Friday, December 28, 2007

Herring in a Fur Coat

Around this time of the year, Christmas well-wishes are usually followed up with “Uh, do you celebrate Christmas?” I guess I do, although this is not at all common in Russian-Jewish immigrant families. New Year's--a Soviet-ized Christmas, really--is the big holiday for Russians, but Christmas itself is generally ignored. As for Hanukkah, few Russian Jews celebrate it in earnest. This holiday is usually commemorated by saying “Hey, it’s Hanukkah!” on the second of the eight days and then forgetting about the whole thing.

My parents and I, though, are accidental non-conformists: ever since we came to the U.S., we happened to receive annual Christmas dinner invitations by our respective American friends. Add to that my childhood yearnings for an American Christmas, and you get holiday revelry chez Yulinka: a tree that stays up mid-December through early January; a festive dinner and gifts on Dec. 25, and a classic Russian appetizer and vodka spread on Dec. 31. And so it was this year.

St. Nick looked over a very American dinner of stuffed pork loin and roasted butternut squash...
... while an Old World babushka made sure that homemade sauerkraut, picked tomatoes and herring in a fur coat made an appearance on the table.

Herring in a coat (seledka pod shuboi), the Russian version of seven-layer salad, is usually made for New Year’s, but it’s often served at festive dinners year-round. A layer of herring is covered with beets, potatoes and eggs, dressed with mayo, and topped with herbs, onions and sometimes olives. Every family has its own recipe, but I think my mom’s has a leg up thanks to a layer of tart apple that gives this rich appetizer a nice kick.

Method: Herring in a fur coat is best when made 12-24 hours before serving and left to “marinate” in the fridge.

You will need:
-1 smoked/salted herring fillet (about 1 lb, sold prepackaged at Russian stores; not pickled herring)
-2 small cooked, cooled and peeled potatoes and 1 large, cooked beet. Bring water to a boil in a sauce pan, add the beet and the potatoes, turn the heat to a simmer and cook until you can easily poke the vegetables through with a knife. The potatoes will take about 30 minutes; the beets, 1-1.5 hours.
-2 large, hardboiled eggs
-1 small, peeled Granny Smith apple (or another tart variety)
-1/2 small red onion, minced, plus a few thinly sliced pieces
-2 tbs. each chopped scallions, parsley and/or dill

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup mayo, 1/4 cup sour cream (or thick Greek yogurt), a dash of salt and pepper, and a splash of vinegar.

Cut the herring into small pieces (about 1/8-inch) and spread evenly on a big, round plate or serving dish. Dice the potatoes and spread over the herring. Sprinkle with some finely chopped red onion.

Spread about 3-4 tablespoons of dressing over the potatoes and herring. Grate the apple over the potato layer, and spread 3-4 tablespoons of dressing on top. Sprinkle with finely chopped red onion.

Grate the beet and the eggs over the apple layer. Top with the remaining dressing (make more as needed) and chopped scallions, parsley, dill, and thinly sliced onions. To serve, use a butter knife to slice and transfer to individual plates with a spatula.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Food blogs that should exist, but don’t

Looking for a unique food blog theme? With more than 40,000 food blogs out there, a theme or a niche is a good idea. Plenty of bloggers take nice pictures and post good recipes, but there’s nothing that really distinguishes them from thousands of other foodies. Most big bloggers have some sort of a theme: Amateur Gourmet, self-explanatory; Chocolate and Zucchini, cooking and eating in Paris ; Gluten-Free Girl, learning to live and cook sans wheat. Even this little blog was more successful when I followed my Russian cooking theme. Believe it or not, people come here for the tvorog and eggplant caviar recipes, not for my sallies on kitchen economics.

I'm offering the following food blog ideas for budding bloggers. Don't thank me; the pleasure is all mine. (I wouldn't be surprised if these blogs were already around, though. Let me know if they are.)

Dinner and a movie: A foodie film buff reviews movies and writes about food.

Testing the American Test Kitchen’s recipes: Just like the Wednesday Chef tests recipes published in the New York Times and the LA Times, I’d like to see a blog that reviews recipes from America's Test Kitchen's Cook's Illustrated. (This is the magazine devoted to developing the “best” recipe for everything.) Nearly every recipe they come up with has some sort of gimmick or trick to it—do these really work?

Poor foodie: There used to be a good blog, Frugal Foodie, about cooking on the cheap. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since last February. Won’t someone take over?

CRON foodie: Cooking good food on the calorie restriction/optimal nutrition diet (cron). Most cronies eat pretty miserable food: raw kale salads, fat-free cheese. It doesn’t have to be this way—Kalyn and Fat-Free Vegan make tasty-looking, healthy food. I’d like to see this type of blog with a cron bent.

Soup blog: All soup, all the time. This blog has to be out there. Please point me to it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

On (Not) Wasting Food

Have you heard of the Wasted Food blog? Jonathan Bloom chronicles food waste in America while writing a book on this topic. Bloom’s blog strikes a chord with me. To paraphrase a comment I left elsewhere:

I lived in Soviet Russia until I was 9. My grandmother, who survived the Leningrad blockade (when a lot of people starved to death), was a fanatic about not wasting food. I grew up hearing about how she “saved” food that was on the verge of spoiling, or that we had too much of thanks to Soviet surpluses. Milk got turned into homemade cottage cheese; limp cabbage became sauerkraut.

While I never went hungry as a child, certain foods, like bananas, were very rare treats when I was growing up. I loved bananas, but they would only be sold once or twice a year and you had to wait in line for hours to buy them. I wouldn’t have dreamed of tossing a banana.

When I came to the U.S. I was shocked by how much food kids at school threw away. They tossed out bananas! Even back then I would always save whatever I hadn't eaten for lunch and take it back home. I carried my little brown lunch bag all through recess. I still hardly ever throw food away. There's something callous about wasting food

Bloom and his commenters are often perplexed about how not to waste food, but actually it’s pretty easy. Stick to a grocery budget, make soup stock out of those wilted vegetables and leftover chicken parts, plan ahead. In fact, like, home cooking on a budget, what it really takes is planning and an innate interest in cooking. When I buy groceries I always think about what I can do with leftovers, so planning has become second nature.

In contrast, I recently cooked dinner with a friend who gave me carte blanche to make whatever I wanted. It was past 7 p.m. on a weekday I had decided on roasted salmon and potatoes. We made a beeline for the grocery store to pick up the ingredients. (Have I mentioned that this friend has a minimally stocked pantry and little cookware?) Shopping without looking at what’s on sale, without a plan for using leftovers—-what strange, unsettling feeling!

Commenters on Bloom’s blog are always looking for recipes incorporating leftovers. Nothing new from me this week, but here are some past offerings which make good use of whatever you may have in the fridge:

Milk: Make homemade cottage cheese (aka farmer's cheese, curd cheese or tvorog).

Cottage cheese: Bake muffins.

Cooked, cold chicken: Make chicken-stuffed crepes or chicken and spinach hachepouri.

Raw chicken, random vegetables: Make stock.

Tomatoes past their prime: Roast 'em.

Roasted tomatoes, canned tomatoes, or tomato paste: Make chana masala soup.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Russian Grocery Tour: Little Europe

Do you have a hankering for sauerkraut and pirozhki? Do you miss standing in line for herring and smoked fish? Do you want to be verbally abused by a platinum-blonde cashier named Olga? Oh, yes, you do.

