Source: Jennifer Eremeeva
New Year’s Eve is just around the corner, so it is time to start thinking about the all-important zakuska table. Zakuska is the Russian version of hors d’oevres, but being Russian, it’s bigger, brawnier, and way more ambitious.
And no zakuska is more ambitious than that set by the Russian hostess around 9 PM on Dec. 31. It’s almost as if the rest of the year is a dress rehearsal for this, the most celebratory night of the Russian year. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and roll out our best culinary efforts.
I’ve written before about my struggles to fall in love with mayonnaise-based salads such as Salat Olivier and Herring Under Fur Coat, which are two of the key elements of the New Year’s Eve zakuska, and this year I’m taking up the culinary challenge once again to try and fall in love – or maybe just lust – with another New Year staple: zalivnoye or poached fish in aspic.
Zalivnoye has a venerable history in Russia. It arrived with the French chefs who toiled in the aristocratic kitchens of 19th century Russia. Elaborate aspics: whole fish, joints of meat, or game birds coated in flavored gelatin and elaborately decorated – were intensely popular during this era. The 1917 Revolution saw the French chefs flee Russia, but they left their aspics behind, although the more utilitarian Bolsheviks toned down the decoration. Soviet housewives adapted the idea of flaked poached fish in aspic into a more simple presentation, which often featured tinned peas and carrots, chilled in a bowl or plate.
I’ve had some truly horrible-looking and tasting zalivnoye in my time: the fish wasn’t fresh, but frozen, and boiled into submission. The texture lacked any contrast, and the fish bouillon was so cloudy that it was hard to identify what is actually in there. So, in setting out to make my own zalivnoye, I tried to address all of these problems to see if I could find zalivnoye attractive enough to flirt with.
If you don’t have a special fish-shaped mold, don’t sweat it; and if you are a little nervous about un-molding the zalivnoye, don’t worry about that either – you can easily chill it in a glass bowl or in individual glasses. But the step I do recommend is clarifying the stock before you make the gelatin. This makes all of the visual difference in the world, elevating your gelatin from cloudy to sparkling.
Choose your ingredients carefully as well. Your fish should have a strong flavor, and not fall apart immediately. I chose salmon and its natural culinary allies: cucumbers and leeks. I was delighted with the results, and you will be too: something cool and light in the middle of all those mayonnaise-based salads! So, it worked! I’m in love with zalivnoye! I’m already planning our future together…
Happy New Year!
1. Combine the water, onion, carrot, lemon halves, celery, peppercorns, parsley, bay, and wine in the bottom of a multi-tiered steamer or a large sauté pan. Bring to a simmer, cover, and let cook gently for 15 minutes.
1 kilo (2 lbs) of wild salmon fillets; 1 large white onion, coarsely chopped;
2 liters (2 quarts) of cold water; 2 celery ribs; 1 lemon, halved;
1 carrot, peeled and chopped; 1 sprig of parsley; 2 bay leaves;
15 ml (1 Tbl) peppercorns; 1 tsp of salt; 1 cup of white wine;
1 leek, cleaned and cut into strips;
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced into very thin slices;
45 ml (3 Tbl) of unflavored gelatin (3 envelopes);
3 egg whites and the shells from the eggs (optional);
A mold cheesecloth; A multi-tiered steamer makes this job quick and easy, but it is not mandatory.
2. Place the fish in the next tier of the steamer, or into the sauté pan on a small rack or steamer. Cover and steam or poach for 15 minutes.
3. Place the leeks into the top layer of the steamer, or blanch them in boiling salted water for one minute. Plunge into a bowl of ice water. Set aside.
4. Remove the fish from the liquid and set aside to cool to room temperature. Flake with a fork, taking care to remove all of the bones.
5. Pass the liquid through a fine mesh sieve, pressing the vegetables with the back of a spoon to extract all of the juice.
6. At this point, the liquid is ready to be turned into aspic, but if you are going for a great presentation of your zalivnoye, then you may wish to clarify the stock, which you can do by following these directions.
7. Dissolve the gelatin in one cup of cold water, then whisk it into the hot broth until the gelatin is completely absorbed into the liquid. Pour the liquid into a small bowl and set it into a bowl of ice water to allow it to cool to room temperature, stirring frequently.
8. Line the bottom layer of the mold with a thin layer of gelatin and place in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
9. Arrange the cucumbers on the bottom of the mold, then pour a thin layer of gelatin on top. Chill for 10 minutes.
10. Add the flaked salmon and cover with gelatin. Chill for 30 minutes.
11. Arrange the blanched leeks on top of the salmon, pour the remainder of the gelatin on top. Chill for 5 hours or overnight.
12. To remove the zalivnoye from the mold, immerse it for 30 seconds in a pan of warm water, then place a platter on top of the mold, then flip the platter and the mold upside down.
13. Serve with mayonnaise or some creme fraiche spiked with horseradish.
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