Привет (Privet)! Hi!
Do I speak or read Russian? Um, нет (net). No. But I can say very basic things like hello and goodbye and sing folk songs. Why? In college, I played in my campus Balalaika Ensemble. Balalaika ensembles are traditional Slavic folk music groups featuring instruments like domras and balalaikas, and sometimes accordions, fiddles, guitars. I played the alto domra, a lovely and bulbous little stringed instrument you strum like a mandolin. We played Slavic and Klezmer folk songs, wore Russian outfits, and went to Slavic language conferences all over the U.S. You see, our group was rather special, one of only a few college Balalaika ensembles in the entire country, so we were a bit of a hot commodity in the whole Slavic folk music scene.
I thought so too. After I saw them perform the first time, I was hooked. The minor chords, the throaty singing, the percussive beats, I was in love, Dr. Zhivago-style. And thus, it set off this whole obsession with all things Slavic. I had many favorite songs, but our traditional way of ending a great performance was with a rollicking round of "Kalinka" (Калинка). My good friend Derek and I still sometimes break out in rounds of "Kalinka"; he was our vocalist, a towering, dark-haired tenor who looked quite handsome in an embroidered Russian shirt. Curious to see this song yourself? Here's the Red Russian Army Choir doing a very boisterous rendition of "Kalinka", complete with dancers.
My Balalaika college friends and ensemble director still sometimes call me by my chosen Russian name: Zoya, a variant of Zoë, meaning "life". I like to say my name with a low, breathy voice, heavily accenting the first syllable, just for drama. So, imagine me speaking like that, serving you this salad.
It hails from Russia, by way of my kitchen, with love.
Russian Salad is usually made of potato, various vegetables, and finely diced meats, all mixed together with mayonnaise. Many of the vegetables are boiled or pickled, and there are lots of different versions that contain everything from tuna to tongue, from pickles to peas. I have eaten traditional Russian Salad before, and while I enjoyed it in theory, in practice it never worked out so well. I always found it a bit too heavy and stifling for my digestive system.
This version is a whole lot lighter, and touch more allergy-friendly. Inspired by a recipe in Paul Pitchford's wonderful Healing With Whole Foods with my own tweaks and twists, it would probably be scoffed at by Russian Salad traditionalists, but it is really tasty. I mixed together beets, turnips, and carrots with sauerkraut and peas, and drizzled it with a creamy, flavorful mustard and herb dressing in lieu of mayonnaise. Later on, when I ate leftovers, I added a bit of olive oil-packed tuna, in the style of the Spanish version of Russian salad. Delicious! Pitchford's original recipe calls for chickpeas, which I'm sure would be equally delicious. Hooray for mayonnaise-free, potato-free Russian salad!
Just like the Balalaika Ensemble, this salad has grabbed my heart and won't let go. I shouldn't be surprised; it contains most of my favorite foods in one dish. I think I'll be making more versions of this salad in the future, so stay tuned. It is, as they say, пальчики оближешь (palchiki oblichesh). That would be "very tasty" to you.
If you want to learn some basic Russian phrases to impress your friends and lovers, check this or this out. You can learn to say things like "I love you" and "I can't live without you", just in time for Valentine's Day, as well as a number of other phrases, ranging from useful to inappropriate. In the meantime, Приятного аппетита (prijatnogo appetita). до свидания (Dos svidaniya)!
(Thank you Google translator for giving me the Cyrillic translations! That's one thing I didn't learn in Balalaika Ensemble.)
Potato-Free Russian Salad with Sauerkraut and Creamy Mustard-Herb Dressing
Yield: 5 cups
1 cup cooked turnips, thinly sliced in half moons (about 2 medium)
1 cup cooked beets, thinly sliced in half moons (about 4-5 small)
1 cup cooked carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal (about 3-4 small)
1 cup sauerkraut, drained
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
handful fresh parsley, chopped
optional: 1-2 tsp caraway seeds
optional, for the fish eaters: 5-oz can water or olive oil-packed tuna
1 batch Creamy Mustard Herb Dressing (recipe follows)
Cook turnips, beets, and carrots per desired method (steaming, roasting, boiling, etc). I roasted my beets whole until tender (450º F, wrapped in foil, for about 1 1/2 hours), cooled them slightly, then peeled and sliced them. Beets can also be boiled, steamed, or pressure cooked, which takes less time. For the turnips and carrots, I peeled and sliced them, then steamed the slices until tender.
Place cooked, slightly cooled vegetables and sauerkraut in a large bowl. Add thawed peas, parsley, caraway seeds, and tuna, if adding. Drizzle with about 1/2 cup of Cashew Herb Dressing, and stir to coat, adding more dressing as desired, and stir to combine. Serve immediately, or for a fuller flavor, refrigerate and let marinate for up to 12 hours before serving. Garnish with freshly cracked pepper and fresh dill sprigs.
Creamy Mustard-Herb Dressing
Yield: approx. 1 cup
1/2 cup raw cashews (try blanched almonds, or for nut-free, try hemp, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds)
1 cup water
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp ground dry mustard
1/2 tsp dry dill weed
1/2 tsp dry basil
1-2 tsp umeboshi vinegar, to taste
freshly ground pepper
Place cashews in a blender or food processor and grind to a powder. Add 3/4 cup water, herbs, mustard, pepper, and umeboshi vinegar, and blend until totally smooth, adding remaining 1/4 c water and seasoning to taste. Add additional water as needed to reach desired consistency.
Refrigerate leftovers in a tightly sealed jar.