Welcome, nostalgic émigrés and curious Amerikantsi, to the Russian grocery store. Despite the evocative names these stores bestow on themselves—-Little Europe, Spartak—-they look oddly similar inside, as if some sort of Central Soviet Grocery Bureau mandated the décor. Invariably the size of a small living room, these stores are home to beige shelves, an ancient-looking cash register and fluorescent lighting. Promo posters of tarted-up pop stars are plastered on the walls, along with ads selling/seeking cars, jobs, nannies, wives, etc.

Yet if you push your way through the babushkas jostling around the fish counter, you will be rewarded with foodie gems and curiosities like marinated mushrooms, exotic dairy products and candy bars named after grizzly bears.

Join me, reader, as I take you on a multi-blog post tour of Milwaukee-area Russian groceries. We will negotiate back room caviar deals with gruff proprietors. We will investigate just what is in those frozen dumplings. We will buy herring. Ok, maybe we’ll just buy herring. In this first installment, we head over to Shorewood’s Little Europe.

UPDATE, March 2009: Little Europe has closed.

Location: 4517 N. Oakland Ave, Shorewood, Wis. (414) 967-8841

Atmosphere: See intro. A bit more spacious and better lighted than the average Russian grocery, though, complete with a little alcove for books, CDs and DVDs.

Customer Service: Surprisingly friendly and warm when one of the owners is working. Apathetic when a teenager (the owners’ son?) is putting in a shift.

Product selection: In addition to all the usual Russian goodies—-sunflower oil, tea, jars of marinated vegetables, kefir and cheeses—-Little Europe has some unusual offerings like frozen wild mushrooms. Also, there’s a very big selection of frozen pelmeni and other doughy goodies. For the poor folk, check out reasonably priced frozen fish. Nice selection of kitschy chocolate candy in the back; I recommend the tiny fruit candies in flavors like black currant and apricot.
A small selection of Russian books, magazines and CDs/DVDs for you Slavic studies majors.

Pricing: Good. Very reasonably priced loose-leaf tea. The frozen wild mushrooms range from $5.99 to $8.99 a bag. The dairy and the yummy marinated vegetables are pricier, but no sticker shock.

Buy: Frozen mushrooms.

Avoid: The uninspired rye bread, trucked in from Chicago. Can’t blame Little Europe, though. I think every Russian grocery in town sells this stuff.

Final rating: *** to ****, depending on who’s behind the counter

Rating key:

*Soviet cafeteria food

**Day-old buckwheat kasha

***Borsch made by a non-native

**** Babushka’s homemade pirozhki

*****Black caviar on a buttered baguette and a shot of chilled vodka

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Table for One

Eating alone: I like it. Oh, I know I’m not supposed to. It’s anti-social and weird and is probably tied to overeating. From a foodie perspective, it’s not a great deal either: it’s makes no sense to cook large roasts or pans of brownies or pancakes for one. (There’s no such thing as a pancake recipe that serves just one.) And, c’mon, what kind of person really enjoys eating alone? That’s what you do when you’re stuck somewhere on a business trip, or when killing time at the airport, or when you’re a young single person living alone in your little apartment. Ahem.

But consider: When eating alone, you can eat and make whatever you like, with no concerns about how a potential dining partner will enjoy your efforts. For me that usually means roasted vegetables, and more vegetables: brussels sprouts with feta, cauliflower topped with a poached egg, butternut squash, eaten with a side of sautéed mushrooms and spinach. This is stuff you can’t serve to company. Guys, in my experience, particularly don’t take to it.

Eating alone also spares you from awkward social dynamics of eating with others. I once met a man, a real gourmet, who said that the best dining companions are a good headwaiter and a damn good sommelier. To this I would add that a magazine or a book is often as good of a dining companion as any. Eating one with a significant other, for instance, is never as blissful as it sounds: in the beginning, there’s a scramble for conversation topics and awkward pauses; a little later, long pauses and more interest in satiating hunger than in one’s partner; much later…talk about the miscellanea of life, I guess. Home repairs, yard work, kids. I wouldn’t know.

I admit that eating alone has its downsides: I like wine but I wouldn’t think of drinking alone; I miss feedback (that is, praise) for my cooking; I’d hesitate to eat alone at a restaurant with wait staff, though I admire people, especially women, who do so. An underappreciated dining companion, I think, is a reticent reader with an appreciation of food. When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was to crunch on an apple while reading a favorite book. To this day my eyes often stray to whatever readable matter is on the table—newspapers, old mail, labels on condiment bottles. A good meal and a good book (or magazine, or newspaper, or even work, why not) in front of each diner, and voila: domestic bliss.

Oh, and here’s a loose recipe for my favorite roasted cauliflower with a poached egg. Serves 1, maybe 1.5.

Start with a small head of cauliflower. Cut the cauliflower into florets or just slice it diagonally. Put in a foil-lined pan and add a dash of kosher salt, ground black pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, and olive oil. Roast for about 25-30 minutes, turning the cauliflower over halfway through the cooking time.

Five minutes before the cauliflower is done, bring a couple of cups of water and a splash of vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. When the water is boiling, break a large egg or two into a saucer, making sure to keep the yolk whole. Turn down the heat to a very gentle simmer and carefully slip the egg into the water. Start a timer—you want to poach the egg for about 3.5 minutes. In the meantime, remove the cauliflower from the oven and and plate it. Grate or sprinkle some cheese over it—Pamesan, feta, whatever you like. Toast some nice bread. Your egg should be done by now. Use a slotted spoon to carefully remove it, gently shake off the excess water, and place the egg on top the caramelized cauliflower. Salt to taste. Jab the egg with a fork until the soft, gooey, eggy yolk seeps over the cauliflower. Eat. Use the bread to wipe your plate clean.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sugared Lemons

I’ve been drinking tea without sugar since I was a kid, but lately I’ve developed a sweet tooth. It’s not that I dump white sugar into my mug by the teaspoonful, but a little subtle sweetness isn’t unwelcome. I usually go for honey, fruit preserves or sugared lemons.

Sugared lemons are just what they sound like: blanched lemons, sliced thinly, and layered with sugar in a clean jar. The sugar works its magic, and a few days later you get lemon slices mingling with lemon syrup. Add a slice of lemon and a splash of syrup to black tea, and you’ve got nice lemon flavor minus harsh acidity.


Boil some water. Place your lemons in a bowl and splash some boiling water over them. This makes the lemons more fragrant.

While you’re at it, get a clean, empty jar big enough to hold your sliced lemons (jam jars work great), and swivel some hot water around in it. Pour out.

Cut the lemons into thin slices. Place in the jar and pour some sugar over the slices. How much sugar? Your call. I was taught to cover the lemons in sugar completely, but you can use less, of course. Refrigerate. The lemons will develop a nice sugar syrup in a day or two.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Product review: Rhyazhenka

If you've kept up with Yulinka Cooks, you know that I love Russian dairy of all sorts. Yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, sour cream and, of course, homemade Russian cottage cheese, also known as tvorog or farmer's cheese.

I've recently discovered another worthy Slavic milk product--ryazhenka. I had vaguely known about ryazhenka, sometimes referred to as baked milk. Every once in a while I would get a plaintive e-mail from a reader asking if I had ever tried it. Well, now I have, and I recommend it with slight reservations.

