Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Product review: Rhyazhenka

If you've kept up with Yulinka Cooks, you know that I love Russian dairy of all sorts. Yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, sour cream and, of course, homemade Russian cottage cheese, also known as tvorog or farmer's cheese.

I've recently discovered another worthy Slavic milk product--ryazhenka. I had vaguely known about ryazhenka, sometimes referred to as baked milk. Every once in a while I would get a plaintive e-mail from a reader asking if I had ever tried it. Well, now I have, and I recommend it with slight reservations.

First: what the hell is "baked milk"? I did a little research--thanks, Google--and unearthed that:

The base is baked milk and cream, matured for several hours at the temperature 95°C. The milk acquires a beautiful cream-beige color, after which the ferment of thermopile races of milk streptococcus are added. But don’t be intimidated by the “scary” scientific names! These are “friendly” to your body and the microbes that are located in your intestine.
Well. If you've got an iffy relationship with fermented milk products, rhyazhenka won't change your mind. It's blandly beige (ahem, a "beautiful cream-beige color") and has a thick, smoothie-like consistency. It tastes like plain yogurt, but tarter. You can drink it as you would a smoothie, or you can follow my example and spoon it over yogurt or farmer's cheese. I like it with a little sugar, jam, or honey.

As for microbes, intestines, etc., Russians credit rhyazhenka and its cousin, kefir, with aiding digestion. Lore has it that a glass of rhyazhenka is a good late-night snack. Rhyazhenka is often available in Russian and Polish groceries.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Smoked Mackerel Canapes

Some get worked up about the turkey on Thanksgiving. Brine or baste, roast or deep-fry, free range or heritage. But I get excited about mackerel.

A holiday spread in this Russian household is not complete without some sort of smoked or salted fish. Some go for herring, salty and traditional. I go for mackerel, smoky and creamy. Last week my mom bought a whole hot-smoked mackerel at the Russian store. It came with a tail, a head, and sad, pleading eyes. I was unmoved.

My mom and I cut the fish into sections, removed the skin and bones, and dug in. You can eat smocked mackerel spread on rye bread, with slices of cucumber and tomato. Or you can pick up the soft, fatty chunks with your fingers and pop them in your mouth, letting the fish melt on your tongue.

The week before Thanksgiving I thought about smocked mackerel, a lot. When Nov. 22 arrived, I tiptoed around the fish, ensconced in the fridge for the guests, like a cat. By late afternoon, I proclaimed it time for a pre-dinner snack. Don't worry; I refrained from eating with my fingers. The holidays call for a nicer presentation.


You will need a hot-smocked mackerel fillet (sold at Russian groceries), cleaned of skin and bones, and cut into chunks. (If you get squeamish around whole fish, you can sub smoked trout or salmon fillets).

Toast some thinly sliced dark rye or wholemeal bread. Spread with a thin layer of unslated butter.Top with a thin slice of cucumber, a thin slice of tomato, and a slice of mackerel. Or skip the tomato and top with thinly sliced red onion. Use the leftover mackarel to make Beyond Salmon’s delicious looking smoked fish chowder.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Notes on Foodies

The word foodie has fallen out of favor with foodies. I think this is because educated, upwardly mobile people—that is, most foodies—hate to think of themselves as part of an easily identifiable target market. It’s also an attempt to dissociate themselves from the more obnoxious members of this tribe. Plus, it’s pretty uncool to label yourself as part of a group. Most foodies would no more describe themselves as such than, say, a hipster would call himself as hipster (although you know one when you see one).

Yet a foodie is not the same as the average Joe who likes food and cooking. Foodies have their lingo, their idols, their cant. How can you tell if you’re a foodie or just an enthusiastic cook? Here’s a handy list. I admit that this is far from complete; reader input is welcome.

You’re a foodie if:

-You know that buying locally-grown ingredients is more important (and hip) than buying organic ones.

-You purchase locally-grown ingredients as a matter of principle.

-You’ve heard of molecular gastronomy.

-You can more or less define molecular gastronomy.

-You’re aware that El Bulli is supposed to be the best restaurant in the world.

-You’re aware that it’s impossibly difficult to get a reservation.

-You’re aware that it only takes reservations by e-mail one day each year, and is closed for six months.

