But the lilacs distracted me. Spring comes quickly to Russia: one moment the world is a jar of dirty water full of muddy paint brushes, and then, overnight, it blossoms into the vibrant pastel colors of spring. Up from Central Asia and the Crimea come the first of the fresh strawberries and ripe tomatoes, sold by peroxide blonds in pinafores and dirty fingernails.
Beets: at this time of the year? No, beets in Russia are part of the musky bounty of autumn, not the budding promise of spring.
Spring in Russia comes with the first whiff of the pungent smoke of the “kostor” the barbacue grill. As the lilac blooms, the “snowdrops,” those rickety, rusty, banjaxed cars used only to get to country houses, or “dachas,” from May to August bounce out to the dachas, where, even if the dacha has electricity, and many do not, the menu is traditional and unchanging: shashlik: skewers of marinated pork or lamb grilled over an open wood fire.
Like so many of its cultural fulcrums, shashlik is not native to Russia, but Russians have made it their own. That is to say, Russian men have made it their own. Russian men are not natural cooks: cooking is a bit effeminate, is not associated with world domination, and involves cleaning, multi-tasking and long-range strategic planning. Not madly them. The big exception is shashlik, which, Russian men assert “cannot tolerate woman’s touch.” I’ve noticed shashlik seems able to tolerate a woman’s touch during preparation and clean up, but Russian men do throw themselves into their sole culinary endeavor with gusto: spirited debates over the exact chemistry of the secret ancestral marinade (consisting of vinegar, oil, salt and pepper), and the proper arrangement of kindling in the “kostor” last as long as it takes to consume a bottle of vodka. Tenderly and lovingly, they spear the clammy chunks onto lethal meter -long shashlik imaplers, and carefully lower them onto the flames. I sometimes think that if Russian men lavished this kind of attention on their wives, the burning issue of Russia’s declining birthrate could be solved.
What to serve with shashlik? Very simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, dill and lavash, the chewy bread of the Caucuses. No dressing, save salt, and when the produce is fresh, and the sun is in the sky until after 9 pm, what else, really, does one need?
1 kilo of pork or lamb, cubed
2 yellow onions cut into 1/8 half moons
1 cup of red wine vinegar
The juice of one lemon and/or 12 cup of fresh pomegranate juice
Chopped fresh parsley
5 sprigs of dill
4 Tbls of peppercorns, coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle
4 Tbls of coarse sea salt
4 scallions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/8 cup of fresh coriander
½ a cup of olive oil
Trim the meat of all fat, and cut into 5 cm cubes. Place the meat in an airtight wide dish with a lid. Combine the remainder of the ingredients except for the onion, olive oil, coriander and the water together in a jar and combine by shaking vigorously. Pour the marinade on top of the meat, using water to top up so that the meat is covered. Refrigerate, covered overnight, or, if you are in a hurry, let stand at room temperature. Toss the meat at intervals, making sure that all the pieces are well marinated.
Using long skewers, spear the meat cubes and onions in a pattern of your choosing. Grill the skewers until the meat is browned and the juices run pink. Turn frequently, and baste with the olive oil. Serve immediately garnished with the chopped fresh coriander.
A Note on Sauces: For the many kinds of shashlik, there exist an equal number of traditional garnishes. The sauces of the Caucuses combine the tartness of citrus, musky flesh fruits and salt with fresh herbs to make Tkemali (sour plum sauce) or the pungency of walnuts, pounded with garlic and the tang of coriander to make Satsivi (walnut sauce). Other sauces take their cue from the Balkans: garlic yoghurt sauce and a diced tomato salsa. Be creative!
