Tuesday, April 29, 2008


One of the things I like the most about cooking is transforming a charmless, underwhelming ingredient into something delicious. That’s why I enjoy pickling and marinating so much: you start with a blah vegetable—cucumbers, say, or cabbage or mushrooms--add some ratio of salt, sugar and vinegar, wait a while, and end up with that briny/tangy flavor that only pickling can produce. Magic!

In the past few months I’ve made pickled mushrooms, this marinated vegetable salad and gravlax (as well as pickles and sauerkraut in years past). I’m pleased to add turshi to my pickling repertoire. I first learned about turshi—Armenian pickled vegetables—from Anya von Bremzen’s cookbook Please to the Table. I’ve had mixed luck with Anya’s recipes so I hesitated to try it, but then reader and commenter Victoria Frolova kindly offered to share her grandmother’s version. I used bits and pieces from both recipes to come up with my own. It tastes a lot like the marinated vegetable salad mentioned above, but crunchier and spicier.


This recipe is based on one liter of liquid. You will need about 3 large carrots, a medium head of cauliflower, 2 large red peppers, 2 or 3 celery stalks, a large onion, 5 cloves of garlic, a bunch of herbs like dill and parsley, kosher salt, sugar, bay leaves, hot chili peppers, peppercorns and maybe some vinegar. Slice carrots and celery into matchsticks, separate the cauliflower into florets, peel and cut the onion into rounds, cut peppers into strips, and mince the garlic. You could also add zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced into rounds.

Bring a pan of water to a boil and blanch the carrots and cauliflower for about two minutes. Drain, then layer the vegetables in a large glass jar with garlic, chili peppers and herbs.

For the marinade, bring a liter of water to a boil and add 6 teaspoons of kosher salt, 8 teaspoons of sugar, a couple of bay leaves and a small handful of peppercorns. Let the marinade simmer a little until the sugar and salt dissolve. Victoria suggests adding a tablespoon of white vinegar at this point if you want a tangier flavor, which I did. Cool the marinade for five minutes, then pour it over the vegetables and seal the jar. Keep turshi in the fridge; it should be done in about two weeks (mine took two and a half). Start tasting after a week or so.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Zucchini Cheese Pie

This Mediterranean vegetable cheese pie has been on my mind ever since Ann at Redacted Recipes blogged about it. I’ve been meaning to whip it up this week, but when the time came I didn’t have most of the ingredients. That rarely stops me, however, so I’d like to present my take on a vegetable cheese pie: a layer of zucchini covered with ricotta-parmesan-pepper-tomato topping. I actually used homemade farmer’s cheese (aka my famous tvorog) in place of ricotta, which worked very well. A nice discovery, as I rarely use farmer’s cheese in savory recipes.

Method: I covered the bottom of a round, foil-lined pie pan with thinly sliced, salted zucchini rounds and roasted them at 425 until they were soft, 20 minutes or so. (You could also sauté the rounds in olive oil instead.) In the meantime, I combined a cup of farmer’s cheese with an egg, ¼ cup of grated parmesan, a couple of ounces of mozzarella, some leftover roasted red and yellow peppers, and a little leftover tomato sauce. (You could leave out the peppers and tomatoes just as well, or use other vegetables in their place.)

I spread this mixture over the soft zucchini, and baked the pie at 425 until the cheese was firm and golden-brown, about 25 minutes, plus the last five minutes under the broiler. The pie tastes best lukewarm, so let cool 10-15 minutes.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Roasted Vegetable Salad(s)

I wow my co-workers with my culinary prowess at least once a week. No, I don’t bring baked goodies to work. Nor do I feast on elaborate leftovers. It’s my “vegetables with stuff” that impress. I often roast whatever veggies I have in the fridge and mix them with cheese, herbs, dressing and maybe chicken or fish for lunch the next day. These salads, even when eaten out of a plastic container, look colorful and pretty. Served on real plates, my lunches look like something out of Gourmet (or maybe the Whole Foods salad bar, but you get my point).

My salads revolve around some combo of zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, cauliflower and carrots. Is there an easier way to cook these vegetables than to roast them? You cut ‘em up, toss them in a foil-lined baking dish with a splash of olive oil and some kosher salt and pepper, and stick 'em in the oven for a while.

I usually roast at 420 or 425; peppers take about 45 minutes; zucchini, asparagus and carrots, 20 minutes; see this for more on tomatoes and cauliflower. Cooking chemistry does its thing, and the vegetables emerge from the oven sweet and nutty. (I also like to roast fruit: once, I made a delicious roast chicken with grapes and pitted cherries -spread the fruit in a roasting pan, plop a prepped chicken on top, and follow your usual method. Past-their-prime strawberries, peaches, apples and pears all improve in the oven. Add some caramelized onions to your roasted fruit, and voila: instant chutney.)

I top the cooled vegetables with scallions, dill or parsley, olives, if I have them, and goat or feta cheese. For the dressing, I usually use olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or some red wine vinegar. Sometimes I mix in a little roasted garlic. Or I make creamy dressings with mayo, plain yogurt or sour cream, and olive oil.

