When it comes time for Russian soirees, there’s no shortage of little bites, known in Russian as zakuski, that precede the main event. Personally, I’ve always been of the zakuski persuasion myself, enjoying the generous spread and often skipping the main course all together.
The word zakuski comes from the word zakusit, meaning “to have a snack”, but really it’s more of a vodka chaser than anything, which would explain why the assortment of various zakuski always includes pickles, herring, tiny meat pies, diminutive bread slices with bites of caviar or salami, and potent salads. The idea is to awaken your palate, to make you hungry for the meal to come. But for me, it’s always meant that my favorite snacks were together in one place.
One of my favorite zakuski family members is this intensely garlicky beet salad that’s ubiquitous at any family gathering. Russian delis also sell them by the quart, making it almost pointless to spend time making your own. But as I’ve tried to use as much organic produce as possible, it’s worth that extra effort.
The original concept is rather simple: grated beets, lots of garlic, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. I’m sure there are variations on a theme, but you get the idea. Just when you think there’s enough garlic, you might want to sneak in a couple of cloves more.
I made this salad once in the presence of an American friend. Her eyes widened in horror as she watched me put almost an entire head of garlic into the salad. She suspected it would be inedible, but quickly understood its charms once everyone was sitting down, plates full, with shots of chilled vodka at their side.
Vodka or not, this is a delicious salad that stands on its own. The garlic is potent, but not abrasive, and I mellowed it out a bit by adding some lemon juice and zest, dates, and chopped walnuts. I also blended sour cream with mayonnaise for a more luxurious feel. The result – a salad I’ll happily bring to any December party, of which I hope there is no shortage.
Garlicky Beet Salad with Walnuts and Dates
2 1/2 pounds beets, preferably organic
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
7 large garlic cloves, mashed into a paste
6 medjool dates, chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F with the rack in the middle. Trim and halve the beets lengthwise, and place in a 13×9” roasting pan. Fill with enough water so it comes halfway up the sides, cover the top tightly with foil and roast the beets for 30 to 40 minutes (depending on beets’ size), until fork-tender. Remove from the oven, let cool, and slip the skins off. Using the coarsest setting on the food processor or the hand grater, shred the beets.
2. In a large bowl, toss the beets with the remaining ingredients and mix until well-combined. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly, if needed. Serve immediately or refrigerate.
Serves 8 to 10 as a side dish; more if part of the Russian zakuski-style table.
Olga Massov, is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. In her past life, she spent a decade working in finance, but now gets to assist the likes of Melissa Clark and Andrew Scrivani. Olga writes a bi-weekly column for the Cooking Channel blog, and has been featured by Saveur.com, BonAppetit.com, and GourmetLive, among others. Her other work can be found on www.sassyradish.com and her twitter handle is @sassyradish.
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