Last Saturday, as I lay naked in London's only Russian steam bath while Artor the Latvian arm-wrestler (three times UK champion) beat me with birch twigs, a vision suddenly appeared before me - of borscht, blinis and vodka. I was at the bath (in Marylebone, as you ask) because I was accompanying my girlfriend on a journalistic assignment. "By the time this is over, you will feel purged, born again," Artor declared before proceedings commenced. Two hours of sweating and several beatings later, I felt not so much purged as ravenously hungry. Clearly it was time to act upon my vision . . .
But where should Londoners go when the urge for a hearty Russian meal strikes? A spot of internet research provided the answer: Trojka, in Primrose Hill (www.trojka.co.uk). Open every day from 9am, Trojka offers a range of simple Russian dishes, as well as cakes, snacks and a selection of flavoured vodkas. My girlfriend and I had borscht to start with, followed by a trio of dishes to share: herring with beetroot and potato; blinis with smoked salmon (we would have had red caviar, but the restaurant had run out); and pelmeni (a sort of ravioli filled, in this case, with cheese and potato). All our dishes came laced with smetana (sour cream) and all were delicious: simple, gutsy and full-flavoured. Just the ticket, in fact, to restore us to vigour. It was remarkably good value, too: with puddings and two shots of vodka each, the bill came in at less than £20 per head.
But what to do when the urge for Russian food strikes and a suitable restaurant is nowhere to be found? In such situations, I usually do what my mother often did when I was a child, and make Russian cutlets. This delicious dish perfectly encapsulates the principle underpinning most peasant cooking, which is to make an expensive ingredient - in this case minced meat - go a long way. The meat is padded out with bread that has been soaked in milk, before being formed into cutlets, which are then fried. The end results are like superior hamburgers; children, in particular, love them.
To make Russian cutlets, take some minced meat (beef, pork and lamb all work fine) and mix with an equal amount of white bread that you have soaked in milk for 20 minutes, crusts
removed. Add finely chopped onion, garlic and plenty of parsley;
salt and pepper; a dash of Worcester sauce; and a raw egg. Mix together, and then start forming into snooker ball-sized patties. Once each patty is formed, roll it in breadcrumbs, coating the surface. Fry your cutlets over medium heat in plenty of butter, for roughly seven minutes per side. Check with a knife to see if they are cooked (if heated through, they are). Served hot, with boiled potatoes, they make a delicious, nutritious supper; served cold, they make an ideal picnic snack.