Sunday, May 28, 2006

Tokana Two Ways

Reason #3,845 why I love Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table: In addition to recipes for run-of-the-mill Russian food--borsht, etc.--Anya features food from the former Soviet republics. Everyone knows about kasha and blinis, but have you ever heard of a tokana? Neither have I. According to Anya, tokana is a "Moldavian stew suffused with garlic, fresh tomatoes and sweet paprika." I've been eyeing the recipe for mushroom tokana for a while, so I made it for lunch last week.

Pay no mind to the token photo. I've yet to discover how to make stews look attractive in pictures. But the tokana itself was surprisingly good. I was expecting something like a paprika-flavored tomato sauce, but instead I got a chunky, sweet-and-sour veggie stew. The recipe is online and I followed it almost to the letter. All you do is sauté mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes (I used canned) and garlic; flavor with sweet paprika, thyme, fennel seeds (I tossed in some leftover braised fennel) and white wine; and simmer for 15 minutes.

I thought tokana would work well with beef, so a few days later I made a beef stew using the same combination of veggies and spices. I browned some cubed stewing beef, tossed in the sautéed, paprika-and-thyme spiced veggies and simmered for two hours. The sweet and sour, veggie-laded beef was pretty good but I liked the vegetarian version better.

Anya suggests mamaliga, a Moldavian/Romanian corn mush (i.e. polenta), as a side. I've never had polenta so I made a practice version and I'm still split about it. Cooked with water, as suggested, polenta is just blah. Cooked with stock or milk and butter—Anya’s recipe calls for a stick and a half!--polenta isn't bad. I have to grudgingly admit that polenta is pretty good comfort food, but I still think it’s best eaten for breakfast with milk and called by its plain-Jane name: cornmeal porridge.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Saturday Breakfast

This is a pure vanity post, inspired by today's breakfast. On weekdays I have a piece of fruit, usually an apple, for breakfast at my desk at work. My ideal weekend breakfast, however, features yogurt or tvorog, some sort of a fresh baked good and black tea. It’s indulgent but not so brunch-heavy that you feel like you've eaten your daily allotment of calories half an hour after getting up.

From left: black loose-leaf Indian tea with a slice of lemon, yogurt scones and tvorog topped with plain yogurt and jam. I like to read something—anything—when I’m eating breakfast. This might jibe with the whole savoring-your-food-without-distractions philosophy, but I think everything tastes better when you’re reading while eating. I picked up this bad habit when I was a kid and I still find myself reading labels on jars and bottles when I'm lacking reading material at the table. I don’t get the Saturday paper so today I settled for an old issue of W magazine. Do thin models encourage poor body image? If only! I ate two buttered scones, licked my fingers and wanted more.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Zucchini and Yellow Squash Gratin

It's easy to cook for someone from the same cultural background as you. My boyfriend, P., is basically a meat and potatoes guy. But thanks to spending the first 13 years of his life in Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic, he knows all about Russian food. Kasha? He was practically weaned on that stuff. Tvorog? A wonderful midnight snack. Beet salad? I want some more, please. How often do you find a big guy's guy who happily eats cabbage and beef aspic?

Unfortunately, P.'s palate is too russified for some popular American foods. Namely pasta, but especially any kind of veggie-sauce pasta, which he says is food for "girls on diets." (Dried pasta gets no respect in Russian cooking. One cookbook I own advises boiling it for 25 minutes.) I love girlie pasta and that's what I often make when I find myself eating on my own. Today's lunch wasn't technically a pasta dish, but it's good with any kind of noodle.

Slice a bunch of zucchini and yellow squash (I used two of each) into 1/4 inch rounds. In batches, sauté in olive oil for a little while until the vegetables soften. Spread the veggies in a casserole dish with a couple of minced and sautéed garlic cloves. Top with some good tomato sauce. I didn't have any sauce so I used halved cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle the whole thing with grated mozzarella--you judge how much is enough--and Parmesan. Bake in a 425-degree oven until the cheese is slightly browned.

