Russian Rillettes

My first year in grad school is coming to a close, which means many celebratory class parties. As the one student among my nonfiction writing peers with a professional cooking background, I'm often the designated snack provider. I love this role, of course, and am always happy to get in the kitchen. But a culinary degree adds a certain pressure to perform. Mess up as an "avid home cook" and it's a "failed experiment." Botch a recipe as a certified cook, and people seem genuinely disappointed.

Thus I was nervous when it was my job to provide a dish that would pair well with straight vodka. We were having a cocktail and nibbles session during a final class in immigrant literature, and students were bringing food and drinks that represented their ethnic backgrounds. I joined forced with a fellow Nordic classmate (she's actually from Sweden, I have distant Norwegian connections), and she pledged to bring Swedish aquavit if I brought the food. We were also joined by a Russian, who planned on bringing vodka.

Pairing a spirit like vodka can be difficult, as it's designed to be (at its best), smooth and not very flavorful. The only other time I drink it absolutely unadorned with food is on the rare occasion that I have caviar (champagne may be the more decadent accompaniment, but the sweet effervescence messes with the caviar's briny, subtle flavors. Cold, top shelf vodka is the way to go). At $40 plus an ounce, caviar was not an option. Instead, I settled on smoked trout rillettes – a preparation that usually involves meat being salted and cooked slowly in fat to produce a pate-like spread. I discovered a recipe for a simple fish version on epicurious. With a few minor adjustments (as always), the silky, smoky spread paired perfectly with the vodka provided. I highly recommend it, regardless of your beverage choice.

Smoked Trout Rillettes

(serves 10)
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Dec 2007

1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
scant 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill, plus sprigs for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
8 oz smoked trout fillets without skin and bones, flaked with fork

Combine cheese, onion, dill and lemon juice in a bowl
Fold in trout pieces with a spatula. Taste and adjust seasoning
Garnish will extra dill sprigs and serve with cucumbers, radishes, Finn Crisps and vodka!

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