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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WHAT IS IT? : Salted Mushrooms Tasty With, Without Vodka

Winter has really come. I realized it this morning as I watched my neighbors charge their car batteries and then try to crank up the frozen-up engines. The season has arrived when valenki (felt boots) and ushanki (fur caps with ear-flaps) don't look ridiculous any more and when vodka isn't too strong a drink.

While for Russians vodka tops the list of culinary ways to warm up, answers to the question of what side dish to serve with the traditional Russian beverage are many. Of course pickled cucumbers, sauerkraut and soaked apples will do for zakuski, but for the real Russian gourmet there is nothing better than salted mushrooms.

Salted mushrooms are not quite the same as the pickled variety, however. The difference is in the preparation: Salted mushrooms do not require the use of vinegar, which is a very effective preservative.

Traditionally it was popular in Russia to make salted, or sour, preserved foods in the autumn to eat throughout the winter. But salted foods are much more difficult to store than marinated ones. That's why pickled foods have gradually displaced sour products in the Russian pantry.

Now many stores offer pickled mushrooms, but to find the salted ones, you will have to hunt fpr them either at the marketplace or at your Russian friends' family parties.

But be careful: trust only the experienced gribniki, or mushroom collectors. One small inedible mushroom could make the dinner deadly or at least cause serious health problems. Maybe it's this dash of risk that makes the dish so attractive to Russians.

If you need to make a quick but exotic snack, mix sliced salted mushrooms with finely chopped onion, green peas and ground black pepper. Garnish the salad with dill sprigs for a special mushroom treat.

Another salad could be prepared by mixing sliced salted mushrooms, sauerkraut, some sugar, ground black pepper, sunflower oil and greens.

If you are in the mood to try something more refined, you can try the following: Drain salted mushrooms in the colander and boil them in a small amount of water or thin bullion until they are soft. Put the mushrooms, sprinkled with black pepper, along with cubed wheaten rusks, grated cheese, chopped onion, in a layer in a saucepan. Repeat with another layer. Ten or 15 minutes before serving, pour sour scream over the dish, sprinkle with cheese and bake until the cheese is melted. Serve the mushrooms hot in the same saucepan.

These salads are good not only as side dishes to vodka, but are good enough to serve by themselves. After all, vodka is not the only way to warm up in cold weather.

Julia Solovyova is on vacation.