Appropriate sides are good bread or new potatoes, but I ate this with linguine, pouring the zucchini-olive oil-tomato juices on top. This is really late summer food and I hope that I'll be eating it by the panful in August.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Pie Oh My

Because I haven't blogged quite enough about things to do with curdled milk, I baked a tvorog and blueberry pie this weekend. Seriously, it's not like I decided to make Yulinka Cooks a tvorog-themed blog. It's just that I always have milk and buttermilk nearing expiration in the fridge. I figure that I'll make tvorog and find some use for it later. Sometimes I'll end up eating it for breakfast or lunch; sometimes I have no choice but to bake with it.

I've actually had my eye on this pie recipe, from Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table, for at least a year. I like tvorog, I like blueberries and I like a challenge--sweet yeast dough. Remebering what I learned last time--more flour!--I had far less trouble making the dough this time around. The trouble came later.

For the cheese filling, I mixed 1 1/4 cups of tvorog with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, an egg yolk, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract, lemon zest (I used lemon juice) and a tablespoon of sour cream. The recipe calls for fresh blueberries, mixed with a little sugar, but I used frozen. This was a mistake, as frozen blueberries release a lot of juice when they bake.

You need 1/2 recipe of the sweet yeast dough for this pie. I rolled out 3/4 of the dough into a 13-inch round and draped it across a 10-inch pie plate. I made my second mistake here, using a pie plate that was far too deep. Use a standard pie plate or something shallow. The other quarter of the dough is for the lattice strips. I tried to make them no more than 1/4 inch wide, as instructed. Even though mine were too thick, I still wound up with a leftover hunk of dough (used for mini-vatrushki).

The above photo shows the pie before it went into a 375-degree oven. I had a few concerns about it looking kind of messy (not to mention the pie-making mess in the background). When it came out, it was... Well, look at the top picture. "Rustic" is a kind way of putting it. "Peasant-style" would also work. But it didn't quite look like an elegant northern Slavic pie that Anya promised.

Because the pie plate was too deep, the shell didn't bake all the way through. I thought the tvorog filling could have used a little more browning, which it didn't get thanks to the lattice. The frozen berries released too much juice. But how did the pie taste? Good! Really, this is a very nice adult dessert (or breakfast). I've become a big fan of sweet yeast dough--it's not too sweet or leaden. The boyfriend had about three slices and proclaimed the pie "yummy" and "not very heavy." So there you go--just use fresh blueberries and don't bother with the lattice. The cheese and blueberry filling would work just as well on a flaky, American-style pie crust, I think, or in a tart, which is what I might try next time.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


It’s funny that I’m so big on cooking Russian food these days. Between the ages of, say, 10 and 19, I didn’t get all excited about borsht or sirniki. I didn’t spend my Friday nights sparring with sweet yeast dough for vatrushki. And I certainly wasn’t looking forward to summer so I could make kvas—rye bread beer.

No, what I really wanted to eat as a kid was American food—-or what I thought of as American food. It began with fast food. My mom’s first job in America was at McDonald’s, and I fell in love with Happy Meals, chicken McNuggets and fries. Then we got a toaster and I toasted countess slices of Wonder Bread, which I ate with Kraft cheese slices. After that came the microwave and along with it frozen pizza and frozen dinners, followed by potato chips and Doritos, gummy “fruit-snacks,” fruit roll-ups, Lunchables and other highly processed goodies.

When I started getting into cooking, I had little desire to cook or eat cabbage and beet-based dishes. I wanted to make what Americans eat. And what do Americans eat? Tacos made from taco kits, Hamburger Helper and burgers on cottony buns, of course. Sometimes I tagged along with my mom when she went grocery shopping and cajoled her into buying and making this stuff. We’d have it once or twice before going back to classic Soviet weeknight food—-soups, kotleti (beef patties, kind of like burgers but served without the bun) and fried potatoes.

