In 2012, I travelled to Estonia with my sister to return our father’s ashes to the island that would have been his home had his family not fled during World War 2. It was an amazing trip and you can see some photos and read more about the food in Tartu, Tallinn and the islands of Kassari and Hiiumaa by following those links or the ones in these photos.
In addition to be wanting to visit my ancestral home, I was also doing research into Estonian folklore, in particular werewolf folklore. Before he died, my father had recommended a book called “The Wolf’s Bride”by Aino Kallas. It’s a beautiful, short novel based on Estonian Folklore, and on an actual historical event in which a woman was burned alive for being a werewolf on the island of Hiiumaa. My grandfather was from Hiiumaa and my grandmother was from Kassari, an even smaller island joined to Hiiumaa by two thin strips of land. Aino Kallas spent her summer’s researching local lore and writing her novels on Kassari. On the visit, I discovered that Aino Kallas’ house was just a couple of miles down the road from my family’s farm. My grandmother would have been a little girl at the time that “The Wolf’s Bride” was being written, but I think that my great-grandmother Helene (pictured on the left) and Aino Kallas (on the right) would have been about the same age. Helene was a local farm woman with many children and an alcoholic husband, whereas Aino was a worldly novelist married to an Estonian diplomat. None the less, I like to think that Aino gathered some of her knowledge of the local lore by talking to her neighbors, including my great-grandmother.
On the trip, I gathered stories at a Folklore Conference at Tartu University, where I befriended an folklorist, Merili Metsvahi, who’s research is specifically about the prevalence of female werewolves in Estonian lore. I know. So cool. Later, Merili joined us on Hiiumaa and Kassari to help gather more stories from family members (that I didn’t know I had) and from the family who hosted us on their beautiful Männi farm. Later, I also got to interview Hiiumaa’s official folklore historian. By the end of that trip, I had decided that I wanted to take all of the stories that I had learned and perform them at dinner where I fed a small audience dishes that had folkloric significance.
For the last five years I have been trying to snatch bits of time to write this piece and test out recipes. The writing has happened over a few cold winter weekends at a friend’s beach house. Designing and cooking the menu for the Illuminati Ball last year was a fantastic opportunity to figure out the logistics around making a performance that includes a multi course meal for a large group of people. By the way, the Illuminati Ball is happening again in 2017 and the tickets are selling fast. Buy tickets at this link, come, eat my food and be amazed by the show!
This Estonian folklore dinner really started to come together though last August, when I got to participate in a week-long residency at The Freight.
The Freight is an artist’s residency run by photographer, aerialist and puppeteer extraordinaire, Rachael Shane. For the last seven years, Rachael has invited artists to spend a week in a beautiful house built by her architect father and potter mother near Cambridge, NY. The artists have access to workshop space, dance studios and an exquisite historic theater in which to develop new work that is then presented at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge and Cloud City in Brooklyn. The summer before last I went up the freight to be their cook! You can read about tried and true recipes for large harvest gatherings that I cooked that week here. This year, I went up as artist and it was heavenly. I spent the first part of the week creating and testing recipes. I fed the entire menu to the other artists and tested out a rough draft of the script. Then, my husband and I rewrote the first two scenes, which I performed (with soup!) to theater audiences at Hubbard Hall and Cloud City. Also, I just got to be out of the city.
I still have more work to do on my script, but I am pretty thrilled about the menu. The second course features several salads which are all based on folklore surrounding the Midsummer festival, Jaanipäev. I know, this is wildly off-season, but the particular salad that I am sharing with you today stars beets and buckwheat, which are actually good solid winter ingredients. A couple of weeks ago, the women from the oven coven gathered at my house to divvy up over 300 dollars worth of nuts that we had ordered in bulk like a bunch of witchy squirrels (We’re preparing our pantries for the trumpocolypse). Basically, they are the perfect crowd to serve a salad with folkloric significance to.
In Estonia, in the summer, you’ll see huge ant hills. The ants make mounds as high as a man’s waist. Insects (and all creatures) have to feed and mate as much as they can during the summer months, since the winter are dark, cold and very long. The ant hills are said to be a portend, indicating that you might be near magical buried treasure, but they can have other supernatural significance as well. In “The Wolf’s Bride”, the heroine passes huge ant heaps as she is drawn in to the marshes on Jaanipäev to meet her wolf lover and make her transformation for the first time. This buckwheat salad is meant to look like an ant heap. When you serve it, you find the treasure (the beets) inside. Obviously you don’t have to serve it this way. It would also be delicious just mixed up in a bowl! I’ll let you know when the folklore dinner will happen again. In the meanwhile, try this salad!
FOLKLORIC KASHA AND BEET SALAD
For the Beets (adapted from Lottie and Doof and inspired by the Anyway Cafe)
- 2 pounds red beets, stemmed, scrubbed and dried
- 1 large splash of olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup vinegar (I use raspberry vinegar)
- 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
- 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 to 2/3 cup fresh grated horseradish (prepared will work as well)
- minced fresh chives (optional)
- minced fresh dill (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place the beets in a small baking dish and toss them with the oil, salt and pepper. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 60-75 minutes, or until the beets are tender and easily pierced with a knife.
- Meanwhile, whisk together the raspberry vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh herbs and toss the dressing with the beets in a medium bowl. Add grated horseradish to the salad one tablespoon at a time until it is spicy enough for you.
- When the beets have cooled, slip them out of their skins and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Toss them with the dressing.
FOR THE KASHA
(Loosely based on this salad by this salad by Melissa Clark)
- 2 cups Kasha (buckwheat)
- 1 oz dried porcini
- 1 large sweet onions
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 cup olive oil (divided)
- 1/2 small bunch flat leaf parsley
- the zest of 1/2 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- sunflower sprouts or other greens
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. In a large dry skillet, toast the buckwheat over medium heat for about three minutes. Add the Kasha to the boiling water and cook for five minutes. Strain the kasha and spread it out on a baking sheet to cool.
- Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Pour enough boiling water over the dry porcini mushrooms to cover and let them soak for half an hour.
- While the mushrooms soak, peel and mince the onion and the garlic. Saute the onions in 1/4 cup olive oil with a bit of salt over medium heat until it they are golden. Add the garlic to the saute and continue to cook. You can lower the heat a bit if it looks like it’s starting to burn.
- Strain the mushrooms, reserving the water. Mince the softened porcini mushrooms and add them to the saute as well. Continue to cook over medium low heat until the mixture is caramelized. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid to remove any grit and add it to the sautee. Increase the heat and let most of the liquid reduce away. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed.
- Bring a small saucepan of water to boil. Rinse the parsley and chop off the roots. Drop the parsley (stems and all) in the boiling water and let them blanch for 10-15 seconds. Strain them and run them under very cold water. Squeeze all of the liquid out of the parsley and blend it up with the remaining 1/4 cup oil.
- Toss the kasha with the caramelized onion and mushroom mixture, the parsley oil and the zest of 1 lemon. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
- Mound the roasted beets up in the center of a platter. Cover the base of the beet mound with about half of the kasha and then use the other half to cover the rest of the beets. Garnish with sunflower sprouts or other greens.
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