Few people know that the best place to go for a fine Russian meal isn’t Russia, but Helsinki, Finland. I’m Finnish, and my knowledge of Russian cooking came straight from my grandmother, who worked as a chef in a wealthy household in the Åland Islands. She had been taught to cook by Russian chefs, who in turn had been trained by the French. At first she wouldn’t readily share her recipes with me—I had to earn them. But when I entered the Culinary Institute of America in 1983, she began to share her knowledge. I still have a dog-eared book that she gave me, titled simply Zakuska, the Russian word for that vast assortment of salty, pickled, and smoked appetizers served before the meal. The real treasure, though, was her handwritten notebook containing the recipes she had learned from the Russian chefs.
One of the most important things my grandmother taught me was about the diversity of Russian cuisine. It has been influenced by foods and techniques from both East and West. You can see this in the famous Russian pelmeni—wonton-like dumplings—and in Beef Stroganoff, which is based on classical French cuisine. My favorite Russian cooking is in the metropolitan style of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, which calls for delicacies like caviar, foie gras, and sturgeon. Game from the Republic of Georgia and wines from France, Italy, and Spain are also an important part of this sophisticated cuisine.
So there I was, a Finnish boy enthralled with Russian food, trained in classical French technique. I longed to develop my own style, to give an interesting twist to the foods I loved. My opportunity came four years ago, when I became the chef at Firebird. Now I can offer a modernized Russian cuisine without losing the integrity of the original dishes. For instance, in my fish solianka (a sort of Russian bouillabaisse) I’ve toned down the contrast between sweet and sour in the use of pickle brine and substituted sashimi-quality tuna for less well-known types of cooked fish. My Uzbek-style manti (similar to potstickers) use olive oil and butter instead of the traditional lamb fat.
Recently I was invited to Finland to work as a guest chef at Alexander Nevski, one of several famous Russian restaurants in Helsinki. The oldest of these restaurants is Bellevue, founded early in the last century by the chef for the imperial Russian navy. Bellevue still has many of the original pieces of silver the chef spirited away when he escaped Russia after the Revolution. Even so, for the most opulent Russian dining experience people go to Alexander Nevski, where every effort is made to recreate the luxury of the tsarist past.
When I cooked at Alexander Nevski, I made sure to keep some of their signature dishes on the menu, such as the ragout of bear and the potato-buckwheat blini served with various fish roes, burbot roe being the highlight. Both Russians and Finns consider the roe and liver of burbot a delicacy. January is burbot season in Finland, and it’s impossible not to serve this wonderful fish when it’s available. Even in childhood I looked forward to burbot. We would catch the fish, then use a nail to attach them to a board before stripping off their tough skin with pliers. At Alexander Nevski I prepared a burbot stew, a velouté with celeriac, onions, carrots, and Yukon Gold potatoes.
A gilded and engraved silver tray in the shape of a lady’s shoe. Russia, 1853. The All-Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied, and Folk Art, Moscow
From my Firebird menu I brought several house specialties, including a foie gras terrine plated with cured duck basturma (spiced, air-dried duck breast) and garnished with gold leaf to recall the extravagance of the tsars; and champagne-poached sturgeon with yellow-foot and black trumpet chanterelles, served with braised fennel and golden baby beets. The fennel and beets are cooked in white vine vinegar, sugar, salt, onions, celery, and plenty of bay leaves, which makes them taste as though they’ve been pickled. The sturgeon itself is poached in a rich fish stock, with just a touch of fine champagne added at the last minute. The plate is brought out to the guests effervescent and sparkling.
Karsky shashlik—lamb loin marinated in cognac with shallots, garlic, and thyme—is served with a fruit-and-almond pilaf and a Moldovan pepper salad. This was a big hit in Finland. And then there is Georgian-style duck, an aromatic dish of duck breast smoked with spicy Prince Vladimir tea and served with braised red cabbage. The cabbage I learned from my grandmother. It is chopped and placed in a baking dish with red wine vinegar, salt, and sugar. Then some raw short-grain rice is added. The cabbage and rice marinate overnight, and as the cabbage gives off liquid from the salt, the rice absorbs it. The next day, smoked bacon and duck fat are added (pork fat is traditional). The dish is covered with foil and baked slowly for four to five hours. The rice disintegrates, forming a kind of sauce for the cabbage that gives it a wonderfully silky texture. This is one of my grandmother’s most prized recipes.
Her other prized recipe is the first one she shared with me. It’s for a cucumber cream, and it couldn’t be simpler. The Russians love cucumbers and use them in many ways. For the cream, cucumbers are pureed and then drained of all liquid. Chopped green onion, parsley, dill, chervil, and lemon juice are added, as well as a touch of grated onion and pureed raw garlic. This mixture is bound with low-fat yogurt or labne (I like labne for its creamy flavor). The garlic adds a slight bite, while the lemon juice provides sharpness. Cucumber cream is excellent with smoked salmon and all sorts of fish and meats.
To end a Russian meal, I like to offer something straightforward. One favorite dessert is blinchiki, crepes flavored with Grand Marnier and orange zest, then spread with a white chocolate pastry cream. The crepes are rolled up and cut into pinwheels. I serve them warm, garnished with a cold red currant puree, sugar-frosted red currants, and a dollop of whipped cream.
Now that the Soviet Union has disappeared, Russian cuisine is again coming into its own. Chefs in Saint Petersburg and Moscow are experimenting with old recipes to re-introduce Russians to the glories of their past. Here in America, I like to think that the food I prepare at Firebird is part of this revolution in Russian cuisine, and that people will once again delight in Russian food.