First: what the hell is "baked milk"? I did a little research--thanks, Google--and unearthed that:

The base is baked milk and cream, matured for several hours at the temperature 95°C. The milk acquires a beautiful cream-beige color, after which the ferment of thermopile races of milk streptococcus are added. But don’t be intimidated by the “scary” scientific names! These are “friendly” to your body and the microbes that are located in your intestine.
Well. If you've got an iffy relationship with fermented milk products, rhyazhenka won't change your mind. It's blandly beige (ahem, a "beautiful cream-beige color") and has a thick, smoothie-like consistency. It tastes like plain yogurt, but tarter. You can drink it as you would a smoothie, or you can follow my example and spoon it over yogurt or farmer's cheese. I like it with a little sugar, jam, or honey.

As for microbes, intestines, etc., Russians credit rhyazhenka and its cousin, kefir, with aiding digestion. Lore has it that a glass of rhyazhenka is a good late-night snack. Rhyazhenka is often available in Russian and Polish groceries.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Smoked Mackerel Canapes

Some get worked up about the turkey on Thanksgiving. Brine or baste, roast or deep-fry, free range or heritage. But I get excited about mackerel.

A holiday spread in this Russian household is not complete without some sort of smoked or salted fish. Some go for herring, salty and traditional. I go for mackerel, smoky and creamy. Last week my mom bought a whole hot-smoked mackerel at the Russian store. It came with a tail, a head, and sad, pleading eyes. I was unmoved.

My mom and I cut the fish into sections, removed the skin and bones, and dug in. You can eat smocked mackerel spread on rye bread, with slices of cucumber and tomato. Or you can pick up the soft, fatty chunks with your fingers and pop them in your mouth, letting the fish melt on your tongue.

The week before Thanksgiving I thought about smocked mackerel, a lot. When Nov. 22 arrived, I tiptoed around the fish, ensconced in the fridge for the guests, like a cat. By late afternoon, I proclaimed it time for a pre-dinner snack. Don't worry; I refrained from eating with my fingers. The holidays call for a nicer presentation.


You will need a hot-smocked mackerel fillet (sold at Russian groceries), cleaned of skin and bones, and cut into chunks. (If you get squeamish around whole fish, you can sub smoked trout or salmon fillets).

Toast some thinly sliced dark rye or wholemeal bread. Spread with a thin layer of unslated butter.Top with a thin slice of cucumber, a thin slice of tomato, and a slice of mackerel. Or skip the tomato and top with thinly sliced red onion. Use the leftover mackarel to make Beyond Salmon’s delicious looking smoked fish chowder.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Notes on Foodies

The word foodie has fallen out of favor with foodies. I think this is because educated, upwardly mobile people—that is, most foodies—hate to think of themselves as part of an easily identifiable target market. It’s also an attempt to dissociate themselves from the more obnoxious members of this tribe. Plus, it’s pretty uncool to label yourself as part of a group. Most foodies would no more describe themselves as such than, say, a hipster would call himself as hipster (although you know one when you see one).

Yet a foodie is not the same as the average Joe who likes food and cooking. Foodies have their lingo, their idols, their cant. How can you tell if you’re a foodie or just an enthusiastic cook? Here’s a handy list. I admit that this is far from complete; reader input is welcome.

You’re a foodie if:

-You know that buying locally-grown ingredients is more important (and hip) than buying organic ones.

-You purchase locally-grown ingredients as a matter of principle.

-You’ve heard of molecular gastronomy.

-You can more or less define molecular gastronomy.

-You’re aware that El Bulli is supposed to be the best restaurant in the world.

-You’re aware that it’s impossibly difficult to get a reservation.

-You’re aware that it only takes reservations by e-mail one day each year, and is closed for six months.

-You enjoy retro food like casseroles, iceberg lettuce salads and jello in an ironic way.

-You make updated versions of the above foods using local, ethnic or “gourmet” ingredients.

-You’re sensitive to the needs of celiacs.

-But not to the needs of picky eaters and dieters.

-You have at least one of the following in your pantry/fridge, even though you’re not from the Middle East, Japan, India or Thailand: pomegranate molasses, tahini, miso, bonito flakes, fish sauce, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves .

-You’ve made risotto at least once in your life.

-You’ve also roasted beets.

-And have eaten them with goat cheese.

-You’re offended by Americanized versions of ethnic foods.

-You know when and how Clotilde Dusoulier got into cooking.

-You know who Clotilde Dusoulier is.

-You frown on the Food Network, Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee, Starbucks, chain restaurants, celebrity chefs, and pasta with too much sauce.

-You have mixed feelings about Anthony Bourdain (blowhard), Frank Bruni (Republican) and Top Chef (whoever didn't win should have won).

-You idolize at least one of the following: Jeffrey Steingarten, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz.

-You hate the word foodie!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Asian" Broccoli Soup

I wasn’t kidding about all soup, all the time. Granted, savvy food bloggers don’t keep writing about the same dish over and over again. They know that readers come back for variety. But what do you expect when the weather around these parts looks like this:

And this:
You expect soup. This is a very nice variation on creamy broccoli soup, which I make occasionally with cheddar. I was out of cheese, though, and keeping with my policy to work with ingredients that I already have, I made an “Asian” variation. Of course, I mean Asian only in the very vague sense that it contains soy sauce, hoisin, fresh ginger, black bean sauce and nam pla (fish sauce). I’d bet it would be great with miso, as suggested here.


Finely chop a large onion and a couple of carrots. Heat up some olive or peanut oil in a heavy soup pot, and sauté the aromatics until the onion is soft and golden. Add about ½-inch of finely minced fresh ginger and a clove of minced garlic; sauté for a few more minutes until the ginger and garlic are aromatic.

Deglaze with a splash of mirin and soy sauce. Add 2-3 cups of broccoli florets (about 2 medium heads of broccoli), along with the peeled, finely chopped broccoli stalks to the soup pot. Cover with chicken stock—about 4 cups—and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, partially covered, until the broccoli is very tender. Take the soup off the heat, carefully puree in a blender in batches, add back to the pot, and bring it to a simmer.

In a bowl, combine a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce and hoisin (or sweet and sour sauce), a teaspoon of black bean sauce, a splash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon of honey and a dash of Sriracha sauce (or any other spicy chili sauce).

Add sauces to stock pot; stir; taste; adjust as necessary. When serving, garnish with chopped scallions, sesame seeds, dark sesame oil or seared tofu.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Some Thoughts on Food Politics

Alice Waters publishes a book on local/sustainable/organic/healthy/fresh/honest cooking, and the natives are restless. Eating local, organic, healthy, etc., is expensive, elitist and time-consuming, say the critics. Eating local, organic, healthy, etc., is virtuous, good for the planet and easier than you think, say the supporters. I haven’t yet read Waters' book, but my initial reaction is: a pox on both their houses.

Now, I’m above all pro-home cooking: I think everyone can and should cook. I’m also pro reasonably healthy eating—and I don’t buy the argument that nutritious food is more expensive or any harder to prepare than junk (more time-consuming, yes). I like the idea of eating local and often shop at the farmer’s markets in the summer—yet I am inspired by better-tasting vegetables and the fun atmosphere rather than concerns about the well-being of small farms and the environment.

At the same time, I’m on a budget. I’m in grad school; I work at a non-profit. While far from impoverished, I avoid Whole Foods and the local swanky grocery stores. In fact, when resuming this blog, I toyed with the theme of cooking good, nutritious food on the cheap. How cheap? I try to keep my monthly food budget to the low three figures, and generally do, occasional donations from the Food Pantry of Mom and Dad notwithstanding.

A while back I wrote about how my mom managed to cook homemade, nutritious food on a tight budget as a recent immigrant. She carefully studied the specials and clipped coupons. She bought things that were on sale that week at the cheaper stores. She made huge pots of soup and stew from scratch. No one in the family went hungry or suffered from malnutrition.

