Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Svekolnik (Cold Borsch)

I have trouble with seasonal cooking. I like hot soups year-round. I will rarely turn down a good stew. I'm uninspired by salads until August, when I can pluck tomatoes and cucumbers right from my mom's backyard garden. I may have qualms about using the oven when it's 80+ degrees in my non-air conditioned apartment, but a nice poppy seed roll chases away my regrets.

Svekolnik, also known as cold borsch, is one of my consessions to warm weather. It's nothing like hot borsch, which is a meal in a bowl. Rather, svekolnik is a light, low-calorie soup that tastes bests when the weather is hot, hot, hot. It could almost pass for hip, vegan raw food. I'm cheating a bit here because my mom made the soup above. But I liked eating it and will make a svekolnik of my own one of these days.

I don't have the exact recipe, but the basic technique is this: In a soup pot, bring beets and water to a boil, then simmer until the beets are tender. Remove and cool the beets, then peel and grate, adding them back to the liquid.

[Update, August 08: The recipe is this: thoroughly wash and scrub a pound of beets. Cover the beets with six cups of water; bring to a boil; then simmer for 60-90 minutes until soft. Proceed as written.]

Add lemon juice, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to the beet liquid to taste. This is the hardest part--underseason, and the soup will be bland. It should taste sweet-and-sour, erring on the side of sour. My mom's secret ingredient is a good splash of dill pickle brine. Chill the soup throughly in the fridge, preferably overnight.

Right before serving, chop up: hardboiled eggs, boiled and peeled potatoes, fresh peeled cucumbers, scallions, dill and parsley. I also like pickles in svekolnik. Divide the fix-ins between bowls, ladle the soup over the top and serve with sour cream.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Chocolate-Covered Sirki

A reader recently e-mailed me and asked if I knew how to make sirki (сырки). Sirki (literally "little cheeses") are small, cheesecake-like bars made with tvorog (farmer's cheese; similar to Quark cheese in Europe). I had never made sirki at home or tried storebought ones, so I did a little research: I asked my mom. She confirmed that sirki are made with tvorog and adds-ins like sour cream, vanilla, chocolate, nuts, raisins, etc.

Sirki were a favorite children's treat in Russia, and very small kids were sometimes plied with chocolate-covered sirki when they wanted ice cream. (I had never even tried sirki because, in the usual Soviet fashion, they disappeared from the stores around the time I was born.) [Update: I finally tried them when I went to Estonia and Russia in 2008.]

I found a few recipes for sirki-like desserts in Soviet cookbooks. The most common dessert is tvorozhnya massa ( "tvorog mold"), made by creaming butter and sugar, then adding eggs, tvorog and sour cream, and chilling the whole thing on a rounded plate. All this sirki talk was making me (and my mom) hungry for the real thing, so we bought some sirki from the Russian store in chocolate, almond and vanilla flavors. They tasted a lot like American-style cheesecake but were a bit tangy, like yogurt. Vanilla was the best of the bunch, but these sirki were cloyingly sweet and pricey.

Next I tried a recipe for chocolate-covered sirki from Anya von Bremzen's Russian cookbook Please to the Table. "These rich chocolate-covered cheese confections, sold in the dairy department in Soviet grocery shops, used to be a favorite childhood treat," writes Anya.

The recipe has you mix tvorog (I used 1.5 cups), 4 ounces cream cheese, sugar (Anya calls for 7 tbs; I used 3) and two egg yolks in a food processor. I also added 1 tsp. of vanilla extract. Then you add lemon zest, lemon extract and lemon juice, but I just used 3 tbs. of lemon juice. (The tvorog/cream cheese mixture has a lot of culinary promise. It had a nice, smooth texture and tastes like mousse.)

Wrap the mixture in a damp cheesecloth and place in a sieve that's set over a bowl. Cover the cheesecloth with a plate, put a weight on it (like a heavy can) and refrigerate overnight. The next day, use a small scooping spoon to shape the mixture into 1.5-inch balls.

Freeze the tvorog balls for half an hour to firm them up, then melt 12 ounces of decent dark chocolate in a saucepan or double boiler and let it cool a little. Anya calls for melting the chocolate with 3 tbs. of vegetable shortening; I used 1 tbs. and a splash of heavy cream. I think shortening smells and tastes like stale oil, even when it's fresh, so I'd avoid it completely and simply use heavy cream to make a ganache.

Dip the tvorog balls in the chocolate and let cool on a wax-paper covered plate. Chill in the fridge until the chocolate is firm. I ended up with 15 or 16 sirki. They tasted like little cheesecakes and would work well as dessert or post-dessert bites. I think you can experiment a lot with this recipe, using ricotta instead of tvorog, or sour cream instead of cream cheese, and nuts, chocolate or dried fruit in the tvorog mixture.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lamb Shish Kebabs, or Caucasian Shashlik Demystified

I noticed that one of the much-mocked Weight Watchers cards from the '70s features "Caucasian Shashlik". This dish isn't as mysterious or gory-looking as Weight Watchers would have you believe. Shashlik means shish kebab in Russian (this word is of Turkish origin). Caucasian means it's from the Caucasus region, which includes Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and some parts of Russia.

