I fondly remember those Sunday mornings when I would wake up in the early afternoon to the sound of my parents arriving back home after their weekly brunch at Japonaise Bakery and Cafe, bearing a big brown bag of treats from Bazaar (a.k.a. “the Russian store”) in Brookline. Stacked containers of super garlicky mushroom and mayo spread, bright purple beetroot dishes, seaweed salad. Big bags of flaky puff pastry filled with spiced ground beef or cabbage, like buttery Russian empanadas ready to soothe the soul. Dark chocolate and hazelnut confections called confeti wrapped in shiny, crinkly foil with pictures of squirrels and bears over it. A big old jug of deliciously sour and thick kefir. Aluminum tins of melt-in-your-mouth soft cod liver and sardines in different types of tomato sauces. Jars of hot Russian mustard and horseradish to dip wiener sausage in. Sometimes even Russian beer or champagne which hits my dad with nostalgia for his college years in St. Petersburg the same way the thought of a chilled litro of Escudo with a big old completo makes me crave the good old days studying abroad in Santiago.
I paid a visit to Bazaar with my dad a few weeks ago and had a great time exploring the wide selection of pre-made salads, sides, meats and stuffed pastries, as well as the huge collection of oily hot and cold smoked whole fish and red caviar they had on display. My dad once told me that in Russia it used to be perfectly socially acceptable to keep a smoked fish in one’s shirt pocket, like a pen, and to take it out every once in a while to chew on it like jerky. I’m not sure I’d take my Russophile ways that far, but everything else in the store gets a green light when it comes to our fridge. Here are some things we got last time.
Borscht with Meat (борщ), the one you heat up and (optionally) add sour cream to in this case. It’s a bit like a beet salad drenched in a vibrant, deep pink broth with hearty chunks of chewy beef tossed in, and I love it. The beet-beef broth is not too intense in flavor, but is actually mild and diluted, with that soil-and-root flavor of beets, which I prefer to think of as earthy than dirty, mixing with the savory broth from the beef. Beets taste like the land and when prepared correctly and actually become quite sweet. In the case of borscht, this mineral sweetness is lifted up and perfumed by floral dill and bay leaf. Hearty chunks of potato, and plenty of chopped celery maintain their texture and provide a great teeth-sinking bite to each spoonful, to contrast with the more tender, juicy shreds of beetroot. The chunks of beef are great, fatty, soaking up the flavors of the broth around it. Served with a toasted slice of black rye bread, this stuff is perfection on a cold winter night (or on a hot summer day, if you get the cold meatless version). Pirozhki (пирожок, kind of…) with spinach and feta, but in this case made with a flaky puff pastry, shaped into a triangle and sprinkled with white sesame seeds instead of the baked yeast dough buns (similar to the baked bao in China) otherwise popular in Russia under this name. I love buttery puff pasty and I love spinach and cheese filling but in this case, the thing was a bit too stiff, probably because we got it in the afternoon, after it had been out of the oven for a while. Reconstituting it a bit by throwing it in the broiler might have fixed it up significantly but, well, I was too impatient to do so. While the texture was a bit too dense and stiff, the flavors were great. Tangy, sharp feta made green with slippery smooth threads of spinach running through, wrapped in a crispy, flaky pastry that fell apart into little scales that melted into butter on the palate. And another Pirozhki, this time stuffed with cabbage. This, along with its meaty ground beef cousin, is probably my favorite thing at Bazaar. My dad and I usually just consume them in the car on the way home. It’s a great feeling to reach down into the brown paper bag, grab one of these soft little pillows and take a huge bite into the middle. The pastry is crispy on the bottom, flaky all the way through and light as a feather. The shredded cabbage inside, sauteed with onions and, I think, carrots, is a great slippery, moist, satisfying texture and has a wonderfully sweet, caramelized veggie flavor all the way through. Nothing too extreme on the palate, just comforting and mild.
Vinegret (Винегрет) is probably one of the most quintessentially Russian salads (or dishes, in general) out there. It is made of finely chopped beets, potatoes, onions, carrots, some strands of pickled cabbage and very lightly pickled cucumbers, dressed with sunflower oil (not vinegar). Besides being shockingly vibrant in color, which always reminds me of the hair color of older Eastern European ladies rocking the 80’s short hairstyles, it’s a pretty healthy salad when not drenched in oil. The beets dominate in their mineral, root flavor, with the pickled cabbage and cukes adding some acidity to offset the oil and the murky ground flavor of the root. The potatoes add a nice hearty body to the dish, making it pretty satisfying even when consumed on its own. And, as with most beet-centric Ruski dishes, some dill is added to lift things up with its clean, summer flavor and aroma.
