Yablochniy Spas – Apple Savior Day – August 19th

Pretty much all agrarian societies have some version of a “First Fruits” celebration, where the products of the first harvest are presented as a religious offering. The Western Christian Church has long since abandon this practice, but the Eastern Orthodox sects have kept the tradition alive with the August 19th celebration of the Great Feast for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, also known as Apple Day in Honor of the Savior (Yablochniy Spas). It is one of three Russian Orthodox holidays celebrated in August, and in my opinion the one with the best food options.

By the time Christianity arrived in Russia, near the end of the 10th Century, there was already a highly detailed calendar of holy days and celebrations set by the Greeks. In the Mediterranean climate, where Christianity has it’s origins, the harvest blessing date was settled on August 19th to coincide with the celebration of the Transfiguration, most likely because that holiday came closest to the harvest time for the two major local crops, grapes and wheat. The Russian climate didn’t support a late August harvest of these crops, so the blessing was broadened to include local fruit, which for Russians is apples in August.

Margaret McKibbon, President of American Friends of Russian Folklore generously shared a great deal of background on this holiday with me, it’s origins and most wonderfully a personal anecdote of a modern celebration:

“I was at a church in Belarus last summer [2011] for Yablochniy Spas… The church was in good repair, with lots of people of all ages attending.  Every family brought a basket  lined with a colorful woven or embroidered towel and filled with apples and other fruit, usually what was growing in their own gardens at home.  The baskets were tucked out of the way until the end of the liturgy, when the parishioners drew back to leave a central aisle clear with baskets on the floor lining it on both sides.  The priest then advanced down the aisle, repeating a blessing as he flicked blessed water with a  whisk over the baskets and the people.  After a closing prayer everybody picked up their baskets and headed for home, the old ladies serenely pedaling their bicycles down the road.

At home, our hostess carefully divided up the blessed fruit into portions for her friends and relatives who had not been at the service.  Much of the rest of the day was spent in paying visits and distributing the blessed fruit, which was always received with reverence  and gratitude.”

The Eastern Orthodox First Fruits tradition is more of a church blessing of the harvest, which is then shared with the community, rather than a tithe or sacrifice as the offering is in many other religions. This idea of sharing of the bounty makes for a great reason to gather your friends and family to celebrate the last, long days of summer. It is considered bad luck in Russia to eat apples before the Spas so this would be the first taste of apples for the year… so feel free to go apple crazy!IMG_1816

Menu

Apple Kvas
Zakusi
Chopped Herring Buterbrodi
Pickled Apples
Fresh Cabbage Salad with Apples and Sour Cream Dressing
Shashlik
Apple Sharlotka

Apple Kvass

Kvass is the national beverage of Russia usually made from fermented rye bread. It has a very small alcohol content due to the fermentation, usually around 1%. Kvass is first mentioned in the Old Rus Chronicles in the year 989 and has been the most common “non-alcoholic” drink in Eastern Europe ever since, consumed by all social classes.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western soft drink manufacturers Coca-Cola and Pepsi began to encroach on the kvas market. But there has been a recent ‘kvass revival”, spearheaded by the Russian company Nikola (which is pronounced “not-cola” in Russian) billing it as the patriotic alternative to cola. Coca-Cola has even launched it’s own version of kvass, and Pepsi is handling distribution for a Russian kvass maker.

In researching this recipe, I found a lot of mixed feelings among American consumers of kvass. Some say it is poised to be the next big drink in America and is catching on as a popular street vendor ware in New York and other East Coast cities. Other people say it is weird and not at all suited to the American Palate.

The following recipe for Apple Kvas is much simpler than the traditional version, as it requires no cooking, and has a light, refreshing, slightly yeasty taste that is very appealing on a late summer day. I think it is a great introduction to this Russian classic.

