There’s an expression that goes something like this: “He (or she) knows just enough to be dangerous.” When it comes to culinary expression, a little bit of information plus a lot of ignorance can turn cultural homage into caricature. Who among us has not cringed at some hamfisted effort to honor a particular cuisine? I place in this category basically anything The Olive Garden has ever produced in the name of abbondanza, myriad attempts by clueless schools to celebrate Black History Month with fried chicken and watermelon, and the time when, in law school, I cooked a perfect salmon florentine out of the Pierre Franey 60 Minute Gourmet book for a date who promptly requested soy sauce, because “that’s what goes on Chinese food.” Cue sad trombone.
Recently, our Supper Club assembled around a pre-Soviet Russian theme, inspired by Chekhov’s praise in The Siren for the classic Russian dish, kulebyaka, a giant brioche enclosing sturgeon, kasha, and mushrooms. In a turnabout of the czarist predilection for all things French, Escoffier brought the kulebyaka back to France, where its complexity and richness thrilled gastronomes. The selection of this theme made me mildly anxious. I primarily associate Russian food with the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, about a kind of creepy talking doll whose eyes would light up like fireflies whenever it was about to dispense profundities like “the morning is wiser than the evening” to the little girl who fed it bits of cabbage soup, black bread, and kvass. You get what you pay for, I suppose. To expose the depths of my ignorance even further, I can’t think about this story without hearing Yakov Smirnoff in my head, saying something like “…In Soviet Russia, creepy little girl doll eat YOU!” Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.
Under the circumstances, it seemed best to steer clear of anything that might resemble a mockery of Russian cuisine. Pickled vegetables are popular throughout Russia, as are hearty breads and smoked fish. Why not combine cured and lightly smoked mackerel with black bread, not as a sandwich, but as a first course? To reinforce the cold freshness of the dish, a salad of pickled apple and celery is compressed for crispness, and scattered on the mackerel with herbs, peppery radish slices, and toasted bread crumbs.
Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread
This dish combines smoky, briny mackerel, with a compressed, vinegared salad, and slightly bitter toasted black bread. It’s not Russian in any traditional sense, but surely could be served at the modern Russian zakuski table.
1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
50g brown sugar
120g sea salt
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp coarsely ground coriander seed
120g Bakon vodka or another smoke-flavored vodka
Combine all dry ingredients well.
Fillet the mackerel. (For a treat, roast the rack and the head at 400F until the meat is just opaque. Pull it off the bone and eat with a squeeze of lemon and some salt, or some chimichurri.) Remove any pin bones with tweezers and trim off any portions discolored with bile (depicted in photo) as they will be bitter.
Place the fillets in a container just large enough to hold both. Coat the mackerel well with the seasoning on both meat and skin side (about twice as much on the meat side as underneath), and set in the container skin side down. Drizzle the Bakon vodka over the top. Cover the container tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate 12 hours.
By this time, some liquid should have leached from the mackerel and mixed with some of the curing spice to form a light amber liquid. Flip the fillets over so the meat side is down in the liquid. Cover tightly and cure for another 3 days.
After a total of about 3-4 days, depending on thickness of your fillets, the mackerel should be ready. Test by slicing off a thin bit. If the mackerel is satisfactorily cured, rinse lightly, pat dry, and cold-smoke using alder or oak chips and a smoking gun for about 30 minutes, over ice. Wrap tightly to store. You can hold this cold cured mackerel for about 4 days under refrigeration, but otherwise should freeze it. As the curing process removes a substantial amount of water, cured fish freezes nicely. In fact, the mackerel photo above came straight from the freezer – we ate the other one before I remembered to take a picture. Bonus: frozen mackerel slices more easily.
Compressed celery and apple salad
The purpose of the Vitamin C is to prevent the apples browning. If you intend to serve immediately after compressing, you probably don’t need it, but if you intend to hold for more than a few hours, be sure to use Vitamin C or lemon juice.
10 mg ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
30 ml filtered water
30 ml white wine vinegar
1 sprig tarragon
2-3 ribs celery
1 large Granny Smith apple
Dissolve the ascorbic acid in water. Stand 15 minutes and then combine with the wine vinegar and tarragon in a plastic bag. Vacuum on high for 90 seconds.
Peel and slice the celery, and slice the apple, into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or by hand. Bag separately and add about 1.5 tbsp vinegar solution to each bag. Seal and compress in vacuum chamber. Hold under refrigeration until ready to serve.
Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum
Slice the bread very thinly. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the bread slices and turn to coat with butter on both sides; continue to toast until browned. Cool and break into bits or crumbs; hold for service, tightly covered.
Thinly slice the mackerel and pound it out as carpaccio, between sheets of clingfilm. Thinly slice a red or watermelon radish (black radish is appropriate as well).
Plate the mackerel, with the herbs, salad, radish, and toasted black bread crumbs evenly distributed, or in any other configuration you like.
Bonus: Beetroot sorbet
This is a bonus dish. Initially, I planned to pair the mackerel and rye with a beetroot sorbet, thinking it would seem especially Russian. When I tasted it, though, it really just tasted really beet-y and sweet; even a meaty, strong fish like mackerel was tasteless beside it. Incidentally, this is why it’s a good idea to taste a dish before serving it the first time (I say this as someone who rarely follows my own advice, except when I have some doubts at the inception). The beet sorbet is far too strong for most pairings but makes a great intermezzo.
Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)
12 medium beets, about 700g
300 g water
100 g liquid glucose
2 leaves gelatin
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
Scrub clean and roast the beets at 400F until tender to the center, about 75 minutes. Cool and peel. You should have about 550g beets. Slice into chunks.
Heat the water, sugar, and glucose in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add the beets and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are extremely tender. Hydrate the gelatin leaves and add to the beet mixture with the vinegar.
Puree until completely smooth in a vitaprep or blender (if you cannot achieve a velvety consistency in your blender, strain the mixture through a chinois). Chill and process in an ice cream machine. Freeze at least 4 hours to set.