Somewhere in the depths of last winter, as I turned out countless root vegetable and cabbage dishes, I had the idea of inviting you over for a virtual zakuski (Russian for ‘an assortment of “little bites”) party. It’s uncertain how zakuski originated. Some say it began as a Russian peasant tradition while others say it came from Scandinavia, however by the 19th century, zakuski was common way among the various regions and classes of Russia to welcome weary travelers into their home.
So I imagined the table to be covered in colorful small plates served with forks and napkins to hold vegetable caviars, flaky filled pastries, stuffed eggs, pickles, and cheeses with white and black bread along with a variety of plain and flavored ice cold vodkas. Instead of starting off the meal, as often the case, this zakuski would be served as the main course with coffee and poached quinces, charlotte russe, and honey cakes for dessert.
Russian cuisine, as I have come to learn, is more than pickled beets and smoked fish washed down with a bottle or two of vodka. Zakuski at its most elemental can include three cold dishes followed by three hot dishes to accompany meat or fish and a loaf of black bread to absorb the vodka toasts.
Although we’re just welcoming fall here, I thought it would be a good time to invite you to join me for zakuski. Back in 2008, my friend Meeta of What’s For Lunch Honey? came up with the idea to have a Monthly Mingle series where we could all cook and eat together.
For anyone who wants to join me, here’s what to do:
1. Create a dish that fits the zakuski theme as described above.
2. Post about it on your blog from now until October 31, 2011 (you can use the Monthly Mingle badge in your posts).
3. Link to this post and/or the official Monthly Mingle Page.
4. Send a link to your post to nikki [at] artandlemons [dot] com (with “monthly mingle” in the subject line) and include the following: your name, your blog’s name and URL, the name of your dish/food/entry and the URL/link to your Monthly Mingle post, and a 500-pixel-wide photo.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Remember that zakuski is open for interpretation. To get inspired, check out Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman’s Please to the Table: A Russian Cookbook, the book on zakuski of which you can read a number of the recipes online. You can also check out Diana Henry’s Roast Figs Sugar Snow, either one will send you to the kitchen for Skhtorats (zesty eggplant slices), Jajik (cucumber and yogurt dip), Tost s Gribami (wild mushrooms on toast), and Brinza (spiced feta). You could also make pickles (any kind really) or flavor your own vodka, if you like.
Here’s my recipe for roasted beet dip along to kick-start this party.
Roasted Beet Dip
adapted from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey
Yield about 6 servings
1 pound beets
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 slice stale white bread (for an especially nut-laced dip, I like to use a slice of savory walnut bread when I have it…)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
a pinch of freshly ground black pepper
To roast the beets: preheat oven to 450F. Trim the greens off the beets to within 1 inch and scrub the beets. (You can reserve the greens for another use, like blanching and tossing with pasta with fresh goat cheese and tarragon.) Place the beets in a small roasting pan, add a thin layer of water (about an 1/8-inch), and cover loosely with foil. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes, until the beets are tender when pierced with a knife. Cool the beets, then when cool enough to handle, peel and coarsely chop.
Combine the beets, toasted walnuts, bread, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper in the container of a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth, adding just enough water, if necessary, to allow the machine to run. Serve with bread or crackers or thin with a little water to make a rich pasta sauce.