After years of avoiding them, I’ve joined a book club. Finally, it seems enough time has passed between the six years I spent in university and grad school doing nothing but reading and talking about books ad nauseam with a bunch of people who fancied themselves experts on just about everything. Nowadays it is the ultimate indulgence to sit with a bunch of fabulous ladies, musing on what we’ve read without judgement, and eating some great food while we do it.
Back in September our first pick was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening which I remembered loving during my feminist lit class at Millikin. What a revelation to read it again more than 20 years later with the new perspective all those years have given me! Apropos of its Southern setting we all met at The Lockhart restaurant where the lovely Molly McDonald works in the front of the house while her husband Brad is at the helm in the kitchen. They’ve lovingly brought authentic Southern American cuisine to London’s tony Marylebone area, and along with it their singularly Southern charm. Molly coordinated the whole evening and while we gabbed and got to know one another, plates of shrimp and grits and fried chicken and catfish goujons and cornbread were piled on our table. Food and books, my two favorite things combined in one lovely evening.
It was such a success that we decided we must do it again and with the generous offer of a private supperclub space above Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen, I said I’d love the opportunity to cook for the group. I picked the Madonnas of Leningrad as our book so that I could rustle up a Russian feast, something I almost never get to do. I thought of all the recipes I’d prepared during the Olympics earlier this year and how I could round it out to make a true banquet. Plus I was cooking for a bunch of women who know their food and I hoped to live up to their high standards! Here’s what I fixed.
Buckwheat Blini with Caviar and Fixings
Russian Black Bread with Blue Cheese Butter and Radishes and Pickles
Garlicky Beet Salad and Smoked Trout & Potato Salad
Pork Pilmeni and Wild Mushroom Pilmeni
Hearty Beef Borscht
Beet, Orange Zest, Poppy Seed and Mascarpone Ice Cream
It seems a lot, but I wanted it to be served family style, a sort of hybrid zakuski (small plates) so guests could taste a little bit of everything. Most everything could be made well in advance so that I could be involved in the conversation and not tied to the stove. The only thing I had to make onsite were the buckwheat blini – that, and I froze the vodka inside a water container with berries and leaves to decorate it from our back garden. For extra authenticity I wandered over to Kalinka, the Russian shop on Bayswater and picked up lots of smetana (sour cream), some pickled garlic scapes and mushrooms, and couldn’t resist picking up a bag of Russian chocolates wrapped up exactly as I remembered.
As a little side note, what a joy to be cooking in a big kitchen with professional equipment on hand! A few members of our club work for Jamie Oliver’s Foundation and were kind enough to offer the space. Typically, the loft-like room is used for classes that the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation holds for kids, fundraising supperclubs, shoots for his many cookbooks (you get a real sense of the room in these photographs here which were taken by my dear and talented husband). The outreach that Jamie does with kids and his work in schools is amazing….you can learn more here and even donate if you’re so inclined.
Anyway, as we were eating and discussing the harrowing experiences of Marina, the book’s heroine – a guide at the Hermitage Museum and one of the few who survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II, one of the ladies asked me if I cooked Russian food at home often. Sadly, I realised that really I never do, thinking of it more as special occasion food, when really, it shouldn’t be relegated to that rarely prepared niche. This borscht recipe is a compilation of many out there which most closely resembles the one our dear housekeeper Svetlana used to make when we lived in Moscow, and will henceforth be on regular rotation in our house. Dare I suggest it be in yours too? It’s a lovely stew, full of vegetables and complex flavors. Do go the extra mile and garnish with sour cream and dill as suggested – it makes a world of difference!
1 pound cubes of stewing beef
1 tablespoon salt
3 medium beets, washed, peeled and grated
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 carrots, grated
3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into bite-sized pieces
1/2 head of small cabbage, sliced
1 14 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
Sour cream and fresh sprigs of dill to garnish
Place stew beef in a large soup pot with 14 cups cold water and 1 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil and remove the foamy crud as soon as it boils (if you wait, it will be hard to get rid of the crud as it integrates into the broth and you’d have to strain it). Lower the heat, partially cover and cook at a simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, periodically skimming off any crud that rises to the top. Meanwhile, place the grated beets in a large heavy-bottom skillet with the olive oil and vinegar and sautee for about 5 minutes. Once they’re softening, reduce heat to medium and add the tomato paste, combine thoroughly and sautee until starting to soften, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. In the same pan (no need to wash it), sautee the onion in 1 tablespoon of butter until starting to soften. Add the grated carrot and sautee another 5 minutes and add this to your cooked beets. Once the meat has been cooking for at least 45 minutes, add the sliced potatoes into the soup and cook for 10 minutes, then add the cabbage, sauteed beets, onion & carrot, and the can of chopped tomatoes. Cook another 10 minutes or until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Now add the 2 bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Finally add the minced garlic, take the soup off the heat and cover, allowing it to sit for at least 10 minutes so all of the flavors come together. Serve with lots of lovely smetana (sour cream) and sprigs of fresh dill and another good grinding of black pepper.
Yes, lots and lots of beets, but what I loved about the end result was that it showed just how versatile this devisive vegetable can be! The ice cream was such a hit that I’ve been asked to share Jenni Britton Bauer’s recipe from her book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Apart from being delicious and unexpected, the color is amazing and as one guest noted, it plays tricks with your brain because you expect a raspberry taste but then you experience a deep, earthy beet essence with hits of orange and pops of poppy seed. It’s magical!
2 medium beets
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon cornstarch
2 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
zest of one orange – removed with a peeler in large strips
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
First roast your beets (individually wrapped in foil) in a 450 degree oven, until very soft, about one hour. Allow to cool just a bit, then peel and puree in a food processor. Force the puree through a fine sieve and combine 1/2 cup of this fine puree with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Set aside to cool and discard any extra puree (or use in your next smoothie).
Now mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a slurry. Whisk together the mascarpone, cooled beet puree and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Combine the remaining milk, cream, sugar, corn syrup, and orange zest in a large saucepan and bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until slightly thickened. Gradually whisky the hot milk mixture into the mascarpone mixture until smooth. Place the bowl into the fridge and allow to get completely cold before moving on to the next step (I usually do this overnight or at least a full day).
Finally, remove the orange zest from the chilled ice cream base and pour it into your frozen ice cream machine canister. Add the poppy seeds and churn until thick and creamy (this will vary from machine to machine). Pack the ice cream into a storage container and seal tightly – place in freezer until you’re ready to serve.