Monday, December 29, 2008

New Year

I met "Father Frost" at a kindergarten party circa 1980-something.

New Year's Eve is kind of a big deal* for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The New York Times explained it so in 1985:

The secular attributes of Christmas-the lighted tree, the gifts, the cards, Santa Claus, street decorations - have been assigned by the Soviet state to New Year's, and it is then, starting on Dec. 31, that Russians will try to do justice by both New Year's and Christmas, combining the midnight drinking of the former and the gift-giving and family cheer of the latter in ample measures.

The idea of the hybrid holiday is usually attributed to Stalin. In the first years after the revolution, the Bolsheviks apparently tried to stamp out the celebration of Christmas altogether, targeting the traditionaldecorated fir trees as a particularly glaring symbol of reactionary rituals for which there was no place in the new atheist society.

The people, however, proved reluctant to part with a cherished winter holiday. So in 1935, the story goes, Stalin did what the Kremlin has done so many times since with sticky customs - he co-opted it. He lifted the ban on Christmas trees,except that he said they were New Year's trees, and he declared that New Year's, Novyi God, was to be a national family holiday - a sort of surrogate Christmas stripped of any Christian meaning.

The people, it must be acknowledged, took to the idea. New Year's has evolved into probably the most popular of official Soviet holidays...the streets are hung with bright lights, decorated with brightly decorated trees, and the stern Lenins and Marxs make way for Grandpa Frost, the Russian Santa Claus. The Soviet New Year's, in fact, has become pretty much what Christmas has become in the secular Western world - a day for families to gather and share gifts and goodies under a tree, brightly lit and trimmed with homemade decorations.

I've never had a good American-style New Year's. You know, the kind where you dress up and go out and ring in midnight with a horde of friends. New Year's Eve has stayed a family holiday for me. This year again, I hope to report on delish zakuski (appetizers) that are typically served on Dec. 31.

Whatever your New Year's Eve traditions, I wish you a good one.

*At least New Year's used to be the big holiday--I wonder if traditions have changed at all in the past 17 years. Anyone care to update me?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Breakfast Gravlax

Whenever salmon is on sale somewhere, I buy an extra pound for gravlax. This salt-cured salmon is easy to make and tastes like a cross between smoked salmon and sashimi. It's delicious with cream cheese on toasted rye bread (above), but I've also been known to eat it with rice and soy sauce, faux sushi-style.

I consult these two recipes when making gravlax, but my prep only calls for salt and sugar. I rarely bother with alcohol, citrus flavorings, dill, etc.

For 1 pound of salmon fillets, I use 2 tbs. kosher salt and 2 tbs. sugar. Cover the salmon completely with the salt and sugar, wrap it in saran wrap, and place the fish in a dish or a pan. Use something heavy to weigh down the salmon on all sides (I use canned goods), and keep it in the fridge for 48 hours, turning the fillets over every 12 hours. UPDATE: Gravlax tastes even better after being cured for three or four days.

Before serving, rinse the cured fish to wash off the extra salt and liquid, pat it dry with paper towels, and slice thinly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cooking Rules I Broke While Making This Chicken Stew

Cooking rules I broke in making this chicken stew (served with mashed potatoes):

1. Didn’t use a whole chicken; only chicken thighs. Why do stew recipes call for a whole chicken, anyway? Does anyone want to gnaw on a wing or eat a dry breast?
2. Used cheap old wine. For the sauce, I finished off two bottles of red and white wine that I’ve had in the pantry for ages. I have never been able to tell the difference between good and crap wine when used in cooking. The sauce was delicious.
3. Thickened the sauce by sprinkling a bit of flour in it, and stirring quickly. It worked, but that’s not how you’re supposed to do it, right?
4. Used russet potatoes instead of the preferred Yukon gold for the mashed potatoes. They came out fine.

Be a rule-breaker, like me:

Brown six chicken thighs in a skillet for 10 minutes on all sides. Place in a Dutch oven. In the same skillet, sauté some coarsely chopped onions and carrots. Add a couple of garlic cloves; salt and pepper to taste.

Add vegetables to Dutch oven. Deglaze the skillet with 2 cups of wine—use whatever you got. Simmer until the wine reduces, but if you want to thicken it, you probably shouldn’t just sprinkle in flour willy-nilly. Read some Mark Bittman or Julia Child, etc., on how to do this properly.

Add the sauce to the Dutch oven with a couple of bay leaves; bring liquid to boil, then it turn down to a simmer. Cook until the chicken is very tender; 25-30 minutes or so.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frou-Frou Salad

This is a fancy-pants, frou-frou salad, the kind that’s sold at Whole Foods for $9 a pound. It’s the type of salad that’s featured in upscale food magazine stories about updating your Thanksgiving menu. It’s a salad I would normally ignore. A work potluck and a bare fridge changed my mind. I needed to bring something to a holiday lunch, I didn’t want to do extra grocery shopping, and I had a butternut squash and mushrooms to work with.

Winter squash and mushrooms are a good salad match (see a past recipe), but I wanted a grain to make this dish more substantial. A search through my pantry revealed a box of Israeli couscous, a bag of sunflower seeds and some pecans. This ingredient combo created a surprisingly delicious dish: sweet, creamy butternut squash, savory mushrooms, grainy couscous, and crunchy nuts and seeds.

The dressing was a fruity raspberry vinaigrette (okay, it was actually Paul Newman’s low-fat raspberry vinaigrette, which I doctored with extra olive oil and lemon juice. This is one of the few bottled dressings I like).

Frou-frou salads the world over, please accept my apologies. I dismissed your brethren, but this salad changed my mind. I will be making it again.

Method:
Preheat the oven to 425. Peel a medium butternut squash, cut it into ½-inch cubes and place in a foil-lined pan. Sprinkle with 1-2 tbs. brown sugar, 2 tbs. olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Roast until soft and easily pierced with a knife, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. (I also roasted some chopped onions to use in the salad, but I would either leave them out or sauté them with the mushrooms next time.)

While the squash is roasting, cook ½ cup Israeli couscous. I boil it like pasta and rinse it after cooking (if using in a salad), but you can also cook it by absorption (see instruction on the box). Clean and slice 8 oz. white or portabella mushrooms. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet, and sauté the mushrooms 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let the couscous and mushrooms cool 10-15 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the squash, mushrooms and couscous. Add ½ cup chopped pecans (walnuts would also work). Add sunflower seeds to taste.

Add ½ cup of your favorite fruity dressing and mix well. I used ½ cup bottled raspberry vinaigrette , 2 tbs. olive oil, 1 tbs. lemon juice, and extra salt and pepper.

Serve right away at room temperature. If making ahead of time, like I did, add nuts and dressing right before serving.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Mushroom Pie

Is it good blogging etiquette to do previews of posts you're too busy to write? Let's give it a try. Here's mushroom pie. In brief: roll out some dough, top with sauteed mushrooms, onions, and cheese, then bake 'til done. Details coming soon.

Updated Dec. 8: Okay, here we go: I’ve wanted to make a savory Russian pie for a while. This isn’t it, but I don’t care. My makeshift rustic pie/galette was great. A traditional Russian pie (pirog) is usually made with yeast dough and toppings like cabbage, mushrooms and onions, or even fish. Here, I used yeast-free dough and a hodge-podge topping of sautéed onions, mushrooms and whatever cheese I had in the fridge. The dough was easy to make and roll out, the toppings were a cinch, and the whole thing took only 20 minutes to bake. I can even see myself using this dough for pizza. Yeast, who needs it?

