Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Chicken Soup with Spinach and Pelmeni

I think making chicken stock is pretty easy. Admittedly, I’m probably doing it all wrong, but that doesn’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you, either. Chicken stock, according to the super chefs quoted in this San Francisco Chronicle article, is a Herculean task. I wouldn’t pit my stock against Thomas Keller’s, but I think my amateur efforts a) taste really good, and b) are reasonably low-maintenance.

I actually make two types of stock. The first is what I call “American” chicken stock, based on recipes I gleaned from cookbooks and blogs. This involves simmering chicken parts or roasted chicken carcasses with aromatics for 3-4 hours. I often freeze batches of this to use in stews, sauces and pureed soups. The other type is Russian chicken stock (broth, if you want to split hairs) as my mother makes it, and which I once vaguely described here. This involves simmering a whole chicken in a pot with just a few aromatics added toward the end of the cooking time. Russian home cooks don't really make chicken stock for later use; it's usually served immediately as part of a meal. My mom puts chunks of the cooked chicken and either cooked rice or tiny pasta shells in a bowl, tops with ladlefuls of stock, and garnishes with chopped dill and parsley. This type of stock is richer and more concentrated than my American version. It's also my submission to the comfort-food themed Monthly Mingle over at What’s For Lunch Honey.

The last time I made my mom’s chicken stock I decided to forgo the rice and chicken meat for pelmeni and spinach. Pelmeni are Russian meat dumplings, not unlike ravioli or tortellini. Frozen pelmeni are sold in every Eastern European grocery. It’s a pleasure to slurp fat, brothy dumplings and silky spinach out of an oversize café au lait cup a cold January weekend.


1. Take a whole chicken (between 3 and 4 pounds) and put it in a stock pot or a Dutch oven. Cover with cold water. On medium-high heat, with the pot partially covered, bring the water to a boil. As soon as the water begins to boil, turn the heat down to a very low simmer.

2. At this point, you will need to skim the foam that will form on the surface. Get a slotted spoon and a bowl and remove the foam every 4-5 minutes for 20 to 25 minutes. You will have murky, grimy-looking stock if you skip this step. This is by far the hardest part of this exercise; the rest is easy.

3. Once foam stops forming, add 1 small, peeled onion, cut in half, a couple of bay leaves, and a handful of black peppercorns to the pot. Then let the chicken simmer for about an hour and a half. (If you must have your chicken rare, take it out of the pot as soon as it’s cooked through. Remove most of the meat when the chicken is cool enough to handle; add the bones back in and keep simmering.)

4. In the meantime, finely dice 2 medium carrots, a large celery stalk and two cloves of garlic. Twenty minutes before time’s up, add the celery and carrots to the pot; keep simmering until the vegetables are soft. At about 90 minutes from the time the stock came to a boil, carefully remove the chicken from the pot but don’t turn off the heat.

5. Add the minced garlic and kosher salt to taste to the stock; stir. Keep in mind that salt really bring out the flavor in stock.

6. Add pelmeni to the pot. Don’t add more than you’re planning to eat—leftover dumplings will get soggy. Five-six dumplings per serving should be enough. A few minutes before the pelmeni are done-- they will take about 8 minutes-- stir in a couple of cups of baby spinach leaves. I love spinach; so I usually add more, but it’s up to you.

7. When the spinach is wilted and the pelmeni are cooked, remove the onion and turn off the heat. Serve. This is great topped with grated Parmesan cheese.

8. Eat the cooked chicken with leftover stock ,or use for blinchiki or hachepouri.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Short and Spicy Blog Writing

Do you like reading food memoir-type blogs? You know, the kind that feature charming and moving episodes from the blogger’s life, followed up with companion recipes and food porn-y photos. I do, but I think the poignant story/recipe/glossy photo format can be overused and stilted. Reading these blogs sometimes feels like eating rich meal after rich meal, and feeling unpleasantly full. Bloggers aren’t to blame for sort of writing, though; it seems to be a trend in food journalism these days.

I myself often fall into the personal story/recipe rut. As I was re-reading my original fish chowder post-- it went “this is a wonderful soup to eat on a cold day and it reminds me of this story from my childhood blah blah blah”-- I realized I was bored. So I re-wrote the post to make it more amusing for myself and my readers (all five of you.) Granted, my pictures are about as far from glossy food porn as you can get, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be just like the cool kids. The first thing I tried to do when I laid my hands on my parents’ far nicer camera was to attempt to take arty close-ups set against a blurry background. Nobody bloggers like me imitate the big guns.

