Ring In The New, Russian-Style

Our U.S. New Year’s Eve celebrations typically wind down not long after the celebratory toast at midnight. But as the ball drops in New York, the homes of Pati Magomedova and Irina McClaren are just beginning to fill with guests.

These University of Missouri International Center colleagues, who moved to Columbia two and 13 years ago respectively, have stayed true to their Russian heritage in the kitchen — especially on New Year’s Eve.

“At 11 p.m., we say goodbye to the old year, and at midnight we welcome the New Year with a great feast” that continues into the early morning hours, often past sunrise, Magomedova says. At least three courses — multiple rounds of each — are served: salad, a main course (or two or three) and dessert. Even the youngest participate in the festivities, sleeping all day to stay up all night.

In Russia, New Year’s Eve is the major December holiday. Christmas is celebrated Jan. 7, because the Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar.

Preparation for the New Year’s Eve feast begins in early December, Magomedova says, as cooks stock up on fresh ingredients. According to Russian tradition, the dinner table mirrors the New Year ahead; what is to come, good or bad, plentiful or scarce. In Columbia, the two women’s tables reflect this tradition. Copious amounts of savory and sweet foods cover the table from end to end, beckoning guests to fill their plates.
Recipes are all approximated. “Every Russian housewife knows what goes into her own dish,” McClaren says. “She doesn’t need a recipe.”

Magomedova, who grew up in Moscow, remembers spending summer breaks in the countryside with her grandparents, who grew much of their own food. They pickled fresh vegetables, some used in New Year’s Eve dishes. Though her grandmother did most of the cooking, “When the New Year comes, you just have to cook.”

Tangerines are a mainstay of the festive table. During the Soviet era, they were difficult to procure and were eaten, if at all, only on New Year’s Eve, Magomedova says. Families would save up for an entire year to feast on them. Though much easier to come by today, tangerines are still a special part of the meal as a symbol of prosperity, hope and health in the New Year, along with caviar atop buttered slices of fresh bread and other decadent dishes.

Among those rich offerings are piroshki, fresh rolls with a sweet or savory filling, and the traditional Salad Olivier, a hearty potato salad with ham, vegetables and mayonnaise. Another specialty is Selyodka Pod Shuboy, roughly translated as Herring Under a Fur Coat. A layer of herring and onions at the bottom is followed by layers of vegetables and mayonnaise and topped with a bright pink layer of grated beets and mayonnaise.