Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pelmeni in Madison

It's 90+ degrees in Madison on Sunday afternoon, and where do the boyfriend and I stop for lunch? At Pel'meni*. This tiny whole-in-the-wall on State St. sells nothing but pelmeni--Russian--Siberian, really--dumplings. I love the spartan look of this little eatery: four tables, four steaming pots and a blackboard menu. On the menu are meat and potato pelmeni. Five dollars gets you a styrofoam box full of dumplings, a piece of (forgettable) rye bread, and condiments like sour cream, chopped cilantro, curry powder and a spicy chili sauce.

The pelmeni are good, although not all that much better than the frozen dumplings I buy at the Russian store. An order feeds one moderately hungry person--we ended up having a pelmeni feast with four orders. As we ate we daydreamed about opening a dumpling eatery of our own. Our working name is "Dumpling House," and we'd sell pelmeni, vareniki (big dumplings filled with farmer's cheese, cherries, sourkraut or potatoes) and manti (Uzbek steamed lamb dumplings). I'd totally steal the blackboard menu, too.

After pelmeni I accidentally on purpose steered us toward the University of Wisconsin Union Terrace* where we tried some Babcock chocolate ice cream--made on campus at the Babcock dairy plant. It was perfectly acceptable but doesn't hold a candle to, say, frozen custard from Kopp's. Still, the Union Terrace is a pretty great place to mull over ice cream at this time of the year. Plenty of tables in the shade, a nice lake view and fresh-faced high school grads on tour, sober for now...

505 State St.
Madison, Wis.
(608) 250-1976
Open on Sundays, despite what the online listings say.

*Union Terrace
800 Langdon St.
Madison, Wis.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Variations on a Theme

*Remember tvorog and blueberry pie, also known as pie-oh-my for its jaw-droppingly rustic appearance? I baked another pie a few days ago, taking my own advice from last time.

Although this version was far more attractive, I think the recipe is inherently flawed. Isn't it disappointing when you want to love a recipe but the result isn't really worth it? Last time I thought the deep pie dish was at fault for the dough not baking through all the way. This time I used a shallower dish but still ended up with a thin strip of raw dough right under the cheese filling.

I sadly have to conclude that the wonderful cheese/blueberry filling is too thick and wet for this type of dough. There has to be a better use for it, though. A pre-baked tart shell, maybe? We’ll see.

*Besides Central Asian food, my other cooking interest in Middle Eastern food. There's some overlap between the two. Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has a few Armenian, Georgian and Uzbek recipes, and Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table features a lot of food that could pass for Middle Eastern. In fact, the first recipe in the book is for tahini and hazelnut dip, which, we are told, comes from Azerbaijan. The next recipe is for cucumber and yogurt dip, by way of Armenia.

Stuffed vegetables are well known to both cuisines, so today I made stuffed zucchini. The filling I wrote about here. Both Roden's and von Bremzen's cookbooks have similar recipes for lamb and rice filling with spices. Instead of broiling the hollowed zucchini shells, this time I sautéed them in olive oil for 10 minutes. Stuffed, baked and ate with my fingers. Yogurt would have been an authentic condiment, but I was out. Sour cream made a pretty good replacement.

*The New York Times' the Frugal Traveler explores Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The food is good, the prices are cheap, tourists are scarce and the locals are friendly. I want to sleep in a yurt and eat goat stew with plums and tarragon, too. Take me with you, Frugal Traveler!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Not Quite Russian Food & Georgian Cheese Pie

I get really excited about cooking Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan) and Caucasian (Georgia, Armenia) food. Traditional Russian food is a tough sell. It's considered heavy and starchy. Every other recipe calls for beets or potatoes. It's not spicy or colorful enough for Westerners.

But, oh, the food of those impossible-to-pronounce-and-find-on-a-map Soviet republics:

The New York Times on Central Asian food:

"Reflecting the influence of silk and spice trades, there are tastes of China and India everywhere...Dishes that define [Central Asia] include lamb kebabs; shurpa, which might be a hearty vegetable-beef soup spiked with cumin or a thin lamb broth; and rice pilaf, whether chunky plov or one of the luxurious pilafs that adorn traditional Afghan banquets."

The Traveler's Lunchbox on Georgian food:

"The thing that appealed to me instantly about Georgian cuisine is both its familiarity and its exoticness. The foundations of the cuisine are all well known to the European palate: hazelnuts, walnuts, cheese, yogurt, plums, corn, peaches, apples, cherries, cilantro, basil, tarragon, dill, mint, cinnamon. What is not familiar are the preparations: beets with sour cherry sauce; beans with pomegranate and fenugreek; eggplant with walnuts and saffron; chicken with cilantro, dill and plums; rice with raisins and honey. It's as if the familiar flavors of Europe had been handed to someone who was instructed to forget everything he knew about the continent's gastronomic heritage and instead reinvent the wheel, which somehow he managed to do with subtlety, sophistication and finesse."

I know very little about the food of Central Asian and the Caucaus. My childhood palate was formed by borsh, blinchiki and potatoes in St. Petersburg. I do remember getting a whiff of grilled lamb from the shashlik stands during the summer, but shashlik was considered ridiculously expensive so I never actually tasted it.

