I was living in Russia when I first had this salad, but I was reminded of it while reading Maksim Syrnikov’s food blog (http://kare-l.livejournal.com/). Maksim Syrnikov is a Russian researcher and chef who is dedicated to resurrecting and preserving truly Russian food. He’s sort of a Russian-cuisine nationalist-extremist, which seems like an odd inspiration for the first blog posting to our website, but I’ll tie it all together by the end.
The Russian version of this recipe is made with sour cream, but I’ve substituted Greek yogurt, also known as strained yogurt, which is traditional to many cultures all over the world, but not, as far as I know, to Russia. If you went looking for strained yogurt in Russia, I’m sure you’d end up leaving an expensive grocery store with some additive-laced imported imitation, and you’d be a fool if you did, because Russian sour cream is absolutely the best. THE BEST. The best of the best was in Tatarstan, in the village of Aktube–homemade, yellow, creamy, thick, and verging on butter. We spread it on bread and honeycomb. Chased it with cognac. What’s more–sour cream nearly as good was in every market I went to, sold in bulk and priced according to fat content (more fat = more $). As far as I know, Downeast Maine lacks a world-class sour cream, though I’d be overjoyed to be proven wrong (tidemillcreamery at gmail dot com) but we do have locally-made, top-of-the-line strained yogurt.
Maksim Syrnikov ‘s lip would probably curl in disdain even at the title of my piece, but clearly I don’t share Maksim Syrnikov’s absolutism. Philosophically, I try to remember that the world is round and most of the time I strive to forget about the arbitrary lines that separate our countries and governments. So-called “Greek” yogurt is a reminder of this: Iranians, Palestinians, Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Turks, and Americans all strain yogurt, too.
However, Maksim Syrnikov’s food nationalism-absolutism and the diligent research it inspires can help us get us back to what food really is, or was, or could be. For example, follow this link (http://kare-l.livejournal.com/310856.html) to a picture of Maksim Syrnikov’s breakfast from August 30th: hardboiled eggs and fresh, lightly salted mushrooms. WOW. Authentically Russian, yet totally accessible. You don’t need a spice rack full of all the spices of the world, and you don’t need to be a molecular chemist, have an Internet connection, or own all of the coolest cookbooks. Quality ingredients and a shaker full of salt might be all you need to be a good cook. You don’t even need a fancy grocery store, or much of a grocery store at all, really. Traditional Russian food was grains, fish, and dairy, along with mushrooms, honey, cucumbers, and cabbage. An easy-on-the-wallet, glean-able, grow-able group of foods totally compatible with Downeast Maine. Just tell your guests it’s “Russian” and they’ll assume it’s exotic.
Which brings us to today’s local-exotic recipe. In one posting recently, Maksim Syrnikov asked his readers to consider a “very serious question”: when cooking with mushrooms, should one be allowed to use any spices at all? It’s a good point—after all the time spent seeking, identifying, and cleaning fungi, whose fruiting bodies have been growing and developing deep within the earth for as long as decades, it’d be nice to find the most respectful way to present the mushroom’s flavor. The recipe below really pulls that off.
When I’ve made this salad I used the less-known funnel chanterelles, which really thrive Downeast. They were fully in-season when I started thinking about this blog posting (months ago!), but I had some fresh two nights ago! Also known as “winter chanterelles”, they hold up so well in the cold. I’ve picked them under a light dusting of snow. This recipe would work with many edible mushrooms. The basic idea is to infuse the yogurt (or sour cream) with the mushroom’s flavor:
Chanterelles, trimmed and sliced to sauté
A fat pat of butter
Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Once the butter is hot, throw the chanterelles in and follow them with the garlic shortly thereafter. The ‘trelles are better under-done than over, so keep an eye on them until they give off some liquid and go limp. You could compare it to cooking asparagus just right.
Take them off the heat, salt them, and give them a crank or two of the black pepper grinder. Empty the whole kit and caboodle into a bowl of Greek yogurt and stir it all together. It’s good warm or cold, and it’s great with black bread and borsch, even though borsch, it turns out, is not really Russian.