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The Siberian Gourmet

February 04, 1993|ROSE DOSTI

Patte Barham's "Peasant to Palace"(Romar Books) will make you want to sing " Ochi Chernye ," kick up your legs in a kazatska and cook blinis , kasha , stuffed cabbage and borscht dolloped with sour cream.

It's not that the recipes are wonderfully different or even particularly exciting. It's the stories behind the recipes. They come from the controversial daughter of the controversial Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, the Siberian visionary and healer who rose from humble farmer to adviser to the czar until his assassination during the Russian Revolution.

After escaping from Russia, Maria Rasputin, who had once played with the czar's daughters and eaten butterscotch balls from the hand of the czarina, launched a career as cabaret dancer in Germany and France. She found work as a lion tamer with an English circus, where she was billed as "The Daughter of the Mad Monk, Rasputin," and worked in an American defense plant during World War II. She continued her life as a recluse in San Diego until her death in 1978.

In the meantime, she had met Patte Barham, the daughter of Los Angeles Herald publisher Frank F. Barham (and the first woman assigned to cover the Korean War). Barham helped Maria Rasputin organize her exhaustive diaries and memories of her father into the book "The Man Behind the Myth," published in 1977.

"When I met Maria, she was my challenge," Barham writes. "Historians and journalists have made Rasputin an enigma, a paradox of himself, a complex, self-contradictory being both clouded and overblown by legend. . . . Maria too is charged with sustaining the confusion."

Maria also had a number of recipes, saved over the years on bits of paper, scratch pads and backs of recipe books. Barham assembled "Peasant to Palace" from them and from Maria's memories to provide "an insight on the pre-Revolutionary period in Russian history and culture."

The description of palace dining is particularly vivid: "Maria, Varya (her sister) and their father were usually met by the Tsarina and her daughters in a reception area and invited into the huge formal dining room. The room was illuminated by elaborate overhead crystal chandeliers and dominated by a large rectangular table surrounded by ten chairs.

"Behind each chair stood an imposing-looking footman--imposing, at least, to two youngsters from Pokrovskoye--in a blue-and-gold uniform, wearing white gloves. Fresh flowers were almost always in evidence: Rose petals were scattered on the tabletop; a garland of flowers wreathed each plate, and a simple yet elegant arrangement from the palace garden or greenhouse provided a dramatic centerpiece."

If his daughters were not used to such royal surroundings, neither, at first, was Rasputin himself. "Like many Russian commoners," Barham writes, "Rasputin had never learned to use a knife and fork. At the royal table, he could negotiate the zakuski table with its stock of finger foods, and the soup course was no problem. But when he was served the fish course, his only variation from his vegetarian fare, he didn't know which piece of silverware to use. He busied himself with talking and telling nebulous futures for the guests. Consequently, the servants would remove his plate untouched, and he naturally left alone the meat courses and desserts. He literally went hungry at the fine banquets with the Royal Family.

"Upon returning home, Maria would ask her father how the dinner was, and he unhappily replied with a heavy and hungry heart, 'I'm starving. Give me something to eat!' "

With a few exceptions, the recipes in the book are familiar Russian fare: borscht , Eggplant Caviar, chicken or veal smetane (with sour cream), chicken Pozharski (cutlets), blini , pirogi and kulebiaka (salmon-filled pastry).

You'll learn that Rasputin credited his incredible sexual prowess--called vozmuzalost in Russian--to codfish soup. "We do know that according to all sources, including his own family, Rasputin's charisma was unchallenged. Ladies from all walks of life fell in love with him and pursued him unashamedly from parlor to palace. . . . As Rasputin gained fame, word of his 'secret for virility' spread."

A few recipe surprises might make a cook looking for something new and different take notice, such as a recipe for roast chicken stuffed with walnuts, said to have been popular at royal banquets, and a roast pork with a souffle-like stuffing surrounding the roast. Flank steak stuffed with artichoke hearts, rosemary and thyme also sounds good, as does a recipe for goose stuffed with sauerkraut. There is a flaming duck using Grand Marnier and crushed sarsaparilla, which also is intriguing.

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