I plan to cook a lot more of this exotic Stan-land food in the coming months. Today, I tackled hachepuri, Georgian cheese pies. Anya von Bremzen calls hachepuri the Georgian equivalent of pizza. I followed a recipe from the Traveler's Lunchbox almost to the letter. But instead of making six little pies, I halved the recipe and made one big pie. It was very good, if not exactly Georgian. In fact, it looked a lot like an American-style pie with cheese instead of fruit filling. That hardly stopped me from cutting it while it was still hot and eating the warm, gooey cheese filling with a spoon.

With the cheese pie I ate my favorite summer salad. I'm indifferent to lettuce salads but I can't eat enough of cucumber and tomato salad with dill. I sliced a couple of small cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes and tossed them with some fresh dill. The dressing was a glug of olive oil, a drop or two of red wine vinegar and a healthy dash of salt. The salad may very well have been better than the hachepouri. This salad is also great with a dressing made of sour cream and yogurt--a teaspoonful of each per serving, plus a splash of sunflower or olive oil.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Round Zucchini with Lamb and Rice

Isn't round zucchini cute? When I saw these little buggers at the farmer's market I just wanted to scoop them up like kittens and baby talk. But reason prevailed so I stuffed them instead.

I cut off the tops and scooped out the pulp with a spoon. The squash shells and tops went into a 450-degree oven for 25 minutes. For the filling I sauteed a large onion with some ground lamb, threw in a healthy dash of garam masala, ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon and ground cayenne, and added cooked jasmine rice. The squash pulp I sauteed seperately with a couple of cloves of garlic; then I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste dissolved in a little water. I combined the meat and squash mixture and stuffed these little guys to the rim.

I placed them in casserole pan filled with 1/4 inch water and back into the oven for 20 minutes or so. They were as good as they are cute. Next time, though, I would broil the shells, or maybe bake them longer, since the bigger zucchini were a little raw.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Green Beans with Ground Lamb

Remember how when you first started food blogging you would update as often as you could? And all you'd think about was those great recipes you couldn't wait to try out? And you'd write really long blog posts, trying to be informative and witty? And then as time went on your enthusiasm began to wane and you updated less? And less?

I suppose I'm talking about myself here. Yes, I've fallen into a food rut. The last four meals I've cooked were vaguely Asian stir-fries, which is all I seem to have the imagination and the desire for these days.

And yet! Today I made something completely new to me-lobio khortsit! Yes, I'm being all foreign and pretentious about green beans with ground lamb. Lobio khortsit could pass as the Georgian version of Hamburger Helper--"the Caucasian equivalent of spaghetti and meatballs," says Anya von Bremzen--but it's so much better.

I tweaked Anya's recipe a little, but this is the basic idea: Saute a large, chopped onion in olive oil till golden; add a pound of ground lamb and cook for 10 minutes. Then add a can of chopped plum tomatoes, plus their liquid, two cloves of crushed garlic, 1/2 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika, 1/8 tsp. cinnamon, 1/8 tsp. cumin and a pound of trimmed, blanched green beans. Cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes or so, until the beans are very tender--Georgians like their green beans well done, and I do too. Eat with rice.

(Anya has you saute the uncooked beans in butter for 10 minutes before adding them to the lamb. If you do this, cook the green beans and lamb on low heat for 20 minutes, covered, and then 15 more minutes, uncovered.)

This is simple food and maybe I liked it so much because I hadn't cooked anything new in a while. In any case, this is pretty delicious stuff. Don't leave out the cinnamon--it's responsible for that exotic, Georgian je ne sais quoi of lobio khortsit.

Homemade Ricotta: a Public Service Announcement

Is there anything you can't do with curdled milk and a piece of cheesecloth? Regular readers of this blog know about my relentless love of tvorog--making it, eating it and baking with it. I'm no less excited about making homemade ricotta. Granted, I've only tried this recipe once, but I can tell you that you should really be making ricotta if you aren't doing so already.

Ricotta is even easier to make than tvorog. Bring milk and cream to a boil; add lemon juice; reduce the heat and stir for a couple of minutes until the milk curdles. My only qualm is that half a gallon of milk barely yields two cups of ricotta and, unlike tvorog, ricotta keeps only for two days.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Vinigret is basically a beet and potato salad. Wait, keep reading. It's a potato salad that's worth making and eating. Don't be turned off by the beets--they're grated and mixed with ingredients that bring out their sweet-and-sour flavor. Don't be turned off by the root vegetables--this salad is light, zesty summer fare. But don't go thinking that this is some kind of health food--traditionally, vinigret is accompanied by lots of rye bread, herring, sardines and vodka. I made it for our 4th of July cookout, and we ate with grilled chicken thighs. Vive la melting pot.

Cook, cool and peel 4-5 salad potatoes. Simmer a large beet until tender and let it cool. Dice and combine in a large bowl: the potatoes, 1-2 small cucumbers, 1/2 cup or so red onion and a couple of dill pickles. Grate the beet and add to the bowl. Add 1-1.5 cup peas (use canned for an authentic Soviet vinigret; fresh or frozen for the American version), chopped scallions and chopped dill. Some people also add cooked carrots, diced.

For the dressing I used sunflower oil, red wine vinegar, a little dill pickle juice, a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. Toss the vinigret, chill for 30-45 minutes and eat.
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