Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: Russian Candy

I have a real weakness for cheap chocolate. Sure, I like the hoity-toity super dark stuff, but I won’t pass up M&Ms, or dark Mars bars, or Twix. I’ll even eat Hershey’s kisses, provided they’re the almond kind. (I’ll pass on plain Hershey’s bars, thanks.) I’m never more tempted to eat cheap chocolate than when I’m shopping at Russian groceries, all of which sell a big selection of candy. The quality varies, but the varieties are breathtaking: my little local store must stock at least 15 kinds. Some have been on the market since the Soviet times, others are new, many have baroque names. Anyone up for a mishka kosolapiy (clumsy bear) or a ptichie moloko (bird’s milk)?

In this third part of my series on stuff you can buy at Russian/Eastern European groceries, I will sample and review Russian candy. My goal is to taste my way through all of the God knows how many varieties and produce the definitive hierarchy of Russian sweets. (A hierarchy of American candy bars can be found here.)

This one’s called “Condensed Milk.” It’s actually dark chocolate-covered…something. The filling is off-white, grainy, and tastes kind of nutty and super-sugary. A C list-candy: good mostly when you crave a sugar boost.

The name means “little trunks with condensed milk.” Little trunks--aww! This one’s for the A-list: a soft, creamy, slightly lemony filling, covered with dark chocolate. A little too sweet, but I don’t mind.

Rachki! That means “crawfish” in Russian, but for some reason a lobster is pictured on the wrapper. What does this candy have to do with shellfish? I suspect “rachki” refers to the crunchy, hard exterior; inside is a crumbly chocolate-nut filling. Eh. I’ll eat this if I crave sugar and nothing better is around. C-list.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two years of Yulinka Cooks

Holy crap, this little blog of mine is two years old! Last year I celebrated with a jaunt through my first 12 months of blogging. This year, let’s enjoy a slice of birthday herring in a fur coat (above) and take a look at what I accomplished since March 27, 2006:

Most popular and single most useful post: How to make tvorog (Russian farmer’s cheese). Tvorog is this blog’s raison d’etre, the post with the most page views and nearly the most comments. Tvorog is the number-one search term that brings people to Yulinka Cooks. Google tvorog and my blog is the first result! Take that, bloggers with book deals.

Most comments: Oddly, my kvass-making (rye bread beer) post just beat out tvorog for the most comments. Kvass is a pretty obscure beverage in the U.S. and making it at home requires an unusual interest in beer-brewing and Russian drinks. There was much discussion in this thread about method, technique, etc., but my kvass was still terrible and I have zero interest in making it again.

Common search terms that bring people here: Tvorog, eggplant caviar, lentil soup, kvass, borsch and blini. Last year I complained that my readers are boring: most of you use this blog as a reference source for recipes and click away. Indeed, my stats show that I have few repeat readers. Wham, bam, no spasibo m’am!

Most popular recipes: The usual suspects: eggplant caviar, tvorog, Korean carrot salad. My favorites are Georgian lamb and green beans, squash gratin, tomato bean soup with sausage and chana masala soup.

Biggest success: My first borsch was pretty damn good. In fact, all my soups have been pretty successful. I’ve made this pickled mixed vegetable salad three times in the past month and I will be making it again. Also: pickles and chocolate-covered sirki (mini cheesecakes).

Biggest failure: Kvass, but that was expected. My ill-fated sauerkraut really rankles, though. I’m supposed to be good at making vegetables. Also, most of my baking was just ok. Did I make it sound like my sweet yeast dough experiments of April-June 2006 were awesome? I may have exaggerated a little.

Least popular post: I guess no one cares about my wit and wisdom on food politics or forays into Indian cooking. I can’t imagine why.

Favorite post: On Tea. Few people realize just how important tea is to me, but I drink about eight cups of the stuff a day. I’m also fond of the kasha post and the holiday round-ups: New Year and Thanksgiving.

Want to give me an anniversary gift? Delurk in the comments.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"If 1960s Las Vegas had its Rat Pack and 1980s cinema its Brat Pack, early 21st century food has its Fat Pack."

Foodies are fat, says the New York Times. No surprise here: I looked at my weight history at the doctor's a few weeks ago and noticed that I really porked up around March 2006, when I started this blog. I was at my lowest weight since college in February 2007, when the blog went on hiatus. Coincidence? I think not. I hesitate to write about my weight neuroses, but I fret about staying slim as much as I do about what I’ll eat for dinner.

My solution is to eat with abandon once or twice a week and then watch it the rest of the time. Monday through Friday, my diet is mostly fish, lean protein and vegetables (cooked in varied and delicious ways, thanks), plus some fruit, dairy, lentils/beans and olive oil. I watch my portions, and I’m never quite full after a meal. Small sacrifice, since weekends are for pasta, bread, larger portions, etc. This works: I’ve stayed pretty close to my ideal weight for more than a year. I’d sign a Faustian deal to stay at this weight for life.

(More interesting is that foodies swear that it’s only processed junk that makes you fat. Surely pork belly from that local, organic, humanely-raised pig that you bought from your good friend the farmer at a charming little outdoor market will not make you gain weight... Er, never mind.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One-Track Mind

This has been a common sight in my kitchen for the past month. Pickling in action, that is. Mushrooms, cabbage, you name it. If this mystery project is any good, I’ll write about it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blogging Notes

Has it been a week since I last posted? Gulp. I swear, time runs faster when you have a blog. Cooking has been haphazard lately; so enjoy these crumbs:

*Our rock stars are ricotta makers:” I sometimes have Marie Antoinette-like fantasies of tending a little farm in the country, raising my own chickens and growing vegetables. Well, some New York hipsters are are doing just that. I bet urban farming will soon overtake knitting as the “it” retro-chic hipster activity.

