The Infused Vodka That Fuels One Cook’s Way Through Burning Man
Editor’s note: This summer, our cook-in-residence Sasha Shor, is sharing a collection of picnic-ready recipes her family brought with them to Nashville when they left the USSR in 1978. To hear more of Sasha’s story and try her family recipes for lamb kebabs, chopped salads, and pickled watermelon, check out the first installment of the series: “The Russian Picnic Tradition a Family Smuggled Out of the USSR.” Sasha also shared her recipes for cherry kompot and cake — the perfect ways to use up summer’s bounty — and a deep fuschia hued cold borscht.
Sasha Shor remembers the first time she brought her husband Josh home to Nashville to meet her parents. Everyone gathered one morning for a late breakfast. The table was set with thin blini or Russian pancakes, a mound of caviar — and a bottle of cognac. Sasha recalls him saying: “I found the right family.”
In her family, like many Russian families, bottles of cognac and vodka graced the table at every celebration, along with a bottle or two of wine, "for people who don’t drink,” Sasha jokes. And there was always something to celebrate, she says, whether it was a birthday or someone completing a year in school.
Alcohol always accompanied a multi-course meal. A toast was made, a shot was taken, then chased with something savory like pickled watermelon. “I remember when we came to America, my parents were fascinated that Americans would go to a bar and drink, without eating,” she explains.
In her family, like most Russian families, alcohol was always served straight up, never mixed or diluted. On occasion, her father would infuse a bottle with chili peppers to make hot pepper vodka. When Sasha moved to New York for college and was homesick, she would head to Brooklyn’s Russian enclave called Brighton Beach, where infused vodkas are a hallmark of the restaurants that host cabaret shows. “They always had the big jugs behind the bar,” filled with vodka mellowed with fruit, herbs, and garlic, she says. “It was a novelty almost, the Russian version of a cocktail.” Sasha soon started to experiment with her own.
Today she always has some on hand: lemon and horseradish, which she surprised us with during a picnic we had in Prospect Park, is her go-to. The pairing mellows the harshness of the vodka, and the horseradish pairs with Sasha’s entire dacha menu of grilled kebabs, chopped salads, borscht and that pickled watermelon.
“Half of my freezer is infused vodkas,” she jokes. That quotient rises before Burning Man, the annual off-the-grid festival in the Nevada desert, which she goes to annually with her family. Before setting out for the festival, she infuses bottles with rosemary and orange, lemongrass, chili and vanilla, and her signature lemon and horseradish. “Every year, I infuse 12 or 14 bottles of vodka and we take them with us. It’s our gift,” she says.
A consummate cook, host, and entertainer, Sasha explains: “We freeze them in the RV and everyday we take a frozen one with us... I carry them around the desert in my bike basket, along with a few little stainless steel shot glasses.” Cheers.
Hrenovuha (Horseradish Root Vodka with Lemon Peel)
Makes: 1 liter
Time: 20 minutes + 4-6 days of infusing
1 liter of good quality vodka (Sasha prefers Russian Standard, but Tito’s and Ketel One are both good options)
5” piece of fresh horseradish root, cleaned, rinsed and peeled of all outer layers and dirt, cut in thin ribbons (discard inner core of root)
Peel of 1 large lemon, cut in strips (do not zest, these need to be large strips of peel with no pith)
1 liter round or square glass bottle with a hermetic seal
Note: Both the lemon and the horseradish can be ribboned and made into strips with a sharp potato or Y-Peeler.
1. Push the lemon peels and horseradish ribbons into the empty bottle.
2. Using a funnel, pour the vodka into the bottle until full. Seal the closure and place in a dark, room temperature spot for 4-6 days, turning gently up and down to redistribute the peel and horseradish every 1-2 days.
3. Taste after 4 days and if you like it, transfer to freezer. If you prefer a bolder flavor, seal back up and allow to infuse for 2 more days before transferring to freezer.
4. Chill in freezer 6-8 hours, or preferably overnight before drinking.