Recipes by Julia & Tanya Zouev. Photography and styling by Tanya Zouev.

(Main pic: Spiced Carrot Salad, Cucumber & Radish Salad with Dill Sour Cream Dressing, Hard-Boiled Eggs with Salmon Roe & Green Onions, Boiled Baby Potatoes with Dill & Butter, Poor Man’s Caviar and Beetroot & Butter Bean Salad.)

When I was a child my parents had very active social lives, along with the many other members of the Russian and Polish community we were part of. Thankfully the social events my parents partook in were nearly always family affairs so I was dragged along to many a gathering. My Godfather Volodka (Bill) lived with his wife Galla above an old Victorian shop in Hawthorn Melbourne where they had an aluminium die-casting business. Although having no kids of their own, children of friends were always welcome and I loved going to their home.

Bill and Galla’s home was a rabbit warren of mystery and excitement to me as a child. I remember the place was dark and dusty below with interesting machinery in the workshop and out the back was a veritable maze of gardens, more machinery and a chicken coop. Above the chooks was a room where social gatherings were always held. The Russians would gather around the table to talk, eat and drink late into the evening accompanied by the sound of a Russian balalaika and the chickens that lived below. To drink alcohol without food was considered rude (and still is) unacceptable in Russian culture, so food was always served along with the numerous bottles of hard spirits set in the middle of the large wooden dining table. The table itself was always laden with “zakouski” (pronounced zah-kooski) which means little bites, better known as appetisers.

Historians say that this legendary spread has its origins in the Scandinavian smørgasbord. Much of Russia’s roots lie in the fact that early rulers were Vikings (such as the delightful looking fellow Rurik pictured below) who gained control of Ladoga in Russia’s west which borders Finland and settled one of the country’s earliest cities. There is also another possible explanation, which suggests that the preparation of zakouski came from peasant traditions of eating small meals throughout the day. The rustic latter theory perhaps fits a little better as I couldn’t imagine a bunch of bad-ass burly Vikings sitting down to a dainty meal of teeny tiny canape-like morsels and delicate crystal shot glasses of vodka. (He looks far more like a “gimme the roast leg of beast and that whole keg of booze” kinda guy.)

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(Pic: Fee-fi-fo-fum, here is Rurik landing on Russian shores. Not really the type of guy to enjoy blini’s and martini’s.)

The Greeks have their mezedes, the Lebanese their mezza and the Spanish their tapas. The common thread running through all of these cuisines is that it is a lot of little things, good for variety and good for slow eating over a table with friends for hours on end. The word also implies small quantities of food, which couldn’t be further from the truth. To someone brought up in these cultures, it’s completely normal to see tables groaning under the weight of all this food. To someone not of these backgrounds, such as my boyfriend (now husband) David who is of Anglo-Australian descent, it can be a bit of a shock.

When David first met my mother at my childhood family home some twelve years ago he was welcomed to the table and encouraged to eat with gusto. He did, and my mother was immediately impressed. However the problem was that he didn’t realise it was just the appetiser and that the main course was yet to come. Imagine his surprise when the zakouski were eventually cleared from the table and he was informed that he had to make room for garachaya (hot) mains. (My mother doesn’t take too kindly to guests informing her that they are full before the end of all the planned courses. Hell hath no fury like a Russian woman scorned, so if you ever come to dinner at my mum’s house only tell her you’re full when you’re absolutely sure no more food is coming.)

The Russian zakouski table whether it is at a private home, at a Russian ball or party, or at my own parents house is always incredibly diverse and delicious. When I set my eyes upon the colourful feast set before me it sends me into a flurry of indecision as what to eat first, it all looks so inviting. Some of the dishes are things I’ve eaten since I was a child, some dishes I didn’t eat or appreciate until I became an adult. One thing for certain is that all the dishes presented were and continue to be made with love and are full of vibrant traditional Eastern European flavours.

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Georgian Eggplant Caviar (Baklazhanaya Ikra) also known as, Poor Man’s Caviar

Legend would have it that this dish came to be because the men who fished for sturgeon in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia couldn’t afford to eat their catch so they made an eggplant topping for their bread instead, using only what humble ingredients were on hand. As as child I used to wonder why on earth it was called a caviar when there was no actual caviar in it, and the legend explains everything.

I liken it to a caponata, the sort of thing you slather over beautiful crackers or bread. The flavours in Poor Man’s Caviar are delicious, somewhat Mediterranean with a hint of the Slavic with the addition of dill, and better still the next day. The flavour comes from double-cooking the eggplant, first by roasting and then by sauteing it with herbs and spices until it caramelises. It is a beautiful paté-style dish for parties and is completely vegan. I use it often as a side for red meat and as a topping for baked potatoes, yum.

Prep time: 15 mins, cooking time: 1 and a 1/2 hours. Makes about 1 and a 1/2 cups.

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small green capsicum (green pepper), chopped finely
1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped finely *
1 small red chilli chopped very finely (optional)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon fresh dill, chopped finely
Salt and cracked pepper to taste

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 200˚Celcius (about 390˚F). Wash and cut your eggplants in half and lay them onto a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper, cut side down. Pierce the skins with a fork several times (or risk explosion in the oven.) Roast for approximately 30-40 minutes depending on the size of your eggplants, they should very soft and the skin very wrinkly. Scoop out the eggplant flesh and chop finely, set aside.

eggplant-caviar-chopped_tanya-zouev

2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan over medium heat and cook the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the green capsicum and cook for ten minutes then add the tomato, cooking a further five to ten minutes until very soft and falling apart.

eggplant-caviar-frying_tanya-zouev

3. Add the chopped eggplant flesh to the vegetables in the pan, stir then add the chilli if using, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, honey, dill and seasonings. Mix well then cook stirring intermittently for another thirty minutes on medium to low heat. Wait at least an hour or two before serving to allow the flavour to develop then serve with hunks of bread or crackers (or as a side). If you include the chilli you will find the dish has that lovely little chilli kick to it just at the end. This is my inclusion and isn’t included in the original recipe, I call it a modern adaptation.

* To peel a tomato simply score the bottom by making a criss-cross then dunk into boiling water for about thirty seconds. The skin will come off easily.

 

Photography & styling notes:

The inspiration for this shoot was my late Babushka’s (grandmother’s) flat in St. Kilda Melbourne. In my mind’s eye I held an image of a moody late afternoon table set with all manner of jumble-sale style plates which my Babushka kept in her kitchen. I distinctly remember that even though her flat was cosy and sunny, nothing ever matched! Alongside traditional Russian tapestries on the wall was a retro painting on black velvet of a blue-skinned basket weaving lady and the furniture was all from the Salvo’s. I put together an array of vintage props, all from op-shops and hard rubbish of mostly old English plates, some extremely worn from use over time. Even the little stemmed shot glasses were dug out of a box put out for council clean-up.

The background surface is an old weathered coffee table found in a council clean-up which I pulled the top off and cleaned. (It must have been quite a sight to see me wrestling with the coffee table outside a house on Pittwater Road, the main road which runs through the Northern Beaches, on a particularly grey stormy day, trying to avoid the huge rusty nails protruding from the beautiful timber. I was determined to get it home somehow.) The most expensive item in the shot was the bottle of vodka though I suppose I could have used a recycled one filled with water. But then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy a shot of vodka with my zakouski after I finished photographing them which I must say was a pretty good end to a rather exhausting shoot.