The dough recipe is from Nigella Lawson's Feast, by way of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I usually cut the recipe in half when I make it, and then freeze half of that. So you need a quarter of the original recipe for this pie.

The dough ingredients are 2 tbs. of butter, 1 egg, 1 cup full-fat, plain yogurt, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda, and about 3 cups of flour, with an extra cup or so for kneading. Mix the yogurt, eggs, butter and salt in a bowl. Add flour by the cupful, stirring until it’s absorbed. Knead on a floured surface for a few minutes, adding the baking soda. Refrigerate 20 minutes before using (I always freeze half the dough for future use).

In the meantime, sauté a bunch of chopped onions and mushrooms in olive oil or butter. Add a minced garlic clove and ¼ tsp. thyme in the last 30 seconds of cooking. Salt and pepper to taste. Let cool 10-15 minutes. Add cheese—what kind and how much is up to you. I used havarti, and a lot of it. Preheat the oven to 425.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Carefully place the dough in a buttered pie pan (I lined mine with foil). Spread the mushrooms over the top. Fold the edges of the dough over the filling to create a crust. Bake 15-25 minutes, until the dough is golden brown. Let cool before eating.

This goes great with soup, especially what I call simple soup—chicken stock, sautéed onions and carrots, and tiny poached chicken meatballs. In a food processor, blitz 1 boneless chicken breast and ½ onion. Add a handful of breadcrumbs, a splash of milk, a good shake of salt, and a dash of red pepper flakes. A bit of grated Parmesan wouldn't hurt, if you have it. Mix. Use a teaspoon to scoop and form small meatballs. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the meatballs. Turn the heat down, and simmer 5 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Schi (Sauerkraut Soup)

Kisliye schi* is one of the weirder Russian soups. First, it’s made with sauerkraut. Second…it’s made with sauerkraut. If you aren’t from Eastern Europe, when was the last time you’ve given any thought to sauerkraut soup? Me, I’ve given a lot of thought to sauerkraut soup lately. It’s a great winter meal in a bowl. It’s easy to make. It’s cheap—recession cheap!

And yet it’ll never be as popular as, say, borsch, the ruby red prom queen of Russian food. Schi involves cabbage in various guises. It’s kind of beige in color. It has a funny name that’s hard to pronounce in English (say shee). It’s… oh, come on, it’s made with sauerkraut! As I fruitlessly Googled schi recipes a few days ago, I thought this soup didn’t have a chance on the culinary scene.

Yet there’s hope on the horizon. It turns out that in November, New York Magazine ran a recipe for sauerkraut soup served at the reassuringly chic New York diner Veselka. Deb of powerhouse food blog Smitten Kitchen actually made and liked the soup. So when I found myself with leftover Thanksgiving sauerkraut and stock last week, I decided there was no better time to make a schi of my own. In the interest of full disclosure, this is the first time I’ve ever been inspired to cook it.

I’ve cobbled together recipes from New York mag, Anya von Bremzen’s Russian cookbook Please to the Table and my mom. Some of these recipes call for ingredients as varied as wild mushrooms and tomatoes, but I’ve kept my schi simple. Here’s the method:

First, you need a nice, rich stock with chunks of meat, preferably beef or pork. Chicken stock could suffice, if it’s a good one. I used my crock pot stock made with pork ribs (see recipe here).

When you’re ready to make schi, bring 6 cups of stock to a boil in a soup pot, and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Dice the beef, pork or chicken into ½ -inch pieces.

Peel and dice a medium potato. Shred ¼ of a small cabbage (about 2 cups). In a skillet, heat up some butter or sunflower oil. Dice a small onion and a carrot, and sauté the aromatics until the onion is soft and golden, about 10 minutes.

Add the cabbage to the skillet and sauté 5 minutes. Add the vegetables to the soup pot. Simmer 15 minutes; add the potatoes the pot and simmer 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and the cabbage is tender.

Add 2 cups sauerkraut and a good splash of sauerkraut liquid to the soup pot. Add the diced meat. Stir; simmer 10 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper. Mince a large garlic clove, and add to the soup pot. Serve the soup with minced parsley or dill and huge dollops of sour cream. Rye bread is good on the side.

*Updated Dec. 7: Sassy Radish correctly notes that schi is made with fresh cabbage; kisliye schi (sour schi) is made with sauerkraut.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"The city has been discussing an indoor winter market, which could happen in the next couple of years..."

There's a bit of possibly exciting news buried in this blog post about winter markets in Milwaukee. The West Allis market, the city's largest, could be moving indoors for the winter sometime in the future.

This year, the Westown Farmers Market is held in the Grand Avenue mall downtown every first and third Wednesday of the month, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I've never shopped there because the time is incovenient, but it's a start.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Thanksgiving Zakuski (Appetizers) Rundown




The highlight of Thanksgiving chez my parents is zakuski (Russian for appetizers). Zakuski are always served as part of a spread at holidays or big meals. Here’s a rundown of this year’s offerings. (For posts on Thanksgivings past, see this and this.)

Pickled herring, served on a round plate surrounded by olives: Er, this is more American than Russian, I think. C.

Smoked herring
, served with tomato wedges: Now this is real deal: salty, smoky and fatty. Almost as delicious as last year’s smoked mackarel. A.

Marinated tomatoes
: Spicy, briny and absolutely delicious. As always, the "drunken babushka" brand are the best. A+.

Korean carrot salad
. Here's a recipe. A basic, solid dish. B.

Marinated mushrooms: What’s a holiday meal without marinated mushrooms? B+.

Pickles. These came from a jar. C.

Pastries with cabbage filling. B-. Normally I'd go crazy for these, but there was just too much food.

Homemade sauerkraut. B. Like the pastries, the kraut got lost in the shuffle.

Fried zucchini slices topped with tomatoes. A! A guest brought these--an unusual and welcome starter.

We had turkey and mashed potatoes, too. A, as always.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stuffed Peppers

I’ve always thought of stuffed peppers as a heavy, multi-step dish, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make lighter, brighter stuffed peppers in less than an hour. These peppers are a good meal to make when you need something reasonably light and healthy in preparation for, say, Thanksgiving feasting.

Method:

Prepare a cup of rice according to your favorite method.

While the rice is cooking, take 6 small bell peppers—I used green, yellow and red—and remove the tops (reserve them), seeds and ribs. Bring a big pot of water to a boil, and blanch the cleaned peppers and tops for six minutes. Remove; dip in a bowl of chilled water (or hold them under cold running water for 5 minutes). Place in a colander; let drain.

In the meantime, sauté a large, chopped onion in some olive oil. When the onion is turning golden and translucent (about 8 minutes), add a pound of ground meat—beef, pork, chicken or turkey (my preference). Sauté until just done; salt and pepper generously. Add 1 tsp. paprika and cayenne to taste. Take the mixture off the heat, and add ½ cup cooked rice, ½ cup good canned tomatoes, chopped, and 4 oz. cheese—I like feta for this. Mix.

Preheat the oven to 400.

Spread 1 cup chopped tomatoes on the bottom of a Dutch oven or a baking pan. Place peppers in the pan and fill with the meat and rice mixture; top with extra cheese and pepper tops. Pour 1 cup chopped tomatoes over the top. Bake 20-25 minutes, until the peppers are thoroughly hot and the cheese is melted.

