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The Zakuska Table

10 December, 2013

~ Darra Goldstein

To a Russian, dinner is unthinkable without zakuski, those imaginative "little bites" that make up the first course of a Russian meal.

Excerpted from A Taste of Russia, published by Russian Life Books.

The range of zakuski is almost infinite, from simple smoked sprats on black bread to the gray pearl of the Caspian, Beluga caviar; from sliced beet vinaigrette to buttom mushrooms drenched in spicy marinade. Salade Olivier (Russian Salad), savory stuffed eggs, shimmering pork brawn, tender kidneys in Madeira, eggplant caviar with its pungent tang . all these delights belong to the diversity of the zakuska spread.

This first course may offer only a few modest dishes to whet the appetite, or it may feature a stunning array of twenty or more items, both hot and cold, each designed to complement, not overshadow, its neighbor. Zakuski may be as straightforward as bread smeared with herbed butter, or they may require hours of preparation, as does cold fish in aspic. But whether humble or grand, zakuski are the sine qua non of the Russian table, integral to the spirit of Russian dining.

In any discussion of Russian hors d'oeuvres, what comes to mind first is caviar, the near-legendary roe of the sturgeon. Fresh caviar is indeed sumptuous enough to serve alone as a featured first course, and should one wish to dine in the style of the tsars, it is still very nearly possible to do so. First, one must procure the freshest available caviar, preferably the large-grained gray Beluga. (The tsars themselves often dined on a rare variety of golden caviar from the prized Volga sterlet, but as this great waterway has since been polluted and the fish stocks depleted, we must substitute the hardly less exquisite Beluga.)

The caviar should be served with a horn spoon in a crystal bowl over ice-metal will interfere with the delicate taste of the roe. Next to the caviar place rounds of French bread, the nearest approximation to the Russian kalach (fine ring-shaped loaf). A small tub of unsalted butter should also be provided, but true aficionados scorn the lemon, chopped onion and egg that often accompany the lesser grades of caviar.

Now this royal zakuska is halfway complete, needing only a beverage to complement the slightly salty taste of the roe. And what could be more fitting for tsars than sparkling champagne? Here, the contemporary consumer is in luck, for the firm that once purveyed champagne to the tsars of Russia now makes it available to the Western world. This champagne is Louis Roederer Cristal, said by many to be the finest in the world. While most champagne comes in bottles tinted green, with a punt, or indentation, in the bottom to catch the sediment, Roederer's bottle is crystal clear, with a flat, puntless, bottom. According to one account, Roederer developed his unusual bottle especially for Tsar Alexander III, who was ever fearful for his life after his father's assassination. Alexander wanted his favorite champagne to be immediately recognizable, lest someone try to poison him. Hence Roederer's clear crystal bottle (alas, now made of glass). But the punt caused some worry, too: an anarchist might slip a homemade bomb into the bottle's depression, and the champagne, wrapped in a linen napkin for serving, would still look innocuous. And so the puntless bottom was born. Following the Russian Revolution, Roederer stopped supplying the Russians with champagne because they failed to pay their bills, but he did not stop producing his original bottles. It is interesting to note that the Soviets produced, in very limited quantities, an exceptional champagne (their zolotoye, "golden") in clear glass bottles with completely flat bottoms.

For those of us without the pocketbook of a tsar, however, there are other, less expensive caviars, and Russian vodka to accompany them. Only one step down from the Beluga is the black Osetr caviar, smaller grained but with a magnificent taste. The osyetr sturgeon itself is smaller, weighing on the average 700 pounds, while the beluga sturgeon can weigh up to several thousand pounds and yield 200 pounds of roe. The Osetr caviar is followed in grade by Sevryuga, which comes from the smallest sturgeon, the stellate, and hence has the smallest grains of all the fine caviars.

One can also find payusnaya caviar, highly regarded in Russia, though less appreciated in the West. This pressed caviar is made from damaged eggs, which are crushed to form a rather sticky paste that is quite strong in flavor. Payusnaya caviar traditionally served as soldiers' rations during their long stints at the front, as it is much less perishable and consequently less expensive than the fresh caviar.

