Maria Depenweiller wrote her first cookbook at the age of 12, jotting her family’s favourites in her school notebook. She was cooking complete meals for her family by the time she emigrated from Russia at 14. She now resides in Milton where she and her husband enjoy cooking foods from many different cultures. Though she has written several Russian books since her school notebook days, Russian Cuisine: Traditional and Contemporary Home Cooking is Depenweiller’s first English language cookbook.
When I thought about it, I realized I had no real idea what Russian food would look like. The only images I recall seeing of the country were 1980’s action movies, and they were a little light on cultural accuracy. Russia is the largest geographical country in the world. It borders places as diverse as Finland and Mongolia, and was an international force a hundred years before Canada was a country. There has to be more to Russian food than just beet soup and vodka.
Due to the short growing season, vegetable ingredients are limited but Russian cooks have found any number of ways to use cooking and preserving methods to add interest to potatoes and cabbage. Rather than the huge pots of heavy stew I was expecting, Depenweiller shows us various pastries topped or filled with a surprising variety of options. After reading this book, Russia strikes me as a culture that embraces celebration.
The Russian blini is a gateway food that needs to be approached with caution, or you may find yourself making these every weekend. Blinis open up a world of flavours and textures. There are many types of blini batter, and they can be topped with an endless variety of delicious and deceptively simple ingredients. You can try a melted butter and honey combination for a sweet treat, or be as decadent as you like with smoked salmon, or caviar.
Depenweiller tells us that Salad Olivier is the most popular of Russian salads and has stood the tests of time and turmoil. Its ingredients have changed since it’s invention at the end of the 19th century but it is always present at any celebration. This recipe is a modern version and is a great use for leftover chicken or ham. Try it at your next barbeque, in place of classic potato salad.
Russian Cuisine is a good cookbook but I found it most interesting as a culinary history of Russia. The author discusses the changes in food traditions from the medieval period through to the fall of the Soviet Union. She includes suggestions for music, film and books to enhance the enjoyment of different meals and how to set the table for each. Food related art prints illustrate the changing attitudes toward meals throughout the history of the country. An entire chapter is devoted to the proper way to make and serve Russian Tea.
This book could provide a trip down memory lane for some, and will certainly appeal to those who want to learn more about Russian culture and cuisine.
Tracy Turlin is a freelance writer and dog groomer in London. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recipes and photos on the following pages are courtesy of Whitecap Books. Russian Cuisine: Traditional and Contemporary Home Cooking; Maria Depenweiller; Whitecap Books, 2015.
This is an old Russian recipe that was forgotten for some time but now is returning to popularity. Russian blini are large and thin. You can roll them up or fold them into quarters before serving.
2 cups (500 mL) buckwheat flour
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1 tsp (5 mL) sugar
3 Tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil
4 cups (1 L) milk
½ cup (125 mL) melted butter
½ cup (125 mL) sour cream
In a deep bowl, combine buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, sugar and vegetable oil. Gradually add the eggs and milk whisking constantly, to make a runny batter. Let the batter rest for about 15 minutes.
Heat a well-greased frying pan over medium-high heat. Mix the batter with a large spoon, then pour or scoop the batter onto the pan, using approximately ¼ to ½ cup (60 to 125 mL) for each blini. Tilt the pan in a circular motion so that the batter coats the pan surface evenly. Fry each blini for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is golden. Loosen with a spatula, carefully flip over and cook the other side.
Serve hot with melted butter and sour cream.
Makes 8 servings
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
This is definitely the most popular of all Russian salads. No special occasion is celebrated without it. The original recipe for Salad Olivier, or Zakuska Olivier as it was once called, was made popular by a Russian chef of French origin — Lucien Olivier. He worked in Restaurant Hermitage in Moscow, at the end of 19th century.
The exact ingredients of the original recipe are still the subject of much discussion and speculation. It is believed they were kept secret by the master himself and that Olivier never disclosed the recipe to anyone. However, it did not remain a complete mystery as versions of this salad appeared in other restaurants in Moscow and further afield. The first ever recorded recipe for Zakuska Olivier dates back to the late 1890s. This recipe included quail, fresh cucumbers, olives, crayfish, potatoes, lettuce and a composite sauce made with a mayonnaise base.
The salad was well known and always in demand. It is not surprising that attempts were made to recreate the masterpiece at home. Even the political and social turmoil of the revolution and early Soviet period did not diminish people’s love for this salad. Due to the absence of many ingredients and the adaptation to the new Soviet lifestyle, the recipe for Salad Olivier evolved over time. Olives and quails were gone, and replaced with simpler ingredients. Here is the current version of the classic Salad Olivier.
3 medium potatoes, unpeeled
2 medium carrots, unpeeled
3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1 cup (250 mL) cooked ham (or boiled chicken breast), diced
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 dill pickles, finely chopped
½ cup (125 mL) fresh dill or parsley, chopped
½ cup (125 mL) canned green peas
1 ½ cups (375 mL) mayonnaise
½ tsp (2 mL) salt
½ tsp (2 mL) black pepper
Cook the potatoes and carrots until tender and then let cool. Peel and dice them and place in a large salad bowl. Add hard-boiled eggs, ham, onions, pickles, dill and peas. Mix well. Add the mayonnaise, salt and pepper, making sure that the mayonnaise evenly coats all the ingredients.
Makes 6 servings
Preparation time: 1 hour