Saturday, April 29, 2006

Salmon Soup

This cheap, fast and easy soup would make a good entry for the poverty line challenge (more on that later). Salmon soup is either my grandmother's or my mom's invention, but I'm claiming the rights. You don't need stock or fresh salmon to make this soup. You do need a can of pink salmon ($2 at the local supermarket; I checked) and the cheap vegetables everyone should have on hand--carrots, potatoes, onions, celery and frozen peas. The salmon makes its own stock as it cooks.

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a soup pot. While waiting for the water to boil, peel and cube 3 small potatoes. Finely chop a large onion, 2 stalks of celery and 2 carrots. When the water comes to a boil, add the potatoes and some salt; turn heat down to a simmer.

While the potatoes are cooking, heat some olive or vegetable oil in a skillet and saute the onion, celery and carrots until the onions are golden. When the vegetables are nearly done, add a finely minced garlic clove and a handful of chopped parsley; saute for 30-60 seconds. Once the potatoes are almost cooked, add the vegetables, two bay leaves and a couple of sprigs of parsley to the soup pot. Simmer.

Open a 14 oz. can of pink salmon, break into chunks and carefully remove as much skin and bones from the fish as you can. Add the salmon and the water it was packed in to the soup pot ; simmer 20-30 minutes or so. Add some frozen peas; no need to defrost them. Add salt and pepper to taste. A splash of lemon juice at the very end doesn't hurt.

P., the boyfriend, said this soup reminded him of ukha, the authentic Russian salmon soup. But P. is a shameless flatterer, so take this soup for what it is: Good, fast and about $4 for the whole pot.

Orange-Spice Tvorog Muffins

Sometimes I have the chance to experiment with baking. I don't do this very often, since I hate to waste food, but I was practically obligated to play around last night. I had tvorog and half a dozen eggs that were rapidly nearing their expiriation date and an orange that had seen better days. I used an old recipe that didn't give exact proportions or an oven temperature, so I winged it.

I mixed 2-2.5 cups of tvorog with 3 eggs, 2 tablespoons of sugar, a tablespoon of butter (melted), 3.5 tablespoons of uncooked cream of wheat (not instant) and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. I added some orange zest, the juice of one small orange, a couple of handfuls or raisins and then sprinkled in a bit of: cardamom (leading spice), ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

I oiled a muffin pan, filled six cups with the batter, and smeared some sour cream on top. Baked at 375 or so for 50 minutes or so...And got this:

You may have noted that I made six muffins, yet there's only four in the photo. That's because were good enough to eat at 12:30 a.m., shortly after I got them out of the oven. I suspect they'll be even better when I have then with apricot jam for breakfast tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Man in the Kitchen

A Man in the Kitchen is the title of this little Soviet cookbook, by one Petr Saraliev. My mom has owned it for nearly 15 years, yet the only time it makes it out of the bookcase is when I need some entertainment.

Pubished in 1986, it's intended as a cooking for dummies-type book for men, but I skim it for the intro and advice sections.

From the intro (translation, mine):

"Every moderately intelligent man can successfully cook meals which will not only satisfy him, but also others."

"Of course, gastronomy must not become a cult; there's no need to strive for the rich and opulent feasts of the Chinese mandarins, Arabic sheiks and Roman patricians, as we eat to live, not live to eat."

"I want to note that the health impact of these recipes is of no small concern. Taking into consideration recent scientific findings, frying and sauteeing are kept to a minimum."

From the "Useful Hints" section:

"Well-made food depends in large part on the cook's good mood, and a favorite tune will help you with this."

"Dirty dishes must be washed after every meal, as they quickly pile up in large amounts, making washing more difficult and time-consuming. Besides, putting off washing the dishes is simply unhygienic."

From the "Culture of Eating" section:

"It's indecent to have unkempt kitchen cabinets that would horrify people [with their messiness]...Cleanliness is an inherent part of culture."

"The cultured person always eats at a clean table, using the appropriate silverware. The ability to eat well is a habit that develops with time."

"You will agree that cultured dining is not such a difficult thing, even though it demands self-discipine and self-control."

It's easy to laugh at this old-fashioned advice now, but it's basically true, don't you think?

