Where we're going this evening - Russia
When thinking of Russia, two things pop into my mind - it's bloody cold, and they all drink vodka. Of course, this is a huge generalisation - but a flick through Russian recipes does seem to have a common vodka theme, and I don't recall any big brands of Russian sunwear.
After a lot of feudal fighting in the middle ages, Russia settled down under the leadership of Michael Romanov, and remained under Romanov rule - with some family spats - for the next 300 years. But it all blew up with the first world war - Russia was not prepared for the fight, and was left in a state of economic and political collapse, culminating in the overthrow (and execution) of the monarchy, and the bolshevik uprising in 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union.
Communism and rigid state intervention remained the order of the day until the early 1980's when in an attempt to stimulate economic growth, political constraints were loosened. This gave a voice to the disgruntled, leading to reform and the break away of former Soviet states and to the dissolution of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago. This now leaves the country in a complicated federal system with some semi autonomous regions, and some not, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin - a man who hasn't let democracy get in the way of being in the top job for the past decade or so.
Vast and sparsely populated as Russia can be, it's not all peasants herding their goats on the steppes and living in yurts - Russia is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world, and is therefore rather rich, and has the ninth largest economy in the world and is expanding rapidly.
Russia does culture rather well too. The architecture is breathtaking - all those onion domes in Red Square - and the Bolshoi Ballet, not to mention composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The Russians like their sport too - ice hocky, football and basketball are all popular.
Famous Russians - apart from the historical figures of Lenin, Stalin, Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great - include actor Yul Brynner, Anna Kournikova the tennis player, and of course Rudolf Nureyev.
And who can forget Rasputin, the anti-hero, as made famous by Boney M...
That all sounds pretty promising, so let's don our ushankas (that's those cosy fur hats with the ear flaps) and say Приветw to the Russians...
I have a good choice of hearty Russian dishes to try, but by absolute chance, last weekend the restaurant review in the Daily Telegraph was for a Russian joint called Mari Vanna, and so I took my cue from there. Golubtsi is one of those dishes with a thousand variations, however the basic premise is minced beef/veal/pork mixed with variety of herbs/pepper and breadcrumbs/oatmeal/potato then wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in a mushroom/tomato sauce or stock.
That dish was happy to be accompanied by green salad and bread, but what to do about a sweet? I chose this cake recipe because the author says 'we used to eat this on Christmas Eve when I lived in Russia'. How charming!
Mind you, just because this is what happened in that household is not necessarily indicative of Russia as a whole, I guess. After all, it is a tradition in our house to have something called a Fred Time (i.e. shorthand for a cup of tea, as popularised by the Bernard Cribbins 1962 hit, Right Said Fred ', which featured the recurring line, 'had a cup of tea'....).
Growing up, I had no inkling this phrase was not common parlance, and was mystified when I used it in the first week or two of secondary school to blank stares, just as we were all getting our pecking order sorted out. I suspect that I never recovered from the status of 'a bit odd' in the eyes of some. But there ya go.
However - onwards and upwards...
Golubtsi (Russian Cabbage Rolls) - recipe from food.com
Soften cabbage in boiling water & separate leaves. Remove hard stalks. Meanwhile, mix beef/pork mince, grated potato, oatmeal soaked on milk, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, ginger, dill, parsley, horseradish and minced garlic.
Put a tablespoonful of the meat mixture in each cabbage leaf and roll up. lace in a casserole dish. Make a sauce of condensed mushroom soup, water, tomato puree, tobasco & Worcestershire sauce. Pour over the cabbage rolls & bake for an hour in a medium oven.
Blend a little butter with brown sugar. Beat in eggs, lukewarm water, flour, and - oh yes - a whole heap of vodka.
Pour the batter into a lined cake tin or muffin cases & back until golden. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
And what have we learnt?
- Meatballs are meatballs, wherever in the world you go. These are padded out with grated potato and oats rather than breadcrumbs, but plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say in France.
- Wrapping mince in cabbage leaves does make for handy portions - although it all tastes a bit -uh - cabbagy if you overcook/reheat the dish.
- Trying to cream 6oz of soft brown sugar with just over an ounce of butter is always going to be hard going. Not so much creamed, as grainy.
- The proportion of liquid to creamed sugar/butter/egg/flour makes for a creamy batter.
- Adding a goodly amount of vodka to the mix makes transffering the (now sloppy) batter to muffin trays an eye-watering experience
- Vodka might be flavourless, but a good party game is asking your guests to guess the mystery ingredient. First to get it right
is an alcoholicwins.Actually, I suspect that the alcohol 'bakes out' - or I could be pulled over for being 3-buns-over-the-limit...?
And out of 10?
- for the golubsti - a reasonable 6/10 - the mince mixture is good, but this doesn't do much more for me that meatballs do. It has give me a couple of ideas to spice up meatballs though - and actually, the sauce was very nice.
- for the yacklavach - a tasty 7/10 - actually, although these little buns (served warm with ice-cream) did have a certain 'something', they were put me more in mind of a sweet cake in the manner of a ginger cake than of alcohol.