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The Russian Heritage Cookbook
by Lynn Visson

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

I grew up in a home filled with Russian cooking, but of course I recognize it as my family’s—or I should better say my mother and my grandmother’s—take on the authentically Russian. We Americans tend to know of a handful of dishes that have some loose association with Russia: Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, to give two prime examples, both of which may be more French than Russian in origin, concept and presentation. The beet-based soup called Borscht, on the other hand, is profoundly Russian, the type of food you grow up on. “Real” Russian food is ample, filling, warmly satisfying. It is also now more accessible to us than ever.

Lynn Visson, in her Russian Heritage Cookbook, does not attempt to be all things to all cooks. Her task—albeit a large one—is to capture a cuisine frozen in time, frozen at a precise moment, in 1917, when the Russian royal house imploded. It took another crashing fall—this time of that ugly wall in Berlin—for the world to rekindle its interest in Russian food (even in Russia herself). Visson loves the food she grew up eating in New York as the daughter of Russian émigrés; adores the culture where the phrase “You’ve gained weight,” is a compliment signifying that you are looking quite well. “The Russian approach to food is direct,” she writes. “Food is necessary to life, a major part of life, and its preparation is to be taken seriously. Moreover, Russians derive a positively sensuous enjoyment from merely talking about food.” One can understand why, of course, since over much of Russian and Soviet history food has often been more of a concept than a reality. The stark ignominy of hunger, be it present or ancestral, pervades Russian thinking about food. Visson remarks that the “scars such hunger leaves can be assuaged only by the assurance that food is not merely obtainable, but available in quantities such that no human being, no matter how gargantuan his appetite, could ever finish all that is set before him.” To translate this heritage into modern terms, Russian food is not for waist-watchers.

Visson exploits today's growing interest in Russian cuisine with her exhaustive coverage of every conceivable course, all based on authentic, pre-revolutionary recipes. As an example, for the meat patties called kotelety she gives us five different family recipes. (It's a shame she didn't consult my mother, former professor of Russian, for another five. We all grew up on what we were told were “Russian hamburgers.”) For shashlyk (Georgian meat on skewers similar to shish kebab) she gives no fewer than three possible marinades. It is telling that both of these dishes involve getting the most out of small amounts of meat, a foodstuff never abundant in Russia. By the same token, Russians have always been fond of encasing small, tasty fillings, either sweet or savory, in dough, thus preserving the essence of an expensive ingredient inside a cheap and plentiful ingredient. The baked meat pies called pirozhki (the plural of pirozhok) are my favorite; finger-food you can buy on the street in Russia. I’ll never forget my chagrin as a boy at a fancy Russian restaurant in New York when my pirozhki arrived baked in a flaky puff pastry dough (though this is a respectable option). I grew up loving pirozhki rolled in a simple chewy yeast dough. A pirog is essentially a family-sized pot pie. Visson devotes 30 pages to these Russian mainstays, which include the kulebiaka (cabbage or fish-filled), vatrushki (cheese pastries), and pel’meni (small ravioli/wantons usually served in a soup). Russians love breads and strongly favor dishes made with batters or doughs.

The other categories—soups, appetizers (the unique Russian zakuski), fish, desserts and more—are presented with equal care and enthusiasm. Visson concedes that some dishes may pose ingredient-finding difficulties, but she gives helpful substitution ideas and guidelines. She has also carefully presented every recipe in American measurements. The last thing she wants is to give us a culinary compendium that remains on the shelf. The Russian Heritage Cookbook cries out to be used, annotated, and proudly splotched. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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