Unfortunately, the recipes don't live up to the no-nonsense intro . For example, bean soup. Ingredients: 1 can of beans in tomato sauce; 1 onion; 1 carrot; a piece of celery; parsley; mint; salt. Directions: Put the beans in a soup pot; add the chopped vegetables and herbs. Add 4 cups of water and mix well. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring.

Me, I have mixed feelings about men in the kitchen. These days my dad gets home before my mom on weekdays, so he's in charge of starting dinner. I hear the results are tragicomic. When my boyfriend, P., heads to the kitchen, my possessive side comes out. He's is going to meddle in my kitchen! Where everything is arranged according to my needs and every countertop is hygienic! God, I hope he won't make eggs or something and get the stove all greasy and keep asking where we keep the skillet...

Alas, I don't think Petr Saraliev ever had many male readers.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Tomato Bean Soup

Helen of Beyond Salmon once wrote a funny, very true post about growing up in a Russian soup-eating family.

For as long as I can remember, my mom made soup at least once or twice a week. A week without soup was a week gone wrong. She has a dozen soupsin her repertoire, including this tomato bean soup, the family favorite. I made it myself for the first time, with some successful tweaking.

First, I soaked a cup of navy beans in water overnight. When making the soup the next day, I brought chicken stock to a boil, added the beans, and reduced the heat to low. I think I used 7 or 8 cups of stock.

I simmered the beans for about 50-60 minutes, until they were soft and tender. Then I chopped, sauteed and added to the stock pot: A large onion, two celery ribs,a big carrot, a slice of bacon, and, separately, a zucchini. A minute or two before the zucchini was done sauteeing, I added a handful of parsley and clove of garlic to the skillet, minced.

I let the whole thing simmer for 10-15 minutes while I pondered a food blogger dilemma: Do I dare use ingredients that no respectable foodie would admit to eating? You see, my mom's secret ingredients are a can of Bush's baked beans and ketchup. They give the soup its sweet-savory, tomato-y, smoky flavor. The soup was thick enough without the extra beans, but I did go with the ketchup--no regrets.

In a bowl, I mixed half a can of crushed tomatoes, a couple of big squirts of ketchup and a little sugar. I added all this to the stock pot, along with a dried, hot chili pepper. While the soup simmered some more, I decided that adding a couple of small chunks of parmesan that had been sitting in my fridge, wrapped in foil, for much too long was a good idea.

And it was.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Stock Post

What's your fantasy/science-fiction kitchen gadget? Mine is device that makes rich, hot chicken stock on its own. I don't know how this toy would work, but I want one as soon as it's invented.

This is how I usualy make my own chicken stock: I put a 3 pound chicken in a stock pot, cover with plenty of water, add some roughly chopped celery, carrots and an onion, plus a couple of bay leaves,parsley sprigs, and salt. Then I bring to a boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer for an hour to an hour and a half, removing the scum with a slotted spoon as necessary. When the stock is done, I strain it and squeeze every drop of broth out of the veggies by pushing them through a sieve with a spoon.

All this yields a golden rich stock, plus plenty of chicken to use in my lunch salads and sandwiches. The stock makes a quick soup and a meal in itself if you add noodles or rice and some big, moist chunks of chicken. Sometimes I'll toss in some veggies; other times I'll add some sliced carrots 15 or 20 minutes before the stock is done, since I'll end up sieving and tossing the ones I used at the start. They don't have much flavor by this time.

Lately I've been eating chicken soup with dumplings. I don't make own, oh, no--I buy frozen pelmeni at the Russian store*. (Pelmeni are a sort of Russian ravioli.)

Chicken pelmeni are the best, but you can also get beef or veal. The ingredient list looks pretty decent. Dough: Flour, water, eggs, salt. Filling: Chicken, onion, salt, pepper.

After straining the stock, toss in the pelmini for 5-7 minutes. They cook quickly. Ladle into a bowl--a cafe au lait mug is preferable-- and slurp.

*Spartak, 5587 N. Diversey Blvd.,Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin 53217-5202. Phone: (414) 332-3347.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Creamy Beet Salad

I get pretty indignant on the behalf of beets. Why do so many people (i.e. Americans) dislike them? I suspect it's because many Americans have never had a properly made beet dish. Trendy beet salads where you roast and slice a beet and pour on some citrus-based dressing? Eh.

