A Taste of a Modern Russian Hanukkah Celebration
Shared by Sasha Shor
Recipe Roots: New York City
Russian cooking “gets a little bit of a bad rap in contemporary culinary circles,” says chef Sasha Shor. It’s labeled as bland or less sophisticated, she adds. But, for Sasha, who was our cook-in-residence this summer, it is anything but. It’s filled with rich flavors and open to adaptation. “When people taste modern versions of [Russian] food, they understand that it has relevance,” she says.
New Yorkers will get a chance to taste her take on Russian cooking at Everything Is Gold, a special Jewish Food Society dinner in New York on December 6. We asked Sasha to imagine a menu for a modern Russian Hanukkah menu. To start the meal, she will serve a riff on borscht with smoked brisket and ancho pepper along with modern zakuski or hors d'oeuvres, like roasted beets with walnuts, spicy carrots, and fire roasted eggplant “caviar,” and lemon and horseradish infused vodka.
Hanukkah is a holiday Sasha only started to observe when she moved to the United States when she was seven-years-old. In the Soviet Union, her family prepared Jewish recipes but they weren’t connected with holidays. “They never spoke about [Jewish customs],” she says about her grandparents. “Especially when my mom was growing up (in Stalin’s time), for fear that the kids would talk about it outside the house and put them or the family in danger.”
So, when her parents enrolled her in a yeshiva after moving to the U.S., Sasha was the one to teach the family about Jewish customs and traditions. “Basically, my family was learning along with me,” she says recalling her first Hanukkah when she brought home a box of candles and printed pages of transliterated prayers.
Her mother Marina added latkes to an otherwise classic Russian dinner of chicken stew for their celebration. Today, living in New York, Sasha and her husband fry latkes for an annual party they host for the holiday for nearly 40 friends. Sasha’s played with the classic latke, combining elements from draniki, a Belarusian savory pancake with grated potatoes and kotleti, which Sasha describes as “a fish cake similar to gefilte fish, but pan-fried rather than poached or baked.” The result this year is a latke made with chunks of potato laced with flakes of smoked white sturgeon, briny capers, and fragrant fresh dill. “My husband thinks this tastes like the perfect version of a bagel with the works,” she adds.
For the main dish on Sasha’s menu, there’s crispy Cornish hens, a riff on her father’s chicken tabaka. “My mother had menus upon menus and varying versions of many specialties,” explains Sasha. “My father, on the other hand, had only a handful and they were all my favorites.” Chicken tabaka, which Sasha jokes was the fried chicken of Russia, was one of them.
Her father Nyuma would stand over the stove, pressing down the lid of a mustard-colored dutch oven to cook the skin. Unlike when her mother occupied the kitchen and Sasha worked as part of the cooking brigade, when Nyuma was making dinner, “everybody cleared out,” she says. When it was ready, the small bird (chickens in her home growing up were smaller than what’s typical in the U.S., Sasha says) was placed on the table and everyone would dive in with their hands.
When Sasha makes the dish for Hanukkah this year, she will serve it with three sauces: walnut and garlic, tangy shallot and plum tkemali, and spicy persimmon adjika. “I just like a big mess of sauce,” she says. The bright, herbaceous, and sour flavors dispel the false myths around Russian food.
Sasha adds: “I figured out how to do that and want to share that with as many people as I can.”
More Recipes from Sasha’s Family:
Svekolnik (Chilled Beet Borscht)
Shashlik (Georgian-Style Grilled Lamb Shish Kabobs),
Salat Iz Kapustyi (Cabbage Salad) and Salat Iz Riddiski (Radish Salad)
Kislyi Arbuz (Fermented Pickled Watermelon)
Keck Iz Visnhyi (Sweet Cherry Cake) and Kompot (Sweet Cherry Punch)
Hrenovuha (Horseradish Vodka with Lemon Peel)
Russian “Latkes” - Smoked White Sturgeon and Potato Cakes with Horseradish Sour Cream
For the cakes:
2 lbs. yukon gold potatoes (approx. 5 large potatoes), peeled and cut into 2” inch cubes
1 ½ cups (12 oz.) smoked white sturgeon, flaked into large 1-2” chunks (can also use any flaky firm smoked fish such as smoked whitefish, cod, trout or salmon)
½ cup scallions, green & white parts, finely sliced
3 tablespoons fresh dill, roughly chopped
1 ½ tablespoons capers, roughly chopped (reserve a teaspoon of the brine for the sauce)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Juice & zest of ½ lemon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons all purpose flour + more for dusting
Schmaltz and vegetable oil for frying
For the horseradish sour cream:
16 oz. full fat sour cream
2 tablespoons grated prepared horseradish (white)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Juice & zest of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon caper brine
1. In a medium sized bowl, mix the sour cream, horseradish, mayonnaise, lemon juice and zest, and caper brine until well combined. Season with salt and white pepper (black pepper is fine if you don’t have white).