And that’s how I manage my food budget these days. I rarely buy anything that’s not on special at the grocery store. I don’t pick up ingredients specifically for a recipe; instead, I work with what I already have in the fridge and the pantry to create my own variations. If I want chili but I can’t afford beef that week, I’ll make a vegetarian version with chickpeas. If I want mahi-mahi but tilapia is cheap that week, I’ll adapt a recipe for tilapia. I often stock up at Trader Joe’s and Lena’s, a depressing local supermarket that sells shockingly cheap fruits and vegetables under the glare of fluorescent lights. Cauliflower for .39 a pound; red peppers for .99, plums for .79. It’s not remotely local/organic/virtuous, but then, it lets me make nutritious, varied food while sticking to my budget.

Is it convenient to cook healthy food from scratch on the cheap? No. Unless you truly enjoy food and cooking, it’s a pain in the ass. My mom saw cooking as a duty, something she had to do as a wife and mother, whether she enjoyed it or not. (I can count on one hand the number of times she has ever said, “I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s get takeout.” That’s not what Soviet immigrants do.)

I’m with Waters all the way about the pleasures of eating and playing around in the kitchen. I like food and all the rituals associated with it. I like planning meals, I like shopping for ingredients, I like chopping and sautéing. I like sitting down to a leisurely meal, whether it’s en famille or just me and a week-old New Yorker. I avoid eating in the car or on the run between phone calls and e-mails.

I don’t mind putting time and effort into cooking, even if it’s just for myself. I value homemade chicken stock and farmer’s market potatoes. Making stock isn’t a huge effort, but you do have to baby sit it for a couple of hours as it simmers on the stove. The farmer’s market is open Saturday afternoons but it’s still on the other side of town. That means I have to plan ahead. I’ve cut short studying sessions at grad school to make it to the market before it closes. I sometimes find myself in the kitchen at midnight simmering that stock. For me, all that’s fun.

But what if cooking isn’t fun? Then there’s no way you will rearrange your schedule stand over a hot stove or trek to the market for local potatoes. Sometimes I wonder what normal, twenty-something girl would find herself making chicken stock into the wee hours of the morning when a) she has a full time job b) there is a pile of school work to be finished c) she could be going out and socializing. No normal twenty-something something girl would do something like that, unless she has a freaking food blog. Actually, hardly anyone but a food blogger would.

Food isn’t all that important to a lot of people. Yeah, they like nice food when it’s made and served to them, but relatively few people rhapsodize about beautiful produce, risotto-stirring and leisurely dinners. Making homemade stock or going out of the way to buy local potatoes holds as much appeal to them as Nascar racing does to me. And you really have to like food to follow Waters’ commands: shop at farmer’s markets, know the people who grow your food, cook at home. What Waters is ultimately promoting, I think, is an upscale lifestyle hobby, comparable to vacationing in Napa or reading memoirs about remodeling one’s villa in Tuscany. That’s why some people bristle when confronted with Waters’ book. Her expensive hobby is their drudgery, drudgery they don’t even have money for. Me, I wish I could afford what she’s selling. But most just don’t care that much.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Vegetable Soup with Chicken Meatballs

I realize that no one who’s serious about cooking and eating has anything good to say about boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but I have to speak up on their behalf. Yes, they are usually dry and overcooked. Yes, they are the province of unadventurous eaters and dieters. Yet I think they’ve very useful to have on hand, provided you cook them correctly. Pounded thin and quickly sautéed over high heat, they can stay juicy and make a nice addition to quick stir-fries.

That’s how I usually cook them, but a couple of weeks ago I got the idea of making chicken meatballs and poaching them in chicken stock. These meatballs are very easy to make and cook almost instantly in the simmering stock, which provides some much-needed moisture. I’d hesitate to sauté or simmer them in sauce for, say, spaghetti and meatballs, though—they’ll probably dry out quickly. Best to keep the cooking minimal.


Place 8 oz of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks, into a bowl of a food processor. Grind until the meat is coarsely chopped (don’t overprocess into a smooth paste). Put the meat in a bowl, and add an egg, a couple of tablespoons of bread crumbs, a couple of tablespoons of chopped parsley, a dash each of salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes; mix well with a spoon to combine. Shape the mixture into meatballs that are about 1 inch in diameter; placed on a wax paper-lined plate and chill them in the fridge for a couple of hours.

For the soup: dice a large onion and a couple of carrots. Heat up some olive oil in a soup pot; add the onions and carrots and sauté until the onions are soft and golden, 10 minutes. Add 4 cups fresh spinach (or substitute frozen in the next step) and 2 minced garlic cloves; sauté for a few minutes just until the spinach is wilted and the garlic is aromatic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add 5 cups of good quality chicken stock, 1. 5 cups cooked cannellini beans and the frozen spinach, if that’s what you’re using. Bring to a boil and add a couple of bay leaves. This would be a good time to toss in a Parmesan cheese rind, if you have one. Turn the heat down and simmer the soup for 10 minutes. Carefully add the chicken meatballs to the soup pot one by one. Simmer until they’re just done, about 4 minutes. Serve the soup immediately, preferably with grated Parmesan.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Mushroom Vegetable Soup with Israeli Couscous

When I resurrected this blog, I considered going with a soup theme. All soup, all the time. Now, this is the month when most people start thinking about soup. Not I. I think about soup all year long. I've written about my Russian family's soup-eating habits here and here. To sum up: We Russkies like our soup, regardless of weather. In the steamiest of summer days we may enjoy a chilled svekolnik, but when the temperature drops to a bone-chilling 70 F, we go back to borsch and kharcho.

You can take a girl out a soup-making household, but you can't take soup-making out a girl. These days I have my own rotating repertoire of favorites, although I make different variations every time depending on what I have in the fridge. Here’s my latest take on mushroom barley soup. I happened to have a big box of Israeli couscous, as well leeks, onions, carrots and leftover broccoli stalks (which are totally edible and delicious, by the way).


Soak ½ ounce of dried porcini mushrooms in ½ cup of water overnight, or at least for 3-4 hours. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mushrooms. Put them in a bowl and cover with some cold, fresh water. Let stand for several minutes minutes to let the grit settle at the bottom. Remove the mushrooms, and repeat this step twice more with fresh water. Strain the mushroom water through a coffee filter until it’s free of grit and sand. Reserve the mushrooms and the liquid for later.

Chop up 8 oz. of white button mushrooms. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet and sauté the mushrooms until they are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add kosher or coarse salt to taste. Set aside. Chop up a large onion, a large carrot, and half a leek. Peel and coarsely chop the broccoli stalks. Finely mince 2 stalks of celery and a couple of garlic cloves.

Heat up some olive oil in a soup pot and sauté the onion, carrot, broccoli stalks, leeks and celery until the onions are soft and translucent and the broccoli is semi-soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic; sauté for another minute, until the garlic becomes aromatic.