Occasionally I would hit upon better ideas, including homemade meatloaf, Asian-style stir-fries and lasagna. My favorite was, of course, the lasagna. It didn't matter that lasagna wasn't exacty American. I just knew that it was unheard of in Russian cooking and that the freezer aisle at the grocery store was full of frozen lasagna dinners. Lasagna marks my food evolution because I would usually guide my mom in making it rather than the other way around. It’s also one of the few non-Russian dishes my mom still cooks even though I’m not around to pester her to make it. Our lasagnas went through many variations and food-fad stages over the years—ground beef lasagna, ground turkey lasagna, chicken lasagna, veggie lasagna, low-fat lasagna and others.

It took years of practice but I think I made one of my best lasagnas yet tonight. No recipe—I don’t keep track of proportions and I’ll make it a different way next time. The filling was made of extra virgin olive oil, a huge, sautéed onion, sautéed red, yellow and green bell-peppers, sweet Italian sausage, a couple of garlic cloves, a couple of handfuls of chopped parsley and a can of San Marzano tomatoes. Mozzarella and Parmesan between the layers. The filling was so good that I half-considered ditching the lasagna and just eating it with pasta. But I carried through and had a perfectly good American dinner.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some Thoughts on Blinchiki

Helen's lovely and poignant post about blinchiki inspired childhood memories and a real craving for these thin Russian pancakes. Like I commented on Helen's blog, as a kid, I had the same fascination with flipping blinchiki when my mom made them on weekend mornings. I wrote about savory blinchiki before and I don't intend to re-post the recipe or the instructions--I urge you to check out Helen's authoritative guide to making and flipping crepes. (I use a spatula and sometimes even my fingers to flip them. Ouch.)

Rather, I want to offer some tips and thoughts on making blinchiki a beloved weekend breakfast tradition on par with fresh-baked brunch goodies.

-Do make blinchiki on weekends only. It takes some time to fry them and you can't hurry this process along.

-The first blinchik will usually tear when you flip it. I think that's because the pan hasn't had time to heat up properly. The French say "La première, c'est pour le chien." (The first one's for the dog.) In Russian, it's "pervei blin komom." (The first one's a mess.)

-If you don't have a dog, do eat the scraps of the first blinchik! You'll be behind the stove for a little while and will need something to tide you over.

-Eat one well-made blinchik while you're working, too. It'll give you a taste of what's to come.

-Sweet fillings are for weekend blinchiki. Savory fillings are for weeknight blinchiki.

-Serve blinchiki buffet-style with a nice assortment of toppings.

-I tried to give an example of appropriate toppings in the above photo. I suggest you offer: at least two kinds of jam (that's apricot and raspberry in the photo), sour cream, butter, honey and sugar. Maple syrup wouldn't be bad at all. Nutella works, if that's your thing.

-Do make a big pot of tea to wash down the blinchki. Coffee will work as blinchiki breakfast beverage, but ideally you want black tea and lots of it. Make sure the tea is hot and ready when you serve the blinchiki.

-Blinchiki with tvorog (farmer's cheese) become blintzes. That's a Yiddish word, by the way, not a Russian one. I has some leftover tvorog so I mixed it with a little sugar and sour cream, filled and rolled up a couple of blinchki and topped them with honey.

-Don't believe those recipes that say two blinchiki per person is enough. If they're filled, maybe. If not, everyone will want more. I know I will. Figure on five per person.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Guest-at-the-Doorstep Apple Charlotte

The frou-frou name is courtesy of Anya von Bremzen. My mom has been making this very easy, not quite a cake, not quite a pie apple dessert for ages, but I had thought the recipe was a family exclusive. So I was really surprised to find an almost identical recipe included in von Bremzen's Please to the Table and described as a classic, last-minute Russian (or, more likely, Soviet) dessert.