Let cool a little before eating. Top with sour cream. Serve with the extra rice.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Butternut Squash, Potato & Mushroom Gratin

I finished off my last box of farmer’s market tomatoes last week. It’s finally time to move on to root vegetables. I’ve been avoiding this moment, you see. Potatoes and butternut squash are available year-round in Wisconsin, while tomatoes are a seasonal, summery delicacy. Still, the times are a-changin'. This week it snowed and the temperatures dropped into the low 30s. The thermostat in my condo is stuck on 63. Winter’s here.

Slow-roasting is a great way to warm up the house (watch the thermostat jump past 68), and this recipe is a great way to cook potatoes and hard squash. This is based on Paula Wolfert’s potato and butternut squash pie, as featured and duly praised by the Wednesday Chef. Naturally, I tweaked the recipe.

Method:

Peel a medium butternut squash and 2 large potatoes. Slice into thin rounds (about 1/8 inch), and place in a large bowl. Preheat the oven to 350. Finely mince a couple of garlic cloves and a handful of parsley leaves. Add to bowl.

Mix in 4 oz. of some kind of cheese, shredded or diced. Wolfert’s recipe calls for an intricate mix of ricotta and hard sheep milk’s cheese, but, come on, nearly any kind of cheese will taste good with roasted butternut squash and potatoes. I’ve made this with ricotta and provolone, but I’ve also used havarti and blue cheese—trust me, it’s all good.

Mix the potatoes, squash and cheese mixture; season generously with kosher salt and black ground pepper.

In a skillet, sauté 8 oz. sliced mushrooms, preferably portabella, in olive oil. Season with salt; add a minced garlic clove during the last 30 seconds of cooking.

Spread out the squash/potato mixture in a foil-lined pan and top with mushrooms.

Pour a cup of milk over the vegetables. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes; then raise the temperature to 425 and bake 30 minutes. Broil for 5 minutes. Let cool a little before eating. This goes great with a pumpkin beer.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Chicken Kotleti ( Russian Burgers)

Have you seen recipes for chipotle-and-sun-dried-tomato meatloaf? How about Gruyère- and-truffle-oil macaroni and cheese? This is one of those recipes--an old-school, plain Jane dish made sexier with unusual ingredients.

Kotleti are Russian pan-fried hamburgers, usually served with sides like rice or potatoes (never on a bun). They’re no-frills, everyday food that I’ve never much liked. However, I did like this recipe on the new (to me) blog Mango and Tomato. The Russian-born writer made Asian-inspired chicken kotleti with water chestnuts, ginger, soy sauce and cilantro. I followed her example and made chicken kotleti with feta cheese, parsley and scallions, and served them with sautéed spinach instead of starchy sides.

Method:

Mix 1 pound ground chicken (or turkey, beef or lamb) with: 2 eggs, a small handful finely-chopped parsley, 3 tbs. chopped scallions, a large, finely chopped garlic clove, ¼ cup breadcrumbs and 3 tbs. feta. Season well with salt and pepper.

Divide the mixture into 6-8 patties, and sprinkle lightly with flour. Heat up some oil (I used sunflower) in a non-stick pan, then fry the burgers until done, flipping them several times. If using chicken or turkey, be careful not to overcook. My chicken burgers took less than five minutes to cook.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Cheese-Making Disaster

I've been successfully making farmer's cheese for more than three years. The recipe blogged here is tried and true, and, until this weekend, I had only one cheese-making disaster.*

Then I tried a recipe for farmer's cheese from Anya von Bremzen's Russian cookbook Please to the Table. It's good to try something new and different, right? Plus, I love this cookbook and often use it for inspiration (if not for the recipes).

So I followed Anya's instructions, mixing milk with sour cream (my recipe uses milk and buttermilk). I waited 48 hours until this mixture formed curds and whey (my recipe takes 24 hours). I did the required straining and draining. I dumped the cheese, which looked pretty good, into a bowl. Then I tried it...and spit it out.

I can't remember a time when I made something so awful that I couldn't even taste it. I'm a competent-enough cook that this doesn't happen. Until now. Why was Anya's farmer's cheese so bitter? What went wrong here? Food chemists, help me out.

*I once used buttermilk containing sodium citrate to make farmer's cheese, and ended up with a bitter, milky pancake instead of mild, fluffy cheese curds.

Eggplant and Veggie Ragout

One of my favorite ways to cook eggplant is to use it in some sort of stew with plenty of tomatoes, and maybe other vegetables as well. You could call it ratatouille; in my family, we just called it “ovotsch,” Russian for vegetable. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything close to an exact recipe—it all depends on what’s in the fridge. Sometimes I sauté the vegetables and then simmer them on the stove; sometimes I just cut everything up and roast it in the oven.

This time, I had some grilled eggplant slices left over from one of the season’s last cookouts. I layered the eggplant in a Dutch oven, and topped it with onion and carrot rounds sautéed in olive oil for 10 minutes (I used 1 large onion and 2 big carrots). The third layer was sliced tomatoes, lightly sautéed and well salted, plus a couple of bay leaves, a teaspoon of sugar, a splash or red wine vinegar and a few garlic cloves.

I splashed some white wine and a little water over the top (about a cup of liquid altogether), and baked the whole thing in the oven at 325 for about an hour.

Later, when the vegetables had cooled, I add a splash of red wine vinegar, some salt and ground black pepper to round out the flavor. This should be eaten cold or at room temperature, preferably the day after cooking. Great with potatoes or grilled meat.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Freebies

Wild apples are usually sour and ugly. Not these guys. Okay, they're lumpy and bumpy, but suprisingly good for eating. I picked them last week at Lion's Den Gorge in Grafton, Wis. A nature preserve with nice hiking trains, Lion's Den also has dozens of apple trees, with fruit free for the picking. The sweetest of the bunch are small, bright red apples (top row, left). They're great for baking, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Borsch 2.0

I’ve blogged about borsch a few years ago, but it’s time to revisit this classic Russian soup. For starters, I make a slightly different version of borsch every time. In fact, baked goods aside, there’s no definitive version of any Russian recipe on this blog—it all depends on available ingredients and personal taste. I wish I could give you exact amounts and cooking times, but no can do. Cooking is all about tasting and adjusting recipes to what you’ve got around. My borsch probably doesn’t taste like borsch that’s made in a village outside Moscow, but that’s okay. It’s still good.

My old borsch recipe is a bit convoluted. This version is simpler, including the stock, which I made in a crock pot. Don’t be put off by the long directions. Once you’ve got your stock, this recipe takes about an hour from start to finish.

Pre-borsch prep:

Stock:
I covered a couple of pounds of pork ribs with cold water in a crock pot, tossed in some chopped up carrots and onions and a couple of bay leaves, and set the crock pot on low for eight hours. When time was up, I let the stock cool and strained the liquid. I sliced the meat into 1-inch pieces and added it back to the stock. A meaty borsch is the best kind. (I tossed the vegetables; great for flavoring stock but useless after eight hours of cooking.) You’ll need about 8 cups of stock for this borsch; freeze the rest.

Beets:
The day before I made my borsch, I pre-cooked 3 small beets (bring water to a boil, add the well-scrubbed beets, and simmer until soft, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.)

Preparing borsch:


For the borsch, I brought the stock to a simmer in a soup pot. In the meantime, I peeled and diced 2 medium potatoes into ½-inch chunks, and added them to the soup pot. I also finely shredded about ¼ head of a large cabbage, and added it to the soup pot as well.

While the potatoes and cabbage were cooking, I sautéed 1 large, finely chopped onion and 1 large, diced carrot in sunflower oil until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

When the potatoes and cabbage were soft (about 20 minutes, give or take—taste them), I added the onions and carrots to the soup pot. I let the vegetables simmer, and got to work on the beets.

