A Beet, a Pickle, and a Potato Walk into a Bar . . .

My explorations of Sundays at Moosewood continue, and thank God I’m I nicer person than I was in the early 1990s. In reading through the section on food from the Southern United States, I came across the very sentence that nearly led me heave the book out the window: “I had to redefine Southern cooking in order to present it without meat.”

Therein lies the major shortcoming of the book. If the cuisine I grew up with has been rendered unrecognizable (the author suggests adding Gouda cheese instead of bacon to give Southern dishes their smokey flavor, an idea that’s only slightly better than shoving a fork into your own eyeball), then I can only imagine how they’ve desecrated the cuisines of Africa, India, and China.

But I’m a calmer person now, content to labor along in abject ignorance of other cultures and willing to accept butchered versions of “authentic” dishes if they are edible. Thus I came across the recipe below for Russian salad–which used a miraculous combination of beets, pickles, and potatoes to clear out the entire supply of oddball items left lurking in my refrigerator.

The recipe comes from the section in Sundays at Moosewood on Finnish cuisine. The recipes, focusing on root vegetables, are fascinating, but there’s still a lot of earnest vegetarianism to overcome. The author of this section is a grad-school dropout who adopted some goats from a Finnish farmer, couldn’t bear to kill them, and started rescuing animals at livestock auctions. I sympathize (heck, I still can’t bring myself to eat veal)–but then, there’s the problem with the fish and the need to take advantage of what’s available in local conditions. Never mind that “the Finns do eat a great deal of fish, as is quite natural in such a watery place”; the author writes: “I don’t eat fish myself or recommend it to others, so I’ve not included fish recipes in this chapter.”

I’ll let the reaction of her Finnish neighbors to the smorgasbord Moosewood put on for them sum all this up: “Knowing how nostalgic Finns can be about their traditional foods, it was with some trepidation that we presented our [vegetarian] versions of some age-old dishes. But all was well. Nothing was too far off the mark or else, with the usual quiet steadiness and reserve of the Finnish folk, they didn’t let on.”

If those Finns had been in North Carolina, they’d have been saying, “Bless their hearts” quietly to themselves.

To honor the fishy Finns, I served the Russian Salad with a mackerel recipe adopted from James Beard’s “Mackerel in Escabeche.” It was a great combination of spicy and sweet, hearty and light. In this case, I DO recommend fish to others.

Russian Salad (Venalainensalaatti) (from Sundays at Moosewood, p. 263)

2 c. cooked, diced potatoes (the recipe says to peel; I did not)
2 c. peeled, diced, and cooked carrots
1 c. peeled, diced tart apple
1 c. minced dill pickles (we used Claussen’s)
1/2 c. minced onion
2 c. cooked, peeled, and diced beets

Cooked beets for Russian Salad, from Britt Farms

Dressing
1 c. sour cream (or 2/3 c. heavy cream)
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar (we used lemon juice)
Dash of salt, sugar, and freshly ground black pepper

Hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Dressing for Russian Salad

Mix potatoes, carrots, apple, pickles, and onion in large serving bowl. Chill. (I did not.) Combine all the dressing ingredients and chill. (Again, I did not.) Add the beets to the other vegetables just before serving. Fold dressing into salad just before serving. Can also serve dressing on the side or mounded on top of the salad. Decorate with egg slices.

Russian Salad ingredients assembled

Mackerel in Escabeche

3 mackerel steaks, salted and peppered (1 1/2 lb.)
1/4 c. lemon juice (recipe calls for lime)
1/4 c. orange juice
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tbsp. red pepper flakes
4 small cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
White wine

Mackerel awaiting saute

Saute all ingredients except mackerel, cilantro, and wine in large skillet until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Vegetables in saute

Add cilantro and mackerel.

Mackerel sauteing, just before covering

Cover and cook for about 2 minutes. Turn fish, cover and continue to cook until mackerel is just done, about 5 more minutes. Check after 1 – 2 minutes, and if sauce begins to dry out, add a few splashes of white wine.

Voila! Finland meets Mexico

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