Zakuski ― Russian appetizers ― got their start as just a little something to nibble with vodka. Even though the word means "little bites," zakuski evolved into a lavish spread of hors d'oeuvres. The Old World tradition makes a perfectly modern appetizer party or a casual buffet dinner. Infusing vodkas with aromatics and spices gives cocktail hour an easy new twist. And Russia's bright spring flavors, such as fresh herbs, sweet beets, and delicate salmon, banish any stereotypes of grim Moscow markets full of cabbage.
A zakuski party can be a flexible mix of homemade and purchased dishes, depending on how much time you want to spend (see "The Strategy"). There are excellent resources in Russian neighborhoods throughout the West, especially in such cities as Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The growing enclaves in these cities are renewing the West's long history of Russian settlement from Alaska south down the Pacific coast. Now is the perfect time to celebrate spring with a little bite, a glass of vodka, and a toast with friends.
Plan a varied zakuski spread. Our menu has three parts: the vodka bar, passed appetizers such as caviar tartlets, and a table of spreads, salads, and meat or fish to top rye bread. Choose two to four items in each category, depending on the number of guests.
Infuse and freeze vodkas ahead of time, picking three or four flavors. For the party, set out vodka on ice or in chilled glass bottles, with shot glasses for sipping ― or bolting.
Concentrate your cooking efforts on one or two appetizers and purchase everything else. Caviar tartlets and cocktail pelmeni are impressive but easy; salmon turnovers are worth extra effort. The beet salad and mushroom caviar can be made ahead. In a pinch, you can throw the whole party with purchased food.
Find a well-stocked source to save shopping time. You'll find great smoked fish and meats, spreads, and prepared items at Russian markets and some good old American delis.
Be sure there's enough food to balance the drinks. Sneaky flavored vodkas will go to guests' heads quickly.