Tzar Ivan the Terrible was a cruel tyrant. Everybody knows that. And just like many things that “everybody knows” and thus nobody questions, the sobriquet “Terrible” should be taken with a grain of salt. Since we are in the middle of Pesach (Passover), I recommend Kosher for Passover Red Sea Salt.
True, he did accidentally kill his son Ivan Ivanovich, but the kid had the temerity to argue with dad! You gotta have respect for your elders! However, look at the other European monarchs, his contemporaries: Henry VIII used to chop off his wives’ heads left and right, presumably considering it much cheaper than suing for divorce (I know, the Pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce, so he eventually became his own Pope – the original DIY guy). Catherine de Medici killed close to 30,000 Huguenots during the Night of St Bartholomew, and that was no accident!
Fast forward four hundred years: in the mid-1970’s, one of the prominent Russian film directors Leonid Gaidai produced a movie “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Professions” based on a story by Michail Bulgakov. If you want an hour and a half of non-stop laughs, watch this brilliant satire on Soviet reality where a petty tyrant cum apartment manager accidentally changes places with Ivan the Terrible. The great Bulgakov, with his genius, doesn’t only hint at Stalin, especially with the banquet scene (Stalin’s banquets at which he humiliated people by forcing them to dance and make fools of themselves were infamous). He raises a deeper issue: a bully is a bully, whether he is a humble Soviet apartment manager or a powerful monarch, with the only difference that a bully of a monarch would be called a tyrant.
This is the banquet scene from the film where the Tzar and his guests are served “red caviar, black caviar, and the caviar from beyond the sea… eggplant.” The movie is chock-full of hilarious lines, but “the caviar from beyond the sea” is probably the best known. If you stop and think, however, you’ll realize that real caviar, both red (salmon roe) and black (beluga or other sturgeon fish) were so plentiful in Russia in 15th – 16th centuries, that cheap taverns used to serve them in huge bowls, to be eaten by spoonfuls. Eggplant, though, was exotic and very pricey, to be found rarely even on a royal table. However, if you again stop and think, and perhaps consult a map, you’ll see that eggplant, coming from India, has traveled quite a distance, but definitely not “from beyond the sea.” Anyway, I’ve already posted a recipe for Eggplant Caviar (please click here), so I am taking an artistic liberty to bring to your attention a vegetable which is actually a fruit and which, in those times, truly came “from beyond the sea” – all the way from Mexico.
Zucchini Caviar was considered even more of a delicacy than the eggplant one, possibly because it really took some finesse to get it just right. There are many variations of it, but you know how everybody’s grandmother had the best recipe, and mine certainly did! It includes zucchini, carrots, sweet red pepper, onion and garlic, and lots of cilantro. I don’t use tomato paste (you’ll see it in some recipes), but I throw in bits of grape tomatoes, mainly for decoration purposes.
First you dice some onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent. I prefer to use a kazan which is a cast iron pot with a rounded bottom, perfect for sauteing as it distributes the temperature more evenly. I have heard a theory recently that after WWII, Russians started using the round German helmets for cooking pots. The truth, however, is much more interesting and quite romantic. The city of Kazan, today the capital of Tatar Autonomous Republic and one of the five largest cities in the Russian Federation, was founded in the Middle Ages and got its name… from this cooking pot! According to the legend, a Tatar princess Soyembika dropped a golden kazan into the river, and the city was founded on that spot.
In a famous battle, Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan and made it a part of Russia (painting by P. Korovin). His cooks, apparently, discovered the round pot and made it a part of traditional Russian cooking equipment. No Russian kitchen is complete without an assortment of different sizes of kazans.
Meanwhile, while your onions and garlic are sauteing, you can grate zucchini and carrot and dice pepper. Dicing zucchini will give you more texture, and grating it finely will produce a creamy mass. I prefer the golden middle, even though I don’t have a golden kazan. Throw all these grated and diced veggies into the pot and cover it firmly. In a few minutes, zucchini will produce out its own liquid.
Now is the time to add salt and pepper (I actually use allspice, but I am sure they didn’t have it in 16th century). Wine is optional but it does enhance the flavor. Mix it all up, reduce the heat, and saute for about 30 minutes, or until the veggies blend nicely but the texture is still visible. Meanwhile, you can listen to the original Bobby Darin recording of “Beyond the Sea.”
I like to use little yellow grape tomatoes, but they were nowhere to be found, so in a pinch, I diced the red ones and added them to the “caviar” when it was almost ready. You want those little tomato pieces to soften just a bit but not disintegrate!
Do you think Ivan the Terrible would’ve enjoyed this dish? They say he had, well, terrible eating habits, gorging himself on whatever was put in front of him without stopping to savor the taste. But who cares; the caviar “from beyond the sea” has graced my Pesach table, and I hope it will enhance yours!
- 1 large or two small zucchini (courgettes), grated
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1/2 sweet red bell pepper, diced
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 3 – 4 garlic cloves, diced
- A handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- 5 – 6 grape tomatoes, diced
- Salt and allspice to taste
- 1/4 cup light sweet wine (optional)
- Saute diced onion and garlic until translucent. Add zucchini, carrot, and pepper. Close lid firmly until more liquid appears (about 5 minutes).
- Season with salt and allspice, add wine and cilantro. Stir, reduce heat, saute for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- When almost ready, add tomatoes.
- Serve cold.