Researching the Eastern European grocery market scene, I kept hearing the same phrase from shop owners.
How do you serve the smoked herring?
“You snack on it with vodka.”
And the pickled mushrooms?
“Snack. With vodka.”
“On blini. With vodka.”
These dried fish?
“Snack — “
I get it. With vodka.
The last, as it turned out, are actually served with beer.
What the welcoming owners, typically with a thick Russian accent, were referring to was zakuski, the Russian mezze-style selection that’s served as a start for dinner — accompanied by iced vodka. Good zakuski will include enough small plates to cover the entire table, with cured meats, salo (salted pig’s fat), herring and sturgeon, smoked sprats, blini with sour cream and caviar, pickles of all kinds, pierogi and more.
Those dried fish are saved for having with beer while watching TV, the same way Americans snack on nuts, according to Yevgeny Beynenson, owner of Taste of Europe in Gaithersburg, Md.
There are numerous Eastern European markets in the Washington suburbs, and although the Soviet Union disintegrated more than 20 years ago, it remains dominant on the stores’ shelves. Georgian tarragon soda and red wine sit alongside Ukrainian beer, Lithuanian bread, Armenian cheese and Slovakian bryndza. Most markets carry ingredients from the broader Eastern Europe region, such as Bulgarian feta, Polish kielbasa and kishka sausages, Hungarian salami and Bosnian coffee.
The array attracts Americans, Europeans and Asians as well as Russian immigrants, says avid shopper Anastassia Ivanova, a concert pianist who emigrated from Moscow about 15 years ago.
They go for the unique selection of cured meats and fish, not available elsewhere; Russian and Ukrainian chocolates, and the famous Georgian wines from the best winery in Georgia — Telavi Wine Cellar, Ivanova says.
The cured meat and fish sections at any good Russian market are especially impressive. Red basturma with paprika, a huge variety of salamis and duck pate are only a few of the specialties. Salo (think lard) is sliced thinly and served on bread with hot Russian mustard.
In the cured-fish sections at these markets there’s a special place for herring with at least a dozen brands and types, but you’ll also find hot smoked sturgeon, mackerel, salmon and more. Jars of caviar range from about $12 for red salmon roe to $100 or more for prized sturgeon black caviar.
The stores’ refrigerated dairy cases hold their share of surprises. Ten types of delicious kefir — traditional, Russian or Amish style — stand next to Bulgarian, Armenian, French and Slovakian cheeses from the feta-bryndza family. “Russia and former republics of Soviet Union are not strong in cheese culture,” said Ivanova. “Most cheeses are similar to havarti or white cheddar and eaten on sandwiches. We don’t have wine-artisan cheese culture like in France.”
There are more treasures to be found. Home-cooked dishes, often prepared on the premises, are offered in many of these markets.
Guttman writes the Modern Manna food column for Haaretz.com and is chef and owner of Cardamom & Mint Catering in Maryland.
Pickled Mushroom, Brown Butter and Bryndza Linguine
MAKES: 4 servings
NOTES: Russian delis always carry a variety of pickled mushrooms, and each jar delivers a unique flavor to this dish. We used red pine mushrooms that had been pickled with a bit of caraway seed. The result was an Italian-style dish with a wonderful Eastern European aroma.
Bryndza is a semi-hard, very lightly salted cheese, available at Russian and Eastern European delis.
11 ounces jarred, pickled mushrooms, such as salted red pine mushrooms (see headnote)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 pound fresh linguine
3 ounces bryndza cheese, grated
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, drain the mushrooms, discarding their liquid; rinse briefly. Cut any that are larger than bite-size.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat; keep cooking just until the butter is golden brown and smells a bit nutty. Stir in the poppy seeds and cook for about a minute, then stir in the mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes, until fragrant, then remove from the heat.
Add the linguine to the boiling water; cook according to the package directions. Transfer to a serving bowl, then add the mushroom mixture and toss to incorporate.
Top with the grated cheese. Serve right away.
Chocolate-Hazelnut Wafer Cake
MAKES: 12 to 16 servings
NOTES: The chocolate-hazelnut cream between the layers of this “cake” is really a homemade Nutella or gianduja, with a strong flavor of roasted hazelnuts.
PREPARATION: The chocolate-hazelnut filling needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 3 days. The assembled cake needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.
Plain, round wafers are available at Eastern European grocery stores. Toasted hazelnuts are available at Trader Joe’s, or you can follow the directions below and roast your own.
2 cups raw, unsalted hazelnuts, preferably toasted (see NOTE)
4 tablespoons sugar
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 package 10-inch round wafers (5 rounds; see headnote)
Toast the raw hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for 12 to 14 minutes, shaking them twice, until they are evenly colored and fragrant. Cool completely before using.
Combine the toasted hazelnuts and sugar in a food processor or a high-powered blender (such as a Vitamix); puree for a few minutes. The methods will yield different results. The processor mixture will be crumbly, and the Vitamix mixture will be smooth. Both will be fine for this recipe.
Place 4 ounces of the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl.
Bring the heavy cream just to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Immediately pour the cream over the chocolate; let it stand for 2 minutes, then stir until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Stir in the hazelnut-sugar mixture, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.
Transfer the chilled chocolate-hazelnut mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment or to a hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium-high speed for 2 minutes.
Place a wafer round on a cake platter and spread one-quarter of the chocolate-hazelnut mixture evenly on top. Cover with another wafer round. Continue layering the cake for three more layers, finishing with a wafer. Gently press the cake with your hands.
Melt the remaining 2 ounces of chocolate in the microwave oven, heating in 20-second intervals, until the chocolate is pourable. Use a spoon to drizzle a pattern over the cake. Refrigerate uncovered for 2 hours (or at least until the chocolate has set), then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 week.
By Vered Guttman
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