I peeled and finely grated the beets, and mixed them with 1.5 cups tomato sauce (made as described here). You can substitute a small can of tomato paste (like I did last time), a couple of large, chopped tomatoes, or 1.5 cups canned, crushed tomatoes. Use what you have around.

I brought the beet and tomato mixture to a simmer in a sauté pan for about five minutes. Then I set about flavoring it. The beet mixture makes borsch what it is, so it’s important to get this right. I added a splash of red wine vinegar, and ¼ tsp. each of kosher salt, sugar and red pepper flakes to the plan, then stirred, tasted, and repeated. I like my borsch sweet and sour, with a bit of a bite. I’d estimate that I used 4 tbs. red wine vinegar, 2 tsp. sugar, 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes, and a good 1. 5 tbs. salt to get the right flavor. When I was satisfied, I added the beets to the soup pot.

I let the borsch simmer for 10-15 minutes, tasting it every once in a while and adjusting the flavor with extra red wine vinegar, sugar, salt and tomato sauce.

To finish:

I finely chopped 2 garlic cloves and a handful of parsley leaves, and added this to the soup pot just before serving.

As always, serve with rye bread and sour cream.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rice and Pesto-Stuffed Tomatoes

Like all foodies, I bemoan supermarket tomatoes. When I buy tomatoes in the off-season (which is, like, October to late August), I shell out for expensive cherry tomatoes. I ration a pint to last for days, and I wouldn’t dream of using these pricey little gems for cooking. I’m just as stingy when tomatoes are in season. Chop, sauté or roast ripe, juicy, sweet tomatoes? No way. I eat them raw, sliced in salad, with a sprinkle of salt and a swipe of mayo. This year, I ate my way through a box of tomatoes. Then I bought more. And more… Until I gave in and started cooking with them.

This recipe is inspired by the Wednesday Chef's rice-stuffed tomatoes.

I halved 6 large tomatoes and scooped out the seeds and flesh into a bowl. The tomato shells went into a foil-lined pan. I sautéed a small onion in olive oil in a non-stick saucepan, then added ½ cup dry rice and sautéed it until the grains were coated in oil.

I added a cup of water to the pan, brought the water to a boil, then lowered the heat to a very low simmer and covered the pan until the rice was done (15 minutes). I let the rice cool a bit, then stirred in about 3 tablespoons of pesto.

I stuffed each tomato half with about 2-3 tablespoons of rice, and topped the tomatoes with grated provolone (mozzarella or Parmesan would work just as well here). In the saucepan used for making rice, I brought the tomato liquid to a boil and then simmered until it reduced a bit. I poured the liquid over the tomatoes, and baked them at 425 for about 45 minutes. These tomatoes are best eaten lukewarm.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Eggplant and Zucchini Stacks

These veggie towers come by way of the late, great Milwaukee food blog Haverchuk. Former blogger mzn’s ode to deconstructed eggplant parm inspires me every September. A couple of weeks ago, I layered eggplant and zucchini rounds with tomato sauce*, pesto and cheese, but you could keep this as simple as just the eggplant and sauce.

The general idea is this: Peel and slice 1 big eggplant and 1 big zucchini into rounds. Brush with some olive oil, salt lightly, and grill or roast until soft (about 30 minutes at 425 on a foil-lined cookie sheet in the oven; 10 to 15 minutes on the grill). Let cool.

Layer the largest eggplant rounds in a foil-lined casserole pan. I managed to fit about seven slices into my pan. Spread a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce* and pesto over each slice of eggplant. Sprinkle with some shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese. Place another slice of eggplant or zucchini on top of each of the sauced eggplant rounds. Top with more sauce, pesto and cheese.

Repeat the next layer with the smaller eggplant and zucchini rounds. Keep layering the vegetables until you’re through. Top the final layer with sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; then broil for 5. Let cool. This is best served lukewarm.

*This is how I’ve been making tomato sauce lately: Cut up a bunch of tomatoes. You need good, farmer’s market tomatoes for this, preferably ultra-ripe ones. Toss ‘em in a foil-lined pan with a couple of peeled garlic cloves, a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar, 2 tsps. each of sugar and kosher salt and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes. Roast at 400 until the tomatoes are pruney and caramelized, about an hour. Let cool. Run through a food processor for a couple of seconds. I like a chunky sauce; so I hit the “pulse” button on my KitchenAid for about 15 seconds. Ta-da!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Eating Local

Sometimes it bothers me that I don’t blog much about Wisconsin and Milwaukee-area foods. Problem is, I rarely eat out and I rarely buy local during the non-farmer’s market season. When I do shop local, though, I go the whole nine yards.

Case in point:

The Gingergold apples are from Barthel Fruit Farm, 12246 N. Farmdale Rd., Mequon, Wis.

The tomatoes (the most delicious I've had) are from Witte's Vegetable Farm, 10006 Bridge Rd., Cedarburg, Wis.

Go get 'em, Wisconsinites.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Corn Chowder

Are you ready for fall? I’m not ready for fall. Oh, I still like apples, pumpkins and cider. I’m craving borsch and other hot soups. But I like late-summer sun and in-season tomatoes even better. We had a cold summer in Wisconsin this year. An interminable wait for tomatoes. So I think I’ll hold off on the borsch for a little while. You understand.

Instead, I can offer a recipe for corn chowder. It’s a hot soup, but it’s based on late-summer, farmer’s market ingredients. Call it a gentle preview of fall.

This soup is a quicker version of this corn chowder recipe. In a soup pot, sauté some chopped onions, minced celery and a couple of small, peeled and diced potatoes in olive oil and butter on medium heat for about 15 minutes.

Add the kernels from two large cobs of corn; add ¼ tsp. each of sage and thyme; add kosher salt and ground pepper to taste. Sauté 5 more minutes.

Add 3 cups of milk; bring to a simmer (don’t boil); and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes. In the meantime, sauté a small, diced red pepper with some diced bacon or fatty ham until the pepper’s soft. Take the soup off the heat; puree about 1/3 of it in a blender or food processor. Add back to soup pot; add red pepper and ham. Salt to taste. Serve with chopped scallions. A bit of crumbled feta is nice, too.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Product Review: Kefir

It’s been a while since I’ve done a product review; so here’s a product I recommend wholeheartedly: kefir. A kind of cultured milk that tastes a lot like plain yogurt, kefir is very popular in Russia and Eastern Europe (it probably originated in the Caucauses or Turkey). It’s usually eaten with a little sugar, jam or fruit, as a snack or a light meal. I also like it with cereal.

Kefir has all sorts of health benefits—in Russia, it’s said to be good for digestion; in the U.S., it's praised for its probiotic qualities. You can buy kefir at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or any Russian or Eastern European grocery store. I’ve tried various brands, and they’re all pretty similar. In Russia, I liked the brand “Prostokvashino” for its slightly carbonated kefir.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Recipe

Again, I'm missing in action. Yet I do have a Russian recipe to share with you this week. It's called "eating at your parents' house." That's right! You decide you don't feel like cooking and go eat at your parents', who surely live nearby (if not with you). This is incredibly popular among young Russian people from Moscow to Brooklyn. Go ahead and try it! Borsch and kotleti are probably on the menu.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer Salad

Here’s a nice summer salad that calls for local, farmer’s market ingredients that are now in season. Boil a bunch of new or fingerling potatoes. Let cool, slice in half, and put in a salad bowl. Add diced tomatoes, chopped scallions, chopped cucumbers, minced red onion, cubed ham and quartered, hard-boiled eggs.

