Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Neigh Gourmet

Monday, March 4th, 2013

I’m just going to come out and say it: I love horsemeat. It’s lean, yet tender, it is flavorful but not gamy; it’s delicious. Those IKEA meatball-eaters have no idea how lucky they are.

I was first introduced to it in the Uzbek restaurants of Moscow, where they serve kazy, the horse sausage eaten across Central Asia, with translucently sliced onions and warm, naan-like bread. I was skeptical at first, but eating kazy is a conversion, that first moment of doubt melting away into a long “mmmmm” as you chew. But this was no mere staple of exotic Central Asia. By the time I got to Zurich, I was totally ready for the horse steak my hosts ordered for me. For the sake of comparison, we got one steak steak and one horse steak, and both slabs of raw meat came out on hot stones that sizzled and cooked the meat to the degree you wanted. And you know what? It wasn’t even a contest. Compared to the sweet richness of the horse, the cow tasted bland and dry. If I ever come across horse on a menu again, I would order it: I still crave that horse steak.

And that’s just the flavor part. Horsemeat is healthier than beef or other red meats: it is less fatty, and, unlike its more socially acceptable counterparts, less doped up with hormones and, likely, raised in better, less crowded, and more sanitary conditions. It’s rich in vitamin B12, which is key to blood production and the healthy functioning of the nervous system. “If someone were anemic, horsemeat might be a good way to get iron into that person’s system,” says LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles dietician. “You’re still getting the iron without all the saturated fat of other commercially raised meats.”

Yet much of the West is having a freak-out over the appearance of horsemeat in dishes like Taco Bell tacos, things that we probably assumed were made of meat far baser, if we assumed they were made of meat at all. Moreover, why are producers pulling these products off the shelves, as if they were found to contain plutonium or, worse, rat?

To someone who has spent time living in Russia, this may smack of the pampered squeamishness of the West. The aversion, however, has far deeper roots.

Horses, both wild and domesticated, have been an important source of protein for ages, especially in Central Asia, where they teemed on the steppes. It was a different story in Europe, where horses were scarce by comparison (this was one of the reasons that menaces like Attila the Hun, galloping in from the steppe, were such a potent threat). The early Christians, clustered around the Mediterranean, ate fish and lamb. Horseflesh they associated with the heathen savages, the Teutons who lived in the forests beyond the reach of Rome and were known to eat horse. In 732, Pope Gregory III declared the practice of eating horsemeat unclean and unchristian. This was not a hard edict to abide by: The forests were far better for raising pigs, and the European grasslands for ruminants, like cows. Horses were treasured work animals too expensive to eat, who would end up on the plate when they were too old for any other purpose.

In the modern era, horses became the meat of Europe’s underbelly, the meat of the hungry. Napoleon’s starving troops were infamously instructed to eat horse on their campaigns. In 1866, French authorities legalized the production and sale of horsemeat as a way to get protein to the malnourished working classes, but this was a controversial and very classist move: the wealthy, for whom horses were not just transport but pets with names and personalities, found this to be a deeply repugnant practice. It was considered a basse viand, a base meat. Not because of how it tasted, but because of who ate it and who had the luxury to pamper it. (Horsemeat, by the way, is still eaten in France, even if it is not nearly as popular as other meats—or even, ironically, snails.)

But the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which we are the heirs, is different, and here’s where the French come in. The Anglo-Saxons may have eaten horse when Pope Gregory was fretting about their paganism, but when the Normans conquered them, in 1066 a certain gastronomic duality entered the lexicon, a cognitive dissonance made flesh. The Normans are responsible for introducing much of the French that today floats around the English language, especially when it comes to food. When one spoke of food, one spoke in the language of the French conquerors, rather than the language of the Anglo-Saxon hoi polloi. (Or, as it was then known, Angle-ish.) And so we came to eat not cow, but beef (boeuf), not pig, but pork (porc), not lamb, but mutton (mouton), not calf, but veal (veau). It is a pretension and a prudishness that we have internalized and unconsciously propagate to this day.

The next layer, of course, is the Angle-ish obsession with the horse as a noble beast, a beast that bears us into battle and a beast we bet on and cheer in derbies. (Why it’s okay to race these horses and then euthanize them when they break a knee, but not eat them is, frankly, beyond me.) Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, American girls dream of ponies, and if they grow up swaddled in money and privilege, like Georgina Bloomberg, they can live the fantasy of every other young woman who shops for the equestrian look at J. Crew. Horses are the stuff of myths and dreams in America, and, because we’re not hungry, we have the luxury of adding them to the list of animals we are too guilty to eat, foie gras, veal, rabbit. One friend of mine, for instance, loved burgers but could not, for the life of him, eat duck. It was too cute, he said.