2. Cover the sour cream mixture tightly and place it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or up to a few hours to allow for the flavors to marry. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving.
3. To make the cakes: Place the cubed potatoes into a large pot of salted water and bring to a boil. Boil until they can be pierced with a knife, but not crumbling or breaking apart. Drain and spread out on a sheet pan to cool. Once cooled, break up a little with a fork so you have a variety of sized pieces. Do not mash or make too small. You want different textures of potato in the cakes.
4. Prepare a wire cooling rack set over a paper-towel lined sheet pan, and a second sheet pan to place formed cakes. Set aside.
5. In a large bowl, mix together the cooled potato chunks, smoked fish, scallions, dill, capers, mayonnaise, lemon juice & zest and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Mix gently so as to not break up the potato too much. After it’s mixed, sprinkle the flour on top and give it one more mix to incorporate all of the flour.
6. Using a ⅓ cup measure, scoop out the mixture and with lightly oiled hands, form into uniform balls, resembling large meatballs. Place the formed balls on a sheet pan and transfer to the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. You can make these a few hours in advance and keep chilled until ready to fry.
7. Once the cakes have chilled, heat schmaltz and vegetable oil (50-50 mix) in a large frying pan (cast iron or nonstick work best) to medium high heat. Oil should fill pan to 3/4” in depth. Dust the potato balls lightly with flour on all sides, and add them to the pan with at least 1-2” between them. After a minute, flatten the balls down into a cake with your hand or a flat spatula so they are about 1 ½” high. (It’s ok if the edges separate a little and become uneven when you flatten them. They will fry up with crispier edges and surfaces!). Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking for 3-4 more minutes until golden brown and crispy. Flip gently and continue cooking on reverse side for another 4-5 minutes. The cakes should have an all-over golden brown, crispy exterior. After cooking, transfer to wire cooling rack over the lined sheet pan to cool for a few minutes.
8. Serve immediately with horseradish sour cream and some freshly chopped dill and/or parsley. If you’re feeling festive, a dollop of caviar always makes everything better!
If you are cooking these in batches, they can be kept warm in a 250°F oven until ready to serve. Do not keep in oven for longer than 20-30 minutes or they can dry out.
Pressed & Pan-Fried Crispy Cornish Hens with Walnut-Garlic Sauce (Tsyplyonok “Tabaka”)
Time: 2 hours + at least 6-8 hours of marinating
For the wet rub:
1 cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves, heavily smashed
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Juice and peel of one lemon (peel to be in strips, made with a vegetable peeler)
Juice and peel of one orange (peel to be in strips, made with a vegetable peeler)
1 medium white onion, sliced into thin rings
For the walnut-garlic sauce:
1 ½ cups toasted walnuts, fully cooled
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups flat leaf parsley, stems removed, finely chopped
1 cup dill, stems removed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 ½ cups extra virgin olive oil
For the chicken:
2 - 1 ½ - 2 lb. - cornish hens, poussins or small chickens
6 garlic cloves, peeled and heavily smashed
1 handful each of roughly chopped dill, cilantro, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, mixed
6 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), divided in half
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Juice from ½ a lemon
1. Prepare the wet rub: evenly combine all of the ingredients for the wet rub in a medium bowl.
2. Rinse and pat the chickens dry. Spatchcock each chicken; Cut out the backbone of each bird using poultry shears. Open like a book, remove the breast bones, and flatten with the palm of your hand. Cover them in plastic wrap and use the flat side of a meat mallet to pound the chickens and flatten them further, especially in bony areas. Put the chickens in individual gallon Ziplock bags. Pour half of the spice paste into each Ziplock bag and rub chickens all over and under the skin where it pulls away easily. Separate the sliced onions across the 2 bags, and spread around all sides of the chickens, push out the air and seal/cover. Refrigerate 6-8 hours, preferably overnight.