Add the sautéed and the rehydrated mushrooms the soup pot. Pour in 4 cups of chicken stock, the mushroom liquid and a tablespoon or two of soy sauce to taste ; toss in a couple of bay leaves and some black peppercorns and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the soup simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add ¼ cup of dry Israeli couscous and simmer until the couscous is cooked, about 8-10 minutes. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Eat with dollops of sour cream or thick, plain yogurt.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chana Masala Soup

I like creamy tomato soup a lot, and I often make a vaguely Italian version with onions and carrots as aromatics and basil and thyme as spices. The other day I was looking at Orangette's recipe for tomato chickpea soup. I had chickpeas, I had tomatoes… and I had fresh ginger and spices left over from cooking projects of yore. So I made something I called chana masala soup—the liquid version of Indian spiced chickpeas with tomatoes. My spice blend, like every other “ethnic” dish that comes out of my kitchen isn’t remotely authentic, but I was very pleased with the soup. It’s a rich, aromatic tomato puree full of creamy chickpeas, just spicy enough to warm your mouth.


Soak some dry chickpeas. Sure, you can use canned chickpeas, but they really taste better if you cook them yourself, something I discovered when I started making my own hummus. It’s more time consuming, but requires almost no effort on your part. Soak 3/4 cup of chickpeas overnight. Add a couple of teaspoons of baking soda to the water —it’ll help the chickpeas cook faster. Rinse the soaked chickpeas, put them in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, add a dash of salt and simmer over medium heat until the chickpeas are soft, about 1 hour.

I heated up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot, then added a large, chopped onion, a finely chopped carrot and a stalk of finely chopped celery. I sautéed the aromatics until the onion was soft and translucent (about 10 minutes), and added 2 garlic cloves and a 1-inch piece of ginger root, finely minced together almost into a paste. I sautéed for a few more minutes until the ginger and garlic turned fragrant.

I turned up the heat and added 1 tbs. of garam masala, 1 tsp. of ground cumin, 1 tsp. of ground coriander, 1 tsp. of turmeric, and ¼ tsp. of cayenne, frying the spices for several minutes . Next I added a 32-oz can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes, breaking up the pieces with a spoon and 4 cups of chicken stock. I brought the soup to a boil, and then turned down the heat and let it simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes. I took the soup off the heat and pureed it in batches in a blender, then poured it back into the soup pot. I then added 1 tbs. of brown sugar (skip if your tomatoes are sweet enough), 1.5 tsp. of coarse salt and about ½ cup of plain yogurt, stirring until the yogurt dissolved. I added the cooked chickpeas to the soup and heating it for serving.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Spinach and Chicken Hachepouri

I’ve got a confession. I’m not a heedless gourmand. Yes, I like cooking and eating good food, but I watch what I eat. I watch my fats. I watch my carbs. I watch my calories. And these days, I really watch my vitamins and minerals. That’s because for the past six months, I’ve been dabbling in something called CRON. This stands for calorie restriction, optimal nutrition (CR for short). CR has gotten a lot of mainstream coverage lately, most of it unflattering or at best dubious. The (yet unproven) science behind it is that you can live longer—like to 120--by consuming fewer calories. Reporters are shocked, shocked that someone can survive on, say, 1,500 calories a day. Yet CRON, with its focus on small portions of very healthy food, nicely reflects foodie darling Michael Pollan's dictum to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And that’s what I try to do.

Admittedly, at this point I don’t care too much about living well into my dotage. I’m too young for that. I’m more concerned about nutrients than low calorie levels. CR is the first food philosophy I’ve come across that really forces you to look at your nutrition. CRONies aim for 100% of recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals. You track what you eat using nutritional software like the free Cron-o-Meter. To a lot of people, this may sound obsessive or unappetizing. To me, it’s been a fascinating experiment. CRONies tout all sorts of health benefits that come with the diet, although all I’ve noticed so far is fewer colds and maybe slightly thicker hair. That’s good enough for now. All of this may turn out to be a placebo, but it’s a placebo that makes me feel healthier and more energetic, so what’s the harm. Longtime CR blogger Mary Robinson says it best: “If you have a reasonable amount of self-discipline, an interest in taking charge of your own health, and are willing to be a little bit of a scientist (you will be your own science experiment), CR can really work for you."

Occasionally I’ll revamp a favorite recipe to make it a bit more CR -friendly. Hachepouri, Georgian cheesebread, is a good example. Hachepouri, as I make it, is homemade dough with a cheese filling. A few weeks ago I made the dough but stuffed it with sautéed spinach, chicken and feta instead of just the cheese. Think of it as a variation on spanokapita. CR folk frown on carbs and starches, but the spinach and chicken up the nutrients and protein. As for calories, this is where you practice moderation and portion control. To make it all less painful, cut the hachepouri into small slices and serve it at a party. I guarantee that it will go fast.


The dough recipe is from Nigella Lawson's Feast, by way of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I usually cut the recipe in half, using 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 egg, 1 cup yogurt, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, and about 3 cups of flour. The dough itself comes together in about 10 minutes.

For the filling, I diced a large onion and sautéed it in some olive oil until it was soft and translucent. I added a couple of cloves of minced garlic, and 5 cups of spinach—I used leafy frozen spinach, but of course you can use fresh spinach, cleaned and chopped—and sautéed for a couple of more minutes, until the spinach was limp. Then I took the spinach off the heat and added some cooked, chopped up chicken and maybe 1/2 cup of feta. If you have no nutritional qualms, you can certainly use more cheese. I let the filling cool before stuffing the dough rounds and baking them at 425 for 35-30 minutes. The hachepouri can be frozen and reheated in the oven. Note that I ate it with more sautéed, garlicky spinach on the side.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Butternut Squash and Mushroom Salad

Salad for me means a bowl of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, scallions and parsley or dill, dressed with either olive oil and vinegar, or a homemade a mayo/sour cream-based dressing. That’s the kind of salad I grew up eating, and that’s the kind of salad I make most often. Every once in a while, though, I’ll get a craving for an American-style lettuce-based salad. No iceberg, please, just a hoity-toity mix of romaine, aragula, endive, radicchio and so on. I’ll top the lettuce with my usual tomatoes, cukes and whatever protein I have on hand, but occasionally I’ll get creative.

For a while I used to have lunch at Panera, and their Fuji apple chicken salad almost makes me take back everything bad I once said about this place. I honestly liked Panera’s take on the fancy bistro-style salad, topped with chunks chicken, blue cheese, red onions, pecans, and sliced apples. That’s the kind of salad I was craving lately, and a butternut squash and mushroom salad is what I concocted out of leftovers I had in the fridge. The ingredients are different, but the spirit is the same: a leafy, nutty, filling, fall-themed fancy salad, slightly sweet, woodsy and crunchy all at the same time.

You will need leftover roasted butternut squash, chilled. (To roast: peel the butternut squash with a vegetable peeler, cut into chunks, toss in a pan with kosher salt, black pepper, a splash of olive oil and a tablespoon or two or brown sugar. Roast at 425 for 30 minutes, or until soft). Thinly slice some yellow onions and white button mushrooms, and mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Heat up some olive oil in a skillet, and sauté the onions for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and keep sautéing until the mushrooms are soft and golden. Add the garlic and some kosher salt to taste, sauté for a few more minutes. Take off the heat and let cool (put the mixture in a chilled salad bowl). When the mushrooms and onions have cooled, add a variety of fancy lettuce (bagged is fine) and a couple of handfuls of walnuts or pecans—both work well here. Dress with a vinaigrette, or just olive oil like I did. (I bet walnut oil would work great here). Top each serving plate with shaved Parmesan.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Roasted Cauliflower Salad

When in doubt about how to cook a vegetable, roast it. Chop it up, put it in a pan with some salt and olive oil, and pop it in the oven at 425 or so for, oh, 30 minutes. Cauliflower, for example, is excellent roasted. Raw cauliflower is inedible, steamed cauliflower is dull diet food, but roasted cauliflower is creamy soft and comfort food-esque. I try to roast it at least once a week. My favorite way to eat it (this idea is swiped from Orangette) is topped with a poached egg and some Parmesan. But cauliflower is the blank canvas of vegetables-it absorbs flavors and goes well with all sorts of odds and ends.