I wouldn't consider Caucasian shashlik diet food by any means, but it is pretty excellent cookout fare. Here's an essay in pictures on Uzbek lamb kebabs.
Firing up the grill.
Skewering the meat, alternating lean pieces with fatty pieces.

On the grill.

Sprinkling the kebabs with a mixture of water and vinegar as they cook.

All done! Uzbek lamb kebabs are tradionally served with vinegar and thinly sliced onions.

All gone.

For further details, check out the lamb kekab recipe and its variations in Anya Von Bremzen's Please to the Table.

Big bowl of boneless lamb, cut into cubes. The lamb was marinated overnight in a mixture of thinly sliced onions and cumin and coriander seeds.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Poppy Seed Roll

Remember how I wrote about all those wonderful, complicated cooking projects I was planning to accomplish this week? Well. I got back from Mexico (the weather was very nice, by the way) feeling lazy and languid. I grudgingly realized that I have a real life to attend to, but all I wanted to do was sleep until 11 a.m., go to the beach, swim, tan, eat, tan, swim, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. I guess I'm not a real cook at heart. While I was away I didn't miss cooking and barely thought about it. Back at home, I lolled about the apartment and thought about making something half-way interesting, but then I got sick, which turned me off food and cooking for a few days.

So when I got better, what did I finally make? I pulled out some frozen dough from the fridge, smeared some pre-made filling on it, baked the whole thing and voila--I made a poppy seed roll. It's not as slatternly as it sounds. The frozen dough was 1/2 recipe of the sweet yeast dough I had made a couple of weeks earlier. The poppy seed roll recipe was from Please to the Table. I didn't have any poppy seeds on hand and wasn't about to shell out for two cups of them when I didn't know how frozen yeast dough would handle defrosting.

I added some walnuts and lemon zest to the canned poppy seed filling, rolled out the dough into a 12-inch square, spread the filling all around, rolled it up and baked it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. The dough rose alarmingly in the oven. I don't know whether I'm doing something wrong, or if the recipe is faulty, or if this is normal, but Anya von Brezen's sweet yeast dough swells to gargantuan proportions during baking. While the roll was cooling my boyfriend remarked, "It looks pregnant." I thought it looked like a baby beached whale. But the roll was pretty good, canned filling and all.

Will I shake off my post-vacation laziness and cook something from scratch ever again? Stay tuned to find out!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mazurka (Fruit and nut bars)

This is what I made after an evening of packing for my trip to Mexico. Expecting a long and hungry day of travel, relieved only by airplane food, I figured I should take something that would keep well and keep me sated.

I don't know why I haven't written about these no-brainer fruit and nut things before. I got the recipe from my boyfriend's mom and I've been making them weekly all winter. Don't ask me why they're called mazurka--a dance of fruity and nutty flavors, maybe?

In any case, mazurka is neither a cookie nor a cake nor really a bar. It's simply a jumble of fruit-and-nut goodness, cut into squares. Mazurka smeared with peanut butter and washed down with tea makes a very nice breakfast or snack. I also like to crumble it into yogurt.

This is how I make it: mix 4 eggs with 3/4 cup of sugar. Beat in a cup of flour. Mix in a cup of walnuts, a cup of raisins and a cup of dried cherries or cranberries. Pour into an oiled pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 35-45 minutes. Cut into squares or bars.

You can use any combination of dried fruits and nuts, of course. Just make sure there's something sweet, like raisins, and tart, like cranberries in there. The more generous you are with fruits and nuts, the better your mazurka will be.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Vote for Yulinka

*MKE, a local lifestyle weekly, has nominated Yulinka Cooks in its blog of the week contest. This is a right of passage for Milwaukee bloggers, and I wouldn't mind winning. Vote for me here.

*Unfortunately, I can't woo new readers with tantalizing recipes for kvas (rye bread beer) and vareniki (fruit dumplings). I won't be doing much cooking for the next week as I'm leaving for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Saturday. I should be back next Saturday, June 10. Then I'll have another week of vacation, which I hope to spend playing lady of leisure. I'm planning complicated, multi-step cooking projects.

*I've been busy with work and packing this so I haven't cooked anything blog-worthy lately. The most notable dish was a variation of this shrimp scampi pasta, to which I added cherry tomatoes and spinach.

*"The Virtuous Eater, of course, has underlying health reasons for her food rules--fewer pesticides, reduced additives, no trans fat--not unlike the way many scholars believe Kosher laws were initially formed to protect Jews from unsanitary food. But the Virtuous Eater, like her historical God-fearing counterparts, also considers adherence to her dietary laws an ethical imperative and an important public exhibition of piety, a model for the less observant. It's no longer particularly acceptable to brag about one's church attendance or volunteer details of one's own genealogy or pedigree, but a blow-by-blow account of the short life of an ear of organic, local sweet corn is appropriate conversation for dinner and a credit to any cook."

Are you a Virtuous Eater? There's much more to say about this article, but I'm too tired right now. I do think most food bloggers are voluptuary Virtuous Eaters.
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