Russ and Daughters Press
The New York Times Magazine
January 12, 2005
By Jason Epstein
When I walk the mile or so from my apartment in SoHo to Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street near Orchard, on Manhattan's suddenly stylish Lower East Side, I experience that enlargement of the soul felt by ancient worshipers as they blissfully approached the temples of their gods. Russ & Daughters is not a mere seller of ''appetizers,'' as Joel Russ's sign has proclaimed ever since he founded his business in 1914. It is New York's most hallowed shrine to the miracle of caviar, smoked salmon, ethereal herring and silken chopped liver. It is the mother church of those latter-day temples – Zabar's, Barney Greengrass and Murray's Sturgeon Shop – that dot the Upper West Side and serve the great-grandchildren of Joel Russ's original customers. But I live downtown, so it is here, at 179 East Houston Street, amid the lively new residents of the reborn Lower East Side, that I await my turn as white-coated servers at the counter ceremoniously slice sides of buttery smoked wild salmon; pack containers with herring in mustard dill sauce or wine sauce or the sauce made of sour cream and buttermilk; and parcel out by the costly ounce gleaming Russian osetra of incomparable quality. Though these quintessential New York hors d'oeuvres are now served in gleaming new high-rises, Russ & Daughters has hardly changed at all. The neighborhood is younger and trendier now, with galleries and designer fashions, first-rate restaurants and a vivid nightlife along its once-mean streets.
But Russ & Daughters (Mr. Russ had no sons) is still the long, narrow shop of spotless white tile and gleaming glass, its shelves filled with jars of olives, tins of sardines and salmon and its displays of whitefish, black cod, smoked sturgeon, herring and salmon much as Joel Russ left them when his ghost ascended from the Lower East Side to the empyrean of appetizers 41 years ago. ''I don't have to sell herring,'' Mark Russ Federman, the son of Russ's third daughter and the current proprietor, said as we stood surrounded by a throng of Friday-morning customers, ''but it's in my blood.''
The Lower East Side real estate boom has made this beaming Paganini of appetizers financially independent, but the herring trade is his addiction, one for which downtown New Yorkers like myself should be grateful. For without Mark, his wife, Maria, and their daughter Niki and her cousin Josh, who represent the fourth Russ generation, there would probably be no Russ & Daughters, and therefore scarcely a fresh Baltic herring or slice of smoked wild Pacific salmon to be found in the city of New York. If herring had not invaded Mark Federman's bloodstream, a vital fragment of the city's character would have been lost forever.
Except for the new herring caught in late spring in Holland and eaten raw (and whose arrival at Russ & Daughters is anticipated with the drama that was once devoted to the new Beaujolais), herring is seldom eaten in its natural state and is usually brined. In England it is kippered by removing it from the brine and cold-smoking it at temperatures high enough to impart flavor but not to cook the fish. Schmaltz (i.e., fat) herring, which Russ sold from a pushcart to his fellow immigrants 90 years ago and which Mark now imports from Iceland, is eaten directly from the brine. It is as astringent as a mouthful of sea salt and, in my opinion, best served to seals and Vikings. It is not suitable for pickling, which weakens its texture. For pickling, Russ & Daughters uses firm herring, imported in brine from Canada, which is soaked to remove most of the salt, then cured in diluted vinegar, sugar and pickling spices before being bathed in wine or the classic mixture of sour cream and buttermilk, and then topped with rings of marinated sweet onion.
Joel Russ added these versions of Danish originals to his repertory after the Second World War, when he sensed a new sophistication among his second-generation customers and augmented his salt herring with the smoked and pickled fish that are now among the glories of New York's ethnic culinaria. Salmon is also either pickled or simply brined as lox -- the Yiddish pronunciation of the German lachs, Danish laks and Swedish lax. But most often, and most deliciously, salmon is taken from the brine and cold-smoked. Then it is called, by New Yorkers at least, Nova Scotia, a term denoting not necessarily its origin but the manner of its preparation. Norwegian, Irish and Scottish smoked salmon are brined and smoked in the countries of their origins, but the salmon sold as Nova Scotia in New York is made in Brooklyn, where Mark, with his third-generation eye, selects specimens for his shop.