This is the sort of dessert you make when you want something sweet to finish up a meal but have no time to bake or shop. I memorized the recipe a long time ago--3 eggs, a cup of sugar, a cup of flour, 4 apples, slice, mix, pour, bake--and even my dad has successfully made this. Because it's so easy we used to make this all the time, but then I got bored with it. Don't make this apple charlotte too often, and you'll be surprised by just how good it is when you do have it. This is my tweaked recipe:

-Oil a 9-inch pan and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
-Core, peel, quarter 3-4 large, tart apples and slice them into 1/4 inch pieces. I use Granny Smith. Arrange the apple slices in a circular pattern in the pan.
-Sprinkle the apples with a little cinnamon, nutmeg or ground cloves.
-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Beat 3 eggs in a bowl, add 3/4 cup of sugar, beat until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow. Beat in 1 tsp. vanilla extract.
-Beat in 1 cup of flour. Add a splash of milk (3-4 tablespoons), continue beating till smooth.
-Pour the batter evenly over the apples.
-Bake until the top is puffy and golden, about 50 minutes.

This is excellent when eaten warm, but do let cool it for 30 minutes or so. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar before serving.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On a Month and a Half of Food Blogging

-Wow, blogging takes up a lot of time. I'd estimate it takes me an hour to an hour and a half to write a pretty basic post/recipe. I used to read in my free time! Now I'm writing up my dinner.

-My photos are rubbish and that probably won't change anytime soon. I use a cheapie digital camera that my dad got as a thank-you present at a work conference. But I know that the fault really lies with me, not the camera. I have almost no understanding of basic photography, including stuff like lighting, and I don't feel like learning. Like that Harold guy on Bravo's Top Chef, I'm, you know, a cook, man, not some photographer!

-When reading high-end food blogs, I sometimes wonder why I bother. The stunning photography, the 10-course dinner parties, the Michelin-starred restaurants... I remind myself that I aspire to be a good home cook, a good housewife cook, as some snooty French chef put it on Top Chef.

-Do I post about my failures? I like it when bloggers write their kitchen blunders and recipes that just don't turn out. Still, when I failed spectacularly in making tuiles last week, I tossed out the cookie scraps and put away my camera. I regret this now; it would have made an amusing post. I should have started with a pic of the ruined tuiles and the title "This Is Not a Tuile." But too many mistakes and blah recipes are overkill. I like to pick up tricks and hints and promising recipes from the blogs I read.

-"A blog needs a sense of purpose. The author can't just curl up on the sofa like an overfed retriever and recollect his last bowl of kibble; he should strain forward like a terrier who's late for an appointment with a ham bone."

Some wag wrote the above back in March and ruffled a few feathers in the food blogging world. But I think he's right. My purpose, I suppose, is to write about Russian home cooking. Problem is, I don't cook Russian food every day, or even every week. In the past few days, I made perfectly good and even kind of photogenic food, including an Asian-type stir fry with noodles and swordfish with sauteed potatoes (tonight's dinner).

But I didn't blog about these meals because they don't fit my theme. Plenty of other bloggers can cook and write about this kind of food better than I can. Here's what I do want to write about in the future: Kvas (rye bread beer), plov (Uzbek lamb and rice stew), eggplant and red pepper salad, Uzbek food in general (my boyfriend's family is from Uzbekistan), more good things to do with beets and tvorog.

-I started a blog and the world failed to notice. What's wrong with you, world?! Leave one freakin' comment or something!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Eggplant Caviar

Eggplant caviar, the classic Russian appetizer. Eggplant caviar is like borsch in that there's no standard recipe for it; every cook has his tricks. This is how I make it:

Preheat the oven to 425; pierce one medium eggplant all over with a fork and bake until soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Cut the eggplant in half; peel; chop the pulp.

Heat some olive oil in a large skillet. Be generous with the oil, as eggplant absorbs quite a lot of it. No one likes a dry eggplant caviar. It should be nicely oily, but not greasy.

