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.

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.
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