Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

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.

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Cured mackerel

1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
100g sugar
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.

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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.

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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.

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Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum

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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.

To assemble:

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.

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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
200g sugar
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.

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Fruit, Pork Products, preserving

Just peachy.

Now that we’ve comfortably settled into autumn, I can admit that I kind of hate summer. I don’t talk about this very much because people seem to consider it roughly equivalent to being a Communist or a baby-eater. Summer-dislike is a relatively new thing, just since I moved to the sweaty mid-Atlantic at the millenium. I grew up in Milwaukee, where, starting sometime late in spring every year, the local forecasts remind area residents that it’s “cooler by the lake,” and you can look forward to wearing shorts and drinking beer outside. In the Milwaukee of my childhood, and probably even today with climate change and all, you can count on daytime highs of 75 to maybe, maybe 85 degrees at the lakefront. You turn off the air conditioner and open the windows at night so you can hear the crickets. In Washington/Baltimore, you can count on stagnant 95 degree days like being smothered by sopping hot towels. Even at midnight, you can find yourself standing in the dark, soaked in sweat, mainlining Gatorade and begging for the sweet release of death.

Unlike the celebrated summer of the Great Lakes, the months between Memorial and Labor Day out east are good for two things only, which admittedly are pretty good. One is the beach, which is self-explanatory. The other is farm stands, with their array of limited-time-only goodies like sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, and stone fruit. Nothing against apples and oranges, of course, but they store so well that they’re available, and fine quality, all year. Try buying a decent peach in December, though. It doesn’t exist; the only available specimens were picked weeks earlier, rock-hard and barely golden, in another hemisphere, and soften into rosy-looking but cottony imitations of the real thing.

When peaches come into season, their partisans go crazy. In the classic Seinfeld episode “The Doodle,” Kramer extols the virtues of the Mackinaw peach, an elusive (and fictional) treat from Oregon available for only two weeks a year. “It’s like having a circus in your mouth!” Evidently, the Mackinaw peach has become a holy grail of peaches for many fruit enthusiasts; Google “mackinaw peach” for numerous accounts of disappointed peach fiends who go hunting only to be mocked and turned cruelly away. In too good to be true fashion, the Portland Food Group discussion about Mackinaw peaches devolved almost immediately into hostile foodie one-upmanship. If you thought PDX was all about laid back, flannel-wearing potheads, think again.

So don’t go looking for Mackinaw peaches, or annoy the PDX food community with well meaning questions about their seasonal treat. It doesn’t exist. And now that it’s a little late in the season, the remaining peaches in markets aren’t the juice gushers of mid-July and August. Don’t let them go to waste, though – pickle them. You won’t taste a more delicious combination than pickled peaches with any smoked meat. Brisket, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, duck – all are vastly improved by the addition of the pickled peaches.

Pickle brine seems like a no-brainer to pour down the drain. Don’t do it! As is the case with boozy peaches, a lot of the peach flavor leaches out into the pickling liquid. Strain and keep it refrigerated for use in shrubs or cocktails like the Kentucky Pig & Peach. NB: the first dish I ever developed was an emulsion of dill pickle juice (Vlasic or Claussen) and butter. I was four years old. Pickle butter is the shit when you smear it on Triscuits.

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Smoked pork belly, chicharrón, pickled peach
In this dish, a smoked cured belly – basically bacon – serves as the foil to the sweet-tart peaches. If you like some kind of starch with your meats, grits or creamed corn are the way to go.

This dish has multiple components, each requiring multiple steps. If you can’t deal with all of them, you can get the gist of the flavor combination by making the pickled peaches, and then preparing the pork through the poaching phase. Slice, brown the fat side, and serve with pickled peaches on the side.

Start the pork at least two days and up to a week before service. You’ll cure overnight, then smoke and poach the next day. If you have time, weight the belly for a great firm texture and even thickness.

For the pork:

1 lb belly, trimmed of skin (reserve skin for chicharrón, below)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp white pepper
peppercorns, thyme and bay

2 quarts chicken stock
1 inch chunk yellow rock sugar
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1/4 c usukuchi soy
1 head garlic, sliced along equator

1/4 c white wine vinegar (same as used in the peach pickle)
2 shallots, minced
1 c dry, floral white wine
2 c smoked pork stock (from braise)
bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2″ section of licorice root
1 star anise
6 tbsp unsalted butter.