3. Prepare the walnut garlic sauce: Place the walnuts, garlic cloves, salt and pepper into a food processor and pulse a few times until a very coarse, crumbly mixture forms. Do not over process. Remove the walnuts from the processor into a bowl. Stir in the parsley, dill, honey, vinegar and olive oil. If too thick, add a teaspoon more each of olive oil and vinegar. Sauce should resemble pesto - thick, but pourable. Re-season to taste with more salt and pepper if desired. Pour sauce into a jar and cover until ready to serve.
Note: making this sauce at least a few hours in advance and allowing it to sit covered at room temperature will allow the flavors to marry and the overall texture to improve significantly. It can also be prepared 1 day in advance and kept refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and stir well before serving.
4. To cook: Remove the chickens from the refrigerator and wipe off excess juices, discard any excess rub, garlic and onions. Blot the chickens with paper towels to dry them as well as you can. Set over clean paper towels and let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature before cooking.
5. Preheat oven to 200°F to keep cooked chicken(s) warm while cooking remaining chicken(s). Have a lined sheet pan with a rack ready to transfer the chicken to the oven on.
6. Prepare a large, seasoned cast iron pan that will fit a flattened bird, allowing the complete surface area of the chicken to be in direct contact with the pan. You will also need something to weigh down the chicken evenly. A smaller sized cast iron pan that fits inside the larger one, filled with a heavy mortar & pestle, or large cans of tomatoes works well. You can also use a foil wrapped brick or two, or a round dutch oven weighted with cans or water-filled jars.
7. Cut a piece of parchment paper that will fit completely over the chicken in the large pan you’ll be cooking the bird in and set aside.
8. Heat 2 tablespoons of the clarified butter and olive oil in the large cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Rub the chicken all over with olive oil, salt and pepper. Add to the hot pan, skin side up. Cover with parchment paper and weigh down. Do not touch it or move it around. After 12-15 minutes, remove the weights and parchment and flip the chicken over, skin side down. Replace parchment paper and weights and cook for 12-15 minutes more. Do not touch it or move it around so as not to tear or disturb the skin until it’s crispy and pulls away from the pan by itself. It is done when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 165° or juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove chicken from pan, place skin side up and transfer to lined sheet pan. Place in warm oven while making the second one the same way.
9. While both chickens are warming, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of clarified butter in a small saucepan with smashed garlic cloves and a squeeze of lemon juice. Warm through until fragrant. Remove chickens from the oven and pour any juices from the chickens into the butter mixture as well. Arrange chickens on a serving platter or on a clean sheet tray, drizzle with warmed butter-garlic- juices mixture, and generously top with chopped mixed herbs. Serve with pickled vegetables, fermented cabbage slaw, walnut garlic sauce and adjika on the side. Adjika can be made fresh (recipe below) or purchased online or in any Eastern European grocery store.
This is a basic red adjika recipe. It can be made fresh and served as a pickled hot pepper relish- style condiment, then refrigerated to keep for up to a month. Or, it can also be made or stored in a warm spot for the first few days after its made to allow it to develop a lacto-fermented flavor (this is my favorite!).
½ pound fresh hot peppers with seeds, stems removed
1 large carrot, coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 small peeled apple, (stemmed, seeded), coarsely chopped
1 cup cilantro leaves
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
For the fresh version: process the first 7 ingredients in a food processor until everything is minced and resembles pickle relish. Empty mixture into a bowl, add vinegar and sugar and mix well. Re- season if necessary with more sugar or vinegar to taste. Pour into a jar and allow to sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.
If fermenting: process the first 7 ingredients in a food processor until everything is minced and resembles pickle relish. Empty mixture into a wide-mouth jar, cover and allow to sit in a warm spot for 48-72 hours, depending on how fermented you like it. After it’s ready, open and remove any surface mold, stir well. Taste and season with more salt and/or vinegar if desired. Keep sealed and refrigerated for up to 2 months.