A visitor from the United States recently asked me what was the most exciting thing about living in Russia. I could tell she was expecting me to talk about seeing The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi, the Olympics thingy, or maybe something about the mysteries of The Great Russian Soul. Of course, I disappointed her. My milestones are all culinary. “Unlimited quantities of affordable salmon,” I answered promptly.
HRH, my “Handsome Russian Husband” turned up his nose when I suggested I parlay some leftover poached salmon into tel’noye or fish cakes. It seems these small nuggets made from fish and stale bread soaked in milk made a regular and lackluster appearance during his Soviet childhood. The version he remembered were bland and tasteless, made primarily from frozen chunks of halibut or cod, and served with synthetic mayonnaise. He could not imagine an appetizing version of them.
I love it when HRH hurls down the culinary gauntlet, so I hauled out my stack of Russian cookbooks to look for inspiration.
Every one of them had a recipe for tel’noye, and they all included the same dull, distinctly uninspiring ingredients: fish, eggs, flour, and stale bread. Okay, the vastly over-lauded, hipster Jamie Oliver-wannabe author of “Real Russian Food,” Maxim Syrnikov (which I’m convinced is a fake name, meaning as it does, “cheesecake”) suggested adding onion and dill, but that is hardly thinking outside of the box, is it? And there, in a nutshell, you have problem with the Soviet staples of Russian cuisine: they seriously need updating. Today you can get everything from anise seed to za’tar in Russia, but if I try to introduce even one new ingredient in a recipe, I get a flood of really vitriolic hate mail from Russian readers, particularly those who haven’t lived in Russia for the last 20 years. It’s a sin beyond contemplation, they rail, to throw in some chili pepper here, a little pomegranate molasses there, and dust almost everything, including vanilla ice-cream, with sumac. “It isn’t our traditional Raaaaaaaaaaaasian dish,” they drawl from the general direction of Brighton Beach.
To them, I say, “Nu, i shto?” (So what?) Banking on the fact that even Mr. Cheesecake has a bottle of Tabsco lurking in his fridge, I set about spicing up tel’noye with a few very Raaaaaaaaaaasian ingredients, such as horseradish and black pepper, and a couple of imports, such as paprika and capers. In addition to grated white onions, I sweated leeks with a bit of zucchini to introduce a contrasting color and texture. The addition of my beloved Russian smoked salmon to the tel’noye takes them from Wednesday night stopgap to the opening salvo of an elegant Saturday night dinner. I fried up a batch and was delighted to see HRH sneaking a few more from the fridge when he thought I wasn’t looking.
So, think outside the box, whether you hail from the shores of Baikal or Brighton Beach. Seriously, there is more to life than dill.
Hipster Salmon Tel’noye
* This veers well away from the foundation concept of tel’noye, but take a hint from the Irish and substitute 3 cups of mashed potatoes for the stale bread/milk mixture. The results are equally as tasty and a great way to use up any leftover mashed potatoes.
For other Russian Classics, I highly recommend Darra Goldstein’s A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russia Hospitality, as well as her other works:
Have you tried telnoye? Did you try our recipe? What other childhood stodge can you think of to update? You’d be amazed what can happen to Tuna Casserole when you get creative. Or this pork chop recipe, always referred to as “Old Faithful,” which I rescued from my childhood culinary canon and re-christened, “New Faithful.”
Hit the comment button below and let us know how you spice things up!
Friends, I’m over the moon to announce the publication of my first book,Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow. Each thematic chapter is an anecdotal exploration of an aspect of life in today’s Russia, told with the help of a recurring cast of delightful Russian and expatriate characters. Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow.introduces readers to Russians in their everyday milieu: at their dachas, in three-day traffic jams, and celebrating their 300+ public and professional holidays with mayonnaise-based salads. Lenin Lives Next Door is Russia as we’ve never seen it before: through the eyes of a self-confessed recovering Russophile.[divider_flat]
To download a free copy of Chapter 1 of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow visit my new website by clicking here.