Russian Celebrations: Herring under a Fur Coat

Russia is all about the senses, especially those of smell and taste. The country attacks you in your nostrils the moment you step on Russian soil: unleaded gasoline fumes; the wet, heavy wool of winter coats; a reek of urine in phone booths and elevators; whiffs of garbage, sweat, hangover breath, mothballs, and yesterday’s soup.  But it is the smells of food and cooking that make Russian hearts beat faster because these smells announce celebrations: birthdays, when all the tables in apartments are pushed together and beds and sofas are lined up next to them to serve as chairs; the International Women’s Day on March 8th when women cook all day; and the most important Russian holiday, December 31st, the New Year’s Eve.

Days before holidays kitchens steep in odors: meat and bones boiling for aspic; dough for pirozhki rising and spilling out of pots in thick, slow cascades: pickled cucumbers and mushrooms lifted out of buckets and arranged on small zakuski plates.  Then, when everything has been marinated, boiled, and roasted, there is peeling, chopping, and mixing.

Most Russian appetizers are salads, but very few include lettuce, or anything leafy and green.  There is traditional salad Olivier, sumptuous and exquisite, with its bastardized version called “Russian salad” across an array of our ethnic restaurants – from Turkish to Colombian – that has nothing to do with salad Olivier except boiled potatoes.  There is our famous vinegret, a beet-based salad, and bite-sized selyodka (herring), a perfect vodka chaser because it is salty.  There are baked pirozhki stuffed with cabbage, egg, scallion, or meat, and pirogi (accented on the last syllable) – sheets of dough stuffed with all kinds of fillings (not to be confused with Polish pirogi).

But I’ll leave all these delicacies for future posts.  Today, when our thoughts have already turned toward winter holidays, I want to share a recipe that is colorful and festive and has a uniquely Russian name : Herring under a Fur Coat.

Ingredients: 1 lb of herring (cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces), 1 lb of peeled boiled potatoes, 1 lb of boiled carrots, 1 lb of boiled beets.

Preparation: Lay out pieces of herring onto the bottom of a large bowl.  Pour yourself and your guests a shot of ice-cold vodka.  Chase with a piece of herring.  Repeat.  Now you are ready to grate a layer of potatoes, a layer of carrots, and a layer of beets over what’s left of the herring.  The layers will be fluffy and soft, like a fur coat.   Cover with mayonnaise.  If you don’t like herring, you don’t have to eat it.  Simply mix the three other ingredients with mayonnaise and have a brightly-colored, satisfying salad.  And leave the herring for your vodka-drinking friends.