Traditionally, shashlik stands alone – not accompanied by any fancy salads or complicated garnish. Russians serve fresh vegetables of the season such as tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers with only salt for seasoning. The reasons for this are primarily practical: shashlik is prepared and eaten in the outdoors, or in the back garden of a dacha which may well lack refrigeration, sharp knives, or electricity to facilitate preparation and storage. Russians are wise to avoid heavy, starchy accompaniments such as potatoes or the mayonnaise-based salads that grace a Russian indoor zakuska or hors d’oeuvre course. Complicated accompaniment can also take away from the pure flavor of the freshly grilled meat, tinged with the smoke of the kostor, freshly mown grass and hint of pine. In our Russian/American family, we’ve experimented with different culinary traditions to find side dishes that compliment shashlik. Lighter, citrus-based salads with tangy herbal dressings seem to be the perfect match for enhancing shashlik without stealing its thunder. Note: these are not traditional Russian salads, but they made from ingredients readily available in Russia and make frequent appearances at our table in Moscow.
I brought this recipe with me to Russia from my childhood in New England, where it was always referred to as “Lentil Sludge,” and I don’t think there has been a piece of lamb on my table without these for the last twenty years. When I first came to Russia in the early 1990s, puy lentils were almost impossible to find, so I made do with the abundant green lentils. The tang of ginger and the red wine vinegar are a perfect foil to lamb, while the fresh scallions and peppers provide the essential “crunch” to the meal’s ensemble.
2 cups of puy or black “beluga” lentils
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger
4 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup and 1/8 cup of olive oil
¾ cup and ¼ cup of red wine vinegar
Malden salt and pepper to taste
½ cup of chopped dill
5 scallions chopped
Diced orange, red, or yellow peppers
Place the lentils and bay leaves in a large pot of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, and simmer until lentils are tender.
Drain the lentils and return to pot. Add the 1/3 cup of olive oil, and ¾ cup of vinegar, ginger, garlic and Malden salt and pepper. Set aside, uncovered, and allow lentils to come to room temperature. This can be made ahead of time 1-2 days before serving and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
To finish the lentils, add the remaining olive oil and vinegar. Toss dill, scallions, and peppers and correct seasoning to taste.
Lemon, Tomato and Basil Salad:
In Moscow, we are lucky enough to have a roof garden with a grill, where we eat some form of shashlik or grilled meat most evenings from May to September. This salad appears with every dinner during the summer, and when it doesn’t appear on the table, family and friends protest violently! They all ask for the recipe, which makes me laugh, since it is so easy!
1 kilo of small fresh tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, or sliced beef tomatoes
A drizzle of good quality olive oil
Juice of one fresh lemon
2 Tbls of sugar
Generous handful of basil leaves, coarsely chopped
One loaf of French bread
Slice the tomatoes into quarters or halves, depending on their size and your taste. Lay them on a large, flat platter. Scatter basil leaves generously around the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil, squeeze the lemon juice on, and just before serving, and add sugar and sea salt and cracked pepper to taste.
Why the bread? To soak up the delicious juices from this salad, mingled with the drippings from the meat. Delicious!
My nieces are vegetarians, so when we are together, we often to serve some form of this light, but nourishing pasta dish for them, and this is my daughter, Velvet’s favorite picnic dish for her horse shows. As the name suggests, my mother – their grandmother – invented this and it’s great as a side dish to shashlik, as well as on its own. I made it for a group of guests recently and a very polite, but I think sincere 14 year old looked down at his plate of Granny Pasta and barbecue, sighed deeply, and said, “This is the perfect meal.” And so it is!
500 grams of penne pasta
½ cup of olive oil
1 cup of fresh green basil leaves
1 cup of grated cheese: we use Asiago or Parmesan Reggiano, but I’ve also used goat cheese, sheep’s cheese, or just the ends of the cheeses left in my fridge!
Place the olive oil and basil leaves in a food processor or blender and pulse 6-7 times, so that the basil is finely chopped but not fully combined as in a pesto.
Bring a large pot of cold, salted water to the boil. Skim surface with a teaspoon of olive oil and add the penne. Cook according to package instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta and quickly return to the pot. Place the pot over low heat and add the grated cheese and combined olive oil and basil mixture. Toss vigorously until the cheese begins to melt. Remove from the flame. Can be served immediately or at room temperature.
Make this your own family recipe by adding your favorite ingredients some ideas include: cherry tomatoes, black olives, fresh asparagus, peas,