Combine the salt, sugar, and white pepper. Coat the belly evenly with the seasoning and place with peppercorns, thyme, and bay in a vessel just large enough to hold the belly. Cure under refrigeration, turning over after 12 hours. If you have extra time, cure up to 4 days and turn after each.

Rinse the cured belly and pat dry. Set up a smoking apparatus with charcoal and apple or hickory wood chunks (I use an offset smoker) and smoke the belly at 180F for 3 hours.

Combine the stock, sugar, thyme, soy, and the garlic. When it comes to a simmer, add the smoked belly. Simmer until just tender, about 2 hours. Remove the belly from the liquid; strain and set aside. If you have time, seal in a bag or wrap in clingfilm and chill down; then place in a small container, about the same size as the belly. Top with another container or cutting board and weight, refrigerated, at least four hours.

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For the reduction:

Prepare the reduction. Bring the shallot and vinegar to a simmer in a saucepot over medium low heat. When the vinegar has reduced to au sec, add the wine and reduce again to au sec. Add the stock, herbs, and spices and reduce by about 2/3. Strain through a chinois and mount with cold butter.

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To serve, cut the belly into 1×2″ rectangles. Score the fat on top and place, fat side down, in a hot pan over medium heat for 2 minutes. Transfer to a 250F oven for another 6 minutes. Serve the seared belly atop the reduction and the pickled peach purée, and serve with a chicharrón.

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For the chicharrón:

skin from pork belly
grapeseed or rice bran oil

Scrape as much fat as possible from the underside of the skin. Divide into several strips about 1″ wide.

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Place the skin in a sauce pot with water and bring to a boil. Boil for about an hour, until gelatinous and flexible. Add more water, if necessary, to keep the skins completely submerged during boiling.

Drain and, when cool, trim any remaining fat from the skins. Place on a silpat on a sheet pan and dry in a 160F convection oven for 2-4 hours (times will vary based on the thickness of the skin) until completely dry and glassy. Cool completely. Store in a tightly covered container – if you have a silica dehydrator pack, add it to the container. You can store these for a fairly long time, but with a silica pack, they may become too dry to puff well at some point, so try to use them within a month.

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To cook, bring a pot of grapeseed or rice bran oil to 360F. Break the skins into chips about 3/4″ square and add not more than two at a time to the oil. Using a spider, keep turning the chips as they puff. Once they have completely puffed, remove and drain on paper towels; salt and serve immediately.

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For the pickled peach:

2 lbs peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced into 12-16 slices each (depending on size)
1 c white wine vinegar (champagne is best)
1 c filtered water
1/2 c + 1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
4 star anise
about 2 dozen Pondicherry (true red) peppercorns [Note: this is not the same as pink peppercorn; substitute black if unavailable]
4-6 dried jasmine flowers (elderflower is great also)

Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, spices, and flowers and bring just to a boil, ensuring the salt and sugar are dissolved.

Divide the peaches among mason jars and pour the pickling liquid evenly over them, distributing the spices and flowers. Chill down and store. The peaches will be mildly pickled after about 6 hours and are optimal at 2-7 days.

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As depicted in the photo, the peaches and their pickling liquid have been blended to a sauce. Blend all the peaches (sans spices or flowers) with enough pickling liquid to achieve a medium-bodied purée.

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Kentucky Pig & Peach

I developed this recipe to use up a bottle of bacon-flavored vodka a friend brought possibly as a hostess gift and possibly to razz me. That’s the “pig.” But during a recent visit to Kentucky’s MB Roland craft distillery, we picked up a bottle of Black Dog – basically white dog in which dark-fired (smoked) corn constitutes part of the mash. That kind of smoky white dog is even better in this drink, if you can get it.

Don’t use pickling brine from the first two days of pickling to make this drink; it won’t be peachy enough, and somewhat too sour. Whatever brine you don’t use to make this drink you can strain into a clean container and keep for months in your refrigerator.

Final note: as with most things, better ingredients = better cocktail. But it’s dumb to waste really top drawer booze on a mixed drink. Use something decent, like Maker’s Mark, but don’t use your single-barrel whiskies; save those for sipping.

For two cocktails:

1 1/2 oz vinegar from pickled peaches
2 oz bourbon
2 oz smoked white dog [MB Roland’s Black Dog] or bacon vodka
6 drops barrel-aged sorghum bitters
2 large ice cubes, plus extra

Stir all the ingredients besides the ice cubes. Place one large cube in each of two old-fashioned glasses. Strain the cocktail over ice and serve. A little sprig of mint would not be out of place.

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