Finely chop and saute: A large onion, two small or one large carrot, 1-1.5 cup bell peppers. You can use green or red or whatever peppers. I used orange and yellow. Cook vegetables until the onion is golden and the carrots and peppers and soft.

Add the eggplant pulp and 1 minced garlic clove. Simmer over low heat for 10-15 minutes. Seasoning eggplant caviar is the hardest part. You typically use tomatoes, canned or fresh, or tomato paste; a little sugar; lemon juice or vinegar; salt and pepper. I end up using a different combo every time and I don't keep track of proportions, tasting until I get it right. This time I used about 1/2 cup of chopped, canned tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, a teaspoon of sugar, a couple of squirts of lemon juice and red wine vinegar and a couple of dashes of salt and black pepper.

After adding the seasonings, simmer for 15 more minutes. Add another finely minced garlic clove or two, depending on how much you like garlic, and take off the heat. Transfer to a bowl and chill for several hours in the fridge. Serve cold or even warm, but never hot.

You can eat eggplant caviar with rye or pita bread, but it's just as good over rice or with some boiled new potatoes. I even like it with pasta. When eggplant caviar turns out very well, people will eat it straight right out of the serving bowl.

Friday, May 05, 2006

An Underripe Pineapple

A few days ago I had an underripe pineapple on my hands, so I roasted it. I rarely make baked fruit desserts because I am too impatient not to eat the fruit as is. However, a very tart pineapple is no fun to eat straight up so I took advantage of the opportunity to experiment.

I chose a recipe out of a swanky Williams Sonoma roasting cookbook. It's a book I often consult for inspiration, but I don't really cook from it. Page after page of food porn-y photos and at least four pricey herbs per recipe. This pineapple dessert is the easiest thing in there.

Core and peel a pineapple. Cut it crosswise into 1/2 inch slices. Pour whatever juice you get while preparing the pineapple into a small bowl and add 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract. Arrange the pineapple in a baking dish and pour the juice over the fruit. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. of ground ginger and--this is the most important part--1/4 to 1/2 tsp. of black pepper. Roast at 425 for 20-25 minutes.

Let the pineapple cool a little but eat it while it's still warm, preferably with some plain, creamy yogurt. The pineapple will have a spicy kick that you'll really feel as the fruit slides down your throat. The juice that the pineapple produces while baking has even more zing. If I make this again, I will kick it up a notch--sorry, couldn't help myself--with more black pepper. If you're tempted not to eat the entire pineapple in one sitting, keep in mind that the peppery zing will dissapear overnight.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tilapia with Mushroom Kasha

I'm not a big fan of buckwheat (kasha)--it's too dry for my tastes, so I rarely make it. In fact, I've had a big package of kasha in my pantry for months and I hadn't made it once. But I am willing to reexamine my food prejudices.

I got the idea for the kasha from--what else?--Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table. She has a promising recipe with lots of butter and wild mushrooms that you have to soak for two hours, but I went for the quick and easy version. I also wasn't sure about serving kasha with tilapia. Usually I do some kind of Asian or Mediterranean sauce when making fish, but what the hell.

To make the kasha, I brought a cup of water to boil and added half a cup of buckwheat along with a little salt. Simmered until all the water was absorbed; about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I diced and sauteed a big onion and half a pound of mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of butter, adding some chopped parsley at the end. A sprinkle of sage, salt, pepper. Added the cooked kasha to the skillet, mixed in a couple of tablespoons of sour cream, dumped the whole thing in a casserole dish.

Seared a couple of tilapia fillets and put them on top of the kasha. Made a quick sauce of butter, white wine and lemon juice; poured this over the fish. Baked until the fish was done.

This was surprisingly good, especially the kasha--fluffy and satisfying. I still think that kasha is kind of blah on its own, but it does go well with sauteed fix-ins, especially onions or mushrooms. It's also good with saucy food, like stew. I'll have to make Anya von Bremzen's fancy version of this, but not till the fall. Kasha is really more of a hearty cold-weather food and it actually felt like May today. Ah, well. I still overcame a food prejudice.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Eating Cheap/Eating Local

I have mixed feelings about posting this. Will I lose all my readers? (All five of you.) But here it goes.