For some reason, non-vegetarian Americans can live with this nonsensical ethical code. Cows, chickens, pigs—we feast on their flesh without wincing or imagining them marching into the slaughterhouse, their lives racing before their big, dumb eyes. But tell them that there may be some horse in their dead cow patty, and you get theatrical retching and indignation. In part, it is deep-seated historical and cultural taboo going back centuries. But in part, perhaps mostly, it is because we are spoiled: we are spoiled to not only have the option of eating meat on a daily basis—unheard of before the 20th century—we can pick and choose. And we’re sated enough to have animals as pets, as sacred companions whom we feed with meat, placing them in a strange plane above other animals.

More news is sure to break in the coming days and weeks about horse meat found in this or that product, and it would be nice if, just for a minute, we recognized that it is simply the flesh of one dead animal mixed in with the flesh of another dead animal, and that it is by cultural coincidence that we prize one over the other, and that we do it because we are so supremely, absurdly sated. It would also be nice if we realized that having some horsemeat in those tacos might not be such a bad thing. It might even be the best thing in there.

Neigh Gourmet [TNR]


Friday, December 5th, 2008

It was a matter of great importance that I learn to forage for my own protein and so, almost as soon as I could walk, I was initiated into the cult of the mushroom. Far too early one summer morning, my parents scooped me out of bed and we set forth from our dacha, about an hour and a half southwest of Moscow, making our way toward the forest down dusty packed-earth roads, our buckets and baskets swinging.

Still foggy with sleep, I trundled along with the pack of parents and grandparents and cousins, struggling on the two-wheeler I had just learned to ride. It was a 20-kilometer trip to the forest and, at 3 years old, I was approximately the height of the bike’s back tire.

Every August, just when summer rains cut the heat, the forests of Russia blossom with all manner of fungi and the country’s city-dwellers board trains bound for the countryside. Armed with sticks and knives, they invade the forests, necks craned, eyes peeled, poking under leaves and fallen trees. Find a mushroom, slice it at the stem, and send it, with a soft thunk, into your leaf-lined basket.

Mushroom picking is an ancient peasant tradition, but in the Soviet Union, where fresh vegetables were scarce and meat products were enhanced with newspaper or fishbone filler, hunting for mushrooms, those fragrant nuggets of vitamins and protein, became a fiercely competitive sport. Keeping your mushrooming location a secret from rival groups was key, as was going as far as possible from any cluster of human habitation: the closer the forest was, the more thoroughly it would have been picked clean by the hungry crowd preceding you. Remarkably, respect for mushrooms in Russia is such that it transcends Russian disrespect for the environment. In a country where oil was left to pool on the ground and the Aral Sea was reduced to a salt plain, mushrooms were lovingly sliced down, not ripped out of the earth, to ensure future crops. And what began as the hunt for delicious freebies in a culture of privation soon morphed into a national pastoral myth.

Ask any Russian about mushrooming, and you’ll hear their salivary glands activate, their voices gather breath as they expound on the beauty of the forest and the quiet thrill of the hunt in something akin to beat poetry. It has even survived into the era of the petrodollar and the ubiquitous luxury supermarket. Every year, scores of people check into Russian hospitals with mushroom poisoning; dozens die. In 2003, a bumper crop killed 34 Russians and poisoned nearly 500 more. That year, 121 people got lost in the forests near St. Petersburg in one month alone.

The danger is real, and so most Russians also moonlight as mycologists, lay experts in the fungal sciences. There is a lot to learn, which is probably why my parents drafted me so early in life. (The bike, which I had to haul through the woods over felled aspens, seemed at the time somewhat gratuitous.) One must know, for example, that chanterelles, or lisichki (those amber-colored, frilly-gilled “little foxes”), cluster in mosses; that in the tall grasses of sunny birch groves, you could find the clay-colored podosinovik or the puffy ecru cap of the podberyozovik, but that rotting birch is prime real estate for colonies of pale opyata (honey fungus) stacked atop one other like favela dwellings, though you should wait for autumn to gather them in earnest; that under drifts of leaves, you’ll find the pickling workhorse of the Russian fungi, the milk-cap or gruzd, but that the mixed forest near our dacha was mostly littered with syroyezhki (the bare-toothed russula), the jalopy of the bunch, and that these can be easily confused with the poisonous, pale-gray poganki (break it open and, if it turns pink, it’s edible – I think).

