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What comes to mind when you think of Russia? Communism? The Cold War? The Iron Curtain? As a chef and epicure, my first association is vodka! (And caviar of course). The Brits would agree. In the 16th century, the British ambassador to Russia deemed it their national drink.
The word vodka comes from the Russian "zbiznennaia voda" which translates as "water of life", a rather hospitable phrase that has been oxymoronically linked with bellicose, totalitarian regimes and evil dictators. Ivan the Terrible, the unspeakably ruthless and murderous first Czar of Russia, played a pivotal role in Vodka production and consumption. Ivan built the first taverns, (known as kabaks), for his equally merciless palace guard, the oprichniny, the 16th century precursor to the modern KGB. Ivan also initiated state owned distilleries in order to profit from the production and sale of vodka and other spirits. Likewise, a modern Devil incarnate, Joseph Stalin, also encouraged the expansion of vodka production to finance national defense. Finally, the more level headed Mikhail Gorbachev endeavored to curtail vodka and liquor production due to the rampant alcoholism in the USSR. However, the financial rewards of its sale won out in the long run. Lenin by the way, opposed drinking since he felt it would impede the goals of communism.
Exactly when vodka was first made is the subject of historical debate. Various sources place its genesis in the 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. It didn't start gaining popularity in America though, until after World War II.
Vodka can be made from a variety of grains. Barley and wheat are the most common but corn and rye can be used as well. It can also be made from potatoes and beets. Grain vodkas are generally considered to be the best.
Vodka is a clear, neutral and nearly pure spirit due to the high proof distillation process. Early vodkas however, were crude and nearly unpalatable. They were often mixed with herbs, spices or honey to mask the offensive taste and harshness. Then, in the early 1800's, it was discovered that filtering it through activated charcoal created a significantly refined, smoother, and purer product.
Because of vodka's neutral flavor, it has become the spirit of choice for many mixed drinks. This "neutrality" though, is a function of an undeveloped palate. Connoisseurs of vodka can indeed detect flavor profiles, (and especially degrees of smoothness), amongst brands. It is because of the velvety texture and clean flavor of quality vodka that it has all but replaced gin in the standard martini. Moreover, the true vodka purist will forego the vermouth normally found in martinis and drink his vodka straight, in the traditional Russian manner. The only caveat is the vodka MUST be cold.
Ideally, the glass should be chilled beforehand. The vodka is then shaken over ice and strained into the glass. Common accompaniments are olives or a twist of lemon. For a slightly sweet alternative try a cherry. All of the utensils used to serve the vodka must be very clean. Because of vodka’s pristine flavor, subtle impurities in the glass, strainer or ice can be easily detected, especially if you have grown accustom to your favorite vodka's taste.
Since the 1980’s a number of flavored vodkas have arisen including, but certainly not limited to vanilla, lemon, orange, and even hot pepper. These are best for mixed drinks. Unflavored vodka is most suited for drinking straight. The addition of flavoring elements, while adding a new dimension in taste, sometimes comes at the expense of the vodka’s smoothness. I recommend the classic Russian brand Stolichnaya and if you can find it, Stolichnaya Gold. The Gold is their top of the line vodka and is analogous to drinking liquid silk.
A Russian psychiatrist I once worked with told me of a custom from his homeland. He and a friend would take a bottle of vodka out of the freezer. They would then drink shots of it, and attempt to finish the bottle before the frost on the glass melted. (Now you know where Gorbachev was coming from). Vodka can certainly stand alone but I recommend you try it with food as well. The victual of choice to be served with vodka is of course caviar but other kinds of seafood and various salty morsels are also good choices.
PENNE PASTA IN VODKA SAUCE
• 4 hot Italian sausage links
• Olive oil as needed
• 1 medium red onion, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, chopped
• Half cup vodka
• 1 28-oz. can tomatoes
• Half cup heavy cream
• Chopped parsley and basil to taste
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 lb. Penne pasta
Remove the skin from the sausage and sauté it in the olive oil. Break it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add garlic and cook one more minute. Deglaze the pan with the vodka, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, and simmer for 15 minutes. (Break up the tomatoes if whole). Add the cream and simmer a few more minutes. Finish with basil and parsley and serve over the Penne.
• 2 oz. lemon flavored vodka
• 1 oz. triple sec
• Splash of lime juice
• Splash of cranberry juice.
Chill a martini glass in the freezer. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice until three-quarters full. Pour in the vodka and triple sec and shake vigorously. Strain into martini glass and add the lime and cranberry juice. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
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