"Between getting lost in the forest hunting for mushrooms and getting lost on ice floats while fishing, that's pretty much the Russian male experience," Kevin Kaye said while preparing some of the dishes he learned to make while in the Peace Corps there. "They have this really rich foraging culture. Mushroom hunting is such a huge sport to them that the only real comparison is like baseball to us." He gestured toward the stove, where he had mushrooms softening over onions cooked so gently they seemed to melt.
"When I got off the plane in Moscow, all the Peace Corps people were like, 'Whatever you do, don't eat the mushrooms.' They told us about a volunteer who didn't eat dinner one night because she didn't like mushrooms, and then her whole host family died from a poisonous one someone picked by mistake. Then the officials passed around food they brought for us ... and they were mushroom pies."
Pretty quickly Kevin realized that avoiding them was not going to be possible, so he took his chances and fell in love with their wild, forest-y flavors and the dishes that highlighted them. Next to his quietly bubbling pan he had potatoes mashed and ready to be fried around centers of mushroom stuffing.
It's understandable if the thought of that isn't making you sweat with excitement. The Russians aren't really known for thrilling cuisine, and I wasn’t expecting fireworks either when I arrived at Kevin's home. But, as I found, these potato mushroom cutlets are earthy and satisfying, utterly delicious in that Grandma way, the product of people who might not have had much to work with, but had care and ingenuity.
Russian potato-mushroom "cutlets"
Serves four as a light lunch. When's the last time you heard "Russian food" and "light lunch" in the same breath?
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 large white onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 large carrot, cut into ¼-inch dice
¾ pounds mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped (whatever you picked in the forest that day, but a mix of cremini and shiitake works nicely, or mushrooms of your choice)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
splash of milk
bread crumbs to coat
sunflower or vegetable oil
salt and pepper
Sour cream or crème fraiche (which is richer and closer to Russian sour cream)
- Put potatoes in a pot of cold water to cover by at least an inch. Bring it to a boil over high heat, and salt it so it tastes like seawater. Reduce heat to a moderate simmer, and cook just until they come apart easily when poked with a paring knife, about 15 minutes if you're using 8-ounce potatoes.
- Heat ¼ cup of oil in a heavy 10-inch sauté pan over medium low heat. "The Russians aren't afraid of oil, and so you can't be either when cooking their food," Kevin says. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a single piece of onion on contact, add all the onion and carrot, stirring to coat with the oil, and let them sweat, stirring every minute or so to make sure they don't brown. When they've begun to soften, season with salt and pepper until it tastes good. Remember: They're sweating. I once had a chef who looked at my sweating onions (that's not a double entendre) and said, "These aren't sweating. They're browning. Why the hell do you think we have two different words for how to cook onions? Start over." (I think he told me to get a haircut, too.) If your onions are starting to take on color, either stir more often or turn the heat down and continue cooking until the onions are totally translucent and the carrots have given up most of their crunch.
- Are your potatoes done? Great! Drain them and put them back in the hot, empty pot to let them steam off until they look powdery and dry, and let them get cool enough to handle.
- Meanwhile, when the onions and carrots are ready, turn the heat up to get them sizzling and add the mushrooms. Season them with salt and stir, until they start to give up their water. Turn the heat back down to medium low and let them stew a bit, cooking off that moisture. When there is no liquid pooling at bottom of the pan but the mushrooms still have a little chew left, add the garlic and stir. Cook it a little, but you want that pungency from semi-raw garlic. Season with salt and pepper until it tastes good to you, and then spread the mixture out on a tray to cool.
- Mash the potatoes with a food mill, ricer or even one of those potato mashers that all chefs tell you to avoid. Sprinkle in a little salt. Beat one of the eggs to combine, and stir or mash it in. Now sprinkle on the flour evenly, and lightly mash it into the potatoes with your hands, so that it's evenly distributed. When it's right, it should just barely dull the appearance of the potatoes and allow it to just hold together like a tender dough when you press it between your fingers.
- Take a good, four-fingered pinch of the potato mixture and pat it down in your palm so that it's about ½-inch thick. Cup your palm to round its shape, and press a wide divot into the middle, enough to hold a generous tablespoon of the mushroom filling. Take a smaller pinch of the potato and press it onto the mushroom to cover it. Don't be afraid to use some more potato to spackle over any holes, and lightly smooth the edges together to make the thing basically look like a whole potato again.
- Fire up your oven to 350.
- Now set up a breading station: one dish with an egg beaten with a splash of milk and a pinch of salt, a second dish with bread crumbs seasoned with salt and pepper, and a tray to hold the breaded cutlets. Take the filled potatoes (aren't they kind of cute?), and one by one, roll them in the egg, let them drip off, roll them in bread crumbs to generously cover, and set on the tray.
- Fill a heavy pan ¼-inch deep with oil, and set it over medium-high heat until you see waves in the oil when you tilt it and a cutlet sizzles immediately but gently on contact. Add as many of the cutlets as will fit without touching one another. Lift and check one after a minute -- is it slowly getting golden? Great, keep going. Is it brown already? Turn the heat down. Let them crisp and come to an even, deep golden brown. They'll sit and squish a little, so you can stand them on their sides to get all the surfaces crisp. Remove to a tray lined with paper towels to drain, and continue frying the rest. Meanwhile, take a paring knife and poke into the middle of one of the cutlets and hold it there for 5 seconds. Take it out and touch the knife -- is it hot? If not, let them heat through in the oven. If so, go ahead and turn your oven down to 200 just to keep the finished cutlets warm until the rest are finished.
- Serve with wedges of tomato and cucumber, salted and tossed with fresh dill, topped with sour cream or crème fraiche.
Check back Monday for Kevin's recipe for sharlotka, an incredibly easy apple cake