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.
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