Black rye bread. Love this stuff, although sometimes I can’t handle it raw and need to toast it. Since wheat was largely unavailable in Russia until the 20th century, peasants relied almost exclusively on rye and buckwheat as the grains to make bread from. It was, and still is, a bit hard, with a very pungent, intense rye flavor which is almost too sour, almost bitter even, for me to handle when left un-toasted. This is definitely not your butter soft, neighborhood cafe brioche. The crust is chewy rather than crunchy, the body fibrous and harsh in flavor. But when paired with stuff like earthy borscht or vinegret, oily or mayo-y veggie spreads with eggplant or carrot, this stuff is awesome. It’s acidity cuts the fat of whatever mushy, soft thing is spread onto it or eaten along with it, and it is also great for soaking up the excess sauce of hearty meat dishes. Just a great thing to have around in the house in general, especially since it really does not mold for weeks. A slice of the stuff, toasted to get rid of some of that excess acidity from the rye, is great topped just with butter and coarse salt as well. One of those oily veggie toppings that go great with the Russian rye bread is Bazaar’s Baked Eggplant Paste. Not a difficult one to figure out. Eggplant is baked until tender and then pureed until it reaches a nice, mushy consistency. It is combined then with onions and garlic which have been sauteed in a generous amount of oil. Some tomatoes, carrot slices, and, I think, celery are tossed in along with some pepper and sugar to add a bit of sweetness. The thing is then cooked altogether until the flavors of the veggies come together and the spread reaches a nice, “set” consistency. A tad oily, but the rye bread is there to soak up the excess and provide a great base to layer the stuff on thick. The Veal Tongue Salad (Салат Оливье. Olivje) is by far one of my favorites, whether scooped onto crackers or layered thick on toasted black rye bread. Upon doing some research on this dish, I discovered that it has a pretty interesting history. Although it is now most popular in Russia, in many varieties which include ham instead of veal, it is actually said to have been invented by some Provençal guy called Carle Olivier in 1860 and served at stoute boude, which was a well-known restaurant in South Africa at the time. The “salad” was originally made with veal tongue, caviar, lettuce, crayfish tails, smoked duck and capers, with a dressing of mayonnaise, wine vinegar and olive oil from Provence. It came to Russia in the 20th century, when some Russian sous chef of Olivier’s, named Ivan Ivanov, tried to steal the recipe – “tried” because he only managed to get it kind of right – and sell it at a Russian restaurant under the name “Capital Salad.” It was later discovered to have been invented by Olivier and was appropriately renamed. Since then, a load of recipes have been published, each with a slightly different interpretation of the dressing. The one at Bazaar is made very simply with thin slices of veal tongue and tomatoes bound by a tangy mayo which is flavored with a bit of vinegar, capers and a ton of dill. The tongue itself has a great chewy, gummy initial texture to it, but gets tender pretty quickly after just a bit of mastication. The tongue is studded with delicate little taste buds which add a great bumpy texture to the muscular meat. It’s a weird feeling to feel a cow’s own taste buds touching your own, a bit like making out with the animal itself, but definitely an entertaining experience. The fresh dill lifts up the mayonnaise while the acidity from the vinegar cuts the fat, so that it actually ends up being pretty light altogether. Far from my definition of a “salad” though…Hungarian Beef Stew. Eh, I guess this one is an okay attempt at goulash, although it is better when made by any woman over 40 in my family. The chunks of beef chuck are tender, fatty and delicious, and the carrots and onions are cooked to a nice soft texture. It is flavored correctly, with plenty of paprika and garlic, and is quite savory. My only qualm is that there are big button mushrooms mixed in there too, an ingredient which would never appear in traditional beef stew in Hungary. Plus, the texture is weird, since it’s a bit too dry to be a stew, let alone a soup. It could have been turned into a Paprikás and ladled onto some nokedli (chewy egg dumplings), but even so there would need to have been more sauce for the side to soak up. Skip this one and visit Hungary if you are looking for real goulash. Parisian Schnitzel, known in Hungary as Párizsi Szelet, is a slice of pork tenderloin coated with batter and fried. What sets it apart from other types of schnitzel (or milanesa in Argentina) is that it is made without breadcrumb, only flour and egg yolk. The result is a softer, fluffier, less coarse coating which can also get super greasy if the oil is not treated correctly or if the thing is not eaten shortly after frying. The latter, unfortunately, is the case when I get it at Bazaar. It is fried earlier that morning, and microwaving it kind of deflates the coating, making it chewy and not very pleasant. But when it is fresh, the stuff is very satisfying. Another thing setting the Parisian Schnitzel apart from other breaded pork cutlets, is that the loin is not pounded super-thin – it is left thick and rough, giving the jaw a bit more exercise. The schnitzle works nicely paired with this very bright chopped roasted bell pepper salad whose name I unfortunately did not catch. It’s sweet and acidic from a bit of vinegar added, which cuts the oiliness of it well. Sweet and sour in a slightly Chinese way. Definitely best when heated up.