At that stage in life, however, I knew only that the toadstool, the beautifully named mukhomor or fly-killer, was horribly poisonous and potentially downright evil, even though its red cap with white polka dots looked so pretty in my picture books. Perhaps I even knew that the round buttons of the hilarious but inedible dymoviki blew up in smoke when stepped on, but I was delighted to learn, a couple years later on a trip to the Baltic coast, that, in clearings, you’re likely to find ryzhiki (the stout-stemmed ocher Lactarius deterrminus, its viscous cap punched in at the center) growing “in families,” as my grandmother used to say; that, in those same clearings and also growing in clusters, you’ll find slimy little maslyata (known here as “slippery jacks”), but that you couldn’t possibly confuse them with a ribbed ryzhik. (A maslyonok has a brown bowler hat, yellow stem and porous, corral-like underbelly. Besides, when cut in half, a ryzhik lactates rust-colored ooze that turns green in the air – a dead giveaway to any mushroomer worth his salt.)

One should probably also know that, though these mushrooms are around all summer, the best haul comes in during an Indian summer, when the heat has abated and when rain followed by a couple of sunny days coaxes forth a bloom of mushrooms. Even better is a “mushroom rain,” whose bizarre simultaneity – sunshine and rain at once – heralds full baskets.

In the silence of the forest, lost as you may be in fresh air and introspection, you are always, always on the hunt for the White Whale of the Woods: the elusive beliy grib. This meaty, luxurious white mushroom, known to the Whole Foods-spoiled urbanite as the simple porcini, was to a Soviet the delicacy of delicacies. It grows among young spruce trees or in a mixed birch-and-spruce forest, but mostly in theory; in practice, it seemed nearly impossible to find. Its brown cap makes it blend with the forest floor and, just to keep things interesting, if you manage to find one, you may have actually found a booby-trapped body double. (Simple test: lick the cap; if it’s bitter, it’s poisonous.) Chances are, you’ll find a few white mushrooms, but they are so prized, so fervently worshipped that you’ll be sure to place them at the very top of your already overflowing basket alongside your most beautiful fungal specimens just to provoke the envious, drooling rival hunters on the train platform waiting to head back into the city.

Back at the dacha, after the interminable bike ride back, we dumped our loot into a bathtub full of water, which promptly filled with the confetti-like dirt clinging to the mushrooms. White mushrooms, recognized by worms as well as humans as incredibly tasty, had to be soaked in salt water to smoke those suckers out of our food. After a few washings, the chopping, boiling, salting, pickling and sautéing would begin, the smell of earthy mushrooms, the sounds – of knives and jars and pots and pans, of my parents and grandmother and great aunt and uncle scurrying between the cellar, the kitchen and the veranda, wiping their hands on old aprons – filled the house that night, though I was probably already asleep.

My Great-Grandmother’s White-Mushroom Soup

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 2 carrots, diced

• 3 celery stalks, diced

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

• 2 bay leaves

• 1 cup Great Northern beans, soaked overnight, sorted (can be substituted with a can of rinsed cannellini beans)

• 3 medium potatoes, cubed

• 4-5 medium fresh porcini mushrooms, chopped

• _ cup chopped shitake mushrooms

• _ cup chopped baby bella mushrooms

• Salt, pepper

• Sour cream (for garnish)

In a large soup pot, sweat the onion, carrots and celery. Season with pepper. Fill 2/3 of the pot with water; add beans and bay leaves; bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add potatoes, mushrooms, salt. Make sure the beans are almost cooked, and simmer for 10-15 more minutes, skimming foam off the top. Adjust seasoning. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Grandma Khinya’s Pickled Mushrooms

• 1-2 lbs. assorted mushrooms, cleaned (if using slippery jacks, remove slippery membrane on cap)

• 5-8 peppercorns

• 2 cloves

• 2-3 bay leaves

• 1-2 tsp salt

• 2-3 tbsp white vinegar

• 1.5 cups water

In a large soup pot, add just enough cold water and 1 tablespoon of salt, so that the mushrooms barely covered. Boil for 15-20 minutes, until mushrooms are cooked through. Fish out the mushrooms, save mushroom stock for soup. Transfer cooked mushrooms to a clean jar. In a small saucepan, mix peppercorns, carnations, bay leaves, salt, vinegar and water. Bring to a boil. Pour over mushrooms. Let it sit, uncovered, for a couple hours until it comes to room temperature. Adjust salt. Screw the jar closed, keep in fridge for 2-3 days before serving.

Mama Olga’s Sautéed Chanterelles with Potatoes and Sour Cream

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 1 pound chanterelles, cleaned, sliced

• 7-8 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, cubed

• 1 cup sour cream

• 2 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

• Salt, pepper

Sauté onions in butter until soft. Add chanterelles, salt and pepper; turn heat up to medium-high. When the mushrooms start releasing juice, turn heat down to medium, stirring occasionally until liquid evaporates. Add sour cream; cook until heated through but not boiling. Adjust seasoning. Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water. Cook for 5-7 minutes. Potatoes should be soft when poked with a knife. Drain, return to pot to dry. Add mushroom mixture to the potatoes, dill. Mix and serve immediately.