For the dressing, get a little bowl and mix a couple of tablespoons of sour cream, a teaspoon of mayo, ½ teaspoon of mustard, a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of sugar. Dress the salad; sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fish Fry

Tilapia is cheap, healthy, easy to prepare and oh-so-boring. I used to like this mild little fish before it became my main source of seafood, thanks to a certain family member’s habit of buying it in bulk at Spartak and Sendik's. What to do with a good five pounds of tilapia? I can’t bear to bake, broil or grill it anymore, but I did discover mom’s old way of preparing fish: frying it in egg-onion batter.

Here’s how, albeit without exact measurements: Peel a small yellow onion and chop it in a food processor until it’s very finely diced, almost paste-like. Put the onions a bowl and add: 1 lightly beaten egg, ¼ cup white flour, a splash of buttermilk, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. Mix well. Dry 4 tilapia fillets throughly with a paper towel and dust them with a little flour on both sides. Dip in the batter until well coated. Preheat a splash of sunflower oil in a non-stick pan. When the oil is hot, plop the fish fillets in the pan and fry on both sides until done, about 3-4 minutes. Eat.

Great with a squeeze of lemon and veggies on the side. I went with homemade pickles and Korean carrot salad. Delish—so delish, in fact, that I finished off a plateful without bothering to take a photo.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lazy Man's Seledka Pod Shuboi (beet and herring salad)

I got the idea for this salad from Chainaia Lozhka, a Russian fast food chain where I had lunch one day in St. Petersburg. Chainaia Lozhka (Russian for teaspoon) sells exclusively blini and salads, including this nice beet and herring combo. It’s no secret that I like the Russian way with beets and smoked fish, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of this myself.

This salad is really an informal version of seledka pod shuboi, a multi-layered, herring-beet-vegetable dish served on special occasions. Just mix all the ingredients and the dressing in a bowl instead of layering them in a dish. You could even forgo the potatoes for a lighter version.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Braised Cabbage

Enough with the melancholy; let’s talk cabbage. I’ve been craving something cabbage-y ever since I had a lunch of coleslaw and fried potatoes back in Tallinn. It’s been cooler here in Wisconsin; so I went with braising-—a surefire way to make cabbage mild, rich and almost dip-like. This recipe, which I made up as I went along, was good with grilled chicken and even better on its own the next day.

In a large plan, I sautéed a chopped onion and some diced bacon in a splash of olive oil on high heat until the onion was soft and translucent, about 6 or 7 minutes. Deglazed with some marsala wine, and added a whole head of shredded cabbage, stirring it often. Then another good splash of marsala and white wine (about ¾ cup altogether), since I had two open bottles that I wanted to finish up.

Sautéed on high heat until the cabbage cooked down, which only took 10 minutes or so, and added kosher salt, a bit of paprika and a bay leaf. Turned down the heat to low, covered the pan, and let the cabbage cook another 30 minutes. About 10 minutes before it was done, added about 5 ounces of chopped ham and a couple of ounces of yogurt cheese (available at Russian groceries, but all kinds of cheese will work here, especially Parmesan, goat and feta). Topped with chopped scallions for serving.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Where I'm Writing From


A post-trip reflection:

I often feel like an imposter when I write about all things Russian on this blog. Sure, I’m from Russia and I speak Russian, but consider: I left that country when I was nine; I don’t really follow Russian news or politics; my Russian is riddled with English words, phrases and slang; I have a lot of trouble writing in Russian (I can read it, but much slower than English); and, as a coupe de grace, I really don’t know much about Russian cooking. Reader, I’ve been leading you astray.

Yes, you can read about borsch and blini on the blog, but I don’t cook them very often. I don’t know how to make vareneki or kulibiyaka or kulich or even everyday fried potatoes and kotleti. Truth be told, I’m not really interested in cooking or eating these foods. Too high carb, too greasy, too much work.

I’ve built a chunk of my identity on being “Russian.” I’ve written dozens of school and college essays on my “multicultural” identity. Teachers and admission counselors are suckers for that sort of thing, you know. I’ve based my blogging projects on Russian themes, a good niche opportunity. I don’t know of any other English-language, Russian-themed cooking blogs (although the Russian-born writers of Beyond Salmon and Sassy Radish feature the occasional recipe).

When my train rolled into St. Petersburg this past July, I felt jittery with excitement and anxiety, like a baffled tourist in a foreign land—-which is exactly what I was. Should I take the bus or the tram? Which one? Where do I buy the tickets? How do I validate them? Where’s the Hermitage? How much is 100 rubles in dollars? (Not much.) Within four days, I was told that I don’t have the fortitude for life in Russia, that I wouldn’t be able to re-adjust if I moved back (I won’t) and even that I have an American accent (a stinging and untrue accusation--I may speak ungrammatically at times, but I don’t have an accent).

So I may be from Russia , but I’m not really “Russian.” I certainly wouldn’t be considered Russian had I stayed in Russia , not with a Jewish father and a Tatar mother. I’m not really Jewish, either—neither my parents nor distant relatives in Israel could muster much enthusiasm for our possible move to that country, and I’m on a vague, mostly disinterested periphery of Jewish life here. My mother’s Tatar background is a mystery.

Neither am I 100 percent American—I speak Russian at home. I like beets and herring. I grew up on Marshak, not Dr. Suess. I tell people that I’m from Milwaukee , but I’ve also spent stretches Madison , Wis. , and in Ohio . I’ve attended nine different schools before I graduated from high school. I’m from everywhere and nowhere.

I know there’s a hint of self-pity in what I’m writing, but I’m mostly ok with being a cultural and ethnic mutt. I don’t have much use for introspection and identity politics. It’s just that every once in a while, like when looking over old family photos or talking with people whose relatives aren’t scattered throughout three continents, it makes me a little sad.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Makeover

Here’s a list of my recent food cravings: dilled potatoes, sour cream, homemade pickles and kefir. No, I’m not pregnant. It’s just that I’ve been to Russia. All I want to eat is simple, Slavic peasant food, heavy on the beets, fermented dairy products and rye bread. This week I made svekolnik (also known as cold borsch) and farmer's cheese, and spruced up old posts on these dishes.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My Eastern European Adventure in Brief

Background: Born in St. Petersburg in the early 1980s. Immigrated to the U.S. at age 9 in the early 1990s.

Itinerary, July 2008: Tallinn, Estonia, and St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia. This is my first time in Estonia and my first back in Russia since the move.

Travel companions: Parents, born and raised in Russia.

My verdict: Russia is a foreign country in which I happen to speak the language.

Parents' verdict: The exterior has changed (shops full of consumer goods), but the Soviet mindset and bureaucracy are alive and well. (Note: This doesn't apply to Estonia. Tallinn looked and felt like a perfectly civilized, European city.)

Best thing eaten in Tallinn: Something called "Witches' Pudding," a mashed potato/mushroom/cheese casserole. Can anyone point me to a recipe?
Best surprise in Tallinn: Biting into these little fruit tartlets, filled with farmer's cheese instead of butter cream.
Best way to spend an evening in St. Petersburg: Walk down Nevsky Prospect, to the Hermitage, then to the Neva River.
Other ways to have fun: Go grocery shopping and gaze at half a dozen varieties of farmer's cheese (including raspberry and poppy seed flavors).

