A visitor from the United States recently asked me what was the most exciting thing about living in Russia. I could tell she was expecting me to talk about seeing “The Nutcracker” at the Bolshoi, the Olympics thingy, or maybe something about the mysteries of The Great Russian Soul. Of course, I disappointed her. My milestones are all culinary.
“Unlimited quantities of affordable salmon,” I answered promptly.
3 cups of stale sour-dough or French bread, cubed*
1-1/2 cups of whole milk or 10 percent cream, or a combination of the two, gently warmed in a saucepan. Do not overboil.
½ teaspoon of nutmeg
1-1/2 pounds of fresh salmon, leftover poached salmon, or tinned salmon, bones removed, flaked.
1 cup of smoked salmon, cubed; 2 Tbl of capers, mashed
½ cup of finely diced leeks
½ cup of zucchini, which has been seeded and cored, and finely diced near the skin
½ cup of yellow onion, diced 3-4 dashes of Tabasco, depending on your taste
1 lemon, zested, then juiced; 2 tsp of coarse sea salt
5 grinds of fresh black pepper, or more if you prefer.
1 Tbl of smoked paprika
1 Tbl of flour, plus more for dusting
1 egg; 1 egg yolk
4 Tbl of chopped dill
4 Tbl of chopped parsley
1/3 cup of best quality olive oil
HRH, my “Handsome Russian Husband” turned up his nose when I suggested I parlay some leftover poached salmon into tel’noye or fish cakes. It seems these small nuggets made from fish and stale bread soaked in milk made a regular and lackluster appearance during his Soviet childhood.
The version he remembered were bland and tasteless, made primarily from frozen chunks of halibut or cod, and served with synthetic mayonnaise. He could not imagine an appetizing version of them.
I love it when HRH hurls down the culinary gauntlet, so I hauled out my stack of Russian cookbooks to look for inspiration. Every one of them had a recipe for tel’noye, and they all included the same dull, distinctly uninspiring ingredients: fish, eggs, flour, and stale bread.
Okay, the hipster Jamie Oliver-wannabe author of “Real Russian Food,” Maxim Syrnikov (which I’m convinced is a fake name, meaning as it does, “cheesecake”) suggested adding onion and dill, but that is hardly thinking outside of the box, is it?
And there, in a nutshell, you have the problem with Soviet staples of Russian cuisine: They seriously need updating. Today you can get everything from anise seed to za’tar in Russia, but if I try to introduce even one new ingredient in a recipe, I get a flood of really vitriolic hate mail from Russian readers, particularly those who haven’t lived in Russia for the last 20 years.
It’s a sin beyond contemplation, they rail, to throw in some chili pepper here, a little pomegranate molasses there, and dust almost everything, including vanilla ice cream, with sumac. “It isn’t our traditional Raaaaaaaaaaaasian dish,” they drawl from the general direction of Brighton Beach.
To them, I say, “Nu, i shto?” (So what?) Banking on the fact that even Mr. Cheesecake has a bottle of Tabsco lurking in his fridge, I set about spicing up tel’noye with a few very Raaaaaaaaaaasian ingredients, such as horseradish and black pepper, and a couple of imports, such as paprika and capers.
In addition to grated white onions, I sweated leeks with a bit of zucchini to introduce a contrasting color and texture. The addition of my beloved Russian smoked salmon to the tel’noye takes them from Wednesday night stopgap to the opening salvo of an elegant Saturday night dinner.
I fried up a batch and was delighted to see HRH sneaking a few more from the fridge when he thought I wasn’t looking.
So, think outside the box, whether you hail from the shores of Baikal or Brighton Beach. Seriously, there is more to life than dill.
Hipster Salmon Tel’noye
1. Combine the bread, nutmeg, and milk/cream mixture in a non-reactive bowl and let sit for at least 30 minutes.
2. Prepare the salmon by removing all of the skin, gristle, and bones. For best results, steam or poach the salmon for 3-4 minutes before you go on to the next steps.
3. Skim a small frying pan with a small amount of olive oil. Gently sauté the leeks until softened. Add the zucchini for a final minute.
4. Place the salmon, onions, leeks, zucchini, lemon zest, lemon juice, egg, egg yolk, smoked salmon, capers, dill, parsley, Tabasco, 1 Tbl of flour, and paprika in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse five times. Do not over process.
5. Drain the bread in a fine mesh sieve, gently pressing the bread so that the liquid runs through the sieve.
6. Add the bread mixture to the ingredients in the food processor and pulse a final two times. NOTE: If you don’t have a food processor, take good care to dice all of the ingredients into very fine pieces. Beat the egg and egg yolk together before you add it to the mixture and use large kitchen spoon to combine vigorously.
7. Dust a clean work surface with flour and prepare a tray with more flour. Wet your hands with cold water and form the salmon mixture into disks slightly larger than a golf ball. Dredge the cakes in flour and place them on the tray. If you have more than one layer, use parchment paper and more flour between the layers. At this point, you can freeze the tel’noye – between layers of parchment paper in a zip lock bag.
8. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to spit, gently lower the tel’noye into the oil. Cook for 4 minutes on one side, then use a spatula to carefully flip them over to the other side. Cook for an additional 4 minutes, then flip to the original side for a final crisping minute.
9. Serve immediately.
*This veers well away from the foundation concept of tel’noye, but take a hint from the Irish and substitute 3 cups of mashed potatoes for the stale bread/milk mixture. The results are equally as tasty and a great way to use up any leftover mashed potatoes.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American free-lance writer longtime resident of Moscow. She is the author of the humor blog, Russia Lite and creator and curator of the culinary website The Moscovore. Her forthcoming book, Lenin’s Bathtub, is scheduled for publication in November.
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