Still, there’s something to be said about blogs that just do recipes—no soul-searching, no memoirs, no food porn, just recipes, and lots of them. Anne's Food is a very charming example of such a blog; Simply Recipes is the best of the bunch. I’d also like to see more acidic, snappier food blog writing out there. Gastropoda is reliably curt and bitter but useful mostly to New Yorkers. I love The Hungry Tiger for its charming collection of vignettes that rarely exceed 200 words per post. (This blog is also my candidate for the next book deal.) The now-defunct Seasonal Cook demonstrates here and here how to write food memoirs that aren’t affected or dubiously upbeat. It’s all fine and good to eat rich, cheesy, starchy comfort food. But sometimes all you want is a spicy, citric starter.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The poor and lazy man's fish chowder

The road to the poor and lazy (wo)man’s fish chowder:

Three months before you make this soup: Stock up on frozen tilapia. Buy lots and lots of it, more than you’ll ever want to eat. Hey, it’s a) cheap, b) healthy, and c) a no-brainer to cook. (When you start making more money your tilapia consumption will fall drastically, as you’ll be able to afford more exciting seafood.) Nothing against tilapia, mind you. It’s a perfectly pleasant fish that you’ll be thoroughly sick of by the time you’re ready to make this soup. You can also substitute cod.

Two months: Start keeping an eye out for specials on shell-on shrimp. Eat most of the shrimp, but save and freeze the shrimp shells in a Ziploc bag. Try to save up about 3-4 cups of shrimp shells. Don’t forget to freeze some shrimp for the soup, you glutton.

Two weeks: You should really clean out your freezer. Did you know that you have tilapia that’s been in there for God knows how long? Maybe you could do something new and different with it. Think about that. Look up some recipes.

One week: Remember those shrimp shells that you froze, like, months ago? Don’t they look disgusting? Remember how you’ve been meaning to do something new and creative with them, like make shellfish stock? Why don’t you try that? Go look up half a dozen recipes for shellfish stock.

Two days: You’re planning to roast the shrimp shells before lovingly simmering them for hours with aromatics, like more ambitious bloggers? Ha. No, you’ll actually toss the shrimp shells in a crock pot. You can make shellfish stock in a crock pot, right? Googling “fish stock crock pot” proves inconclusive, but whatever. Cover the shrimp shells with water, and add a splash of white wine and some carrots, celery and onion, and simmer on low for eight hours. Cool, strain, and pour into containers and freeze. Wasn’t that easy? Don’t you feel like a good, virtuous little housewife? Oh, and don’t forget to air out your apartment.

Fish chowder day: Pick a bitterly cold day. Soup tastes better on a cold day. Get out your shrimp stock, shrimp and tilapia. Sauté some chopped onions, carrots, and green pepper in olive oil on medium-high heat in a heavy soup pot. Lower the heat and added minced garlic, some dried thyme, red pepper flakes and salt. Deglaze the soup pot with ½ cup white wine.

Add 4 cups shrimp stock; ¼ tsp. crushed saffron threads; 1.5 cups of good canned tomatoes, chopped; 1 tsp. sugar; and a couple of bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and let the whole thing simmer for 10 minutes.

Add a tilapia fillet (about 8 oz), cut into chunks. When the tilapia is done, in about 4 minutes, add about ½ cup of shrimp (about 4 oz). Simmer the soup for a couple of more minutes, and add 2 tbs. chopped basil, a splash of lemon juice, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. Top the soup with chopped parsley before serving. Eat with crusty bread or over rice. Want more starch? You could even make this with potatoes (add some peeled potatoes, cut into ¾-inch chunks, to the simmering shrimp stock. Cook until the potatoes are done before adding the tomatoes and other ingredients.)

Post-soup: Feel virtuous. Rub your belly. Glow. You’ve made a delicious soup out of boring frozen fish and gross-looking shrimp shells. You’re a resourceful and creative cook. You rule. Your fish chowder rules. Peace.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soup blogging: Ugly yet delicious spicy chicken rice soup

This is a delicious yet very ugly soup that I don’t recommend you make for company. For yourself, sure; for others, no. The original recipe, which, unlike mine, is quite photogenic, ran on a Finger in Every Pie back in November. That recipe calls for simmering lemongrass and ginger in turkey stock before adding the aromatics, shredded turkey, bok choy and herbs. When I got around to making this soup last week, I didn’t have all of the ingredients or remember the recipe instructions, but that never stops me. I wanted a gingery, spicy chicken rice soup, so this is what I came up using what I had in the kitchen.