Best way to stick to a food budget in Russia: Eat rye bread (17 rubles, a little less than a dollar) and chocolate-covered sirki (about 5 rubles, or 30 cents). Wash this down with kvass--rye bread beer, lightly carbonated, mildly sweet and very refreshing (20 to 40 rubles, depending on the vendor).
Best way to blow a food budget in Russia: Eat anything else. Why is Eastern Europe still considered cheap? (It's not.)

Best surprise in Russia: The fast food chain Teremok, which sells sweet and savory blini and soups. Ideal meal: Borsh, blini with goose liver pate and half a liter of kvass. Other ways to pass time in St. Petersburg: See palaces.
Go on long walks in parks: Read some Pushkin: Things to avoid: Interactions with clerks, cashiers and office workers of any sort. You will be ignored at best; yelled at at worst.

Parents' final verdict: Farewell, Russia. No love lost.

My verdict: Someday, I'll be back. If only for the goose liver blini.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Back in the USSR

Hey, did I ever blog about my upcoming trip to Estonia and Russia? No? Okay. I leave...tomorrow. I'm off to Tallinn and St. Petersburg and maybe Moscow. I haven't been back to Russia since I moved to the U.S. when I was nine. I hope to return with pictures and stories and yummy food memories, but I really don't know what to expect.

Wish me luck, and see you in late July.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome, Journal Sentinel readers

My longtime dream has come true: this little blog got a shout-out in a real, live newspaper. I was interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a story on leftovers, which you can read here.

New readers, start with this post for my wit and wisdom on leftovers. Got a favorite leftover recipe? Share it in the comments.

Here are some more ideas on using up leftover food:

Milk: Make homemade cottage cheese (aka farmer's cheese, curd cheese or tvorog).

Cottage cheese: Bake muffins.

Cooked, cold chicken: Make chicken-stuffed crepes or chicken and spinach hachepouri.

Raw chicken, random vegetables: Make stock.

Tomatoes past their prime: Roast 'em.

Roasted tomatoes, canned tomatoes, or tomato paste: Make chana masala soup.

Cooked vegetables: Make salad.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Salad Olivier

“A young woman, trapped in Brighton Beach by her immigrant parents’ expectations, finds her place at the family table by sitting down with a knife to make Salad Olivier. It is the Russian party dish par excellence: a mound of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, potatoes and meat, diced and bound with a tangy mayonnaise. For particularly swanky occasions, the salad is covered with aspic.”

The above passage is from a New York Times article about the Russian immigrant writer Lara Vapnyar. A lot of Vapnyar’s stories reference food, and I was amused to see Salad Olivier singled out. The Times makes it sound like Olivier is a joke, a dish on par with jello salads or sloppy joes on the American table. Yet no Russian celebration is complete without it. I usually bypass Olivier because clumps of mayo turn me off, but I wouldn’t mind a lighter version, made with yogurt-based dressing and frozen rather than canned peas—a gentrified, upscale Olivier, if you will. In fact, this weekend, I had a request to make Olivier for a family cookout. I hemmed and hawed for a while, but then gave in. My version is pretty traditional, save for the dressing.

Method:

Peel and boil 3-4 potatoes and a couple of carrots until soft—be careful not to overcook the carrots. Cook 3 eggs until hard-boiled. Cool the eggs and vegetables completely.

Cube the potatoes and carrots; place in a salad bowl. Add ¼ cup finely chopped red onion and 3-4 cubed dill pickles. Peel and finely chop the eggs; add to the salad, along with ¼ cup of finely chopped parsley or dill (or both). Add a couple of cups of cubed ham, cooked chicken or cooked beef. Add ½ cup peas (the frozen kind, defrosted beforehand—not canned, please.)

For the dressing, get a bowl and mix some sour cream, plain or Greek yogurt (or mayo), ½ tsp. sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of pickle brine and some kosher salt and black pepper. Dress the salad right before serving. Spruce up with a parsley sprig and a tomato slice.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fun With Leftovers

A food blogger for the local paper writes that some of her friends can’t stand eating leftovers. They toss food that’s more than a day old. That reminds me of my promise to share my very own tips on stretching your grocery budget. Tip no. 1: Don’t toss leftovers.

I really don’t understand why people wouldn’t eat leftovers. Is it the American obsession with hyper-freshness? Is it because eating the same thing twice in a row is boring? I can’t cure excessive zeal for food safety, but I can offer some ideas on making leftovers a little more interesting.

Here’s one: use leftovers to make salads. Recently, I found myself with a fridge full of grilled chicken, grilled tomatoes, and sautéed green beans, all left over from a cookout. I knew everything would taste inferior if I just nuked it in the microwave. Instead, I cubed the cold chicken and tomatoes, heated up the green beans for barely a minute and cut them into 1-inch pieces, and chopped up some scallions, parsley, and a hardboiled egg. All this went into a salad bowl with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dressing. A completely new dish made out of last night’s food.

From a previous post, more ideas on using up leftovers:

Milk: Make homemade cottage cheese (aka farmer's cheese, curd cheese or tvorog).

Cottage cheese: Bake muffins.

Cooked, cold chicken: Make chicken-stuffed crepes or chicken and spinach hachepouri.

Raw chicken, random vegetables: Make stock.

Tomatoes past their prime: Roast 'em.

Roasted tomatoes, canned tomatoes, or tomato paste: Make chana masala soup.

Cooked vegetables: Make salad.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Russian Grocery Tour: Spartak


Welcome to Spartak, the third stop of my Milwaukee-area Eastern European grocery tour (see also the first and second installments). Word on the street is that Spartak is the most popular of all Milwaukee-area Russian groceries. This small, bustling store is well-priced, well-stocked and staffed by reasonably helpful employees.

Location: 5587 N. Diversey Blvd., Whitefish Bay, (414) 332-3347.

Atmosphere: Just your average Russian store—beige shelves, scrappy posters on the walls, a large freezer filled with dumplings, fish, etc., in the back. Be prepared to stand in line on the weekends. Spartak also gets very busy and crowded around the holidays (that would be New Year).

Customer Service: Surprisingly good! Every time I’m in, the male cashier asks if I need help finding something, brings out items as requested, and promptly rings them up.

Product Selection: A very nice variety of everything from sauces to buckwheat kasha to the delicious marinated tomatoes described here. This is also the place to get candy, sausage, herring, and various unusual dairy products. Make sure to check out the goodies in the back freezer--this is where Milwaukee’s entire Soviet diaspora buys fish like tilapia and flounder, and puff pastry dough for semi-homemade pirozhki.

Pricing: Honestly, I haven’t been doing an item-by-item price comparison between the stores I profile, but the prices here seem pretty reasonable.

Buy: Marinated tomatoes and other pickled vegetables, sold in big glass jars by the back wall. Look for the brand with the red-nosed babushka logo. Also: kielbasa, herring (whole and packaged chunks) and smocked mackarel.

Avoid: I haven't had anything terrible here, but make sure to check the expiration dates on packaged products. No matter how friendly and helpful, Russian grocers just aren’t as stringent about this stuff as Americans.