Beets deserve better. In Russian cooking, you never just eat a chunk of beet. Beets are always grated and combined with other ingredients. In fact, beets, like eggplants, are one of those vegetables that are so-so on their own but really shine with other flavors.

This salad is one of the better things you can do with beets. It's easy, it's light and it tastes like spring. Even P., my meat-and-potatoes boyfriend, said so.

You can roast beets at 375 for an hour, but I simply boil them, like potatoes. Bring some water to a boil, put one small or medium trimmed beet in the pan and simmer until the beet is tender and is easily pierced with a knife--45 minutes to an hour. Let it cool. (I cooked my beet the night before and it was nicely chilled when I was ready to work with it the next day.)

Grate the beet into a salad bowl. Add the following, finely chopped: 1 small, peeled cucumber; 1-2 scallions; 1 hardboiled egg; 1-2 good dill pickles; and a handful of fresh dill. Some finely diced red onion wouldn't be amiss if you aren't using the scallions.

For the dressing, I used a combo of a little olive oil, lemon juice, plain yogurt, sour cream, mayo, salt and pepper. You can use just mayo and yogurt or mayo and lemon juice or sour cream and yogurt, etc. Just make sure you have something creamy rich and nicely tart. I think 2 or 3 tablespoons of dressing is enough; eyeball it.

The end result is sweet and sour and fresh. Beets, sugary sweet. Pickles, sour. Cukes, scallions and dill, fresh. Mayo, sweet. Yogurt, sour...

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Vatrushki are brioche-like pastries with a tvorog filling. I've wanted to make these all week because a) I needed to test my mettle in making yeast dough for the first time and b) I had a pound of tvorog to use up.

I followed the recipe from Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table. I still think this is the bible of Russian cooking--just be aware that it needs more proofreading than it got. The recipe asks for yeast dough, although when you flip to the dough section, you find out that you actually have to make sweet yeast dough--yes, those are different.

I used a mixer to make the dough, like Anya suggests, though I suspect that a KitchenAid would make this much easier. I combined 1.5 cups warm milk, 2 packets of yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar and let it stand for 5 minutes (the ingredient list calls for 1 teaspoon; the instructions for 1 tablespoon--see what I mean about proofreading?). Then I added 4 egg yolks, 3/4 cup sugar and a stick of butter, melted and cooled to room temperature.

Then you add 4-4.5 cups of flour, one at a time, and mix, mix, mix. After that, knead for 7 minutes. Anya says the dough shouldn't stick to your hands. Yeah, right. It will stick. Christ, how it'll stick! For a while, as I kneaded, I had the weirdest feeling of not having hands or fingers because they were completely covered with sticky dough that had not intentions of coming off. I think I kneaded for 20 minutes and used 6 cups of flour before the dough became reasonably pliant. I put it in a buttered bowl, covered with a linen towel and left to rise for an hour and 15 minutes.

It rose, making a nice, round dome under the towel. Anya calls for 1/2 recipe of the sweet yeast dough for the vatruski, enough to make about 15. Wrong again. Half the yeast dough made about 4 or 5 vatrushkis. So I used all of it, rolling it out and ultimately cutting out 14 4-inch rounds.

For the tvorog filling, I mixed a pound of tvorog with 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons of sour cream, a tablespoon of flour, a tablespoon of sugar (Anya calls for 3) and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Anya calls for raisins, too, but I didn't bother this time.

I made indentations in the dough, put a couple of tablespoons of filling in the middle, and put the vatrushki on a greased baking sheet to let them rise for 20 minutes before baking at 350 for 30 minutes. (Anya has you brush these with an egg glaze, but I didn't, to no ill effect. ) Before going in, they looked like this:


Final verdict: Quite good. We ate them with jam. Next time I'd use raisins in the filling. 30 minutes in the oven may be too long; some of the bottoms were a little burnt. If making these for company, I'd brush them with the egg glaze. I no longer have blind faith in Anya von Bremzen's recipes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

I roasted a lackluster pint of cherry tomatoes back in December and haven't felt like eating fresh tomatoes ever since. Roasting brings out the sweet, rich flavor that these little buggers just don't have in the winter. I bet I'll still be blitzing them in the oven in the middle of August.

