Darra Golstein's fascinating and deeply researched new book about Russian cuisine, Beyond the North Wind, deserves serious attention, but I have to admit that my initial response was to interpret it as a reproach, almost a book-length subtweet, of a new generation of restaurants offering updated reinterpretations of Russian classics. Goldstein, a culinary scholar who’s spent decades traveling and living in Russia, probably didn’t intend it as such. But I couldn’t help but think of my attempts to cook an updated version of salat olivier (potato salad) that used fresh (not canned) vegetables and homemade (not Hellmann’s) mayonnaise for my Russian in-laws. (They were nonplussed.) Or of a recent time when, dining out, I tried a flight of vodkas—all small-batch brands—being poetically described by our server. They all tasted pretty much like vodka.
That Goldstein, a professor emerita of Russian at Williams College and founding editor of the food journal Gastronomica, takes on her subject with rigor isn’t surprising. But her strict focus is less expected. Her approach eschews both Soviet kitsch and 19th-century French-inflected grandness, along with foods from former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Ukraine that most consider “Russian,” like plov, shashlik, and borscht.
Instead, she celebrates Russia’s ancient traditions, preserved in literal ice in its remotest villages. The sanctions on importing food imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 have also been a boon for culinary authenticity, Goldstein writes; along with economic turmoil, they spurred entrepreneurs to go back to the land and rediscover traditional foodways.
She posits that New Russian cuisine is analogous to the New Nordic food movement: reaching both back in time and forward, using the most modern techniques possible (powders, ashes, etc.) as well as traditional ones to celebrate and reinvent local ingredients like marsh-raised lamb, all manner of fish and seafood, foraged mushrooms and berries, and even humble cereal grains like buckwheat and oats. The book is also full of Stefan Wettainen’s gorgeous photographs, not just of food but also of the crystalline loveliness of the places where these recipes originated and of the people who shared them with the author. These transporting images lend this book much of its appeal; they’re also a much more comfortable way to visit the Kola Peninsula (“next stop, North Pole”) than, you know, actually going there.
The flavors of traditional Russia aren’t mild, Goldstein repeatedly tells us. This isn’t about cabbage and potatoes blandly taking us through the winter. She emphasizes the creative ways that Russian cooks preserve foods in order to maximize their nutritional value. Even without months of fermenting time, you can still get some of the piquancy Goldstein assures us is most important to the Russian palate; although it’s not exactly traditional, her recipe for 20-minute pickles uses a burst of garlic and dill and a shot of vodka to quickly turn chilled cucumbers crunchy and tart. And if I had a ready source of raw dairy, I’d be very tempted to make varenets, whose only ingredients are milk, a few spoonfuls of yogurt to culture it, lots of time, and loving reapplication of the skin that forms atop the milk as it slowly reduces in the oven.
Even my picky Russian in-laws might appreciate a dish that capitalizes on ingredients indigenous to both Russia, where they once lived, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where they now reside. Ukha Pomorskaya, a fish soup, seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and it was simple to prepare: A stock rendered from gently simmered salmon head, tail, and spine made a beautiful base for pieces of barely-cooked halibut and cod. I imagine eating it with them alongside pickled mushrooms. My father-in-law forages boletes in the woods near Provincetown and preserves them every year with cloves and garlic, then serves them with fresh onion alongside chilled vodka. I think Goldstein would approve.