New Year is the most celebrated holiday in Russia. When St. Petersburg was Leningrad – and draped in red – we waited for December 31st with the same ardor and impatience that kept us in endless lines for Hungarian sweaters and Finnish boots. New Year tree bazaars, spreading the scent of spruce into the frosty air, sprouted all over town, and the sidewalks came alive with people pulling rickety, half-bald trees to their apartment cells, where they would install them in buckets with water and decorate the skinny branches with paper snowflakes, sparkling cotton Father Frosts (called Santas, my English teacher told me) with loops of thread around their necks to hang them from the tree, and necklaces of tinsel called “golden rain.”
Cooking started at least a day in advance. My mother pulled out items of “deficit” from the shelves between our double doors – all those cans of tuna and occasional crabmeat from Kamchatka, jars of green peas and mayonnaise, and bottles of Bulgarian ketchup we had stood for on various lines. Everything we’d hoarded during the year was to be redeemed on December 31st – New Year’s Eve, our redemption time.
We always began with salad Olivier, the centerpiece of appetizers, which presided in the biggest cut-crystal bowl over every New Year table across our 11 time zones, with slight local variations. Surrounded by a dozen other zakuski on the table, it was a meal in itself. The best thing about January 1st (2nd and 3rd) was eating all those leftover delicacies we cooked the previous year.
Ingredients: 5-6 boiled potatoes, skinned; a chicken, or any part of it (boiled, skinned, taken off the bone. In Soviet times, when chicken was difficult to get, we used bologna); 4 half-sour pickles; 3-4 hard-boiled eggs; 2 apples; a can of green peas; 1 onion; a bunch of dill; salt. Proportions are approximate (salad Olivier is usually made by the bucket). If you like apples, put in three. If you hate onion, forget it. If you are a vegetarian, leave out the chicken. You won’t spoil anything.
Preparation: Chop up all the ingredients and mix with mayonnaise. Decorate with sprigs of dill.
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.