* HR cant about diversity makes my eyes roll to the back of my head, but real-world multi-culturalism makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. This weekend I shopped on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, a mostly immigrant district where Hasidic Jews share the sidewalk with women in burqas. I bought vegetables from one of about a dozen Indian groceries (all super cheap), jostling my way past sari-clad women and employees carting huge bags of rice. I also stopped by Argo, a Georgian bakery, for some kiln-baked bread. (I blogged about another trip to Devon here.)

* I used to think that American-style baking was too easy. You mix dry stuff in one bowl, wet stuff in another, combine, shove the whole thing in the oven, and voila. Not so: Helen of Beyond Salmon shows that good baking is an exact, complicated science. I hardly ever bake anymore, but if I have a hankering for a cake, I will follow Helen’s guide.

* Regina Schrambling of Gastropoda has harsh words about amateur cooks who blog: "…nattering about what they fed their boyfriends last night, or fuzzily photographing their latest batch of heart-shaped cookies…" Ouch. That’s more biting than Pete Wells' anti-blog rant.

* A thought: bloggers need editors for style rather than content. I read Gastropoda because it’s short and sharp, a rarity in the blogosphere. (The same reason I read, say, Gawker.) It’s too easy to go on for freakin’ forever when you don’t have a word limit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Soviet Kitsch: Soup

It’s time for another installment of Russian Retro Recipe Cards. This time, the topic’s soup. I've documented Russians’ love of soup pretty thoroughly on this blog, but I’m always surprised by the variety and the sheer oddness of some soups described in Russian and Soviet cookbooks. Let’s take a look at a few (from Soviet soup recipe cards circa 1988): Got random processed meat products in the fridge? Here's the soup for you: solianka, which one Russian cookbook author calls "mixed-up meat soup." This basically a beef-based vegetable soup with chunks of sausage, hot dogs, bacon, etc. Every soup needs a side: above are potato dumplings. I think the best side, good rye bread aside, is homemade pirozhki.
Fruit soup! Rhubarb-apple-strawberry soup, with a side of marinated apples (yes, you can pickle apples) and slices of lemon. This is served cold in the summer.
Milk soup--hot milk with rice or pasta, served with a pat of butter in the middle of the bowl. I think of this as comfort food, even though I've got no good reason to eat it anymore (milk, carbs and butter will no longer make me grow big and strong, alas). This is food for when you're sick with a cold or flu.
Some sort of fish soup. Is that smoked herring to the right?
That's 24-hour schi (sauerkraut soup). Schi is usually made a day in advance to allow the flavors to settle, but this recipe has you freeze the soup for a day and then defrost and heat before serving.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Marinated Mixed Vegetable Salad, Take Two

I was planning to write off this marinated vegetable salad as another one of Anya von Bremzen's inspiring but not quite thought-out recipes. The instruction say the salad is ready to eat the day after you make it—well, no. I think Anya forgot about the “marinated” part. I sampled the salad at 24 and 48 hours, and it tasted like cabbage sprinkled with salt and vinegar. Then life got in the way and I shoved the salad to the back of the fridge and forgot about it. A week later, eureka! It finally tasted the way Russian homemade, pickled vegetables are supposed to: briny, sweet and sour, with a tingly zing. (The recipe still required some tweaking--see my instructions below. For one thing, the amount of brine Anya has you make was not nearly enough to cover all the vegetables.)


-Finely chop 1 medium head of cabbage; mix with 1 tbs. kosher salt in a large bowl and let stand for 1 hour.

-In the meantime, make the brine. Combine 3/4 c. water, 3/4 c. white vinegar, 12 whole black peppercorns, and 1.5 tbs. sugar in a saucepan; bring to boil, then turn off the heat. Let cool. (I had to make another 1/2 recipe of brine to cover the vegetables.) When the liquid is cool, add 2 tbs. sunflower oil to marinade.

-Squeeze the cabbage with your hands so it releases water; drain as much water as possible. Combine with a thinly sliced: carrot, 3 red peppers, 2 white onions, and 2 green tomatoes (I left these out). Toss with 3 peeled garlic cloves and 2 dried, hot chili peppers.

-Toss the vegetables well with the marinade. Let stand 1 hour, then put into clean 2-quart jars. I didn't have extra jars, so I put the vegetables in a big soup pot and simply covered it with a lid.

-The vegetables will need to marinate in the fridge for a few days; start tasting around day four. Eat with chopped dill or parsley. This salad is great with roasted chicken, pork or beef, and it’s also good on its own as an appetizer.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Food hasn’t been on my mind lately. I’ve been busy, I’ve been sick, I’ve been on the road. I’ve been taking too many shortcuts, cutting too many corners. Last week I was fighting a low-grade cold, the kind that dulls your appetite and makes everything taste flat. And then, when I had a chance to redeem myself on a long weekend in Puerto Rico, I just gave up. Being a foodie can be exhausting: always looking for that authentic, out-of-the way little place where the locals eat. This is not as fun as it sounds. Oh, no: It takes research, reading, asking the Chowhounds. I said to hell with it. My traveling companion doesn’t care much about food, my lingering cold wore me down, and so we ate at chain restaurants with nary a second thought. This week, though, I’m back on the mends. My cold is almost gone, my appetite is back and my palate is sharper. I’m itching to make something new, something different. First up, a belated write-up of this marinated vegetable salad. In brief: it's a keeper. Recipe coming soon.
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