Some roe lovers favor the brightly colored eggs of the salmon, ranging in hue from deep orange to soft red. While black caviar calls for white bread, salmon roe tastes best on black, and a little chopped onion and lemon juice here are no crime. Russian émigrés living in Scandinavia enjoy the tiny golden löjrom from whitefish, which they mix with fresh cream and serve over toast. It is unfortunate that the dyed lumpfish roe produced mainly in Iceland so often substitutes for the real thing, as the taste of lumpfish roe is in no way comparable to that of fresh caviar. Sadly, even in Russia caviar is becoming scarce. (It is ironic that the seventeenth-century nobility found it so plentiful that they often boiled it in vinegar or poppy-seed milk for a change of pace.) One hopeful sign is the recent international effort to save the dying Caspian Sea, but the politics of the region are so complex that monitoring for poaching and environmental abuse can be hazardous. ...

In literature the most famous zakuska table is no doubt the one set by the Chief of Police in Gogol's novel Dead Souls. Intended to impress, the meal is ordered on the spur of the moment, and impress is exactly what it does. The spread includes several varieties of fresh sturgeon, including beluga, also smoked salmon, freshly salted caviar and pressed caviar, herring, all sorts of cheeses, smoked tongue, salt-dried sturgeon fillets, an amazing fish pie (pirog) made from the head and cheeks of a 325-pound sturgeon and another pie stuffed with choice wild mushrooms. This zakuska menu more than reflects the Russian love of fish; today it would be balanced by more meat and vegetable dishes. But if one gets the impression that the "small bite" of the zakuska is often a feast in itself, that's not at all incorrect. Indeed a delightful way to entertain Russian-style is to set up a large zakuska table around which guests can circulate freely before heading into the dining room for the proper main course.

There are a few basic rules to follow in laying a zakuska table, not the least of which concerns the shape of the table itself. It should be oval or round and placed away from the wall, so that all foods are accessible to all guests at all times. Small plates, forks and napkins are arranged at opposite ends of the table so that service may start simultaneously from both sides. Along the outer edges of the table are placed the various zakuski, hot along one side, cold on the other. Beyond the zakuski, closer in toward the center of the table, are baskets or plates piled high with bread, both black and white, and mounds of unsalted butter molded in fancy shapes. In the very center of the table stand carafes of flavored vodkas surrounded by small shot glasses, or ryumochki.

The recipes in Chapter 1 of A Taste of Russia cover a wide range of zakuski, which may be served singly as the opening to a simple meal, or in pairs, or as part of a more impressive board. But they are only a small sampling of all the possibilities for zakuska , as the range of this first course is limited only by one's imagination. And while such dishes as pâté of meadowlark and wild boar's jaws en gelée are no longer required for the table's diversity, a fine array may be made by using recipes from A Taste of Russia . For an even grander display, the homemade zakuski may be supplemented by prepared specialties from the delicatessen. Here are a few suggestions:

Cured fish and meats of all kinds, particularly hot-smoked and cold-smoked sturgeon; smoked eel layered with lemon slices; thin wafers of smoked salmon; sardines in oil and in various sauces; kippered herrings; Norwegian anchovies ( kil'ki); sliced beef tongue; cured ham (Polish-style and Westphalian); smoked turkey; roast beef or chicken shaped into thin rolls; head cheese; Russian bologna; various salamis and sausages;

Marinated vegetables, such as pickled beets; pickled green tomatoes; green olives and black olives; pickled hot peppers;

Hard cheeses of all types, sliced very thin;

Fresh seafood, such as oysters on the half shell; crab legs with mayonnaise; bay shrimp with homemade tartar sauce;

Cocktail meatballs (tefteli) in tomato sauce;

Freshly boiled potatoes tossed with dill.

In addition, the following recipes from other chapters of A Taste of Russia are also excellent on the zakuska table:

Armenian Flat Bread
Barrel-Cured Sauerkraut
Barrel-Style Dill Pickles
Beet Salad
Buckwheat Groats with Mushrooms and Cream
Carrot Salad
Celeriac Salad
Cold Stuffed Eggplant
Cottage Cheese Tartlets
Coulibiac of Salmon
Cranberry-Horseradish Relish
Cucumbers in Sour Cream
Dried Fish
Estonian Potato Salad
Fresh Ham Cooked with Hay
Georgian Cheese Pie
Georgian-Style Kidney Beans
Mushrooms in Sour Cream
Pickled Eggplant
Pirozhki with Savory Filling
Prepared Horseradish
Radishes in Sour Cream
Russian Black Bread
Russian Pancakes (Blini)
Rye Bread
Salted Mushrooms
Sour Cabbage
Sourdough White Bread
Soused Apples
Spiced Pickled Cherries
Stuffed Cabbage Leaves
Wine Bowl

© 1999, RIS Publications. All rights reserved. To order a copy of A Taste of Russia, from which this section was excerpted, simply go here.

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