-You enjoy retro food like casseroles, iceberg lettuce salads and jello in an ironic way.

-You make updated versions of the above foods using local, ethnic or “gourmet” ingredients.

-You’re sensitive to the needs of celiacs.

-But not to the needs of picky eaters and dieters.

-You have at least one of the following in your pantry/fridge, even though you’re not from the Middle East, Japan, India or Thailand: pomegranate molasses, tahini, miso, bonito flakes, fish sauce, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves .

-You’ve made risotto at least once in your life.

-You’ve also roasted beets.

-And have eaten them with goat cheese.

-You’re offended by Americanized versions of ethnic foods.

-You know when and how Clotilde Dusoulier got into cooking.

-You know who Clotilde Dusoulier is.

-You frown on the Food Network, Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee, Starbucks, chain restaurants, celebrity chefs, and pasta with too much sauce.

-You have mixed feelings about Anthony Bourdain (blowhard), Frank Bruni (Republican) and Top Chef (whoever didn't win should have won).

-You idolize at least one of the following: Jeffrey Steingarten, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz.

-You hate the word foodie!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Asian" Broccoli Soup

I wasn’t kidding about all soup, all the time. Granted, savvy food bloggers don’t keep writing about the same dish over and over again. They know that readers come back for variety. But what do you expect when the weather around these parts looks like this:

And this:
You expect soup. This is a very nice variation on creamy broccoli soup, which I make occasionally with cheddar. I was out of cheese, though, and keeping with my policy to work with ingredients that I already have, I made an “Asian” variation. Of course, I mean Asian only in the very vague sense that it contains soy sauce, hoisin, fresh ginger, black bean sauce and nam pla (fish sauce). I’d bet it would be great with miso, as suggested here.


Finely chop a large onion and a couple of carrots. Heat up some olive or peanut oil in a heavy soup pot, and sauté the aromatics until the onion is soft and golden. Add about ½-inch of finely minced fresh ginger and a clove of minced garlic; sauté for a few more minutes until the ginger and garlic are aromatic.

Deglaze with a splash of mirin and soy sauce. Add 2-3 cups of broccoli florets (about 2 medium heads of broccoli), along with the peeled, finely chopped broccoli stalks to the soup pot. Cover with chicken stock—about 4 cups—and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, partially covered, until the broccoli is very tender. Take the soup off the heat, carefully puree in a blender in batches, add back to the pot, and bring it to a simmer.

In a bowl, combine a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce and hoisin (or sweet and sour sauce), a teaspoon of black bean sauce, a splash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon of honey and a dash of Sriracha sauce (or any other spicy chili sauce).

Add sauces to stock pot; stir; taste; adjust as necessary. When serving, garnish with chopped scallions, sesame seeds, dark sesame oil or seared tofu.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Some Thoughts on Food Politics

Alice Waters publishes a book on local/sustainable/organic/healthy/fresh/honest cooking, and the natives are restless. Eating local, organic, healthy, etc., is expensive, elitist and time-consuming, say the critics. Eating local, organic, healthy, etc., is virtuous, good for the planet and easier than you think, say the supporters. I haven’t yet read Waters' book, but my initial reaction is: a pox on both their houses.

Now, I’m above all pro-home cooking: I think everyone can and should cook. I’m also pro reasonably healthy eating—and I don’t buy the argument that nutritious food is more expensive or any harder to prepare than junk (more time-consuming, yes). I like the idea of eating local and often shop at the farmer’s markets in the summer—yet I am inspired by better-tasting vegetables and the fun atmosphere rather than concerns about the well-being of small farms and the environment.

At the same time, I’m on a budget. I’m in grad school; I work at a non-profit. While far from impoverished, I avoid Whole Foods and the local swanky grocery stores. In fact, when resuming this blog, I toyed with the theme of cooking good, nutritious food on the cheap. How cheap? I try to keep my monthly food budget to the low three figures, and generally do, occasional donations from the Food Pantry of Mom and Dad notwithstanding.

A while back I wrote about how my mom managed to cook homemade, nutritious food on a tight budget as a recent immigrant. She carefully studied the specials and clipped coupons. She bought things that were on sale that week at the cheaper stores. She made huge pots of soup and stew from scratch. No one in the family went hungry or suffered from malnutrition.

