One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Russian Beet "Caviar"

Hello hello! I've been away from the blog for a long time, but I have a good excuse: A nasty bout of food poisoning completely destroyed my appetite for a couple of weeks. The dish I'm sharing today was the first one that I could eat with relish after my recovery. It comes from a book called "Please to the Table" about the cuisines of the ex-Soviet countries. Before I checked this gigantic tome out of the library, I didn't know much about Russian food. Sure, I had vague notions of bland, sour cream-laden fish and potato dishes, but the book pleasantly surprised me with its wide range of vegetable and meat recipes, not to mention delicious-sounding dishes from the Caucasus, the Baltics, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine like a saffron pilaf with pomegranate, chicken with walnut-garlic sauce and a wild mushroom "caviar". Caviar seems to be the term applied to a wide range of minced cooked vegetable spreads. I fell in love with this roasted beet caviar after I made it for a holiday dinner. It gets just the right amount of sweetness from some prunes and a nice crunch from walnuts. It's perfect served with pumpernickel bread, or shoveled in straight from the bowl if you are ecstatic about recovering your appetite after food poisoning like I was!

Russian Beet "Caviar"
Adapted from here. This is best made a day ahead, which gives the flavors time to meld and mellows out the garlic. If you are going to serve immediately, use less garlic than called for in the recipe. Bremzen has you first soak the prunes for 30 minutes in brandy but I've omitted this step as it didn't make too much difference to the taste. You can also boil or steam the beets, although their taste will be less intense. Served on triangles of black or pumpernickel bread, this makes enough appetizer portions for 8-10 people. 

3 medium-large beets
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts
7 pitted prunes, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp brandy (optional)
3-5 tbsp mayonnaise

1. Heat oven to 400F (200C). Wash the beets and wrap them in tightly in foil. Roast for 40-50 minutes until easily pierced by a sharp knife. 

2. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut into a few pieces. Pulse in a food processor until minced (but not pureed).

3. Mix the beets with the next five ingredients. Stir in 3 tbsp mayonnaise, then more if you feel the mixture isn't creamy enough. (Don't worry if the garlic tastes too sharp at this stage, it will mellow as it sits.) Season with salt and black pepper and chill until serving. 

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