I often use leftover roasted cauliflower for salads. Nearly everything I cook is based on what I have in the fridge or the pantry at the moment, and recently I had roasted red peppers, tomatoes, scallions, dill and feta, all of which went into the salad bowl. You could sub a different type of cheese, of course, or use red onions and parsley, or forgo tomatoes, etc., but this combo was so good that I almost recommend that you buy ingredients specifically for this salad.

You will need cold roasted cauliflower, cut into small-ish chunks, and either roasted or raw red peppers, thinly sliced. In a bowl, combine the cauliflower, red pepper strips, a couple of large handfuls of cherry tomatoes (the tomatoes can also be roasted), chopped scallions, chopped dill and crumbled feta. Drizzle with olive oil and red wine vinegar--or make a proper vinaigrette if you're fancy--and add salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.


I’m back in the kitchen, cooking…well, not Russian and more. Life circumstances have changed, people. A, I’m single, so no more huge wats of borsch that I can depend on the Significant Other to inhale. B, I live alone these days and the budget is tighter, so I won’t be wasting ingredients on rye bread beer-brewing projects. C, My quest to lose some weight has been successful and has killed my desire to make and consume mountains of sweet yeast dough. And D, I think I've exhausted my repertoire of Russian dishes. No, really, I lived at home for a stretch this year and my mom and I did not once cook anything that I have not already blogged about.

Oh, I still like my beets and mushrooms, but I want to try to do something different with them. Namely: Cook vegetables more inventively and create healthy meals on a tight budget. And we’re off…

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Memorial Day Eats

I'm still around, and up to my old tricks. Namely, kebabs. (Or, if you prefer, Caucasian shashlik.)

Eggplant caviar.

And, of course, beets. That's creamy beet salad there.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

A year of Yulinka Cooks

The other day I realized that my blog is a year old. Although I’m not really cooking or blogging these days, I thought I’d commemorate this anniversary with a timeline of the past year’s highs and lows.

March 2006: I write my first post. Hi, everyone!
April: I cook sirniki, take a picture and post my very first recipe. I write my seminal guide to making farmer’s cheese. (Many new readers find Yulinka Cooks through this post.) I bake vatrushki mostly so that I can write about them here. I’m an enthusiastic newbie and post something at least three times a week. Haverchuk, one of my favorite food blogs, links to me! I have five readers. Whoo! Hey, blogging is fun!
May: I dabble in food politics. I still don’t have many readers or commenters, which disappoints me. I develop a marketing scheme: I will post lots and lots of comments on other food blogs. I embark on stealth comment-posting, and check for comments left on my blog first thing every morning. There are very few. I quickly tire of writing forced missives like “Yum!” or “That looks good!” I write a “why aren’t you reading this blog, damn it?” post, which receives 10 comments. From people like the Wednesday Chef! It’s working! I have readers! A book deal is sure to follow!
June: My enthusiasm for blogging begins to wane. My (now ex) boyfriend reads my blog. “I’d like it more if you didn’t have crappy pictures,” says he. Ouch.
July: A more fruitful month. I discover farmer’s markets. My pictures aren't any less crappy.
August: I dabble in DIY projects—pickles, kvass—with varying success. I have a handful of readers.
September: I begin grad school and cook very little. I write about my thoughts on tea and seasonal cooking.
October: I discover and play around with Google Analytics. I can finally join other bloggers in giggling over crazy search terms that bring people to my blog. "Uzbek porn video," tee hee! But really, most people find me when searching for eggplant caviar or farmer’s cheese recipes. My readers are boring.
November: I talk up homemade sauerkraut, but something goes wrong during fermentation. I end up tossing it and feel guilty for wasting food. “Where’s that bucket of sauerkraut you made?” asks my mom in December. “It’s in a better place now,” I mumble. “It’s in cabbage heaven,” she surmises. I don't blog about this at the time.
December: Nothing much. I write about kasha. Readership wanes.
January: I write about borsch and Russian New Year’s food. I get comments! I still haven't been offered a book deal or quit my job to embark on a career as a freelance food writer.
February: The boyfriend and I split; I’m busy with work and grad school; and I’m trying to lose some weight. I call it quits for a while.
March: Hey, how about some kharcho?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Vote for Yulinka...Again

My hiatus didn't stop MKE, the local lifestyle weekly, from nominating Yulinka Cooks for its local blog of the week contest. I've been nominated once before, last June, but lost.

So please vote for me. If I win, I will actually cook something Russian, take pictures of it and write it up.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I’m not really back from my hiatus, but I want to sneak in a write-up of the kharcho I made last weekend. Kharcho is a Georgian lamb (or beef) and rice soup, rich with herbs, spices, tomatoes and sour plums. I’ve never had authentic kharcho prepared by someone who knows Georgian cooking, but I thought that my version was quite passable. The recipe is from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table.

Some notes:

-I used beef for my kharcho. Anya’s recipe calls for cooking boneless beef—flank or brisket-- in pre-made beef stock, which seems convoluted. I simply made beef stock, which was very good, by the way—much better than my somewhat watery borsht stock. I covered 3 pounds of beef chuck, 1.25 pounds marrow bones, 1 pound shank bones, an onion, a couple of carrots, a couple of bay leaves and a handful of black peppercorns with 3 quarts of water. I brought the pot to a gentle boil, and then turned the heat down to a simmer. I had to skim off the scum with a slotted spoon for the first half hour or so, and then I let the stock simmer on very low heat for 3 1/2 hours.

I ended up with more stock and meat than I needed for this recipe; so I used the leftovers to make…more soup (beef-barley). The stock is flavorful and would work nicely with just some sautéed vegetables and rice.

-Tklapi—dried sour plums used in Georgian cooking—are hard to come by in the U.S. Substitute tamarind concentrate or lemon juice for kharcho. By the way, if you don’t already have a jar of tamarind concentrate in the pantry or don’t plan on using it in other recipes, don’t bother buying tamarind for the two teaspoons used in this one. Lemon juice will work just fine here.

-This soup is better on the second day, but the flavor really improves if you add a healthy squeeze of lemon juice while heating it up.

-The recipe calls for half a dozen spices in very small quantities. I’d up the spices next time. One-fourth teaspoon of dried basil won’t do much for a huge pot of soup.

Make beef stock as described above; chill it overnight; degrease it; remove the cooked beef and cut it into bite-size pieces (See my borsch recipe for details.)

Bring 8 cups of stock and ½ of the cooked beef to a simmer in a stockpot.

Dice 2 medium onions. Peel, seed and chop 6 large tomatoes (or use good canned tomatoes—I used a 14 oz. can of Muir Glen). Melt 3 tbs. butter--I used butter and olive oil--in a skillet, and sauté the onions until golden (10 mins. or so). Add 2 tbs. of tomato paste and the tomatoes to the skillet, and whisk in ¼ cup of stock. Add the onions and tomatoes to the stockpot. Add ¼ cup long-grain rice to the pot (I’d add a little more—1/3 cup, maybe). Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add ¼ tsp. dried tarragon; ¼ tsp. dried basil; ¼ tsp dried mint; 1 1/2 tsp. sweet Hungarian paprika; ¼-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes; ¾ tsp. crushed coriander seeds; and ¼ tsp. ground fenugreek to the pot. (I'd up the spices 1/4 tsp. each.) Dilute 2 tsps. tamarind concentrate in ¼ cup of stock, or just use 3-4 tbs. fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Add to the pot. Add 3 crushed garlic cloves and ¼ cup crushed walnuts to the pot. Salt to taste.

