I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant

The primary function of the Moscow expat listserv seems to be disparaging  — and, very occasionally, defending — Moscow restaurants.  People get heated about petty bullshit in that way that people are only ever capable of getting on the Internet and sometimes it’s so over the top that it’s funny: “in my 5 years here I have learned that the Russians’ greatest pleasure is in ‘THE TRANSMISSION OF MISERY.’ What a sadly infected mind they have!” wrote someone who had been shortchanged 5 rubles (approx. 15 cents).

The recurring complaint themes are: how terrible service is, how high prices are, and how overall crappy food is in most Moscow restaurants, and you know, while these complainers may come off as xenophobic jerks — “Moscow is a place where the ‘customer is always wrong.’ Moscow is a place where you pay top dollar for rubbish” “After 1917, however, the fundamentals of customer service were sadly lost” — based on my limited experiences, they are not entirely off the mark.   While it can be fun to go to fancy restaurants in Moscow with appropriately adjusted expectations/if someone else is paying, otherwise you’re better off eating at home, which I am luckily able to do a lot when I’m there.   It’s the kind of place where the waitress will unapologetically forget your order and then try to convince you that she didn’t forget it (okay!)  and then bring you the wrong thing three times and on the third time you’ll just eat it, even though it’s sushi rolls with a ton of mayo in them.

To be entirely stringently fair, though, I have had tasty meals served by nice people in Moscow and many, many crappy meals served by cute incompetents in New York, so … whatever.  Also, complaining about restaurant service is the most overprivileged  first world thing possible, and as a former terrible waitress my sympathies tend to lie on the waitress side of the equation except in cases of demonstrable malicious intent.  I think what I’m trying to get around to saying, mainly, is that I love the amazing, cheap, idiosyncratic, delicious, diverse food that is readily available to me in New York.   This week since I’ve been back I’ve eaten: flaky, tender $2.50 slices of Turkish meat and spinach pie in the Bronx, low-end banh mi with shredded chicken and high-end banh mi with big juicy prawns, super-garlicky, freshly made seafood salad at an unassuming pizzeria in Prospect Heights, a pretty solid french dip sandwich, beautiful tuna sashimi cut up to order and packed up to go for only $6.95 at Choice Greene, pork dumplings served alongside fiery cubes of daikon kimchi in Koreatown … etc (oh, believe me, lots more).   Also, ultimately, while Russia might be good at pastries and candy and tea and at salty, fishy things you eat little bites of between shots of vodka, the morning after you eat and drink all that stuff you are going to want two eggs and cheese on a toasted, buttered bagel, and Russia is not going to be able to help you there.

But no matter how much I eat in New York, I still don’t feel as satisfied as I felt when I cooked food that my little Russian grandmother-hostess actually ate and liked for the first time ever.  On my previous visit I made some chicken soup, thinking that nothing could be less controversial than chicken soup.  But Baba R. politely demurred, saying it was too late at night for her to eat anything, and then proceeded to eat several healthy portions of bread and butter and cold cuts.  In retrospect I am pretty sure this was because I had put a ton of ginger in the soup (ginger that cost like $5 at the fancy grocery store located in the basement of the mall whose glossy marble floors are perpetually being swept by uniformed attendants), and for someone who has become used to eating the same thing every day over the course of 89 years this was  going to be a dealbreaker.  I felt like a biscuit.*

So this time I decided to stick to the basics. I made a variation of hippie soup that was actually not very hippie-ish because I used some pork ribs as a base, but which contained a lot of beautiful Russian potatoes and cabbage and carrots, all of which are tastier and somehow better suited to being made into soup than their American counterparts.  E-Z. I was not that stressed out about the soup because, while my talents in other realms are up for debate, I cannot really be fucked with in the soup department.  (Also the vinaigrette department).

“She’s going to put sour cream in it, which is her human right,” my boyfriend* said, and he turned out to be correct.  In the spirit of cultural assimilation I followed suit; it worked out.

The next course was kotleti, which are little fried meatballs traditionally served alongside mandatory potatoes (fried or mashed).  Baba R. had very specific ideas about how these should be made, which she communicated via note and in Russian and English and which are detailed below.  This process was a lot more stressful and time-consuming than the soup process had been.  I looked at the clock about 3/4 of the way through making them and was sincerely shocked at how late it had become.  The window of time before it would become “too late” for the little grandmother to eat anything was rapidly closing!  I worked faster, feeling like a Top Chef contestant.  I felt even more like a Top Chef contestant when I realized that I had, after shaping all the meat mixture into little floured patties, forgotten the salt.  The first batch of patties were already sizzling in the frying pan; my boyfriend tasted one.   A ruminative moment passed.  “They’ll be fine, we’ll just put a lot of salt on them,” he said but his tone of voice was not convincing.  I took a bite.  “I can’t serve these,” I said.

That line was fun to say! Disassembling, salting and mushing up, and then reassembling all the meat patties was less fun.  Also I think they came out oversalted, but per Baba R. they were “очень вкусный” (sp?) so now I can die happy.

Kotleti

Ingredients:

Some kind of a cut of beef (no idea)

an onion, roughly chopped

3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

3 pieces of white bread, crusts removed, soaked in milk  and squeezed and rolled and torn up into little balls by the little hands of a little grandmother who will not allow you to interfere with this important process

an egg

SALT!