I toss them in salads, pasta, eggs and sandwiches. I made a nice tomato spread, inspired by Chocolate and Zucchini's pesto rouge. (Throw roasted tomatoes in a food processor with some garlic, chopped parsley, parmesan and olive oil. Whirr around a bit. Eat with good toasted bread.) My boyfriend and I have eaten them right out of the roasting pan and licked the spoons.

You should do the same. Preheat the oven to 425. Place as many cherry tomatoes as you want in a foil-lined baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; sprinkle on salt, pepper and a little sugar if your tomatoes are very tart. Sometimes I'll toss in a couple of garlic cloves. Roast for 30 minutes or so.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pirozhki/Head On

Good things I ate this weekend:

Mushrooms and cabbage pirozhki*, made by my mom. I don't have the recipe, but I bet there's a good one in Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table. Pirozhki are even better when served with a rich, clear chicken broth.

Good things I saw this weekend:

Head On, the German movie about a wild Turkish girl, Sibel, who lives in Germany with her conservative Turkish family and marries herself off to an unstable, 40-ish Turkish rock'n roller guy, Cahit, so she can party without her family threatning to kill her for tainting their honor. A year into this marriage of convenience, the wild girl and her drunk, drugged (but still pretty hot) quasi-husband fall in love and it ends badly.

Lest you think this has nothing to do with food, there's a magical cooking scene, far removed from the seedy backdrop of the rest of the movie, in which Sibel makes Turkish stuffed peppers for Cahit. You see her mixing the meat with the spices; carefully arranging the peppers in a pot; then mixing tomato paste and stock to make a sauce which she pours over the peppers. Cahit watches her, smiling, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and, for an instant, daring you to hope this movie will have a happy ending.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Turkey Stew

It's 30 degrees and snowing here in Milwaukee, you know. We had rain, hail and strong wind today, too. So I have no qualms posting about turkey stew in April. If the weather is ridiculous where you live, say the hell with spring and make this.

I browned 3 pounds of turkey thighs* in a skillet. Then I cooked a big onion, some finey chopped celery and mushrooms until nice and golden, and sprinked in some sage. (You could certainly do without the mushrooms, but mine looked sad and lonely in the back of the fridge when I reached for the celery.)

I put everything in a Dutch oven, tossed in a bay leaf or two and couple sprigs of parsley, poured 1.5-2 cups of chicken stock over the whole thing and brought it to a boil. Then I reduced the heat to low and let the whole thing bubble peacefully for an hour. (I like simmering better than roasting, baking, broiling, grilling, boiling or poaching. There's something very comforting and satisfying about those little bubbles that pop up on the surface.)

A tossed in some roughly chopped carrots and half a rutabaga, cut into chunks. (I confess that I never tried a rutabaga before I made this. Not a bad root vegetable; tastes like something between a potato and a sweet potato. When I heated up the leftover the next day, I couldn't even tell the rutabago from a potato.) Then I simmered the stew for 30 or 45 minutes.

The stroke of brilliance was to serve this with mashed potatoes and rutabagas. I had half a rutabaga left over and I had to put to proper use! I peeled and boiled the root vegetable until tender but not too soft--rutabagas will take longer to cook than the potatoes--drained, then mashed with melted butter, milk, salt and pepper.

*Turkey thighs are relatively cheap, flavorful and work well with root vegetables.

How to Make Tvorog (Farmer's Cheese)

Tvorog, a Russian dairy product, is known as farmer's cheese or curd cheese in the U.S. It's a cross between ricotta and cottage cheese, but doesn't really taste like either. Tvorog is immensely popular in Russia. It's eaten with jam and sour cream for breakfast, as a snack or as a light dinner, and is used in all sorts of sweet and savory baking. In America, you can sometimes buy tvorog in upscale or Eastern-European grocery stores, but it tends to be expensive.