And that’s how I manage my food budget these days. I rarely buy anything that’s not on special at the grocery store. I don’t pick up ingredients specifically for a recipe; instead, I work with what I already have in the fridge and the pantry to create my own variations. If I want chili but I can’t afford beef that week, I’ll make a vegetarian version with chickpeas. If I want mahi-mahi but tilapia is cheap that week, I’ll adapt a recipe for tilapia. I often stock up at Trader Joe’s and Lena’s, a depressing local supermarket that sells shockingly cheap fruits and vegetables under the glare of fluorescent lights. Cauliflower for .39 a pound; red peppers for .99, plums for .79. It’s not remotely local/organic/virtuous, but then, it lets me make nutritious, varied food while sticking to my budget.

Is it convenient to cook healthy food from scratch on the cheap? No. Unless you truly enjoy food and cooking, it’s a pain in the ass. My mom saw cooking as a duty, something she had to do as a wife and mother, whether she enjoyed it or not. (I can count on one hand the number of times she has ever said, “I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s get takeout.” That’s not what Soviet immigrants do.)

I’m with Waters all the way about the pleasures of eating and playing around in the kitchen. I like food and all the rituals associated with it. I like planning meals, I like shopping for ingredients, I like chopping and sautéing. I like sitting down to a leisurely meal, whether it’s en famille or just me and a week-old New Yorker. I avoid eating in the car or on the run between phone calls and e-mails.

I don’t mind putting time and effort into cooking, even if it’s just for myself. I value homemade chicken stock and farmer’s market potatoes. Making stock isn’t a huge effort, but you do have to baby sit it for a couple of hours as it simmers on the stove. The farmer’s market is open Saturday afternoons but it’s still on the other side of town. That means I have to plan ahead. I’ve cut short studying sessions at grad school to make it to the market before it closes. I sometimes find myself in the kitchen at midnight simmering that stock. For me, all that’s fun.

But what if cooking isn’t fun? Then there’s no way you will rearrange your schedule stand over a hot stove or trek to the market for local potatoes. Sometimes I wonder what normal, twenty-something girl would find herself making chicken stock into the wee hours of the morning when a) she has a full time job b) there is a pile of school work to be finished c) she could be going out and socializing. No normal twenty-something something girl would do something like that, unless she has a freaking food blog. Actually, hardly anyone but a food blogger would.

Food isn’t all that important to a lot of people. Yeah, they like nice food when it’s made and served to them, but relatively few people rhapsodize about beautiful produce, risotto-stirring and leisurely dinners. Making homemade stock or going out of the way to buy local potatoes holds as much appeal to them as Nascar racing does to me. And you really have to like food to follow Waters’ commands: shop at farmer’s markets, know the people who grow your food, cook at home. What Waters is ultimately promoting, I think, is an upscale lifestyle hobby, comparable to vacationing in Napa or reading memoirs about remodeling one’s villa in Tuscany. That’s why some people bristle when confronted with Waters’ book. Her expensive hobby is their drudgery, drudgery they don’t even have money for. Me, I wish I could afford what she’s selling. But most just don’t care that much.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Vegetable Soup with Chicken Meatballs

I realize that no one who’s serious about cooking and eating has anything good to say about boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but I have to speak up on their behalf. Yes, they are usually dry and overcooked. Yes, they are the province of unadventurous eaters and dieters. Yet I think they’ve very useful to have on hand, provided you cook them correctly. Pounded thin and quickly sautéed over high heat, they can stay juicy and make a nice addition to quick stir-fries.

That’s how I usually cook them, but a couple of weeks ago I got the idea of making chicken meatballs and poaching them in chicken stock. These meatballs are very easy to make and cook almost instantly in the simmering stock, which provides some much-needed moisture. I’d hesitate to sauté or simmer them in sauce for, say, spaghetti and meatballs, though—they’ll probably dry out quickly. Best to keep the cooking minimal.


Place 8 oz of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks, into a bowl of a food processor. Grind until the meat is coarsely chopped (don’t overprocess into a smooth paste). Put the meat in a bowl, and add an egg, a couple of tablespoons of bread crumbs, a couple of tablespoons of chopped parsley, a dash each of salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes; mix well with a spoon to combine. Shape the mixture into meatballs that are about 1 inch in diameter; placed on a wax paper-lined plate and chill them in the fridge for a couple of hours.