I can't get too excited about the eat local challenge. I'm hardly qualified to talk about eating local/organic--most of the time, I don't, because I can't afford it too often It doesn't help that I'm a conservative, careful spender by nature. Yes, I could stretch my income to buy pricier organic groceries, but I'm not about to eat through my 401(k) contribution, those six months of living expenses or grad school tuition.

Six dollar eggs are an occasional treat, not a weekly purchase. I do stop by the Outpost, the local organic co-op, for good yogurt; Sendiks, the local gourmet fancy food chain, for decent bread, specialty stuff or to splurge on cheese. Still, after walking into Sendiks, the first thing I check out is the reduced produce shelf. You never know what exciting cheapies you might find there--today, I got a yellow and an orange pepper for a buck. I shop like an old lady, buying meat, vegetables, fruit and seafood on special.

I suppose I am all for eating local. I wish I could buy organic meat without flinching at the price, happily paying more to support sustainable organic farming. But ultimately, the call to eat local/organic affects me like a campaign to bike to work. It's a nice idea, but... And although I like to cook and eat well, I don't think I have the makings of a foodie. Savings trump organic asparagus!

So I am far more sympathetic to the poverty line challenge. It's closer to my frugal little heart. After immigrating to America in the early nineties, my parents' food budget was pretty small, possibly poverty line, yet the four of us (parents, grandfather, me) ate reasonably well because my mom is a careful and economic shopper and a decent cook. Our meals certainly fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as chicken, pork and beef. I don't buy the complaint that it's very hard to eat well or healthy on a budget. On the other hand, it does take some work and imagination.

Consider this tomato bean soup. My mom has made this sort of soup at least once a week when I was growing up. A big bowl, with seconds--why not?--and some decent bread makes a satisfying, nutritious meal and leaves plenty of leftovers for everyone's lunch the next day. How much does this soup cost to make? A half a bag of dried navy beans is about 60 cents; a onion, a couple of carrots, two cloves of garlic and some celery stalks might run you 50-60 cents. A can of tomatoes--let's say $1.50, if you're getting the halfway decent kind. A couple of cents for a few tablespoons of vegetable or okay olive oil. The stock is made from 3-4 lbs supermarket chicken, always bought on sale for less than a dollar per pound, plus the usual cheap veggies--carrots, celery, etc. Let's say 4-5 dollars for the 16 or 18 cups of stock. A bay leaf, a little salt, pepper, paprika or red pepper flakes won't set you back much.

Still, that's $8, tops, for a big, nutritious, yummy pot of soup. (Eight dollars might buy only two meals at a fast food place.) Yes, the veggies aren't local or organic and yes, the chicken has been pumped with hormones, antibiotics and has led a nasty, brutal and short life. But isn't this kind of homemade, cheap food infinitely better than McDonald's or endless peanut butter on Wonder Bread sandwiches? I'd think that lack of planning, lack of basic cooking skills and sheer laziness is a far bigger enemy of the poor than second-rate supermarket ingredients.

I think I eat pretty well on my budget. My meals are pretty creative; I'm a decent beginner cook; I can afford to experiment and splurge often enough. (Here I am pleading poverty, yet my shopping lists over the last few weeks included the following just-for-fun goodies: A can of anchovies with capers; fresh pineapple; asparagus; tahini; fancy cheese; red curry paste; black bean sauce.) Still, it's irritating to wait for certain foods, especially seafood or meat, to go on sale when I want to eat them now. A visit to the to the local organic or 'goumet' market sometimes leaves me dejected and unsatisfied. Really, you'd think that not being able to afford organic beef is some kind of great tragedy in life.

Don't pity me, though. I am moving up in the world and one day I, too, shall eat local and organic. See you at Whole Foods in a few years!
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