IMG_1971

From Natasha’s Kitchen

Ingredients
  • 8 cups apple juice
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • ½ tbsp active dry yeast
  • ½ tsp dark molasses (or 1 tsp instant coffee)
  • 6 cups filtered water
Instructions
  1. Fill a 16 cup glass jar with 8 cups apple juice.
  2. Add sugar, yeast and molasses. Stir until sugar dissolves than add water.
  3. Cover with multiple layers of cheesecloth or a cotton cloth and put a rubber band over the rim of the jar. Let stand on the counter for 18 hours, then refrigerate. Once it’s completely chilled, you can remove the cheese cloth and screw the lid on. If you put the lid on while it’s warm, too much pressure will build up inside the jar.
  4. Serve Kvas once it’s completely chilled.
Notes
Snezhana suggested: 4-8 heaping tablespoons of sugar, (7 tbsp = ½ cup which turned out quite nice!) Instead of using a cloth over the top, you can also poke holes in the lid while it sits on the counter.

Zakuski

Zakuski is the pre-dinner spread that welcomes guests in a Russian home. Zakuski is derived from the word morsel, and it is an assortment of morsels to accompany vodka that you will of course be drinking at any Russian gathering.

The spread can include a great variety of dishes, hot and cold, homemade and store bought, spicy, salty, rustic and gourmet… as long as it is plentiful and complimentary to vodka it is welcome. The tradition probably evolved among the 18th Century aristocracy in the countryside as a way of welcoming guests who had traveled a long way in the cold, and whose arrival times may have been uncertain.

Our spread included Salami, Green and Black Olives, Hard Boiled Eggs, Sardines, Smoked Oysters, Anchovies, Pickles, Cheese & Crackers. Bread and Salt are the symbols of Russian Hospitality, so should be served in plenty.

Other authentic options could be Caviar (of course!), Russian Black bread with herbed butter, anything pickled (apples, beets, mushrooms etc.), smoked salmon, cocktail meatballs, small boiled potatoes with with dill… the list can go on and on.

Zakuski is usually accompanied by the drinking of several vodka toasts, which are usually followed by a bite of a sharp dill pickle. This is much like the lime to chase a tequila shot, the pickle absorbs the burn of the shot with it’s briny goodness. Toasting is an art form in Russia. At some gatherings the host will make a one or two toasts, at others, every guest will take a turn. I attended a Russian dinner with my parents when I was 16 when everyone at the head table took their turn. The memory of watching a roomful of adults throw back 10 shots of vodka over the evening left a lasting impression.

Na Zdorovye!

IMG_9854IMG_9848

IMG_9821

Chopped Herring Buterbrodi

Russian cuisine is largely known for stealing from the French tradition and “Russifying” those recipes, but there is even more cross-over with their Nordic neigbors, just like our Scandinavian friends, the Russian’s love herring and open faced sandwiches.

Bread and Salt are the symbols of Russian hospitality and friendship. It is traditional to greet special guests with a loaf of fresh bread with a container of salt on top of it. The guest breaks off a small piece of bread, dips it in the salt and eats it. This combination of salty fish on bread is a tasty way to great your guests and make them feel welcome.

from Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John C Welchman

2 salt (schmaltz) herring fillets
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 slices white bread, crusts removed
1 small green apple, peeled, cored and quartered
1 small onion, quartered
1 hard cooked egg, quartered
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

IMG_1970

-Soak the herring in milk, covered in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours
-Pour the water and vinegar over the bread and let it stand for 10 minutes. Squeeze the bread to remove the excess liquid.
-Rinse the herring, pat dry with paper towels, and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place the herring, bread, apple, onion, and egg in a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth but not over pureed.
-Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the sour cream, lemon juice and sugar, if desired. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.

Serve on cocktail squares of buttered rye bread, topped with a slice of apple to balance the salty flavor of the fish.

