Zakuski: Snackies with Vodka
Zakuski is the Russian word for appetizers or hors d’oeuvres, but it is also used to refer to the little snackies eaten to chase vodka. I first fell in love with zakuski (and, let’s be honest, vodka) when I was an undergrad studying in Moscow. The love affair continued throughout a doctoral degree in Slavic studies, and even survived a major career change. I may not teach Russian anymore, but offer me a tiny, chilled glass of vodka and a forkful of pickled herring and I am so there. Luckily for me, my best childhood friend married a Russian-American who was educated in the way of zakuski at his Russian grandparents’ table. Cathy and Pete live back in New England, and we try to get together at least once a year for zakuski. This year’s event, “Zakuski: A New Hope” introduced the vodka-loving Midwestern Gentleman to a whole new way of appreciating this fine spirit. Cathy and Pete outdid themselves with this year’s spread, a combination of homemade dishes and favorite stand-bys purchased at the Russian market “European Deli” on Hope Street in Providence. We drank Stolichnaya and Tito’s Handmade Vodka (I know that sounds crazy, but they make some excellent vodka down in Texas). Here is what we ate:
Buckwheat bliny with melted butter, creme fraiche, and salmon roe. Extra Irish butter (a nod to Cathy’s heritage) was on hand for bonus slathering.
“Peter the Great” rye bread provided a carby carrier for a wide range of potential toppings. Everything tastes better when the bread is slathered with butter first. You may recognize a trend here.
Toppings and nibbles included (clockwise from upper left): pickled onion, crumbled hard-boiled egg, pickled herring, fresh radishes, half-sour pickled cucumbers, and smoked sprats. An assortment of marinated olives are pictured at center.
In addition to copious amounts of salmon roe, Pete also picked up a caviar spread.
The tangy flavor of a purchased sweet red pepper spread tasted great on the rye bread.
Cathy assembled several delicious cold dishes: a zesty kidney bean salad, an intensely garlicky eggplant “caviar,” and a classic cucumber, tomato and feta salad. In Russia, she would have used brinza cheese, but feta is fairly similar, and a lot easier to find in the U.S. No zakuski table would be complete without pickled mushrooms.
Fresh dill is prevalent in Russian cooking, and the dilly scent of Cathy’s potato salad took me straight back to Russia before I had even taken a bite. She served the salad as a small island in a sea of cold, pureed borscht. Gorgeous and delicious.
We also enjoyed some sweet nuts — praline pecans and butter toffee cashews — along with Stolichnaya raspberry-infused vodka. And in case you were wondering what a post-zakuski breakfast looks like… Pete wowed us with a hangover-busting fry-up: cheese omelet, home-fried potatoes, thick-cut bacon, and breakfast sausage, served with coffee and strong Russian tea.
We are already looking forward to Zakuski: the 2012 Edition.