~ Sour-Creamy Russian Cucumber & Radish Salad ~
Most of you already know, but, for those who don't: my heritage is 'White' Russian. My husband Joe's heritage is Italian. We often joke about ours being a marriage made in culinary heaven: blini, borscht, pirogi and stuffed cabbage meets bruschetta, minestrone, ravioli and ossobuco. Thanks to the Russian Orthodox church calendar, for the most part, we get to celebrate two Christmas's and two Easter's too. These and all ethnic celebrations revolve around tables full of fabulous food and plenty of alcohol: Vodka for the Russians, Anisette for the Italians!
I have an affinity for Russian fare and the Eastern European style of eating because I grew up experiencing it, but, I'll admit, for newcomers, it takes a bit of getting used to. My parents are American born, so I grew up in a "toned down" Russian environment, but, my mothers sister married a born-and-raised Russian/Ukrainian* who's family (parents, brothers and sisters) immigrated to the USA after WWII. The entire clan settled in Trenton, NJ. Once Uncle Al (Alexi) married my mom's sister Marie, his family became family: Aunt Olga, Uncle Tony, Sasha, etc. All of their children became my cousins and, let me tell you... a 'wild and crazy' time was had by all:
*Russian/Ukranian: If you are not Russian or Ukranian, you will not notice much of a difference. In fact, when they had one border (when the Great Russian Empire was), the Ukraine was called "Malorosslya" (Small Russia) and Belarus was called "Belorusslya" (White Russia). The word "Ukraine" comes from the word "u kraya" meaning "near the edge" ("near the edge of the territory of Russia"). The Russian territory was called "Velikorossia" (Great Russia)! That being said:
If you are Russian or Ukranian, of course you'll claim differences (all petty and imposed by family, politics, religion and/or society). In my opinion, I don't think there are two countries in the world with such a similar culture or history, as they have been a part of the same empire for almost the entirety of their existence!
"Nasdrovia": "to health" and "thanks for the food"!
Russians (similar to Italians) are known for, and proud of, their hospitality. Even if you drop in on them unexpectedly, food is immediately put on the table, along with a bottle of vodka, a few small plates and some shot glasses. Beware of Russians who do not follow this procedure. As a guest, you are expected to take a taste of everything, and, even if you don't drink, take a sip. "Nasdrovia", meaning "to health" is not as much a Russian toast as it is a thank-you to the host!
Somewhere on the Russian table, besides vodka, there will be sour cream!
Russians, and most Eastern Europeans, use "smetana" like Americans use creme fraiche and mayonnaise. They dollop it on or stir it into many dishes. They slather it on food too -- in the same way we use butter. "Smetana" is "sour cream", a dairy product produced by souring heavy cream, and, it took me years to understand why it is a beloved Russian staple:
Under iron-fisted government rule, the Russian people were poor. When you have nothing, you waste nothing. Some Russian peasants afforded a small dachau, a plot of land were they were allowed to grow vegetables and raise a few animals. Others became collective farmers, where several families labored together to feed each other. While this sounds cozy and nice, in an unforgiving "frozen-tundra" climate with a short growing season and no mechanized equipment or irrigation systems, this is life-essential and back-breaking work. Canning, pickling and/or preserving everything and anything edible is a way of life. If anyone was lucky enough to have a cow, ones family or ones collective got milk. When milk separates, you get milk, cream and sour cream (similar to creme fraiche). The bacteria in sour cream is/was considered healthy, as well as a much-needed source of fat. By adding a bit of sugar to it, the Russians even use sour cream in place of whipped cream for desserts!
Salat iz Ogurtsov i Beloi Rediski so Smetanoy!
Fresh vegetables are prized possessions throughout Russia, so, "salat" is an important part of any stage of the meal. This Eastern European side-dish classic is one of the more vibrant dishes you would expect to find on a Russian "zakuska" table ("appetizer buffet"). Aside from potatoes, carrots and beets, red and white radishes are one of only a handful of vegetables hearty enough to grow in Russia's cold climate. Cucumbers, grow quickly during the short Russian Summer season. This makes them both popular ingredients in Russian cuisine. Feel free to make this crunchy, refreshing side-dish using all cucumbers or all radishes too!
4 cups thinly-sliced, 1/8"-1/4" thick cucumbers (2, 8" cucumbers), patted dry (Note: After I slice the cucumbers, I like to wrap them in a few layers of paper towels and set them aside to drain for about 15-20 minutes prior to making the salad. This choice is yours.)
1 cup thinly-sliced, 1/8"-1/4" thick red radishes (10-12 radishes)
1 cup very thinly-sliced/shaved yellow or sweet onion (1/2 of a large onion)
2 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh dill ("Dill & mint are to Russian cuisine what basil & oregano are to Italian cuisine!" ~ Melanie Kononchuk-Maliniak Preschutti)
1 tablespoon capers, drained and chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2-1 teaspoon sugar, to taste
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, to taste (Note: I use 10-15 grinds of sea salt and 40-50 grinds of peppercorn blend.)
additional freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, for topping each serving
dill sprigs, for garnish
~ Step 1. Trim the pole ends from the cucumbers and radishes and slice them as directed. Peel and slice/shave the onion. If you are lucky enough to have a vegetable slicer or a mandoline, all of these tasks will take less than 5 minutes.
Note: I bought my handy-dandy Feemster's Famous Vegetable Slicer over 20 years ago for $5.00. I am please to report they are still available today on Amazon.com!
~ Step 2. Chop the capers and dill as directed and set aside.
Note: Capers are salty tasting. Stir them into the the sour cream mixture to prevent over salting!
~ Step 4. Add the sliced cucumbers, radishes, onions and minced dill. Using a large rubber spatula, thoroughly combine all ingredients until evenly-coated in the sour cream sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, 2-6 hours. Serve cold:
Special Equipment List: mandoline or vegetable slicer (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; paper towels (optional); large rubber spatula
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)