Instructions:

Carefully wash the meat and then wring it dry  like you’re wringing out a dishcloth (I don’t know why!)  Cut into pieces while complaining bitterly that it has too much fat in it, if you are a grandmother.  Then slowly, alternating with the other ingredients (except not the egg and salt) feed the chunks into a MEAT GRINDER, which is an exciting and fun thing to have in a kitchen.  Watch as the little worms of meat come out of the grinder and experience a visceral pleasure you haven’t felt since you last played with Play-Doh.  When everything is ground up add the egg AND THE SALT, DUMMY, then shape into little McNugget-sized lozenges on a heavily floured surface, flouring the kotleti themselves heavily and pressing them firmly into shape.  Fry them in vegetable oil, and when the pan is dry add some milk to the pan so they get a crispy-tender milky outer coating.  (This is the secret of their goodness).

*I try to avoid doing this as much as possible — it’s annoying, it annoys me too!  But it’s even lamer to dance around it,  I think. Possibly this caveat makes it worse. Oh well!

*This expression was popular in my middle school. I still say it sometimes and no one ever knows what I’m talking about.  Possibly its origin is filthy.

18 comments to I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant

  • and just when I was noticing I hadn’t really laughed in about a week, WHAMO!
    EGM Post up

    laughed so hard, that I had a 11 minute sneezing fit with a velocity of 14>/sneeze/min. – messy

    favorite image burned indelibly in my brain is the “Top Chef contestant” tableau

  • good lord woman. just reading about the cooking stressed me out. my brother and I made a big salad tonight and garlic bread and watched eastbound & down. america #1!

  • emily

    I forgot to mention that if you are looking to replicate kotleti at home but you don’t have a meat grinder for some reason, you can use ground beef, but then you have to grate the onion and garlic. I think 1.5 lbs of ground beef – so, you know, a standard-issue package — would do it. I guess I should get HBO back for Eastbound & Down, huh?

  • sarah

    Haha, i love ‘if you don’t have a meat grinder, for some reason.’ (actually I do plan on getting a meat grinder though — I’ve been cooking huge (And cheap) pork shoulders and my next step is to start buying cuts and grinding my own.)

    Is the pizza place Amorino?

  • emily

    I don’t have a meat grinder either but I guess there is a meat grinder attachment for the Kitchenaid mixer I could get. It seems like a big investment in meat grinding though. The pizza place is Cataldo’s — the seafood and the literal mom and popness of it was excellent though I was less thrilled about the actual pizza.

  • Rebecca A.

    Thanks for the sashimi reference.

  • I guess at this point it’s mostly just recipes again.

  • Mary Mouse

    Are your vinaigrette skills a reference to Nora Ephron (or was that unintentional?)

  • emily

    Good call, Mary. I am probably subconsciously plagiarizing Heartburn somewhere between 40 and 80% of the time here.

  • Chucky

    Plagarist.

  • Mary Mouse

    Fine by me! I am fully mentally prepared to throw a key lime pie at a man at some point in my life.

  • Anonymous

    Damn. It’s been seven hours and fifteen days (almost to the hour, in fact) since you posted here!

    Fuck it. I’m going to get into this food thing.

    Know that you have, single-handedly, ruined my love of biscuits (for a while). Way too many simple carbs, anyway.

  • Tasha

    Your description of the food in New York is driving me a little bonkers with envy. If I asked real nice, besides Cataldo’s and Choice Greene’s, could you name the other places? Note to myself: in Koreatown, get past the kimchi pa jun and order the pork dumplings. Thank you!

  • emily

    @Tasha I don’t know what the name of the burek place in the Bronx is, I think any burek place you go to is probably good. I like Mandoo dumpling bar in Koreatown because they don’t have bbq, so your hair doesn’t smell like garlic meat for the rest of the day. Also Bon Chon fried chicken in Koreatown, oh my god. My banh mi loyalty is with Hanco in Boerum Hill, because they also have bubble tea, but Nicky’s is also good and Nicky’s has pho. The high end version was from Kampuchea on the LES, and the french dip was from Flatbush Farm. I think that’s it. I love eating food.

  • Tasha

    You have made me very happy today. For one, I now have a food itinerary for the week. For two, I feel less like a biscuit because I have eaten at bunch of those places at some point in my life and therefore am partially redeemed from being a total noob. Thank you for reminding me of their greatness. To Hanco’s, I go!

  • Kotlety aren’t meatballs. They are salisbury steak without the salisbury sauce. They should approximate the size and shape of hamburger patties. In Russia you can buy them frozen very cheaply. Then you just fry some up. If you put it on bread, add some squirty mayonnaise, and fold the bread up, you have a RUSSIAN TACO. Mmm.

  • emily

    @Vanessa that is more accurate than “meatballs.” Gah “squirty mayo” though. Cutting them up and putting them in tomato sauce w/spaghetti works well too..

  • FYI you can order just about anything to be ground up at Los Paisanos in Boerum Hill (near Hanco!) – beef with an onion and some garlic ground to order wouldn’t phase them one bit.

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