For the stock, I used a roast chicken carcass, which I put in a crock pot with an onion, a couple of carrots, and some celery stalks, 2-3 bay leaves and a splash of white wine. All this was covered with cold water and simmered on low for about eight hours. I cooled the stock, refrigerated it and degreased it the next day. (This is the easiest, laziest way of making homemade chicken stock.)

For the soup, I brought the 6 –7 cups of stock to a simmer and tossed in a couple of 1-inch pieces of peeled ginger, 1/8 cup fresh lemon juice, and a couple of teaspoons of salt.

Meanwhile, I sautéed a large chopped onion, a couple of chopped carrots and celery stalks, and some minced garlic and ginger in olive oil. When the onion was golden and the vegetables were soft, I added them to the stock, along with ¼ cup of uncooked rice, and let the soup simmer for 9-10 minutes, until the rice was almost done. I then added a tablespoon of soy sauce, a tablespoon of hoisin, two tablespoons of chili garlic sauce (I used Blue Dragon brand, not very spicy. Adjust to taste.), and a splash of fish sauce.

I took the soup off the heat and pureed about 1/3 of it in a blender, along with some chopped scallions and basil. (Actually, I tossed in some spinach into the soup pot before pureeing by mistake, which accounts for the soup’s hideous green color. Oops. Do not do this--add your greens after pureeing). The soup went back into the pot with shredded roast chicken meat, and another splash of soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic chili sauce and lemon juice. I topped the soup with chopped scallions, but it would also be good topped with sesame seeds, sesame oil or herbs like cilantro and basil.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

2008 Food/Blog Resolutions

It’s a bit late for New Year’s resolutions, but what the hell. In 2008, I resolve to:

*Drink more coffee. I like coffee and cappuccino and lattes and all that crap, but I’m rarely willing to shell out $3+ for a shot of espresso and some hot milk. Food snob that I am, I’m also not willing to drink pre-ground, drip coffee. So this year I am acquiring a coffee grinder and a French press. Hey, the local coffee expert says my attempts will be at least as good as Starbucks'.

*Try more new recipes from my cooking bible, Please to the Table, especially soups, salads and appetizers. I’m a pretty lazy cook, actually. Sometimes all I want to make is roasted cauliflower or butternut squash, my equivalent of sticking a frozen pizza in the oven.

*Cook more with alcohol. French onion soup made with brandy. Chicken and pork in Calvados-spiked sauce. Coffee with steamed milk and Bailey’s. Fruit-infused vodka.

*Make more appetizers, period. Small plates are all the rage, haven't you heard?

*Pickle and marinate stuff. Attempt to make homemade sauerkraut, again. And pickled mushrooms.

*Give a dinner party, and, consequently, be praised for my cooking by people who are not related to me.

*Do all of the above and while sticking to my calorie restriction/optimal nutrition experiment five days a week. At least the optimal nutrition part.

*Have this blog noted just once in the local media. Come on, MKE and OnMilwaukee, it’s not like you have anything better to write about.

*Blog more. Ha.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Soviet Kitsch: Sandwiches and Canapes

Looking for appetizer ideas? Why not consider this Soviet cookbook from the 1960s? Seriously.

Admittedly, when it comes to food, I’m no fan of all things retro. I don’t collect old cookbooks, I have no interest in making “gourmet” versions of 60s stalwarts like tuna casserole, and I’ve never perused the Gallery of Regrettable Food. That said, I do have a soft spot for my mom’s collection of Soviet cookbooks and recipe cards. This is partly because they’re a slice of a historical era that holds some interest for me, and also because they often have useful hints and techniques for under-quipped cooks, like making dumpling dough sans pasta machine.

I rarely turn to these cookbooks for actual recipes, which tend to be minimalist (grated carrots), unappetizing (boiled sausage and potatoes), or both. Plus, these books never list exact ingredient amounts, oven temperatures, or introduce recipes. Soviet cookbooks are entirely food-porn free, as eating and cooking was a pragmatic affair for their readers. A rare exception is this little booklet on sandwiches and canapés. Yes, the photography is terrible (yet no worse than mine on this blog), but the sandwich and appetizer ideas are charming, original and totally edible.

Sandwich towers made with toasted rye bread rounds and stacked with cucumber, cheese, tomato, hardboiled eggs, ham, smoked fish and what have you.

Sandwich sailboats--toasted white bread and Swiss cheese sails, held in place with a toothpick. When I was a kid, this is all I would eat at times.

Some sort of smoked fish--herring or mackerel--with hard-boiled eggs and red pepper. Note the scenically positioned whole fish, complete with heads, tails, and eyes. Yum.
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