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'Herring in a fur coat'

Tasting a Russian party dish
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  March 10, 2010

 FOOD031210_russian_main
MAKING THE FUR COAT Alla and Yulia hard at work.

This time of year I look at myself in the mirror and shrink. My face looks like it belongs on the canning shelf with the beans, asparagus, and cukes. Sometimes I wear the same clothes the next day because I refuse to get undressed in the cold. I often leave my coat on all day long. So when my friend's Russian sister-in-law suggests teaching me her favorite dish, "herring in a fur coat," I burst out laughing. That's exactly how I feel this time of year. Like a pickled herring (the light gray color is a perfect match) under three inches of insulation! I don't think mocking frigidity with a Russian party dish is going to startle awake any hibernating Latin goddess, but at least it might lift my spirits until the neighborhood ice cream shacks open. Plus, it'll be nice to have something new to do with local potatoes, onions, beets, and herring (better known around here as lobster bait!).

I drive Alla, a Russian grandmother, and her daughter, Yulia, to Medeo in Westbrook because it's the only place that has the right style of herring: no creamy stuff, no wine, no sugar. Just salt and water. Lyubov Gorelov, one of the store owners, is inside, surrounded by colorful nesting Russian dolls, 15 kinds of kielbasa, headcheese, salame, jars of caviar, and her single most favorite food: a Russian brand of marinated tomatoes. Indeed, her longing for them in a glass jar with vinegar, oil, and herbs, inspired her to open the store. Lyubov was born in Kazakhstan. After the country become independent from Russia in 1991, Kazaks eyed her light skin because of the Russian ancestry it implied. They began pressuring her at the outdoor market where she sold flowers. "Go out from our land," she recalls them saying. Her brother came first to the United States as a refugee, and she and six other siblings followed with their parents. Two sisters stayed.

Later Yulia and her mother work side by side in her kitchen, peeling boiled potatoes and beets, dicing raw yellow onion, and mixing them each in separate bowls with a touch of mayo. Then Yulia sculpts each layer neatly on an oval serving platter: potatoes first, then bite-size pieces of herring, then onion and beets. The dish's presence is as impressive and shocking as its name. It's bright magenta with white and yellow flecks of crumbled hard-boiled egg. Green cucumber slices decorate the edge. That's some fur coat!

We all sit around, eat, and laugh. They call the dish selyodka pod shuby. (Say "Silly Odka Pohd Shoeboy" really fast and you got it.) It's creamy, slightly crunchy from the raw onions, pungent, salty, and pleasingly rich. All those who squirmed at the mention of herring should try it. Maybe this will inspire you: Alla says it's a perfect appetizer for vodka. They drink in authentic Russian form, breathing all the air out, downing whole shots, then tilting their heads down and over as if inhaling the smell of their biceps. "Every single holiday in Russia you'll have this [dish]," says Yulia. Both are smiling at fond memories: birthdays, guests, everyone coming together for three-hour meals, dancing, drinking, and International Women's Day, when women enjoy gifts of flowers and more magenta "fur coats" with pickle fringe.

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