One of the best New Year's Eve gatherings I ever attended was a zakuska party that I put together at the last minute. The word means appetizer and the idea is to have a table full of them, as was traditional for celebrations in old Russia.
A good source of information and recipes is "Glasnost Gourmet" (Birchbark Press, 1990), available at Books for Cooks and Kitchen Bazaar. Boris Taubvurtzel, a Russian immigrant who is now an engineer with the National Weather Service, wrote it under the pen name Povaroff, which means "cook."
He says, "In the good old days" the zakuska table was heaped with platters of delicacies such as "smoked sturgeon, salted beluga, cheese, ham, hard salami, fried game, as well as lobsters, caviar, grated 'green' cheese and corned beef. Plates with breads and butter were squeezed into the remaining space."
Four couples participated in my last-minute party. What made the party a cinch to put together in just one day is the fact that many of the traditional appetizers can be bought ready-made from local gourmet shops or prepared in a short time.
Mr. Taubvurtzel told me, "The closest I can get to real Russian food is at the Old World Delicatessen and Gift Shop on Liberty Road in Randallstown. I go there to buy salted herring -- huge, fat beauties -- hard and semi-hard salami, excellent marinated wild porcini mushrooms imported from Poland, wonderful fruit and berry jams, smoked and salted fish, dark pumpernickel and rye bread."
Of the vegetable zakuski, Mr. Taubvurtzel says, the vinegret, or Russian salad, is the most famous. It's a flavorful combination of beets, potatoes, onions, sour pickles and mayonnaise. But his personal favorite is the sauerkraut salad that includes "the kitchen sink."
He makes his eggplant caviar with garlic, coriander, sauteed onion, pepper and tomato. But my vote goes to my mother's eggplant caviar, made simply of roasted eggplant and peppers and raw onion.
If there is to be a main dish, make it borscht, which can be cooked in large quantities and served hot or cold. Pastry experts might try their hand at piroshki -- dough wrappers filled with cheese, meat, fish, kasha, potato or mushroom stuffing that complement borscht perfectly.
For a holiday treat, I suggest a baked cheese paskha. It's traditionally an Easter dish among Russian people, but who says you can't have something so good any old time?
A zakuska party, easy enough to throw together in a twinkling, is your recipe for success if you are just now calling friends to come over for New Year's Eve.
"GLASNOST GOURMET" SAUERKRAUT SALAD
1 package sauerkraut (1 pound)
1 small onion, minced
1/3 cup minced celery
1/2 fresh carrot, shredded
1 tart apple, seeded and sliced
1 tablespoon minced dill (or 1 teaspoon dill seeds)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup cranberries
3-4 tablespoons oil
Combine all ingredients. Keeps for a month refrigerated in a clean glass jar. For variety, use sliced red bell peppers, olives, capers and caraway seeds. Serves six.
MY MOTHER'S EGGPLANT CAVIAR
1 large eggplant
1 large green bell pepper
1 medium onion
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup oil or to taste
Roast eggplant and pepper in a 450-degree oven, turning until all sides are blistered and the vegetables are soft. Place in a brown paper bag for 15 minutes. Remove skin and seeds from eggplant and peppers. Place onion in the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade and process until chopped. Add eggplant and pepper and process until smooth. Add salt, pepper and oil and chill. Serves six.
1 pound cottage cheese
1/4 pound butter
1/2 cup half-and-half
2-4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla, optional
chopped almonds and/or raisins to taste, optional
Combine all ingredients. Place the mixture on a piece of cloth. Fold the cloth and put paskha in a medium-size mold. Put a saucer on top and something heavy on top of the saucer. The idea is to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Chill overnight. Unmold and remove cloth. Serves six to eight.