Fortunately, it's easy to make tvorog at home. The process is a bit time consuming, but it requires almost no hands-on work. Here's what you do:

*In a soup pot, combine 1/2 gallon of milk (whole is best, but I've used low-fat and even skim without problems) with 2 cups of buttermilk. Do not use buttermilk containing sodium citrate! In Wisconsin, Kemps buttermilk is good and cheap.

*Place the milk/buttermilk mixture in a warm place until it develops the consistency of thick yogurt (a kitchen counter or the back burner of a stove work just fine). This will take about 24 hours. In the summer and in very warm homes, this may take only 12 hours.

*Place the pot containing the milk mixture over very, very low heat for about an hour. Choose the lowest setting on your stove. If you have a gas stove, use a flame tamer. Do not stir the milk.

*After about an hour, the milk will curdle, and the curds and whey will begin to separate. Take the milk off the heat.

*Let the milk cool for about 30 minutes. Line a sieve with a large piece of cheesecloth. Using a slotted spoon, carefully separate the curds (the thick, yogurt-y stuff) from the whey (yellowish liquid). Place the curds in the cheesecloth-lined sieve.

*The wet curds will look kind of gross, but don't worry. Soon enough you'll have fluffy, creamy tvorog.

*Gather the cheesecloth like a little bag, place the sieve over a bowl, and let the tvorog drain, preferably overnight, in the fridge.

*Next day, unroll the cheesecloth and scoop the tvorog into a bowl. You'll probably have one big chunk--break it up a little with a spoon. This is how it should look:

* Tvorog is used left and right in Russian baking, but sometimes it's best eaten fresh with a lump of jam and a little yogurt and sour cream.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Blinchiki (Filled crepes)

Family lore has it that I had no appetite as a child. True, but I certainly remember enthusiastically scarfing blini--also known as crepes. (Buckwheat blini made with yeast are probably better known in the U.S. than in Russia.)

My grandmother would sometimes make a batch of blini for me, which I would condescend to eat. When I was growing up, my mom made these on weekend morning when she was in the mood to cook. I still like blini for breakfast with jam and other sweet stuff, but they also make a good dinner when filled with a savory filling (filled blini are called blinchiki).

When you have boring, banal leftover chicken in the fridge, keep this in mind.

For blini, I whisked 2 eggs with 1 cup of milk, 1 teaspoon sugar and a dash of salt. I added 1 cup of flour gradually, whisking after each addition, and then two tablespoons of melted butter. You're supposed to let the batter stand for 30 minutes, but I've been known not to. Without any problems.

Filling: Saute two small onions, a grated carrot, a handful of chopped parsley, two cups of cooked chicken, cubed. I made a valiant attempt at my first veloute sauce by melting some butter in a small saucepan and adding some flour, then milk and chicken stock. I added this to the chicken mixture, along with some grated Swiss cheese. My veloute may have been laughably amateurish, but the filling was very good.

Then I made the blini*, stuffed with the filling, and served with sour cream. The batter is enough for 10 or so crepes, but I mucked up and tore a couple while frying. (I ate the scraps for dessert, with leftover tvorog and a sprinkle of sugar. Impromptu blintzes!)

*This is a good guide to making crepes.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sirniki (Farmer's cheese pancakes)

My mom doesn't feel like much cooking now that I'm out of the house, but the other day I found her making sirniki. These little pancakes are made with tvorog, Russian cottage cheese.

Tvorog is nothing like bland, milky American cottage cheese. Ricotta is a distant relative, but tvorog has a tangy, yogurt-y taste and a thick, creamy texture. It's also known as farmer's cheese, and you can sometimes find it in Russian/European groceries. Making your own is cheaper and usually easier, though. I've seen lots of different techniques for making it--one of these days, I'll post detailed directions, with pix, for mine.

Inspired by my mom, I made a batch of tvorog and whipped up the sirniki on Sunday. I tweaked Anya von Bremzen's recipe from Please to the Table to reflect my Sunday morning laziness. With sour cream and a lump of strawberry jam, they were very good.

I mixed a cup of tvorog with an egg, a couple of tablespoons of flour, a table spoon of uncooked cream of wheat, a tablespoon of sour cream, a couple of teaspoons of sugar, and a dash of salt. Then I formed round, hamburger-sized patties, dusted with flour, and fried in a buttered skillet.

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