Thursday, April 1, 2010

0 Recipe #91: Venigret Revamped

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I first tasted authentic Russian venigret (Венигрет) while stationed abroad, several years ago.  I remember the experience like it was yesterday: Two toweringly-tall, aproned Russian ladies, who both couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old, would enter our makeshift cafeteria, (which was really nothing more than a basic office room -- with no kitchen or sink!), with small bags of food in hand, & would cook various dishes for us from scratch on a daily basis.

They worked right in front of us, spreading out their kitchen tools & the day's ingredients onto a plain wooden table. They moved so incredibly fast, chopping and preparing, & then would exit the room to cook the food. To this day, I have no idea where they'd went to cook it; my guess is that they went home, since there wasn't a stove on the premises. I never asked. It was destination unknown. However, they always returned quickly, often within only 10-15 minutes from the moment they'd left.

All of the rest of us usually just waited in the kitchen, eagerly watching the whole procession, as our stomachs growled impatiently. Our usual drill was to stare longingly at the food, as it was being prepared at lightening speed, and then to sit around waited impatiently for the two ladies to return.

If people weren't already gathered and waiting in the cafeteria, like they usually were (!), they'd usually be drawn there soon upon the ladies' return. The wonderful smells wafting through the hallways attracted people to the cafeteria like flies to flypaper.

Unless you wanted to go off the premises (which required pre-approval and a US-government-sanctioned vehicle &/or driver) or had found a means of making your own bag lunch (our hotel rooms weren't equipped with mini-refrigerators!), this was pretty much the only "restaurant" on the block. So thank goodness our on-site, homemade lunches were so good. :)

As we waited in anticipation, our eyes were usually focused on the cafeteria door, particularly as we grew hungrier and hungrier. :) We couldn't wait until our chefs would come bursting through the door, usually carrying a steaming pot of soup, potatoes, & some kind of beef dish.

Incredibly, the total prep time from start to finish, including the cooking itself & the transport to their "kitchen," was probably somewhere in realm of 25-30 minutes. For all that these two ladies made, their speed was almost unbelievable!

It was truly amazing how much they could do with so little. All those meals from just two small bags of food! So resourceful, and so delicious! And even more incredibly, the bulk of those dishes cost mere pennies (the soup and accompanying bread cost only 50¢!!!) but were some of the most delicious Russian meals I have ever tasted.

Of course, one of these dishes was venigret, or Russian beet salad. The traditional version contains beets, potatoes, onions, carrots, (sour, not sweet!) pickles, & dill, among other ingredients, & is usually served cold. And boy was theirs fresh & delicious!

The below venigret recipe is a tip of the hat, an homage if you will, to those marvelously talented ladies. Of course, I could've posted a more traditional recipe here, but those of you who've been reading this blog for a while already know me better than that. :) My own version is more like a braised vegetable dish than a true salad, per se.  However, since it does contain almost all of the traditional ingredients -- beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, dill, etc., that is, minus the pickles -- and adds a few new ones in there as well, I'm still going to call it "venigret." Really, it's just my own spin on the dish.  Hope you enjoy it!

Venigret Revamped

Venigret Ingredients:
4 beets, boiled, peeled, & cubed
4 medium-sized red-skinned potatoes, cubed, with skins intact
2 large carrots, peeled & sliced crosswise
1 red onion, sliced lengthwise into thin slivers
1 shallot, finely diced
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
1/3 c. orange juice
1/4 c. vodka (preferably a Russian vodka, i.e., Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Russian Standard, Zyr, etc. :-D)
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
2 large bay leaves
1 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper, to taste
1 tsp. dried rosemary leaves (If using fresh, you can add a bit more)
1/4 c. walnuts
1/2 c. feta cheese

Dill Sour Cream Sauce Ingredients:
1/3 c. low-fat sour cream
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. dried dill (If using fresh, you can use a bit more; just make sure to finely mince it!)
(Optional: 1/4 tsp. grated white horseradish prepared in vinegar or dijon mustard with horseradish)

Directions: Wash beets & cut off ends. Do NOT peel. (Reserve beet greens for another dish.) Drop beets into a pot of boiling water & cook for about 30 minutes.  While beets are boiling, wash and cut up the potatoes, carrots, red onion, & shallot, and set aside. Heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. Add red onion & shallot and sauté in olive oil until translucent. Season lightly with salt to help the ingredients cook faster. Next, add balsamic vinegar & orange juice and allow onions & shallots to carmelize. Reduce liquid until a thin layer remains.  Add vodka (водка) to deglaze pan. Add carrots, potatoes, fresh thyme, & bay leaves, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally. Preheat oven to 400°F. Test beets with a fork to see if they are ready; beets should be cooked through but still firm. When beets are ready, drain liquid from the pot and allow beets to cool. Put on latex/rubber gloves to avoid staining hands, and rub off beet skin until it has been completely removed. It should come off rather easily; if not, you haven't cooked the beets long enough. :) While still wearing gloves, chop beets into bite-sized chunks, & add to sauté pan. Add lemon juice, sprinkle with parsley, season with salt & pepper (to taste), & mix all ingredients thoroughly. Continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes. Then transfer ingredients to a large Pyrex glass dish. Disperse ingredients evenly, sprinkle with rosemary leaves, and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until adequately browned. For the last 10 minutes of roasting, sprinkle walnuts & feta cheese on top; these ingredients cook quickly, so watch them carefully so they don't burn. Walnuts & feta should be crisp and slightly browned. While dish is roasting in the oven, mix together sauce ingredients & set aside. Remove from oven, let cool slightly, top with sauce, garnish with a sprig of parsley, & serve while still warm.

Yield: Serves 4.

Serving Suggestions: Serve with a side of caviar, pickled herring, smoked whitefish, or smoked salmon (lox).  If you wish, you can also add sliced kosher sour dill pickles to the venigret to make it more traditional. Or, if you'd like to add more tangy, sweet flavor to the dish, another idea is to garnish it with fresh orange slices. If you have left-over vodka, you can always combine it with orange juice & have a "screwdriver" to accompany the meal. It'd probably make the perfect compliment, since you're already basically adding the same ingredients to your main course anyhow. ;)

Chef's Notes: As you can see from the above photo, I used pecans because I didn't have walnuts at the time. Please note: Walnuts taste MUCH better, so I wouldn't recommending substituting other nuts for them because then the dish just doesn't taste the same.  The flavor of the pecans is too over-powering & distracting, & just doesn't work with the dish.  Of course, if you are allergic to tree nuts or just don't care for them, you can certainly leave them out.  While they add to the overall presentation of the dish, they are not really necessary to complete its flavor.

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