Dinner With Mr. Trololo
So, I just want to start off by saying that I wasn’t sure when I should publish this blog but I am certain that the Olympics were not in my mind when writing this but about 3 weeks ago my family and I went over to our very good friends house for dinner. This is not unusual but there were a couple of unique aspects to the evening. 1st of all it was my 41st birthday which was not completely strange as a lot of people have had birthdays, I myself have had at least 40 before this one. What was different was that I chose to secretly share it with friends (I am not very fond of candles). This was the one rule I gave my family going in to the evening. One reason why I wanted to attend the gathering of friends was because of the type of dinner Dan and Dyvia were having. Dan is of Russian descent and wanted to have a traditional Russian dinner. For me the deal signer was the drink of choice for the evening… vodka. Yes my brown spirited friends, that ol’ neutral standard, that tofu of spirits. What made this stand out for me was my complete aversion to the liquid. As I have spent the last several years studying and tasting Vodka’s brown brethren whiskey I have had a bad image of vodka, vodka drinks and quite foolish of me, vodka drinkers. What I learned that evening is that we in this country have no idea how to drink the spirit. Dan has been drinking vodka since the age of 12 when his Russian grandmother taught the proper way of doing a vodka shot. Vodka was not made for Cosmos or screw drivers, in the end these drinks were made for those who don’t know how to drink. Please take no offense with this as I am merely suggesting that vodka cocktails were not created to showcase the sophisticated elegance of a neutral spirit but rather to give you a buzz without the realization that you are drinking alcohol. Much of this has to do with our sugared up soda generation, I blame Reagan for this one… for no reason other than he can’t argue this fact.
The proper way to drink Vodka is simple, pull a bottle from the freezer, pour a small amount in a tiny glass and drink it back, plain and simple. What Dan does and what is the common practice in many Russian households is to infuse the vodka with citrus peels. One the night in question he had 2 bottles of Stolichnaya on the table. The 1st was infused with lemon zest, the other with dill. What I though was really cool was that he had each bottle encased with ice and decorated with said infusions. This was done by emptying a 2 liter soda bottle and cutting it in half He then placed the infused vodka bottle in the bottom half of the plastic soda bottle. He added water until it almost reached the cut line, then added whatever he wanted to decorate with such as citric slices, herbs or flowers for that matter. He then place it outside during a frigid winters night and brought it back in the next morning. Once the surrounding water was frozen he cut the plastic off the bottle and was left with a vodka bottle that is encased in a cylinder of ice. This insured an ice cold bottle of vodka with every shot.
The vodkas were clean and fresh and the citric essence was subtle. It was about the aromatic and floral flavors of the lemon and dill rather than the brightly acidic tartness or the green, earthy flavors. This was paired with a traditional dumpling called Pelmeni which literally means “ear bread”. This tortellini shaped offering was stuffed with either meat or mushrooms and boiled in a richly flavored chicken stock. The soup was garnished with sour cream and dill. The size and shape of the dumpling is region specific. Near the western border of Russia you are served one huge dumpling stuffed with a spice, minced meat. In Siberia where Dan’s family comes from they are smaller and often stored outdoors during the winter to freeze and preserve them over the long Siberian cold.
They paired so perfectly with the Vodka that we drank about a bottle and a half of the stuff. This was such a satisfying end to a freezing January day and astoundingly perfect after my traditional birthday hike, and let me tell you, I was left with the cleanest hang over I ever had. It really was a treat and opened my eyes to the true joy of drinking an often shadowed spirit.
Hard, Cold facts
One of my favorite things about drinking with company is conversation. With inebriation there is a certain amount of truthiness that follows and although it is often encumbered with an overall lack of reasoning, some of those stories are great. As the belt loosens and the gullet relaxes so did our tongues. The night had a heated political overtone and I am sure we fixed the world’s problems many times over but unfortunately I don’t remember what the solutions were, or the problems for that matter. But certain memories stayed intact. The history of the importance of vodka in Russia was one. It may have all begun back in the 9th century long before the column still was invented which has become a staple for the spirits production (read the “A Horse Named Bully” blog for a quick column still run down). At that time it would have been distilled only once and would have been a lot funkier then it is now, think white whiskey here. The root of Vodka is voda which simply means water and like whiskeys’ uisce beatha or eau de vie (both meaning water of life) that was the point. At that time and much, much earlier beer, wine and for those who could hire an alchemist, alcohol was the only source of drinkable liquid, drinking water was the luxury. Like most spirits of the era, alcohol was medicinal and reserved for those with the means. By the 16th century it was recognized as the national drink of both Russia and Poland. The flavored vodkas we all know and love (or not for some) are not new, there are recipes dating back to the 18th century when vodkas would have be infused with items like hazelnut, calendula and even horseradish. It would have at this point distilled twice, diluted with milk and distilled again. It was not easily produced as large scale production was not yet common place but when the column still was invented about 100 years later it was a game changer and as war marched throughout Europe so did Russia’s alcohol. This was common place through the “old” world. It is what brought the wine trade though ancient Rome, Gaul and Spain. I always imagine Roman soldiers marching through burning villages running off with the women and grape vines (this actually happened). It’s an odd thought in some ways but it was the reality of a developing continent and the 18th and 19th centuries were no different. Wars seemed to be a boom time for the clear elixir and after the communist manifesto Stalin encouraged the consumption of Vodka and freely distributed it to his soldiers. In much the same way that the British controlled China with opium and a virgin democracy controlled Native Americans with whiskey Stalin was able to maintain an ideological backlash on a nation.
So as I mentioned before I am not overly fond of Vodka cocktails, I like it when a drink retains its initial identity and although I think what makes a cocktail is not its base spirit but rather its mixer (try making a Manhattan with tequila or a margarita with whiskey, they are still great drinks) the base spirit offers a subtle complexity and finish to the palate. I am a big believer in amaros like Cynar (I’m sensing another blog soon) and incorporate them in many drinks including sour based cocktails. I like the aromatized liqueur to take center stage in a drink, after all it’s the cantina we really remember on Tatooine, not Han Solo. So here’s a drink I through together this afternoon with some lemon infused vodka I made the other night.
2 oz lemon infused Vodka (it can be straight Vodka if you prefer but if you do use a flavored vodka make it yourself, it’s so much better)
.5 oz Senior y Co clear Curacao
.5 oz Cynar
3 dashes Peychauds bitters
1 drop pastis
stir and strain into a some tuliped glass
garnish with lemon a lemon peel
or if you’re a purist take one bottle of Vodka ( I like Russian Standard Platinum)
pour the contents into a container equaling greater than 1 liter.
Take a potato peeler and peel two lemons and place the rinds into the vodka filled container. Let it sit for a day but taste frequently (this is my favorite) part and filter out the peels when you reach the preferred flavor
Then place the vodka back into the bottle and then place the bottle into the 2 liter bottle of coke as mentioned before with the water etc.
Let it sit overnight and when the bottle freezes…