Russian Roulette

Traditional Russian meal and photo courtesy of Nat G.
Traditional Russian meal and photo by Nat G.

Since the very first cooking class I ever taught, my absolute favorite part about teaching them is hearing from my students when they try their hand at the recipes they learn in class. It always makes my day to hear that they stepped out of their culinary comfort zone, and tried something new. I love getting the phone calls and facebook posts where they boast about successfully preparing a dish, or the ones where it didn’t go exactly as planned, but they think they know why.

Yesterday, it was my turn to step out of my culinary comfort zone and  experience a special first. One of my talented cooking class all-star students invited me and a mutual friend to her home for a traditional Russian feast. What a treat this was! First of all, I’m not particularly familiar with Russian cuisine, so it was certainly an educational experience. I’m always up for trying new things, and was excited that my entree to Russian food would come directly from an expert. Nat’s family is Russian, and as she says, she grew up eating caviar on crepes with her grandfather, so I knew I’d be in good hands. Secondly, despite the fact that I stress that I too was once a beginner, most of my students (and friends, for that matter) are too nervous or intimidated to ever invite me over for dinner.

Blini with red caviar.  Photo by Nat G.
Blini with red caviar.
Photo by Nat G.

I’m thrilled that Nat took a chance, because what she made far exceeded any expectations I had. A brief backstory: Nat is one of those students in my class that is actually quite good at cooking, but takes the class as a hobby. On our first session, I quickly saw that she was well-versed in the kitchen, and wondered what she was doing there. It turns out, the class provided a fun, social environment to connect with people who share her passion. She’s also incredibly funny, and when she sent me the invitation for the meal, she titled it, “Russian Roulette,” because she is dead…”dead serious about inviting you to a dinner party at my house.”

Vinaigrette - a cold beet and potato salad. Photo by Nat G.
Vinaigrette – a cold beet and potato salad.
Photo by Nat G.

Yesterday’s meal featured a cold crimson borsch topped with a dollop of sour cream (which, I was informed, would be an interesting study on how quickly my digestive system works), followed by blinis and sweet crepes which acted as a vehicle for decadent pearls of carrot-colored caviar. Next came vinaigrette, which is a beet and potato salad that would put your old picnic standby to shame. Then came a dish that looked familiar but offered an interesting surprise, blinchinki. These savory blintzes filled with finely minced turkey, onion and egg were a highlight for me. Ikra followed, which was a smokey eggplant and roasted pepper dip that was spread on espresso-colored “Russian” bread, and reminded me a lot of babaganoush or caponata. Finally, Nat served a clean tomato and cucumber salad (which she noted was not Russian), in case we didn’t like the other offerings. We washed down this feast with vodka-spiked pink lemonade, and after a nice visit, dessert was served. Alongside our cups of coffee sweetened with condensed milk, Nat presented us with a traditional cookie, priyaniki. Alone, the hard-glazed priyaniki tasted great, but were a little dry, and as Nat explained, are specifically served with coffee or tea, to encourage dunking. I love dunking cookies. There’s simply no better way to eat a cookie than dunked. Second, she served a poppy seed loaf cake that reminded me of a chocolate babka, but instead of chocolate, there was sweet poppy seeds. As if that wasn’t enough, perfectly halved strawberries rounded out the meal. Nat paid a lot of attention to detail, as most of the savory dishes were garnished with sprigs of dill or fine stalks of chives, and it was very evident that she put in a lot of time and energy into making this meal really stand out.

Binchinki, a savory blintz stuffed with seasoned ground turkey. Photo by Nat G.
Binchinki, a savory blintz stuffed with seasoned ground turkey.
Photo by Nat G.

I left Nat’s house with not just a full stomach, but a full heart, too. She completely outdid herself, and made me very proud. She certainly set the bar high!

*Silly me, I forgot to bring my camera along, so Nat’s iphone had to suffice. Trust me when I tell you that the spread looked colorfully enticing and simply delectable.

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