Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Zakuski: Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Russian Food

This is the first of a many-part series that I like to think of as "Educating Ellen."  It seems that there are a number of cultural touchstones that I somehow completely missed.  In an effort to catch up on the movies that everyone has seen but me, I added "watch classic movies" to my 30 by 30 list.  I thought it would be fun to make dinner to go along with the movie, which is made difficult by the fact that, of course, I haven't seen any of these movies.  So, free association will sometimes come into play.  For example, this meal was decided as follows: Dr. Strangelove -> Cold War -> Soviet Union -> Russian Food.

Unfortunately,my knowledge of Russian food is caviar and borscht.  Luckily, one of my favorite food bloggers, Deb at Smitten Kitchen, has some great Russian small plates (zakuski) recipes including Russian Brownbread, spicy bean salad, and eggplant caviar.  I love small plates, and these are simple and can all be made a day or so in advance.  I also cooked some mushrooms with dill and kasha (buckwheat) and, to balance out the peasant food, a tsarist dessert - Strawberries Romanov.

Having come into the world of Russian food expecting borscht and potatoes, the assertive flavors of these dishes was an awesome surprise.  The savory dishes all have an earthy undertone, frequently cut through with vinegar, pungent raw garlic and onions, or intense spice.  All of the dishes were great, but I definitely recommend ending your meal with a breath mint as my breath was so bad I was offending myself.  Strawberries are at peak ripeness is Texas, so I added only a tiny amount of sugar and the juice of an orange to the strawberries and just a splash of vanilla extract to the cream as I was whipping it.  If you are ever looking for a lighter alternative to biscuits for strawberry shortcake, I think those Romanov's really knew what they were doing with the meringues.

This is my first Kubrick film  other than Sparticus (I have never been able to sit all the way through 2001: A Space Odyssey) and everything I knew about the movie is summed up in that screen shot at the top of the post..  For me, Dr. Strangelove was intensely, laugh-out loud funny and I'm sure that aspect of the dark comedy was there in 1964 but it took me until the final scenes to realize how incredibly frightening this would have been when the movie come out two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I suppose one of the most interesting aspects of movies that become cultural icons is how much their meaning has changed over time.  While I certainly appreciate the message that military one-upsmanship is a losing proposition (see also, War Games, a movie I DID see in my childhood), the urgency is lost on me as someone who barely remembers the Berlin Wall coming down.

I've got a pretty full list, but I'm always open to recommendations.  What do you think are the movies that absolutely everyone should see?  Name anything you like, I probably haven't seen it.

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