Final Rating: ****

Rating Key:
*Soviet cafeteria food
**Day-old buckwheat kasha
***Borsch made by a non-native
**** Babushka’s homemade pirozhki
*****Black caviar on a buttered baguette and a shot of chilled vodka

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Updated: Eggplant, tomato and pepper salad

Food at Russian gatherings rarely includes a set meal with courses. Instead, there’s a big spread of appetizers, salads, canapés, cold cuts, pastries, sandwiches, cakes, and so on. I’m usually tempted by the salads, which are never made with lettuce. Rather, they’re heartier potato-based offerings, marinated salads or cooked, mixed vegetable salads like the one above. I didn’t make this excellent eggplant, tomato and pepper salad, but I loved the idea:

-Thick, round slices of eggplant, sautéed in sunflower oil until soft
-Very thinly sliced raw tomatoes
-Very thinly sliced raw green peppers
-Very thinly sliced white onion rounds
-Julienned carrots
-An entire bunch of chopped cilantro (I’d use dill or parsley, a personal preference)
-A couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil and a little white vinegar for the dressing

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Grocery Shopping on the Cheap in Milwaukee

Hey, did you hear there’s a recession going on? If not, news stories about rising food prices will tell you all about it. I hope you’re as amused by money-saving tips like “buy things that are on sale” and “don’t throw away leftovers” as I am. Kitchen economics actually is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a recession guide to grocery shopping in Milwaukee, but I hesitate because my guide would require the reader to a) have a car, b) have extra time to shop around c) shop mostly for produce, non-organic meat, dairy and some pantry staples, and c) shop for two adults, or two plus a young child at most. I won’t pretend to know anything about feeding teenagers.

What I can do is offer some Milwaukee-area shopping suggestions for the penny-pinching semi-foodie. This isn’t really meant for locavores, the strictly organic-minded, green activists, or those who would spend their last cent on artisan cheese. My target audience is people who want to make reasonably good food without blowing their budget.

Lena's—“Shockingly cheap vegetables under the glare of fluorescent lights…” is how I’ve described this chain in the past. You don’t go to Lena’s for the atmosphere; you go for the produce prices—$1 a pound strawberries, anyone? How about a huge bag of red, orange and yellow bell peppers for about 70 cents? The quality can be spotty, but more often I can’t tell the difference between these veggies and the ones sold across the street at the Outpost, a pricy, organic grocery store. To the “but food should be expensive!” crowd, I say: No farmer’s market or co-op initiative or corner grocery or eat local crusader will offer fruits and vegetables at these prices to people who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Also, Lena’s runs specials on whole chickens at 69 cents a pound. Just sayin’.

El ReyThis chain of Mexican groceries reminds me of the international stores on Chicago’s Devon Street. Busy, colorful, English rarely spoken. I like the big store on National Avenue and 16th Street. The last time I stopped by, 30-cent avocados and 50-cent super-sweet mangos were on offer. The meat department selections are well-priced and stocked with unusual items like tripe and tongue for you au courant nose-to-tail eaters.

Asian Mart--The place is rundown and the selection can be spotty, but the husband-and-wife owners are super-friendly and the prices are good. There’s a variety of produce and even frozen whole fish sold in the back, with prices written on a chalkboard. Call ahead if you want something specific. This store also carries a nice selection of Asian goodies, from sauces to rice to bowls and steamers.

Sendik's has a reputation as a high-end chain, and the Nehring-owned stores are indeed expensive. The Balistreri-owned locations, on the other hand, have some good deals on produce, fish and meat. You can find surprisingly good-quality vegetables on the reduced produce cart at the Silver Spring Drive store.

Coming next: More places to shop, including farmer’s markets. Plus, my very own money-stretching cooking tips.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Turshi

One of the things I like the most about cooking is transforming a charmless, underwhelming ingredient into something delicious. That’s why I enjoy pickling and marinating so much: you start with a blah vegetable—cucumbers, say, or cabbage or mushrooms--add some ratio of salt, sugar and vinegar, wait a while, and end up with that briny/tangy flavor that only pickling can produce. Magic!

In the past few months I’ve made pickled mushrooms, this marinated vegetable salad and gravlax (as well as pickles and sauerkraut in years past). I’m pleased to add turshi to my pickling repertoire. I first learned about turshi—Armenian pickled vegetables—from Anya von Bremzen’s cookbook Please to the Table. I’ve had mixed luck with Anya’s recipes so I hesitated to try it, but then reader and commenter Victoria Frolova kindly offered to share her grandmother’s version. I used bits and pieces from both recipes to come up with my own. It tastes a lot like the marinated vegetable salad mentioned above, but crunchier and spicier.

Method:

This recipe is based on one liter of liquid. You will need about 3 large carrots, a medium head of cauliflower, 2 large red peppers, 2 or 3 celery stalks, a large onion, 5 cloves of garlic, a bunch of herbs like dill and parsley, kosher salt, sugar, bay leaves, hot chili peppers, peppercorns and maybe some vinegar. Slice carrots and celery into matchsticks, separate the cauliflower into florets, peel and cut the onion into rounds, cut peppers into strips, and mince the garlic. You could also add zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced into rounds.

Bring a pan of water to a boil and blanch the carrots and cauliflower for about two minutes. Drain, then layer the vegetables in a large glass jar with garlic, chili peppers and herbs.

For the marinade, bring a liter of water to a boil and add 6 teaspoons of kosher salt, 8 teaspoons of sugar, a couple of bay leaves and a small handful of peppercorns. Let the marinade simmer a little until the sugar and salt dissolve. Victoria suggests adding a tablespoon of white vinegar at this point if you want a tangier flavor, which I did. Cool the marinade for five minutes, then pour it over the vegetables and seal the jar. Keep turshi in the fridge; it should be done in about two weeks (mine took two and a half). Start tasting after a week or so.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Zucchini Cheese Pie


This Mediterranean vegetable cheese pie has been on my mind ever since Ann at Redacted Recipes blogged about it. I’ve been meaning to whip it up this week, but when the time came I didn’t have most of the ingredients. That rarely stops me, however, so I’d like to present my take on a vegetable cheese pie: a layer of zucchini covered with ricotta-parmesan-pepper-tomato topping. I actually used homemade farmer’s cheese (aka my famous tvorog) in place of ricotta, which worked very well. A nice discovery, as I rarely use farmer’s cheese in savory recipes.

Method: I covered the bottom of a round, foil-lined pie pan with thinly sliced, salted zucchini rounds and roasted them at 425 until they were soft, 20 minutes or so. (You could also sauté the rounds in olive oil instead.) In the meantime, I combined a cup of farmer’s cheese with an egg, ¼ cup of grated parmesan, a couple of ounces of mozzarella, some leftover roasted red and yellow peppers, and a little leftover tomato sauce. (You could leave out the peppers and tomatoes just as well, or use other vegetables in their place.)

I spread this mixture over the soft zucchini, and baked the pie at 425 until the cheese was firm and golden-brown, about 25 minutes, plus the last five minutes under the broiler. The pie tastes best lukewarm, so let cool 10-15 minutes.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Roasted Vegetable Salad(s)

I wow my co-workers with my culinary prowess at least once a week. No, I don’t bring baked goodies to work. Nor do I feast on elaborate leftovers. It’s my “vegetables with stuff” that impress. I often roast whatever veggies I have in the fridge and mix them with cheese, herbs, dressing and maybe chicken or fish for lunch the next day. These salads, even when eaten out of a plastic container, look colorful and pretty. Served on real plates, my lunches look like something out of Gourmet (or maybe the Whole Foods salad bar, but you get my point).

My salads revolve around some combo of zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, cauliflower and carrots. Is there an easier way to cook these vegetables than to roast them? You cut ‘em up, toss them in a foil-lined baking dish with a splash of olive oil and some kosher salt and pepper, and stick 'em in the oven for a while.

