ZAKUSKI NIGHT

The most fun you can have with food – Poyekhali!

By Mark Eardley 12 September 2019

Vodka and a zakuska nibble.

‘Poyekhali!’ That was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s brave cheer as he began rocketing towards being the first man in space and to orbit the Earth. What a great way to say ‘Cheers!’ when you’re drinking vodka (‘little water’) and eating zakuski (‘little bites’).

A zakuski party is galactically good fun. Oodles of different nibbly bits to excite the palate, vodka to awaken it between each moreish morsel and rounds of glass-raising toasts to all that’s good in life. Poyekhali!

Eating, drinking and toasting around the zakuski table

This is a stand-up affair (at least, it starts that way…) and you want a table that allows people to circulate as they help themselves to the zakuski.

So, your zakuski table needs to be set to ease congestion. Napkins, small plates and little knives and forks act as sort of brackets at opposite ends of the table. The zakuski are arranged around the table’s middle edges, interspersed with plates of two-bite-sized slices of dark rye bread, pats of butter, some cream cheese, sour cream, and most definitely small bowls of salty, vinegary fish roe. (Or perhaps Cavi-Art. More about that later.)

The vodka goes in the table’s middle, with small shot glasses arranged around its pride of place. Your “little water” should be icy cold from the freezer, and it’s best to keep it that way by putting the bottles in wine coolers with as much ice as they’ll hold.

If you want, your zakuski evening can begin with a three-part welcoming. First, there’s a lovely-to-see-you, thanks-for-coming opening. Next comes an invitation for guests to load a few zakuski onto their plates, but especially a slice of rye spread thickly with butter, sour cream or cream cheese and topped off with a little of the fish roe.

The third part is the toast – and the vodka. (At last…!) Once everyone’s got a brimming glass, ask them to tuck into their rye bread zakuska. Then (maybe) wish them all Na zdoróv’je! – good health! Everyone raises their glass, and with exuberant volume replies, Poyekhali!, and downs the vodka.

The blue touch-paper of sparkling conversation has been lit and it’s all systems go for what could be the food-and-drink ride of your life. Your zakuski evening has lifted off…

I make no claims to the cultural authenticity of the table-laying or welcoming. But if you want authenticity in your Poyekhali pronunciation, who could be a better teacher than Cosmonaut Gagarin? Amazingly, you can hear him exclaim it above his rocket’s roar as he blasts into the unknown on the morning of 12 April 1961.

Steady, comrade!

The point about beginning the evening with a richly-loaded slice of dark rye is that it offers a soft landing to the first down-in-one vodka. After that, the varied zakuski are there to soften the following landings and it’s a prudent plan to repeat that rye-slice a couple of times.

Speaking of safely touching down, there apparently used to be a (light-hearted?) 1970s toast among Aeroflot passengers flying within the Soviet Union. It hoped you would be blessed with as many landings as take-offs.

Happy Landings!” That’s not a bad toast to bear in mind for a zakuski evening. You want the effects of the vodka to be tempered by the little bites – rather than going into a tailspin and ending up floored before the evening ends. So, it’s zakuski first, vodka second.

With that salutary sequence in mind, perhaps remember that Gagarin didn’t return to Earth in a spectacular splashdown. All along, the plan was that he’d eject from his home-coming rocket and safely parachute the last four and a bit miles back down to Mother Russia. And that’s exactly what he did.

Bit of a side-track here: a couple of years after Yuri, Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova almost tripled his time in space; orbited the Earth 48 times; ejected and parachuted back to it. To this day she remains the only woman to have gone solo into space. That was in June 1963. Talk about glass ceilings… So, it strikes me that “Valentina!” is a toast that’s supremely worthy of a rousing Poyekhali!

I also like the idea that zakuski are “parachutes” for each round of vodka that’s prompted by life-praising toasts from any guests who feel so inclined. The zakuski are there to be freely enjoyed at will and eating a singular zakuska doesn’t (necessarily) have to be tethered to downing a voddie.

Famous zakuski: Polish-ish pierogi

Pierogi

To make about 18 of these fab dumpling pies, you will need:

250g self-raising flour – sifted. Plus a bit more for dusting over the surface you’ll be using to knead and roll the dough

150ml warmish water

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

I’m pretty useless when it comes to making pastry (my mince pies are more like clay pigeons), but even I make a fair fist of this straightforward dough.

