“Having endured more than their share of horrific regimes, Russians are highly adept at devising ways to lead emotionally rich lives despite oppressive politics and sometimes-murderous government control,” writes Darra Goldstein in “Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore.”
To that end, she writes, Russians do not define their lives by their current autocrats, but by the seasons, their gardens, their harvest after foraging in the country, and celebrating at the table.
Goldstein, a former Russian professor at Williams College, has been traveling to Russia for more than four decades and knows well that it is eyed with suspicion. She has spent a career, she writes, “trying to convey what’s so captivating about Russian culture and cuisine.”
In past volumes, Goldstein studied French dishes named for noblemen (chicken Demidoff, Nesselrode pudding), and the food from Soviet republics (chicken tabaka from the Republic of Georgia, plov from Uzbekistan). Now, she wanted to tell about the food in the countryside cooked by ordinary people. In Russia today, she says, you don’t only have the extremes of beef Stroganoff for some residents and boiled cabbage for the others. There is a lot in between.
Along the way, she teaches us about life in Russia in her many travels over the years, the hardships, constant stress about getting food, using what you have, staying warm, making do, traditions, and celebrations.
Many Russians remember being hungry, she says, but when they go to a little house they might own in the country, the dacha, this isn’t just a place for summer holidays, but “a state of mind, a kind of Eden" she writes. She says that most dachas aren’t as nice as we might imagine; many do not have indoor plumbing. But this is where Russians pick wild mushrooms and berries, grow potatoes, beets, cucumbers, and other vegetables, and then preserve their harvest. They have food to tuck away in case there are shortages.
Some of it we might know: half-sour pickles, pepper vodka, dried wild mushrooms. But they also make farmer’s cheese (tvorog); bake raw milk for several hours to culture it (varenets); brine tomatoes and apples; salt fish; ferment stale rye bread with honey to make the drink kvass.
Goldstein is fearless about travel. The book opens in February on the Kola Peninsula, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Almost 40 years ago, after living in Moscow for nearly a year, she and her husband took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing across four time zones, on a train where they were told no food would be available (what food was provided on the train was sold illegally out of the caboose at every stop). They took what provisions they could carry for the first leg and at one stop, they were met by a friend of a friend who handed them a basket packed with a hot meal and vodka.
Photographs by Stefan Wettainen show scenes of frozen Russia, homes, some of the cooks, markets, and simple, beautiful studio shots of the food (I wish there were more).
In the kitchen, Goldstein’s recipes are superb. A salad of salted salmon (you salt it and freeze it for two to three days and it comes out lightly cured) goes into her modern version of Russian Salad (see recipe). Today, it goes by the name Capital Salad and is made with boiled potatoes and carrots, canned peas, and chicken. Hers layers the cured salmon with potatoes drizzled with a whole-grain mustard dressing, thinly sliced Persian cucumbers, and fresh dill. The dish is beautiful with exciting tastes and textures. Salting the salmon is a revelation, though Goldstein never explains why it goes into the freezer, except that slicing it is quite easy.
She adapts an old recipe for breast of lamb stuffed with kasha (buckwheat groats) for a small butterflied leg of lamb. After you simmer the groats, the lamb is easy to assemble and the groats absorb its meaty juices.
Vatrushki, explains Goldstein, are her madeleines. These yeast buns, offered at breakfast and tea, or as a snack, are rolled into rounds and topped in the center with a farmer’s cheese filling. They look a little like reversed fried eggs, because the rim of dough is painted with a golden yolk and the circle of cheese in the center is white. In the oven, the edges puff slightly as they bake, so you have delicious, tender, lightly buttery dough around barely sweetened cheese. Happy as I was with the results, my vatrushki looked quite different from the small ones in the accompanying photograph.
This book offers culture lessons on every page. We learn about feasting and fasting, about the dishes that are part of the appetizer array called zakuski, about cabbage soups made with sauerkraut with names like “empty,” “rich,” and “lazy,” about Soviet state-run cafeterias and abysmal grocery stores, about the giant Russian stove mentioned in literature and folk tales that is so large, you can sleep on it.
If it’s true that you can learn about a culture by understanding its food, you’ll know a lot about Russia after you read — and cook from — this marvelous book.
Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore
By Darra Goldstein
Ten Speed Press, $37.50, 320 ppg.