Simmer 15 mins., until the rice is cooked. Remove soup from heat and add a handful of fresh chopped herbs—dill, parsley, basil, cilantro, etc. (I only had dill on hand—for shame. The soup was good, though, so I’d imagine it’s even better with more herbs). Let the soup stand 10 minutes (don’t ignore this part—you want the flavors to settle).

Add more fresh herbs—up to 1 cup--before serving.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Yulinka Cooks is going on an indefinite hiatus. I hope I'll be back someday.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Music To Cook By


I suspect that this meme is really a chance for food bloggers to flaunt their eclectic music tastes. Listening to music while cooking is overrated. Oh, it may be fine if you're doing some quiet and tedious kitchen task, like peeling 20 pounds of potatoes. Once you start sautéing, stir-frying, deglazing or browning, all music is drowned out by the hiss and sizzle of the pan. And what can you possibly hear when running a food processor, blender or KitchenAid? Furthermore: music equipment and greasy, floury hands do not mix.

Allow me to demonstrate that music has no place in the kitchen. I'll explain just why the next 10 tracks my iPod randomly pulls up are totally inappropriate for listening to while cooking.

1. Confutatis, from Mozart's Requiem: Starts quiet, then gets loud, then gets really quiet, and so on. Forget about listening this when dealing with a hot, sizzling pan; you'll miss all the nuances.

2. Like a Friend, Pulp: Actually, this isn't bad if you're chopping vegetables or something.

3. There is a Bed, Marc Almond: Makes one think of sex, get distracted, and burn dinner.

4. I Just Wanted to See You so Bad, Lucinda Williams: See song #2.

5. Too Drunk To Fuck, Nouvelle Vague: Save this for your next cocktail party soundtrack.

6. Dear Prudence, Siouxsie and the Banshees: Ok, this is fun and catchy. Not bad if you're baking.

7. I Spy, Pulp: If Serge Gainsbourg and Oscar Wilde had ever teamed up, they could have written this sharp, malicious little number. Deserves a more careful listen than it would get during dinner prep.

8. Peek a Boo, Siouxsie and the Banshees: Hey, something must be wrong with my iPod's shuffle! This is getting repetitive! An irritating ditty; you don't want to get stuck with greasy hands or something when this comes on.

9. A track by Franz Ferdinand from their first album: More appropriate as a soundtrack to reading the frontman's so-so food writing.

10. Tangled up in Blue, Bob Dylan: Like track 7, deserves a more careful listen than it would when dealing with a hot pan.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yulinka's Meatball Curry

I found the recipe for these unexpectedly delicious, spicy meatballs in the most unlikely source: the glossy lifestyle magazine tucked into the Friday paper. Yes, somewhere between the celebrity interviews and earnest articles on how to talk to your teen about sex was Madhur Jaffrey’s Meatball Curry. These spicy, Indian meatballs are simmered in an aromatic tomato sauce and are really great served with rice. Don’t look for authentic Indian food here; I modified the recipe so much that it could reasonably be called Yulinka’s meatball curry. It would undoubtedly be better if I had whole cardamom pods, whole cloves and more ground lamb on hand, but I didn’t, and I didn’t care. This is fantastic pseudo-Indian food, and I’m adding the recipe to my arsenal of pseudo-ethnic cookery.

You start by mixing 1 pound of ground lamb—I used equal parts of ground lamb and ground turkey—with small, finely chopped onion; 3 minced garlic cloves; a minced 2-inch piece of ginger; a lightly-beaten egg; ¾ teaspoon salt; a tbs. of ground coriander; 1 ¼ tsp. ground cumin (I subbed garam masala); ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (I used ¼ tsp.); and 3 tbs. of chopped cilantro (I left this out--I don’t do cilantro).

The recipe calls for forming the meatballs and refrigerating them for four to six hours, but I only managed two hours. You’re supposed to simmer the raw meatballs in sauce; I sautéed them on both sides in some vegetable oil in a Dutch oven first. I like the crusty little bits you get in the pan after browning meat, plus, meatballs cook faster when browned.

After browning the meatballs—4 minutes on both sides, maybe—I set them aside on a plate. I then made the sauce by mixing a 2-inch piece of minced ginger, 4 cloves of minced garlic, 1 tbs. ground coriander, 1 tsp. ground cumin (I used garam masala) and 3 tbs. of water in a food processor and blending until I got a runny paste. Add 2 green chiles if you like it hot; I left these out.

I heated up some olive oil in the Dutch oven and added 1 tsp. of cardamom (the recipe calls for 4 whole and 2 crushed cardamom pods); 1 tsp. cumin seeds; 1 tsp. ground cloves (the recipe calls for 4 whole cloves); and a tsp. of ground cinammon (the recipe calls for a 2-inch stick of cinnamon). I sautéed the spices for 2 minutes, and then added 2 chopped onions.

These I fried until golden, then added the ginger paste, and then 1 1/2 cups of good, canned tomatoes-- Jaffrey's recipe calls for 4 fresh tomatoes and 2 cups of water--and ¼ teaspoon of cayenne. I cooked all this over medium high heat until the sauce reduced a little; then I turned the heat to low and stirred in 4 tbs. of plain yogurt and ¾ tsp. salt. I plopped the meatballs unto the sauce and simmered the whole thing on very low heat for 20-25 minutes (raw meatballs take 50-60 minutes).

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Beefy and Beety" or, On Borsch

Behold, my first borsch. Not the first I’ve ever had, of course, but the first one I made all by myself. I tried to make an authentic borsch-—beefy and beety—-and I think I succeeded.

Whenever I cook something Russian, I consult my usual sources: my mom, Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table, Helen Rennie (who occasionally posts authentic and yummy-looking Russian recipes) and two other Russian cookbooks I own (not nearly as good as von Bremzen’s). I’d bet that every Russian family has its own way of making this beet and cabbage soup, and I cribbed ideas for my borsch from at least half a dozen recipes.

The ingredients and proportions I got from von Bremzen and Helen; the technique is mostly my mom’s. As usual, I did not measure my ingredients precisely, so this is more of an annotated field guide than a recipe. Finally, if you’ve never had borsch, please don’t let the words “beets” and “cabbage” scare you. Borsch is not a boiled vegetable soup; when made correctly, it is hearty, beefy and zesty.

For the stock, which I made a day in advance, I used a pound of beef chuck, a couple of beef marrow bones, a soup bone, and some carrots and onions. These I covered with 4-5 quarts of water, brought it to a gentle boil, and then simmered for three hours, removing the scum from the surface as necessary. Quite a few recipes suggest using a ham bone in the stock as well, a good idea. The stock served its purpose, but I next time I want something meatier and beefier. I used too much water, too—3 quarts is enough, I think. Anyway, once the stock cooled, I refrigerated it overnight.

While I was making stock, I washed and trimmed 3 medium beets. I covered them with water in a saucepan and simmered them for 50-60 minutes. Beets are done when you can pretty easily pierce them with a knife.

The next day I degreased the stock, threw out the bones, cut the cooked beef chuck into 1-inch cubes and added it back to the stock. I brought about 3 quarts of stock to a simmer in a big soup pot. Why three quarts? My big soup pot wasn’t nearly big enough to hold all of it (see above photo). The rest of the ingredients turned out to be proportionate to the amount of stock I did use, though.

