(Written before COVID-19 quarantine) When I received notice that my friend Darra Goldstein had unsubscribed from my NewsBite newsletter, I reached out to learn, “why?” and learned she wasn’t unsubscribing, just eliminating duplication as she was getting it twice.
During our email interaction, she had mentioned the upcoming publication of her latest book, Beyond the North Wind, another tome exploring Russian food. Darra is the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. She’s also the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita at Williams College.
I was looking for a simple recipe to share. She suggested the Pear and Carrot Relish, one of her favorite easy recipes that is “simply served in little bowls and eaten straight with the tea, as the Russians eat preserves.”
One I received my review copy, I noticed a recipe for Pepper Vodka, which to me is classic Russian, classic Darra. I always think of her at an event at The Russian Tea Room teaching the media how to chug vodka and not get drunk. The secret: be sure to eat bread slathered in butter first!
When I asked, why she add sweetener to the vodka, she explained, “I add a little honey to mellow the pepper’s bite and also to add a layer of complexity. I’ve tried it without and the flavor is more monotone.”
Pepper vodka is one of Russia’s most popular infusions. It packs a different kind of punch from horseradish vodka, with a nice hint of spice. This vodka infuses longer than the others I’ve included, so you’ll want to taste it daily until it reaches the peak of heat that you like. I find it just right after three or four days, but you can infuse it for up to a week.
1 (750-ml) bottle high-quality vodka, such as Russian Standard, Stolichnaya, or even Tito’s
1 hot red pepper, 4 inches long, such as cayenne or jalapeño
8 black peppercorns
2 allspice berries
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons mild honey
Transfer all but 2 tablespoons of the vodka to a wide-mouth 1-quart jar, reserving the original bottle. Remove the stem from the pepper and score the skin in three places to enable faster infusion. Drop the pepper into the jar.
Slightly crush the peppercorns, allspice, and cinnamon in a mortar with a pestle and add the spices to the jar. In a small bowl, stir the honey with the remaining 2 tablespoons vodka until the honey dissolves, then add it to the jar. Close the lid and allow the vodka to infuse at room temperature for at least 3 days. Strain the pepper and spices and transfer the vodka using a funnel into the reserved bottle. Chill well before serving. The vodka will keep indefinitely in the freezer.
Makes 1 (750 ml) bottle
Pear and Carrot Relish (Варенье из груш и моркови)
This sweet-tart relish will surprise your guests, who’ll have a hard time guessing what it’s made of. The relish is cooked just long enough for the carrots and pears to absorb the flavor of honey without losing all of their crispness. It’s equally good served with roast meat for dinner or with afternoon tea, in the Russian style.
2 pounds carrots, peeled
1¼ cups honey
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
2 pounds Bartlett pears, firm but not hard
Grate the carrots on the large holes of a box grater and place in a large shallow saucepan. Add the honey, lemon juice, and cinnamon stick. Peel and core the pears, then chop them into ½-inch dice. As you dice each pear, stir it into the carrot mixture so that the pears don’t turn brown.
Bring the mixture to a boil and cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Be careful not to let the mixture scorch.
Ladle the relish into sterilized jars and seal. Once cooled, the relish can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month. For longer keeping, process the jars for 10 minutes in a hot-water bath, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes five 8-ounce jars.
“Reprinted with permission from Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore by Darra Goldstein, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”
Photography credit: Stefan Wettainen © 2020