Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food Perestroika

Food Perestroika is a blog written by Florian Pinel -- a Frenchman who resides in NYC and has a strong interest in the food and culture of the former Eastern Bloc. There are obvious reasons why I am his devoted reader.  Sure, Florian's cooking and writing are commendable, but there is more to it than that. I find him to be a strange inverse of myself. Both of us got an education in computer science so we have similar geeky tendencies. Both of us got serious enough about food to get professional training -- we worked in restaurants; Florian even went to culinary school. But while he is a Frenchman fascinated with Russian food, I am a Russian fascinated with French Food. Both of us lean heavily towards contemporary methods and that's where it gets interesting. Cooking contemporary French dishes is easy-peasy. It's handed to me on a silver platter by all the examples I see in restaurants, magazines, and cookbooks. I simply recreate dishes I already tasted and do variations on a theme. Compared to that, Florian's attempt at contemporary Russian cuisine is indeed a challenge of Herculean proportions. Russian restaurants are hopelessly stuck in the dark ages. The only innovation I've seen since the Soviet days is a liberal use of a squeeze bottle. Food Perestroika documents Florian's effort to modernize Russian food without losing its integrity. This lit my imagination and I decide to give it a shot.

My first attempt was serving red caviar in a way that didn't involve bread, butter, and pickled onions. Mild and creamy seemed like a good type of ingredient to pair with the salty roe. I made a savory panna cotta with sorrel leaves and topped it with the roe. How is that Russian? Bare with me here. My goal was to only use ingredients typically used in Russian food. Sorrel is a darling of Russian cooks. All my Russian students get a dreamy look on their face when I come back from my garden with a big bunch of this tart herb to use in class. The rest of the ingredients in panna cotta -- milk, cream, sour cream, and gelatin -- are nothing exotic even by the Soviet standards. Looks good, doesn't it? Shame it was a complete flop taste-wise. The first spoon of panna cotta was good, but it got monotonous very quickly. I was missing the sturdiness and earthiness of bread. The problem is that I love bread with butter and caviar. I love it the way an American child loves a brownie. This emotional attachment made it hard for me to judge whether the dish was indeed no good, or whether I couldn't accept it due to my preconceived notions, so I offered it to my students to taste. They all took one polite spoon and left it at that. So back to the drawing board I went. I could think of many alternatives for bread, but most of them involved traditional starchy things: potato pancakes, zucchini pancakes, buckwheat pancakes. All tasty, but neither original nor modern.

Since no inspiration struck me in the caviar department, I set my sights on Salad Olivier. My childhood version of this salad includes boiled potatoes and carrots, raw onion, hard boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, and boiled beef, all bound together with mayo. You really can't take potato and mayo out of this salad and still call it Olivier. Eggs and pickles are awfully good in it too. My Mom usually added a bit of pickling liquid to the dressing giving it more depth. I decided to keep that part as is. The ingredients that seemed outdated to me were canned peas, boiled carrots, and boiled beef.  Come on, it's 21st century! Surely we have better ways to deal with these ingredients. I used frozen peas to make a bright and refreshing pea puree, and combined lightly cooked carrots with carrot juice to make a carrot puree. I cooked a steak sous-vide, cooled it in an ice-bath and seared briefly to boost the flavor. Everyone in my family loved it except for me. It was much better than my misguided caviar attempt, but it didn't add up to more than the sum of it's parts. Soviet cuisine has this knack for bringing random ingredients together (I guess whatever was available) and making them work just by binding with mayo and letting sit in the fridge for a day to help flavors merge -- not unlike the life in a communal apartment. I was missing that unity in my Salad Oliver. Here is Florian's version.  He uses duck legs confit, sous-vide duck breasts, and king crab legs.  I think he is really onto something with duck legs there.  Crab sounds like good option too.  I just can't picture both the seafood and meat/poultry in the same dish together.  It might be great, but I've never had this combination before.

Perviy blin vsegda komom -- that's a Russian expression that means the first pancake never comes out.  I've learned many valuable lessons from my mistakes. Will report back as soon as I try more ideas.


Lena said...

Dear Helen,
Your caviar on panna cotta reminded me how in Russia we used to serve caviar on a half of hardboiled egg white. I'm not crazy about panna cotta in general. However, the first bite of any panna cotta I ever tried is always good and intriguing. It's sort of gets boring afterwards. So, maybe a small panna cotta "caviar holder" is a good idea. I'm gonna try it.
I'm really glad to see this post. It's very exciting to see how our "bitten to death" russian (soviet) food gets a new elegant, contemporary life.

Helen said...

Hi Lena,

I agree with you. Caviar on an egg white doesn't do anything for me either. I do like it with buckwheat blini, but they need to be thick. For some strange reason, I don't like caviar with thin blinchiki.

Not sure what it is about savory panna cotta. I do like the sweet ones, but savory ones always bother me. They taste kind of like tofu, which I generally dislike.

Angela said...

I love your blog! You should totally post some of your stuff on

My friends and I use it all the time to find random food blog stuff. Anywho, cool site!