While waiting for the stock to come a simmer, I grated the beets and put them in a saucepan with a 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, half a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, a big pinch of salt, sugar, and a splash of red wine vinegar. I simmered this on low heat, stirring occasionally. Did you know that beets and tomatoes are surprisingly delicious combination?

When the stock came to a gentle boil, I added a bay leaf and 3 medium peeled and cubed potatoes to the soup pot. While the potatoes were cooking—about 15-20 minutes—I finely shredded ½ pound of cabbage (about ¼ head of a medium cabbage). I also diced 2 big onions, 4 medium carrots, a green pepper, and crushed 4 cloves of garlic. ( A note on the green pepper: my mom’s and von Bremzen’s recipes call for it; others don’t. I say, use green peppers if you like them—I do—and forget them if you don’t. )

When the potatoes were almost done, I added the cabbage to the soup pot. Meanwhile, I sautéed the onions, carrots and pepper in sunflower oil until the onions were soft and golden—15 to 20 minutes or so. I stirred in the garlic at the end. When the cabbage was soft, about 20 minutes later, I added the aromatics to the soup pot, along with a tablespoon and a half of salt. All this simmered for 5 minutes, then the beet/tomato mixture went into the pot. I let the soup simmer for 10 more minutes. I also added a small handful of black peppercorns to the pot.

Then I came to the part when, in my family, everyone stands around the soup pot and tastes the borsch while my mom asks, “What’s missing? Salt, sugar, acidity?” My borsch was missing all of these, so it was time to add a little of each, stir, taste again, and repeat until satisfied. I put some more tomato paste into a little bowl, along with a splash of tomato juice left over from the canned tomatoes, a splash of vinegar (substitute lemon juice), a splash of soup liquid, a dash of sugar and salt, and a heaping teaspoon of so adjika.

Adjika is a very spicy Georgian vegetable relish that’s sold in Russian/Eastern European stores. Do borsh recipes generally call for adjika? No. Can you use it to give your borsch a little kick? Yes. My mom sometimes uses lutenitsa, a vegetable spread, also sold in Russian groceries. Should you use, say, salsa, to flavor your borsch? I say no; it’s not at all authentic. Can you use a vegetable fix-in of Eastern European origin? I say yes, if it’s tomato-and-pepper-based. Don’t worry if you have neither adjika or lutenitsa; all you really need is tomato paste, sugar, salt, and vinegar or lemon juice.

I’d estimate that I used 2 teaspoons of sugar, a tablespoon of vinegar, and a 6-ounce can of tomato paste to flavor my borsch. Taste and repeat, taste and repeat. Before serving, try adding a couple of raw, crushed garlic cloves to the pot. Borsch should strike a nice balance between sweet and sour, tomato-y and beety, salty and zesty, with a little kick that comes from the crushed garlic or adjika.

Serve borsch with chopped dill or parsley, and sour cream. Bread is essential; good rye bread is preferable. Everyone tells me that you’re supposed to stir sour cream into the borsch, but I like to leave a thick clump in the middle of my soup bowl and swipe at it with each tablespoon. This borsch is even better on the second day, keeps for a week in the fridge, and feeds a small kolhoz.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cooking Notes

*When making farmer's cheese, do not ever use buttermilk containing sodium citrate. Ask Harold McGee for a scientific explanation. All I can say is that your milk won't curdle properly, the cheese will have the texture of styrofoam and you'll end up tossing the whole thing.

*How come my cooking never tastes as good when I follow recipes precisely? I'm one of those cooks who looks at recipes for ideas and techniques but rarely follows the steps. Either I don't have all the ingredients, or the recipe instructions seem off, etc. And it usually turns out fine! Here's what happens when I follow recipes to the letter:

Anya von Bremzen's avgolemono, from Please to the Table.

I think this recipe is fussier than it needs to be. Anya has you saute onions and add four spices to your usual chicken stock, eggs and lemon. The soup tastes ok, but would be just as good with the basic ingredients. All you really need is top-notch chicken stock.

Meatballs in pomegranate sauce, also from Please to the Table. These were fine. Not great, like Lindy's, but fine. A little too tart and a little dry, but...fine.

Chickea and chicken dumplings. I really had high hopes for these. The recipe is exotic but not terribly difficult. The Wednesday Chef tried it and gave a thumbs-up. But my dumplings turned out dense and bland! I regretted wasting excellent, homemade chicken stock on these. What happened? I suspect it's more my fault than the recipe's. I've never made dumplings of any kind before, and produced the dreaded leaden cannonballs on my first attempt. I wasn't inspired to take a photo.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Year

New Year is the big holiday for Russians. New Year, as Vasilisa puts it, is a totally secular mix of Christmas, Halloween and New Year's. Kids dress up in costumes, presents are exchanged, a New Year's tree is decorated, Grandfather Frost (Santa) does his rounds, there’s lots of food and all-night revelry, people get drunk, etc.

Americans often assume that Russian immigrants, many of whom are Jewish, celebrate Hanukkah. This isn’t so in my experience. Hanukkah is a totally foreign holiday for Russians, most of whom weren’t aware of its existence before coming to the U.S. I remember my mom dutifully lighting a menorah, given to us by Jewish Family Services, our first year here. This ritual was unusual; her heart wasn’t in it. We put up a tree, which shocked the Jewish Family Services volunteer who was helping us adjust to life in the States. “A Christmas tree?” he said, arching his eyebrows. My mom shot back that it’s a New Year’s tree, not a Christmas tree. Next year, the menorah stayed in the box.

In my family New Year is not as big a deal as it was back in the old country. When we came to the U.S. I wanted to celebrate Christmas, like the rest of the kids at school. I wanted a Christmas tree put up in early December, not a few days before Jan. 31. I wanted to open presents on Christmas morning. I wanted stockings hung above a fireplace and Christmas carols and all the rest. My parents weren’t terribly enthusiastic about the whole thing, but they obliged me. Later, however, they had American friends who did celebrate Christmas, so we got invited to quite a few Christmas dinners over the years. Having a big dinner and exchanging presents on Christmas day stuck.

Taking up new traditions doesn’t mean you give up the old ones. We still celebrate New Year Russian-style these days: that is, we sit around on New Year’s eve and eat. The best part of a Russian New Year is the food, usually a buffet of appetizers and snacks, chased down by vodka. According to my dad, this was more fun in Soviet Russia, where a food-laden table on New Year’s made a pleasant contrast to daily food shortages. You stood in line for hours on Jan. 31 to buy a pineapple; you ran all over town to find this or that delicacy. Why get excited about stuffing your face here in America, where you can buy pineapple year-round and eat more than your fill every day?

I say because it’s a pleasant tradition. I have to note, though, that our New Year's feasts have gotten smaller and smaller every year. Here’s what we had this year:

Red caviar canapes. Slice a baguette into rounds, spread a little softened butter on each slice and top with a teaspoon of caviar. Below is potato-beef salad, a classic Russian winter salad. Cook a piece of beef chuck as if making stock. Cut the cooled meat into cubes, combine with cooked, cubed potatoes, cucumbers, pickles, green peas, parsley and a mayo-based dressing. To the right is shrimp and cocktail sauce. Oops, that’s quite American.

Eggs stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

That's smoked eel beneath the pickles. I prefer smoked herring.

Napoleon, a once-a-year treat. I wrote about it here.
Related Posts with Thumbnails