 
 

Pickled Apples

The short Summer growing season and loooonnnggg winter meant preserving foods was truly a matter of life or death in pre-Industrial Russia. It is a tradition that is still largely upheld today, even among urban Russians. A dacha or country house is a surprisingly common amenity for even middle class Russians. According to “Housing Studies: The Russain Dacha phenomenon” by Raymond J. Struyk and Karen Angelici About one in four big city families have dachas. While the “second homes” first came about as gifts to loyal vassals to Peter the Great, the Soviet Era saw a moderate boom in dacha-living, as many of the properties were nationalized and made into vacation homes for the working class. Spring and Summer are called “Dacha Season” and stores advertise sales for gardening equipment and other outdoor amenities. While they have become leisure retreats for many of the more affluent Russians, the memory of the Soviet Era food shortages coupled with a long standing cultural tradition of growing and preserving their own food means many people still invest in rigorous gardening at their dachas.

So when your dacha apple trees need harvesting or you have just finished plundering your neighbor’s apple tree, you will want to preserve some of the bounty for the barren months ahead.

This recipe is more of the immediate gratification solution. You can bring in the apple harvest from your dacha plot and have pickled apples in the same day!

I found this receipt at Portland Monthly Magazine courtesy of Gregory Goudet of Saucebox

IMG_1968

4 red apples
4 shallots, peeled, sliced thin
2 tbsp spice mix*
2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups sugar

(1) Wash and medium-dice apples.
(2) Place shallots in a container and cover with apples.
(3) Add spice mix to vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil.
(4) Pour mixture over apples and shallots.
(5) Cover with plastic wrap to keep everything submerged under liquid.
(6) Let cool at room temperature.

* Spice Mix

INGREDIENTS

8 cinnamon sticks
8 pieces star anise
12 cloves
1 tbsp cardamom
1 tbsp 
fennel seed
1 tbsp allspice

(1) Place all spices in a sauté pan and toast in a 375-degree oven until fragrant (about 10–15 minutes).
(2) Once cool enough to handle, grind in a spice grinder until fine.

Fresh Cabbage Salad with Apples and Sour Cream Dressing

This recipe is from “A Year of Russian Feasts” by Catherine Chermeteff Jones.

Russia produced over 4 million tons of cabbage per year, and the Ukraine produces 1.3 million tons. They are 3rd and 7th on the list of top ten producers in the world. It is a hearty vegetable that thrives in the colder climate  and short growing season. It is a tremendous source of  Vitamin C and is easy to preserve as an important nutrient source over an extremely long and harsh winter.

Of course in the brief Russian Summer it is wonderful to savor fresh, raw vegetable as much as possible. And this recipe is so quick, easy and the result so refreshing, it is a natural for a summer party… no hot stove, out of the kitchen in a flash.

Sour cream is another staple of Russian cuisine. Dairy products in general have traditionally been in strong supply in Russian, and as a culture (I’m sorry I couldn’t resist it!) they seem to have a real penchant for fermentation, so a proliferation of “soured” cream makes sense.

8 oz. white cabbage, tough outer leaves and core removed, quartered and very thinly sliced.
Salt
1 small apple, peeled and coarsely grated
3 tablespoons sour cream, creme fraiche or mayo
Freshly Ground pepper
 
Place the Cabbage in a medium Bowl, Add 1/2 tsp salt and mix well by hand, crushing the cabbage to release the juices, about 1 minute. Add the apples, sour cream and salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and serve immediately.
16-Cabbage Salad IMG_9917

Shashlik (Shish Kabob)

Shashlik is more or less what we call a Shish Kabob here in the US. Meat cooked over a fire on a skewer. This is the Russian equivalent of the All American grilled hamburger or hotdog. This is what the Russians serve at summer parties. There are many variations on the recipe, and it can be just meat, or a combination of meat and vegetables on the skewers, your imagination can be your guide.

Beef and lamb are the traditional meats, but pork can be used too. We made our skewers with a combination of beef, mushrooms, green and red peppers, red onions and cherry tomatoes.

18-Shashlik IMG_9812