Bulgarian Peach Nectar. Every once in a while I get a craving which cannot be satisfied by anything except the dense peach nectar popular in Hungary and, apparently Bulgaria. Bazaar actually carries a variety of brands, although the Hungarian Sió, unfortunately, is not one of them. The key is to refrigerate the nectar thoroughly before consuming, and only drinking a little bit, as it is as filling as drinking some sort of thick, creamy chowder. The texture is great, smooth, thick and slimy, sliding down the throat, cooling and soothing and wonderful. Packed with that sticky, sickly sweet peach flavor. A small glass of this can replace a breakfast or dinner for me, as it is satisfying and heavy enough to fill me up.
Pryaniki (пряник) are sugar-crusted Russian spice cookies which are especially perfect to dip into tea, as they are dry and dense on their own. The spice mixture in the batter consists of cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and plenty of honey is also added. This results in a very complex and comforting Christmas-time flavor, with the honey packing it with a great floral sweetness. When dipped into hot tea, the cookie soaks up the liquid and the hardened powdered sugar glaze melts into a kind of sweet cream to further flavor the cookie.
Poppy seed roll (булочки с мако). Poppy seed (mák) is very prevalent in Hungarian desserts but seems completely impossible to find in the States…except at the Russian store. And I miss stuff like mákos guba (bread pudding with coffee cake), mákos tészta (egg pasta with poppy seed), mákos pite (poppy seed cake) and, my favorite, meggyes-mákos rétes (flaky strudel with poppy seed and sour cherry). Another great one is mákos bejgli (poppy seed roll), which is a yeast-leavened viennoiserie pastry wrapped around a thick filling of poppy seed paste. The ground poppy seeds are bound together with some kind of dairy product, I think, either milk or butter, to the point where it becomes a moist, mushy thing a bit like a nutty, bittersweet poppy seed pesto. In this case golden raisins are also thrown into the filling here and there, adding a great burst of hydration when bitten into, and a bit of extra sweetness to uplift the slight bitterness of the poppy seeds. The pastry is especially delicious when fresh and warm, because the poppy seed filling remains moist. It often makes an appearance, always along with its ground walnut filling counterpart, at Christmas Eve and other celebrations at my grandparents’ house.
Tahini halva with cocoa. The form of halva that is popular in Russia is a crumbly confection made with sugar, honey and either sunflower seed or sesame seed butter. In this case, it is made with sesame seed butter (a.k.a. tahini), which has quite an addictive flavor, similar to peanut or cashew butter in its oiliness and roasty-toasty taste, but more compact, almost to the point of bitterness. The tahini is mixed with hot sugar/honey syrup, flavored with cocoa powder, and allowed to rest and cool so that the sugar can form crystals within the nut butter. This gives the halva an awesome airy texture. Breaking off a crumbly, dry piece of halva and popping it into the mouth, the sugar melts on the tongue, leaving behind that very deep flavor of sesame and cocoa.
Russian food is pretty difficult to keep around in the fridge without my making it disappear in just a few hours. I am drawn to the cuisine, like a hungry moth to a delicious flame. Despite the often greasy and very filling nature of the classics, most dishes find harmony between fat and acidity which results in food that is satisfying but not too heavy. The flavors are highly varied and interesting and the colors pop loud. Hope I find a decent Russian store in D.C. soon!