I don’t know what that is. Anyway, the cottage cheese version is the launch pad for a seerniki wakeup call and looks like this:

The recipe is easy and best forgotten before eating. Eggs, sugar, salt and flour. Whip it into a curdy batter and fry in thick blobs (sorry, I’m still working on the foodie lexicon). Afterwards it will be golden and good, and I bet you can guess what to dress it up with...duh...smetana! This is no pre-jog snack.

Ready for lunch? Another classic you might nestle with your nose were you some furry animal fattening for winter is the cutlet. I’ve been eating them all week, so I’ll now try to resurrect the wild pleasure with which I anticipated that first Sunday serving. Having beheld the keystone in the triumphal arch of Russian cuisine, I wonder if we didn’t sell ourselves short crowning the ground beef patty our national mascot. The cutlet is more of a concept than a physical entity, an equation flexible enough to allow fish as a potential x-variable. We happened to choose regular-old pork, which went into the electric meat grinder/food processor (What, you don’t have one?), along with some onion, milk-soaked bread, and salo (don’t ask). Egg is essential, but only after cutlet consistency has been achieved. Now fry it, son!

Maybe you prefer some clearer semblance of nature’s design in the food you eat. But who will save us in that cold final hour? Hot dogs?


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