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I have seen several cookbooks covering eastern European cuisines that are nothing more than collections of relatively simple recipes, where the primary objective is number of recipes and the secondary objective is a reasonable faithfulness to their sources. These books give no insights into the wellsprings of these cuisines and typically give only the simplest versions of classic recipes. This book does not fit this description. It is a rich evocation of 19th century Russian cuisine and it's influences, and those things it has influenced.
While the current edition is being published in 2004, this is the second edition of a book the author states was originally published 20 years ago, although the copyright page does not state the date of the first edition. The only reason for this I can see is that this is the first edition to be published in the United States. I bring this up for three reasons. First, if a book survives to a second edition, it means the first edition was well received and worthy of an update. Second, this means this worthy book was probably improved in the reissue. Third, and most interesting, is the fact that the two editions straddle the fall of the USSR, and the author has several interesting observations on this fact.
The author's introduction and the discussion of Russian cuisine in the USSR is an interesting take on Paula Wolfert's contention that one of the requirements for a sustenance of a great cuisine is an aristocracy which can support a class of creative chefs. This was certainly true of Czarist Russia, and it was certainly not true of Russia in the USSR. In spite of how immediate these events are to us, it is still surprising to read that even up to the very end of the Soviet regime, access to fresh or gourmet foods was difficult even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and, this access is much greater today.
It is common knowledge that in the 19th century, Russia was enamored of all things French, especially of French cuisine. Many French chefs were brought in to cook for noble and wealthy families and many Russian chefs were sent to Paris to learn to cook the French cuisine (Some failed to use their return ticket). What may be less commonly known is that many French chefs returned from Russia and opened Russian cuisine restaurants in Paris. Other than France, the greatest foreign influence on Russian cuisine seems to be Scandinavia and fish from the Baltic and northern Atlantic. The most prominent local ingredients are, of course, caviar, vodka, eggs, dairy (yogurt and sour cream), rye, and kasha (buckwheat). The preservation method of choice is pickling. Root vegetables and mushrooms seem to play a very large part of this cuisine. The prominence of mushrooms seems surprising, as I most commonly associate them with temperate forests, not frozen steppes, but then again, Russia is a very large country.
The division of dishes into chapters gives us:
Zakuski, the Russian take on hors d'ourves and antipasti. I do not take the author seriously when she says this is a distinctly Russian custom after hearing stories of Italian Trattoria tables groaning under the weight of heaping antipasti. The stars of Zakuski are pickled herring, mushrooms, cucumbers, cottage cheese, and hard cooked eggs. In fact, I was surprised to find hard-cooked eggs with filling from spiced yolks so common, as it is also such an American stable.
Soups, or, borshch, borshch, and more borshch, and potatoes and onions (All spellings are Russian, not necessarily the most familiar spelling to American eyes, as in borshch for borscht).
Pirogs and pancakes includes the famous Russian platform for caviar, the blini.
Fish, primarily salmon, cod, pike, carp, and trout. A large number of recipes are simply for `fish'. It is probably not surprising that there are no recipes for salt cod, as it was probably cold enough to naturally refrigerate the fish for half the year. I suspect also that salt was not as plentiful as it was on the temperate Atlantic coast or certainly not as common as in the Mediterranean.
Meat and poultry features beef with many traditional Russian ingredients, as in Beef Stroganoff made with sour cream and served on noodles.
Vegetables, a classic intersection of Russian ingredients and French preparations. Potatoes and cabbage are the stars here, with a strong showing by mushrooms and other root vegetables and cabbage family members.
Desserts feature cakes and tortes. There are few tropical fruits here, but bananas and pineapple do make an appearance. Chocolate is common and cherries are very big along with kasha and dairy.
Sauces, jams, and drinks provides the usual pantry items, starring horseradish, beets, and sour cream.
The author is more of a scholar and writer than a chef and almost every recipe is attributed to a contributor who was born in Russia or born of Russian parents. The culinary cautions are a bit slim and an experienced amateur cook may have much more success with them than a total newbie.
The background writing approaches the quality found in works by Claudia Roden but not quite up to the breathless immediacy you can get from Paula Wolfert or the freshness you get from Patricia Wells or some of the better Italian regional cuisine specialists. Most of this is due to the fact that the subject is so clearly in the past, so some dryness may be expected. I did miss a recipe for Easter bread, but I did get four different recipes for the Russian Easter cheese dish, Pashka.
Highly recommended source on eastern European food.