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.
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