Fifty years ago, most salmon was caught in the wild, but today nearly all, whether fresh, pickled or smoked, is farm-raised in huge aquatic pens anchored off the coasts of North America, Norway, Ireland and Scotland. But Russ & Daughters usually has on hand true wild salmon, caught in either the Pacific or the Baltic and smoked in either Brooklyn or Denmark. This wild smoked salmon is leaner, firmer and more delicately textured than its farm-raised cousins and only slightly more expensive. Tribes cohere by allegiance to sacred texts, rituals and formulas; by distinctive clothing, gestures and incantations and, of course, by their traditional foods. For Jews, there are the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch, the dim memories of the old country. And there is chopped liver, as sacred to Jews as cod is to Bostonians. But chopped liver, like so many aspects of ethnic life, has been Americanized, often with bizarre results; with, for example, walnuts, pecans, red lentils or canned white beans in place of chicken livers for vegetarians, or with beef or calves' liver; with mayonnaise instead of chicken fat; or with soy sauce, pumpernickel and canned peas, or with sherry or cognac or peanut butter. Or it is blended until smooth in a food processor. The version sold by Russ & Daughters is uncompromisingly orthodox: a true classic, simple and pure. But if you are not likely to find such chopped liver or wild salmon in your own neighborhood, do not despair. Russ & Daughters will ship anywhere in the United States, so that New York hors d'oeuvres platters of chopped liver, herring, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon and black cod can be assembled in all 50 states.
For those of you who don't have the patience to wait for a delivery, here are recipes for three Russ & Daughters' classics, so you can get started right away.
Russ & Daughters' Chopped Chicken Liver
1 pound fresh chicken livers (about 16 livers)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (schmaltz, rendered chicken fat, is available from your butcher, and can be used as a substitute at your own risk)
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
2 large Spanish onions (1 pound each), peeled and chopped
3 large hard-cooked eggs, chilled
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
1. Drain chicken livers, rinse and pat dry. Remove any connective tissue. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and saute the livers until they are firm and slightly pink in the center, about 5 minutes. (Do not overcook.) Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
2. In a clean, large skillet, melt the shortening over medium heat and add the onions. Saute until onions are caramelized, 30 to 40 minutes, reducing heat to low as the onions soften.
3. When the onions are ready, coarsely chop the livers in a food processor and place in a bowl (or chop livers with an old-fashioned manual chopper in a wooden bowl). Peel the eggs and mash with a fork in a bowl. Add to the livers. Add the onions and mix well, stirring in just enough of their cooking juices to moisten the mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Cover the chopped liver and let mellow in the refrigerator for at least a few hours. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving. Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
Note: Serve on matzo or crackers.
2 1/2 pounds smoked salmon (preferably a mild variety like Gaspe Atlantic salmon or Western Nova), cut into small pieces
1 medium red onion, peeled and very finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil.
1. Combine salmon, red onion, scallions, parsley, vinegar and oil in a large bowl and mix gently. Yield: About 24 servings.
Note: Tartare is nice served on cocktail-size sliced pumpernickel bread spread with unsalted butter.
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
8 ounces butter or margarine
1 very large onion or 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped (about 1 pound)
6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 stalks of celery with leaves, diced
3 big carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup chopped parsley 2 tablespoons flour 2 quarts beef broth
2 1/2 cups barley, rinsed
2 tablespoons kosher salt or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
1. Soak the dried mushrooms in 1 quart hot water for 1 hour. Strain through a filter or cheesecloth. Reserve the water. Coarsely chop the dried mushrooms and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a large stockpot over medium-high heat and saute onions and garlic until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms, celery, carrots and 4 tablespoons parsley. Cook until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and stir until blended. Stir in the mushroom soaking liquid until blended, then stir in the beef broth and 6 cups water. Stir in the barley, soaked mushrooms, 2 tablespoons salt and pepper to taste.
3. Heat the soup to boiling, stirring frequently, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the barley is tender.
4. Add the remaining parsley, mix thoroughly and add more water if the soup is too thick. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Yield: 12 to 16 servings.