Combine all the dough ingredients in a mixing bowl. You can put the flour in first, make a little well in the middle and then add the salt, oil and water – or you can just start mixing with a wooden spoon and then your fingers.

Once it’s really well mixed – really well – you’ll have a ball of pretty firm dough in your bowl. Dust a bit of flour onto a cool, spacious work surface and start kneading your dough. I’m just going to assume you know how to knead dough and can keep doing it for at least five minutes.

All that kneading will give you a bit of a workout and the dough a sort of glossy sheen – and make it considerably denser and far more elastic than when you started. Pop the kneaded dough ball back into the bowl, cover it with a damp tea towel and leave it somewhere cool for at least 30 minutes.

Hard-boiled eggs, halved and topped with a little mayo and an individual dab of red or black Cavi-Art. Photo: Gwynne Conlyn

Now’s a good time to make your filling. There are probably numberless variations on potential pierogi fillings but a cheese, mushroom and potato combo is pretty trad. Here’s one of my own creations with pork sausage meat and sauerkraut.

4 pork sausages – squeezed out of their skins

250 g drained sauerkraut – not rinsed but roughly chopped

half a medium onion and a plump clove of garlic, finely chopped

juice from half a lemon

teaspoon of sage and the same of caraway seeds

salt and pepper to season

level tbsp of butter

Thoroughly mix everything but the salt, pepper and butter in a bowl.

Melt the butter in a frying pan on a medium heat until it just starts to foam a bit and then add all your filling mix – no salt and pepper yet. Give it several turning stirs as it cooks for about 5 minutes or until the onion softens. Now season to your taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and let it cool.

Now back to the dough. It needs to have sat for long enough so that it’s no longer as elastic as it was when you finished kneading it. Pull the dough apart slightly and if it kinda springs back into itself, leave it still covered for another 15 minutes.

It should then be ready for (fairly) easy rolling on your dustily-floured work surface to an even thickness of about 2mm. Once that precision-rolling’s done, use a 4 inch / 10cm pastry cutter to make your pierogi rounds. (Wise perhaps to dust the rounds with a little flour so they don’t stick together as you stack them in readiness for filling them.)

A big pan ¾ full of water now goes onto a high heat to begin boiling while you fill your pierogis.

Each round of dough gets a heaped dessert spoon of slightly elongated filling in its centre. Lightly wet all around the edges with a little water, fold the enclosing dough over into a semi-circle parcel and firmly pinch the edges together to form a tight seal all around.

Once the water’s boiling, turn it down so that you get a constant, gently roiling simmer. Use a slotted to spoon to lower the first six pierogis into the water. They’ll probably sink – which is fine, or they might not if there’s some buoying air trapped inside them – also fine.

After 5 minutes of constant simmer, lift them out with your slotted spoon and sit them on some kitchen towel-paper. Repeat the above for the next two batches.

Nearly done. But not quite…

My preference is to now give the pierogis a bit of hot-butter frying for a couple of minutes in a big fryng pan. In this recipe it finishes their cooking, gives them a lovely golden colour and puts a sort of crunch-coating onto their outsides. It’s also, I think, a great way to serve them hot/warm or cold.

They might not be the littlest of bites – broken in half, they’re probably a two-bite number. They are fab with a little dollop of Cavi-Art across the exposed filling.

Other zakuski?

Well, how long’s a piece of string? Other than the rye slices, anything dainty that’s got a bit of citrus or vinegary snap is grand with the vodka. A few salivatory suggestions might be:

  • Rollmops sliced a centimetre thick and carefully held together with a toothpick
  • Gherkins – perhaps ones pickled in a light chilli vinegar – either sliced or whole
  • Peppadews stuffed with a square of feta cheese and a sprinkle of fresh dill
  • Little silverskin cocktail onions speared on a toothpick with a “cube” of droewors
  • Finger-size rolls of thinly sliced smoked trout filled with soured cream and a few chopped capers
  • Hard-boiled eggs, halved and topped with a little mayo and an individual dab of red or black Cavi-Art*
  • A few little bowls of hot chilli sauce for anyone who wants to add it to anything

A zakuski evening is fab fun for all who are invited and is a grand way for enthusiastic home cooks to say Poyekhali! DM

* Cavi-Art is a sort of mock caviar made from seaweed. Amazing what food science can do. It’s widely available locally.

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