For the soup: dice a large onion and a couple of carrots. Heat up some olive oil in a soup pot; add the onions and carrots and sauté until the onions are soft and golden, 10 minutes. Add 4 cups fresh spinach (or substitute frozen in the next step) and 2 minced garlic cloves; sauté for a few minutes just until the spinach is wilted and the garlic is aromatic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add 5 cups of good quality chicken stock, 1. 5 cups cooked cannellini beans and the frozen spinach, if that’s what you’re using. Bring to a boil and add a couple of bay leaves. This would be a good time to toss in a Parmesan cheese rind, if you have one. Turn the heat down and simmer the soup for 10 minutes. Carefully add the chicken meatballs to the soup pot one by one. Simmer until they’re just done, about 4 minutes. Serve the soup immediately, preferably with grated Parmesan.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Mushroom Vegetable Soup with Israeli Couscous

When I resurrected this blog, I considered going with a soup theme. All soup, all the time. Now, this is the month when most people start thinking about soup. Not I. I think about soup all year long. I've written about my Russian family's soup-eating habits here and here. To sum up: We Russkies like our soup, regardless of weather. In the steamiest of summer days we may enjoy a chilled svekolnik, but when the temperature drops to a bone-chilling 70 F, we go back to borsch and kharcho.

You can take a girl out a soup-making household, but you can't take soup-making out a girl. These days I have my own rotating repertoire of favorites, although I make different variations every time depending on what I have in the fridge. Here’s my latest take on mushroom barley soup. I happened to have a big box of Israeli couscous, as well leeks, onions, carrots and leftover broccoli stalks (which are totally edible and delicious, by the way).


Soak ½ ounce of dried porcini mushrooms in ½ cup of water overnight, or at least for 3-4 hours. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mushrooms. Put them in a bowl and cover with some cold, fresh water. Let stand for several minutes minutes to let the grit settle at the bottom. Remove the mushrooms, and repeat this step twice more with fresh water. Strain the mushroom water through a coffee filter until it’s free of grit and sand. Reserve the mushrooms and the liquid for later.

Chop up 8 oz. of white button mushrooms. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet and sauté the mushrooms until they are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add kosher or coarse salt to taste. Set aside. Chop up a large onion, a large carrot, and half a leek. Peel and coarsely chop the broccoli stalks. Finely mince 2 stalks of celery and a couple of garlic cloves.

Heat up some olive oil in a soup pot and sauté the onion, carrot, broccoli stalks, leeks and celery until the onions are soft and translucent and the broccoli is semi-soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic; sauté for another minute, until the garlic becomes aromatic.

Add the sautéed and the rehydrated mushrooms the soup pot. Pour in 4 cups of chicken stock, the mushroom liquid and a tablespoon or two of soy sauce to taste ; toss in a couple of bay leaves and some black peppercorns and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the soup simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add ¼ cup of dry Israeli couscous and simmer until the couscous is cooked, about 8-10 minutes. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Eat with dollops of sour cream or thick, plain yogurt.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chana Masala Soup

I like creamy tomato soup a lot, and I often make a vaguely Italian version with onions and carrots as aromatics and basil and thyme as spices. The other day I was looking at Orangette's recipe for tomato chickpea soup. I had chickpeas, I had tomatoes… and I had fresh ginger and spices left over from cooking projects of yore. So I made something I called chana masala soup—the liquid version of Indian spiced chickpeas with tomatoes. My spice blend, like every other “ethnic” dish that comes out of my kitchen isn’t remotely authentic, but I was very pleased with the soup. It’s a rich, aromatic tomato puree full of creamy chickpeas, just spicy enough to warm your mouth.


Soak some dry chickpeas. Sure, you can use canned chickpeas, but they really taste better if you cook them yourself, something I discovered when I started making my own hummus. It’s more time consuming, but requires almost no effort on your part. Soak 3/4 cup of chickpeas overnight. Add a couple of teaspoons of baking soda to the water —it’ll help the chickpeas cook faster. Rinse the soaked chickpeas, put them in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, add a dash of salt and simmer over medium heat until the chickpeas are soft, about 1 hour.