I usually roast at 420 or 425; peppers take about 45 minutes; zucchini, asparagus and carrots, 20 minutes; see this for more on tomatoes and cauliflower. Cooking chemistry does its thing, and the vegetables emerge from the oven sweet and nutty. (I also like to roast fruit: once, I made a delicious roast chicken with grapes and pitted cherries -spread the fruit in a roasting pan, plop a prepped chicken on top, and follow your usual method. Past-their-prime strawberries, peaches, apples and pears all improve in the oven. Add some caramelized onions to your roasted fruit, and voila: instant chutney.)

I top the cooled vegetables with scallions, dill or parsley, olives, if I have them, and goat or feta cheese. For the dressing, I usually use olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or some red wine vinegar. Sometimes I mix in a little roasted garlic. Or I make creamy dressings with mayo, plain yogurt or sour cream, and olive oil.

Monday, April 14, 2008

On Food Likes and Dislikes

Above is a photo of a wonderful lunch I had on Saturday: smocked mackerel and boiled new potatoes with sour cream. Does that sound good to you? It tasted wonderful to me. But it saddens me to admit that few Americans my age would go for this repast.

This lunch got me thinking about how we develop food preferences. I love all things brined, pickled, smoked and fermented: fish, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, and so on. I was weaned—almost literally!—on this stuff. In Russia, infants were given kefir instead of formula. I gave up pickles for potato chips after coming to the U.S. You don’t want to be the kid who eats weird crap when you’re nine, you know. In my late teens and early 20s, however, I rediscovered Russian food. It’s cool to be all diverse and multiculti when you’re in college! One taste of fatty, luscious smoked mackerel and I never looked back. On the other hand, I also love food that no one had ever heard of when I was growing up, and that my parents still won’t consider eating: sashimi, curries, tofu, etc.

Now, my boyfriend, who immigrated to the U.S. in his teens, has far more Soviet tastes that I do. Last week, he asked me to cook some buckwheat. “We could have it with kotleti,” he said. “Or hot dogs.”

Okay.

Kotleti are pan-fried meat patties, kind of like burgers but served without the bun. They’re the weekday staple of Russian households, the Soviet equivalent of sloppy joes. Hot dogs, always boiled, never grilled, are another go-to Soviet protein.

When I sing praises to the foods of my childhood, I don't mean boiled potatoes, hot dogs and kotleti. This is the kind of food I never, ever crave. And if I were to make this stuff, I would cook a “gourmet,” Epicurious-ized version. Buckwheat with chicken stock, dried mushrooms and caramelized shallots. Kotleti with panko breadcrumbs and Indian spices or something. And hot dogs—well... I just don’t have much to say about hot dogs.

So when I heard the boyfriend’s request, I put on what I call my PR face—the look spokespeople have during news conferences. Open, fake-friendly and willing to answer questions—to a limit. “Sure,” I said. “I could do that.” Shallots, dried mushrooms and panko are on my shopping list.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Grocery Tour: Parthenon Foods and Deli

This is the second stop of my Milwaukee-area Eastern European grocery tour (the first installment is here). Parthenon Foods is not a Russian grocery store—it’s owned by Greek immigrants—-but it sells all the usual Eastern European goodies, as well as lots of Mediterannean and Middle Eastern items.

It may look like a rundown quickie mart from the outside, but this store has an excellent selection and very friendly, if sometimes overbearing, service. The isles are cramped with stuff (jars of picked vegetables and souvenir plates by the register, bags of spices and rice everywhere), so be careful when maneuvering your way through the store—you may knock something over.

Location: 9131 W. Cleveland Ave., West Allis, 414-321-5522.

Atmosphere: See intro.

Customer Service: Super-duper friendly. You will be asked if you need help at least twice during your visit. If you’re overloaded with bags, the owner may help you carry your purchases to your car.

Product Selection: A large selection of olive oil, lots of pickled vegetables and yummy spreads like lutenitsa, spices, pasta, unusual grains like buckwheat and millet, a small liquor department, cheese, Greek yogurt and kefir, Russian and Polish candy, pickled and smoked fish, and lamb and fresh fish on Wednesday. Also some frozen, pre-made stuff, like dumplings and pierogis. You can see more on Parthenon's Web site.

Pricing: Reasonable. Good deals on deli items like olives and cheese.

Buy: I love the creamy, soft French feta sold at the deli. The halvah, sold by weight, is pretty good, too.

Avoid: I don’t remember any duds, but admittedly I haven’t sampled my way through most of the deli and meat/fish selections.

Final Rating: ****1/2

Rating Key:

*Soviet cafeteria food

**Day-old buckwheat kasha

***Borsch made by a non-native

**** Babushka’s homemade pirozhki

*****Black caviar on a buttered baguette and a shot of chilled vodka

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Roasted vegetable and potato salad with smoked salmon

If you had the good fortune to acquire a huge smoked salmon fillet, what would you do with it? My first instinct was to slice it up and eat it over the cutting board with my fingers. That would have been okay if I were eating alone, but since I wasn’t, I felt obliged to make something more coherent. A dig through the fridge revealed potatoes, peppers, asparagus and cherry tomatoes. Voila: Roasted vegetable and potato salad with smoked salmon.

I roasted a cup of cherry tomatoes, a couple of garlic cloves and two yellow and orange peppers, cut into strips, at 430 for about 25 minutes, then added a pound or so of trimmed asparagus to the pan for another 10 minutes of roasting. In the meantime, I parboiled two potatoes and sliced up some—ok, a lot--of smoked salmon into chunks.

I let the vegetables cool a little when they were done; then I cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces, peeled and cubed the potatoes and combined everything in a salad bowl. For the dressing, I mixed the soft, roasted garlic with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice, a tablespoon of olive oil, and some kosher salt and black pepper. The salad was great, and I regret only that I didn’t have any parsley, scallions or goat/feta cheese on hand to make it downright fantastic.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: Russian Candy

I have a real weakness for cheap chocolate. Sure, I like the hoity-toity super dark stuff, but I won’t pass up M&Ms, or dark Mars bars, or Twix. I’ll even eat Hershey’s kisses, provided they’re the almond kind. (I’ll pass on plain Hershey’s bars, thanks.) I’m never more tempted to eat cheap chocolate than when I’m shopping at Russian groceries, all of which sell a big selection of candy. The quality varies, but the varieties are breathtaking: my little local store must stock at least 15 kinds. Some have been on the market since the Soviet times, others are new, many have baroque names. Anyone up for a mishka kosolapiy (clumsy bear) or a ptichie moloko (bird’s milk)?

In this third part of my series on stuff you can buy at Russian/Eastern European groceries, I will sample and review Russian candy. My goal is to taste my way through all of the God knows how many varieties and produce the definitive hierarchy of Russian sweets. (A hierarchy of American candy bars can be found here.)

This one’s called “Condensed Milk.” It’s actually dark chocolate-covered…something. The filling is off-white, grainy, and tastes kind of nutty and super-sugary. A C list-candy: good mostly when you crave a sugar boost.

The name means “little trunks with condensed milk.” Little trunks--aww! This one’s for the A-list: a soft, creamy, slightly lemony filling, covered with dark chocolate. A little too sweet, but I don’t mind.


Rachki! That means “crawfish” in Russian, but for some reason a lobster is pictured on the wrapper. What does this candy have to do with shellfish? I suspect “rachki” refers to the crunchy, hard exterior; inside is a crumbly chocolate-nut filling. Eh. I’ll eat this if I crave sugar and nothing better is around. C-list.
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