Monday, April 14, 2008

On Food Likes and Dislikes

Above is a photo of a wonderful lunch I had on Saturday: smocked mackerel and boiled new potatoes with sour cream. Does that sound good to you? It tasted wonderful to me. But it saddens me to admit that few Americans my age would go for this repast.

This lunch got me thinking about how we develop food preferences. I love all things brined, pickled, smoked and fermented: fish, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, and so on. I was weaned—almost literally!—on this stuff. In Russia, infants were given kefir instead of formula. I gave up pickles for potato chips after coming to the U.S. You don’t want to be the kid who eats weird crap when you’re nine, you know. In my late teens and early 20s, however, I rediscovered Russian food. It’s cool to be all diverse and multiculti when you’re in college! One taste of fatty, luscious smoked mackerel and I never looked back. On the other hand, I also love food that no one had ever heard of when I was growing up, and that my parents still won’t consider eating: sashimi, curries, tofu, etc.

Now, my boyfriend, who immigrated to the U.S. in his teens, has far more Soviet tastes that I do. Last week, he asked me to cook some buckwheat. “We could have it with kotleti,” he said. “Or hot dogs.”


Kotleti are pan-fried meat patties, kind of like burgers but served without the bun. They’re the weekday staple of Russian households, the Soviet equivalent of sloppy joes. Hot dogs, always boiled, never grilled, are another go-to Soviet protein.

When I sing praises to the foods of my childhood, I don't mean boiled potatoes, hot dogs and kotleti. This is the kind of food I never, ever crave. And if I were to make this stuff, I would cook a “gourmet,” Epicurious-ized version. Buckwheat with chicken stock, dried mushrooms and caramelized shallots. Kotleti with panko breadcrumbs and Indian spices or something. And hot dogs—well... I just don’t have much to say about hot dogs.

So when I heard the boyfriend’s request, I put on what I call my PR face—the look spokespeople have during news conferences. Open, fake-friendly and willing to answer questions—to a limit. “Sure,” I said. “I could do that.” Shallots, dried mushrooms and panko are on my shopping list.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Grocery Tour: Parthenon Foods and Deli

This is the second stop of my Milwaukee-area Eastern European grocery tour (the first installment is here). Parthenon Foods is not a Russian grocery store—it’s owned by Greek immigrants—-but it sells all the usual Eastern European goodies, as well as lots of Mediterannean and Middle Eastern items.

It may look like a rundown quickie mart from the outside, but this store has an excellent selection and very friendly, if sometimes overbearing, service. The isles are cramped with stuff (jars of picked vegetables and souvenir plates by the register, bags of spices and rice everywhere), so be careful when maneuvering your way through the store—you may knock something over.

Location: 9131 W. Cleveland Ave., West Allis, 414-321-5522.

Atmosphere: See intro.

Customer Service: Super-duper friendly. You will be asked if you need help at least twice during your visit. If you’re overloaded with bags, the owner may help you carry your purchases to your car.

Product Selection: A large selection of olive oil, lots of pickled vegetables and yummy spreads like lutenitsa, spices, pasta, unusual grains like buckwheat and millet, a small liquor department, cheese, Greek yogurt and kefir, Russian and Polish candy, pickled and smoked fish, and lamb and fresh fish on Wednesday. Also some frozen, pre-made stuff, like dumplings and pierogis. You can see more on Parthenon's Web site.

Pricing: Reasonable. Good deals on deli items like olives and cheese.

Buy: I love the creamy, soft French feta sold at the deli. The halvah, sold by weight, is pretty good, too.

Avoid: I don’t remember any duds, but admittedly I haven’t sampled my way through most of the deli and meat/fish selections.

Final Rating: ****1/2

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, April 03, 2008

Roasted vegetable and potato salad with smoked salmon

If you had the good fortune to acquire a huge smoked salmon fillet, what would you do with it? My first instinct was to slice it up and eat it over the cutting board with my fingers. That would have been okay if I were eating alone, but since I wasn’t, I felt obliged to make something more coherent. A dig through the fridge revealed potatoes, peppers, asparagus and cherry tomatoes. Voila: Roasted vegetable and potato salad with smoked salmon.

I roasted a cup of cherry tomatoes, a couple of garlic cloves and two yellow and orange peppers, cut into strips, at 430 for about 25 minutes, then added a pound or so of trimmed asparagus to the pan for another 10 minutes of roasting. In the meantime, I parboiled two potatoes and sliced up some—ok, a lot--of smoked salmon into chunks.

I let the vegetables cool a little when they were done; then I cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces, peeled and cubed the potatoes and combined everything in a salad bowl. For the dressing, I mixed the soft, roasted garlic with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice, a tablespoon of olive oil, and some kosher salt and black pepper. The salad was great, and I regret only that I didn’t have any parsley, scallions or goat/feta cheese on hand to make it downright fantastic.
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