I heated up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot, then added a large, chopped onion, a finely chopped carrot and a stalk of finely chopped celery. I sautéed the aromatics until the onion was soft and translucent (about 10 minutes), and added 2 garlic cloves and a 1-inch piece of ginger root, finely minced together almost into a paste. I sautéed for a few more minutes until the ginger and garlic turned fragrant.

I turned up the heat and added 1 tbs. of garam masala, 1 tsp. of ground cumin, 1 tsp. of ground coriander, 1 tsp. of turmeric, and ¼ tsp. of cayenne, frying the spices for several minutes . Next I added a 32-oz can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes, breaking up the pieces with a spoon and 4 cups of chicken stock. I brought the soup to a boil, and then turned down the heat and let it simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes. I took the soup off the heat and pureed it in batches in a blender, then poured it back into the soup pot. I then added 1 tbs. of brown sugar (skip if your tomatoes are sweet enough), 1.5 tsp. of coarse salt and about ½ cup of plain yogurt, stirring until the yogurt dissolved. I added the cooked chickpeas to the soup and heating it for serving.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Spinach and Chicken Hachepouri

I’ve got a confession. I’m not a heedless gourmand. Yes, I like cooking and eating good food, but I watch what I eat. I watch my fats. I watch my carbs. I watch my calories. And these days, I really watch my vitamins and minerals. That’s because for the past six months, I’ve been dabbling in something called CRON. This stands for calorie restriction, optimal nutrition (CR for short). CR has gotten a lot of mainstream coverage lately, most of it unflattering or at best dubious. The (yet unproven) science behind it is that you can live longer—like to 120--by consuming fewer calories. Reporters are shocked, shocked that someone can survive on, say, 1,500 calories a day. Yet CRON, with its focus on small portions of very healthy food, nicely reflects foodie darling Michael Pollan's dictum to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And that’s what I try to do.

Admittedly, at this point I don’t care too much about living well into my dotage. I’m too young for that. I’m more concerned about nutrients than low calorie levels. CR is the first food philosophy I’ve come across that really forces you to look at your nutrition. CRONies aim for 100% of recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals. You track what you eat using nutritional software like the free Cron-o-Meter. To a lot of people, this may sound obsessive or unappetizing. To me, it’s been a fascinating experiment. CRONies tout all sorts of health benefits that come with the diet, although all I’ve noticed so far is fewer colds and maybe slightly thicker hair. That’s good enough for now. All of this may turn out to be a placebo, but it’s a placebo that makes me feel healthier and more energetic, so what’s the harm. Longtime CR blogger Mary Robinson says it best: “If you have a reasonable amount of self-discipline, an interest in taking charge of your own health, and are willing to be a little bit of a scientist (you will be your own science experiment), CR can really work for you."

Occasionally I’ll revamp a favorite recipe to make it a bit more CR -friendly. Hachepouri, Georgian cheesebread, is a good example. Hachepouri, as I make it, is homemade dough with a cheese filling. A few weeks ago I made the dough but stuffed it with sautéed spinach, chicken and feta instead of just the cheese. Think of it as a variation on spanokapita. CR folk frown on carbs and starches, but the spinach and chicken up the nutrients and protein. As for calories, this is where you practice moderation and portion control. To make it all less painful, cut the hachepouri into small slices and serve it at a party. I guarantee that it will go fast.


The dough recipe is from Nigella Lawson's Feast, by way of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I usually cut the recipe in half, using 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 egg, 1 cup yogurt, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, and about 3 cups of flour. The dough itself comes together in about 10 minutes.

For the filling, I diced a large onion and sautéed it in some olive oil until it was soft and translucent. I added a couple of cloves of minced garlic, and 5 cups of spinach—I used leafy frozen spinach, but of course you can use fresh spinach, cleaned and chopped—and sautéed for a couple of more minutes, until the spinach was limp. Then I took the spinach off the heat and added some cooked, chopped up chicken and maybe 1/2 cup of feta. If you have no nutritional qualms, you can certainly use more cheese. I let the filling cool before stuffing the dough rounds and baking them at 425 for 35-30 minutes. The hachepouri can be frozen and reheated in the oven. Note that I ate it with more sautéed, garlicky spinach on the side.
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