The Sochi Winter Olympics are getting underway in just under two weeks time, and while much is being made of the security concerns and the many human rights questions raised by President Putin’s policies towards gays (well, and everyone else), I’ve been caught up in a bit of nostalgia, remembering the many years I spent in Moscow as a child. We lived there on and off between 1979 and 1990 and were lucky enough to travel quite extensively through the Soviet Union, tasting the many varieties of food which that enormous country offered – shashlik and khachapuri and walnut chicken and smoked sprats. And while there is much about the cuisine of Russia that many people might say is better off forgotten, there are many dishes, some I learned from our Russian housekeepers all those years ago, that are firmly set in my repertoire as a chef today.
It is in this spirit that I’m working up a series of recipes that you can use to create your own Olympics Opening Ceremony viewing party. They are Russian-style tapas called zakuski, which comes from the word, zakusit, which means to snack. If memory serves correctly, they’re really mostly used to soak up the vodka shots that predominate any genuine Russian gathering and are hence perfectly paired to take the sting out of the alcohol burning your throat. Lovely dark rye bread, salami, pickles, beets, garlic and sour cream all do the job incredibly well. So, raise your glass, toast your fellow guests (Na Vasha Zdorovie!), take your shot, and grab some little morsel to make it all go down a little easier.
Possibly the most famous dish that’s been exported outside Russia is their delicious beet soup, borscht. And while a big steaming bowl of the stuff is fantastic on a cold wintry day, I thought little shots of this earthy, sweet soup would be a lovely place to start our Russkie food tour. I remember all sorts of variations on this dish – with meat, with chunks of potatoes, cabbage, cold, hot. For this recipe I’m doing a smooth pureed soup using beets I roasted ahead of time to give it an even richer, sweeter taste. For the record, this is not a classic borscht, recipe, but, like much of what I do, takes the flavors that are evocative of Russia and transforms them into something new.
Little shot glasses of soup are a wonderful amuse bouche when you’re entertaining. I use them often when catering a large canape party as they get the appetite going, promising more goodness to come. Plus, just look at the gorgeous color on these! Who wouldn’t want a table full of these little gems?
1 pound uncooked beets
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion , diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 sprig thyme
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
salt and pepper
sour cream or Russian smetana for garnish
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut all of your beets in half lengthwise and place in a roasting tin. Fill the tin halfway up the sides with water, cover tightly with foil and place in the oven for about 40 minutes, or until your beets are tender. Allow the beets to cool and then slip the skins off of them – chop roughly. In a saucepan sautee the onions and garlic in the olive oil for about five minutes. Add the beets, thyme and stock. Allow this to simmer for 20 minutes. Use a blender to puree the soup until it’s smooth, place it back in the saucepan and add the vinegar and salt and pepper to your taste. To serve, use a measuring cup with a spout to pour the soup into the shot glasses and I use a plastic squeeze bottle to garnish with a dollop of sour cream. A little dill frond gently set on top and you’ve got your beautiful soup shooters.