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Zakuski: Mighty Russian Morsels

The first time I was invited for dinner at my husband's family's house, I had no idea I was stepping into a veritable wonderland of new foods. Russian cuisine, I naively thought, was just cabbage, potatoes and vodka.

While the meal lacked none of those ingredients, it had none of the dreariness I associated with them.

Small, colorful dishes filled the table from one end to the other: smoked fish, caviar, cured meats, salads, cheeses, everything and anything pickled. It was all diced and lively, pierced with fresh garlic and swaddled in kicky vinegar.

For a girl with a short food attention span, I was pretty sure I had died and gone to grazers' heaven.

There is something fantastic about the way that Russians treat their guests. This spread of salads and small plates that wowed me — called zakuski (derived from the word morsel) — dates back to czars' tables of the 18th century. These Russian hors d'oeuvres were often served to standing guests outside the main dining room, usually buffet style or passed by waiters.

Salads, caviars, mushrooms, as well as various kinds of vodkas, were standards of the day. While this remains unchanged, a more modern approach is a mix of purchased smoked fish, caviar, hard cheeses and salamis, and a homemade bean salad, eggplant caviar, brined mushrooms, beets, tomatoes, watermelon, and bread or pastry pockets filled with meat, potato or cabbage.

Always presented as "just some little bites," zakuski serve to welcome visitors from long journeys and take the edge off their hunger before a meal. "Come in," a full table says, "you are welcome in our home."

And although it worked like a charm, in the months and years that have followed that first dinner — through a courtship, our wedding, two kitchens and hundreds of home-cooked meals — I had tried my hand at these dishes only once.

From our shopping bags stuffed with leftovers after every meal at my in-laws' house to the salient fact that nobody cooks these foods better than my mother-in-law, I've been both too intimidated and too complacent.

It was a recipe that finally drew me in. Someone slipped me a recipe for Russian black bread, one with such an incomprehensibly long ingredient list, my eyes widened and mind immediately began ticking. I found the implied challenge irresistible.

On a recent Saturday morning, I plunged in, measuring out molasses and vinegar, coffee and shallots, among other odd ingredients. Six hours later, the aroma and suspense were too much to bear, and we sliced into a still-warm loaf of the most flavorful, dense and soul-warming bread ever to grace my kitchen.

Over dinner at my in-laws that night, people who usually shy away from excesses of carbohydrates slathered piece after piece with butter and caviar until the basket had to be refilled. "You can freeze the leftovers, to preserve the best flavor," I suggested. "Oh, that will not be necessary," I was assured.

Brimming with pride that I'd made Russian food that had impressed real, actual Russians, this act of bravery has inspired more. I've tackled my mother-in-law's famous eggplant caviar, and even make two other standard zakuski, salted mushrooms and a Georgian kidney bean salad. Set out another dozen dishes, some caviar and ice-cold vodka, and we'll be right over.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: beans and cornbread.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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Deb Perelman