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.
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