Soup to Nettles

Monday, August 4th, 2008

In 1861, the year Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, Elena Molokhovets published her domestic bible, “A Gift to Young Housewives, or the Means of Lowering Household Expenses.” She explained how to feed the servants, how to pick the freshest meat, how to measure precisely in a culture that still cooked by instinct, how to plan six hundred meals of varying attendance, cost, and life-cycle significance. (A breakfast for one’s name day, for example, should include a turkey galantine, a cold French pâté, a well-sauced duck or goose, beef tongue, fried foul, rice, radishes, two salads, pastries, coffee, rum, and, of course, more pâté.) A half century later, by the time the Bolsheviks had overthrown Alexander’s heirs, the book had been printed in thirty-odd editions, most of them overseen by Molokhovets herself, all while rearing ten children, writing religious tracts, and running her own hearth with utmost efficiency.

The once ubiquitous and bourgeois “Gift to Young Housewives” all but disappeared in Soviet times, but it resurfaced this summer in Red Hook. Valerie Stivers-Isakova, a young, American, and very pregnant housewife, received it as a gift from the mother of her Russian-born husband, Ivan. Inspired, Stivers-Isakova, a writer, decided to have a Molokhovets-themed dinner party.

First, the menu. For a June dinner “of the first order,” Molokhovets recommends starting with a soup of puréed game or wild mushrooms, accompanied by “strong Spanish wines,” lobster-stuffed pastries, and pirozhki with brains, “served in their shells.” The dinner should then proceed through eight more courses: filet of beef with a knockwurst butter paired with a nice Saint-Julien or a warmed Lafite; sturgeon and potatoes served with a Sauternes or a Chablis; young carrots, turnips, potatoes, and cabbage in a cream sauce, “divided on the platter with strips of pastry”; lobster soufflé; a wild-strawberry Imperial punch; braised capon stuffed with liver and truffles; strawberry ice cream; and, finally, berries with black coffee, tea, and cognac.

After hours of translation, Stivers-Isakova decided to ditch the vegetable dish with what she termed “fancy dough receptacles.” She also figured that she was inviting too many vegetarians to serve so much meat. In the end, she said, “I decided to go for the spirit of the thing.”

She started with the poultry. “We tried to make the veal-stuffed duck, and it was a total disaster! We deboned it, we even sewed it closed, and it just came out looking ridiculous,” Stivers-Isakova recalled, posing, elbows out, in homage to the ill-fated mallard (Recipe No. 894). “Molokhovets just says, ‘Cook till it’s done.’ What does that mean? What vessel do you use? What temperature?”

A peach tart turned out soggy; rice-and-egg pastries too dry. Stivers-Isakova went hunting for nettles at the Union Square Greenmarket, called Court Street butchers looking for kidneys and veal bones, and scoured the Red Hook Fairway for elderberry juice. The nettles were the worst. Six stinging bushels had to be cleaned, boiled, drained, blanched, wrung, chopped, and reduced, finally, to a small pile you could hold in your hand. “I had four pots going,” Stivers-Isakova said. “I had to wear ziplock bags on my hands.”

Stivers-Isakova cooked for three days. When her twelve guests finally arrived, on a Saturday night, the meal got under way with smoked fish (from Russ & Daughters) and pickles (prepared in Russia by Ivan’s mother, using Recipe No. 3,287), accompanied by shots of cold vodka. Cutting into a chicken cutlet (Recipe No. 846), Alix Alferieff Murdoch, a law student, recalled how her Kentuckian mother had tried to re-create a traditional Orthodox Easter dinner for her Russian-émigré husband. “She lost the recipe for kulich”—a dense Easter cake—“and could never remember—was it twenty eggs? Twenty-two eggs?” (Molokhovets, in Recipe No. 2,472, recommends ten.)

After the sorrel-and-nettle soup (Recipe No. 2,032) and fish in champagne aspic (a variation on Recipe No. 1,249), the guests wandered over to look at the Statue of Liberty, visible through the dining-room windows. Anya Ulinich, a writer and a Russian immigrant, tried to give Stivers-Isakova some advice, young housewife to young housewife.

“I really want my kid to speak Russian,” Stivers-Isakova said, balancing a slice of rum torte with jam (Recipe No. 1,944) on her belly. “Ivy says he’s going to speak Russian to the kid, but I don’t believe him. So I’m going to hire a nanny who only speaks Russian.”

“But you know the problem with Russian nannies, don’t you?” Ulinich said. “You need a nanny who speaks no English, and if she speaks no English she’ll be older than you, in which case she’ll become your surrogate mother. She’ll constantly be freaking out: ‘Oh, my God! How can you give the child cold milk straight from the fridge!’ ”

Stivers-Isakova remained confident that she’d build a fine nest, even if it is a hybridized version of the one Molokhovets envisioned. What did she think of the book, in the end?

“It’s an instrument of torture.”