From Russia (and Latvia) with love

In Recipies on March 5, 2012 at 10:18 am

Once in a great while, the Phyne Dyner opens his electronic mailbox and finds something more exciting than the usual notifications that he has won the Nigerian Lottery or an “official notice” that he has a long lost (rich) relative in Kenya.

A few weeks ago, I got an intriguing email from Russia.

The email header said, “Some comments and my recipe” and the address had a suffix. I opened the email with a bit of trepidation and half-expected a solicitation for “marriage to gorgeous Russian women”.

“Nelia” opened her correspondence with a mild criticism that I was giving my readers an incorrect perception that Russian food was “heavy”. She tempered her criticism with a comment that my recipe for pelmeni, while “not traditional Ural Russian”, was “yummy”. She also gave me a bit of guff about my “sexist” comments about the “cute Russian girl” in the video I linked to in the pelmeni article.

I guess I had it coming.

She quickly made friends with me by commenting how much her family liked my mushroom soljanke and shchi recipes. On the other hand, they did not care much for my version of cauliflower soup.

But Nelia was not writing just to be critical.

Russian-born, Nelia wrote with authority and said she had once cooked in a “top” hotel in Riga, Latvia. Like me, she quickly admits to “I am not a chef, but a cook”. That got her some high marks in my book. Too many amateurs and bloggers toss around unearned titles of “chef” and “food critic” these days.

She offered to share a recipe with me if I would be so kind as to publish it. She sent the recipe and I prepared it last Friday evening for Shabbat.


Nelia said it was a favorite Latvian fish recipe and that she served it with a sauce she believed originated in Finland. The fish with mushrooms is her variation of a favorite served all over Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fish is beyond savory and the sauce is simply “to die for”. The fish is “excellent” by itself. And with the light flavors of the creamy sauce, it is absolutely spectacular.

No, it’s not health food. And, no, it’s not starchy. But after you review the ingredients you’ll see why it isn’t health food.

Nelia specified that I should, if at all possible, use whiting for the fish. I was unfamiliar with whiting and none of my mass food retailers were either. Fortunately Rachel, our friend in Scotland, knew all about whiting. Dan, a local Roman Catholic friend celebrating the Christian Lent season, steered me toward Wal Mart (I know) where I could buy whiting.

I had always thought that the fish in Great Britain’s famous “fish and chips” was cod. I have since learned that only the higher end shops sell cod. Many pubs and street vendors sell whiting in their fish and chips. It’s a very mild, firm fish that is economical and fries up nicely.


Thankfully, one of my degrees is in chemistry. It came in handy when I translated Nelias “grams” and “milliliters” into familiar, American units of measure.

This is Nelia’s stage…so let’s start cooking her recipe.

5-6 whiting fillets

¼ C lemon juice

2 tbs olive oil or melted butter, plus a bit more for drizzling

2-3 C large white mushrooms, thickly (3/8”) sliced

1 tsp dried thyme (or 2 tsp fresh)

2 C fine breadcrumbs

2 eggs beaten

½ C milk

1 small clove garlic, minced

3-4 large anchovy fillets, finely minced (or 2 tsp anchovy paste)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the fish fillets in a shallow, glass dish. Drizzle a bit of olive oil (or melted butter) over the fillets and then drizzle the lemon juice over them. Season with a bit of salt and black pepper. Try to keep the fish in one layer so they are equally exposed to the lemon juice. Place in the fridge for 1-2 hours so the fish firm up nicely.

Once the fish is safely in the fridge, heat the remaining oil in a medium skillet over medium low heat. Stir the anchovies (or paste) and the garlic into the oil and cook for about a minute. Toss in the sliced mushrooms and half of the thyme. Cook the mushrooms, stirring frequently and gently, for about 12-15 minutes. The mushrooms should not sizzle. Season lightly with salt and pepper. The goal is to drive as much water as possible from the mushrooms. When they are slightly smaller and a bit “rubbery” they are done. Sprinkle the remaining thyme over them and allow them to cool to room temperature.

While the fish is marinating, we can make Nelia’s sauce. You’ll soon see why this is not health food.

¾ C sour cream

½ C whole milk

1-2 TBS grated horseradish

1 TBS flour

2 TBS fresh dill (or 1 TBS dried)

2 TBS (green) onion tops, minced

1 hard boiled egg, finely minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small pan, add the sour cream, milk, and horseradish. Bring to a gentle boil and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Whisk in the flour, a pinch at a time, until the mixture begins to thicken slightly. Stir in the onion tops, dill and egg. Season generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Keep warm on “low” heat, whisking in a bit more milk if the sauce begins to get pasty.

Heat oil in a deep fryer to 340F. It is best to cut the fish as you go, rather than try to cut first…you will be matching mushroom slices to each piece of fish. You want to cut the fish into pieces TWICE the size of a mushroom slice. Now, fold the fish (like a book) around the mushroom and fasten it using a toothpick. Keep making these up until all of the fish and mushrooms are used. Yes, you can make this step in advance if you like.

When the oil is hot, whisk the milk into the beaten eggs. Run each fish “sandwich” through the egg, then through the breadcrumbs, back through the egg, and again through the breadcrumbs. Deep fry them in batches and drain on paper. Cook each “sandwich” until it is golden and floats on top of the oil…about 3 minutes. Keep finished “sandwiches” in a warm oven until service.

Gently re-heat the sauce until almost ready to boil. Give it a quick whisk before placing it in small bowls or ramekins for the table.

Spoon a bit of the sauce over each bite and watch your guest’s eyes pop.

Nelia offered up a variation where the fish and mushroom are not made into “sandwiches”, but are pinned (via a toothpick) to a small square of rye bread before coating and frying. I think I’ll try that very soon.

Thanks, Nelia! Come back, any time.


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