Sunday, October 26, 2008


Wild apples are usually sour and ugly. Not these guys. Okay, they're lumpy and bumpy, but suprisingly good for eating. I picked them last week at Lion's Den Gorge in Grafton, Wis. A nature preserve with nice hiking trains, Lion's Den also has dozens of apple trees, with fruit free for the picking. The sweetest of the bunch are small, bright red apples (top row, left). They're great for baking, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Borsch 2.0

I’ve blogged about borsch a few years ago, but it’s time to revisit this classic Russian soup. For starters, I make a slightly different version of borsch every time. In fact, baked goods aside, there’s no definitive version of any Russian recipe on this blog—it all depends on available ingredients and personal taste. I wish I could give you exact amounts and cooking times, but no can do. Cooking is all about tasting and adjusting recipes to what you’ve got around. My borsch probably doesn’t taste like borsch that’s made in a village outside Moscow, but that’s okay. It’s still good.

My old borsch recipe is a bit convoluted. This version is simpler, including the stock, which I made in a crock pot. Don’t be put off by the long directions. Once you’ve got your stock, this recipe takes about an hour from start to finish.

Pre-borsch prep:

I covered a couple of pounds of pork ribs with cold water in a crock pot, tossed in some chopped up carrots and onions and a couple of bay leaves, and set the crock pot on low for eight hours. When time was up, I let the stock cool and strained the liquid. I sliced the meat into 1-inch pieces and added it back to the stock. A meaty borsch is the best kind. (I tossed the vegetables; great for flavoring stock but useless after eight hours of cooking.) You’ll need about 8 cups of stock for this borsch; freeze the rest.

The day before I made my borsch, I pre-cooked 3 small beets (bring water to a boil, add the well-scrubbed beets, and simmer until soft, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.)

Preparing borsch:

For the borsch, I brought the stock to a simmer in a soup pot. In the meantime, I peeled and diced 2 medium potatoes into ½-inch chunks, and added them to the soup pot. I also finely shredded about ¼ head of a large cabbage, and added it to the soup pot as well.

While the potatoes and cabbage were cooking, I sautéed 1 large, finely chopped onion and 1 large, diced carrot in sunflower oil until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

When the potatoes and cabbage were soft (about 20 minutes, give or take—taste them), I added the onions and carrots to the soup pot. I let the vegetables simmer, and got to work on the beets.

I peeled and finely grated the beets, and mixed them with 1.5 cups tomato sauce (made as described here). You can substitute a small can of tomato paste (like I did last time), a couple of large, chopped tomatoes, or 1.5 cups canned, crushed tomatoes. Use what you have around.

I brought the beet and tomato mixture to a simmer in a sauté pan for about five minutes. Then I set about flavoring it. The beet mixture makes borsch what it is, so it’s important to get this right. I added a splash of red wine vinegar, and ¼ tsp. each of kosher salt, sugar and red pepper flakes to the plan, then stirred, tasted, and repeated. I like my borsch sweet and sour, with a bit of a bite. I’d estimate that I used 4 tbs. red wine vinegar, 2 tsp. sugar, 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes, and a good 1. 5 tbs. salt to get the right flavor. When I was satisfied, I added the beets to the soup pot.

I let the borsch simmer for 10-15 minutes, tasting it every once in a while and adjusting the flavor with extra red wine vinegar, sugar, salt and tomato sauce.

To finish:

I finely chopped 2 garlic cloves and a handful of parsley leaves, and added this to the soup pot just before serving.

As always, serve with rye bread and sour cream.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rice and Pesto-Stuffed Tomatoes

Like all foodies, I bemoan supermarket tomatoes. When I buy tomatoes in the off-season (which is, like, October to late August), I shell out for expensive cherry tomatoes. I ration a pint to last for days, and I wouldn’t dream of using these pricey little gems for cooking. I’m just as stingy when tomatoes are in season. Chop, sauté or roast ripe, juicy, sweet tomatoes? No way. I eat them raw, sliced in salad, with a sprinkle of salt and a swipe of mayo. This year, I ate my way through a box of tomatoes. Then I bought more. And more… Until I gave in and started cooking with them.

This recipe is inspired by the Wednesday Chef's rice-stuffed tomatoes.

I halved 6 large tomatoes and scooped out the seeds and flesh into a bowl. The tomato shells went into a foil-lined pan. I sautéed a small onion in olive oil in a non-stick saucepan, then added ½ cup dry rice and sautéed it until the grains were coated in oil.

I added a cup of water to the pan, brought the water to a boil, then lowered the heat to a very low simmer and covered the pan until the rice was done (15 minutes). I let the rice cool a bit, then stirred in about 3 tablespoons of pesto.

I stuffed each tomato half with about 2-3 tablespoons of rice, and topped the tomatoes with grated provolone (mozzarella or Parmesan would work just as well here). In the saucepan used for making rice, I brought the tomato liquid to a boil and then simmered until it reduced a bit. I poured the liquid over the tomatoes, and baked them at 425 for about 45 minutes. These tomatoes are best eaten lukewarm.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Eggplant and Zucchini Stacks

These veggie towers come by way of the late, great Milwaukee food blog Haverchuk. Former blogger mzn’s ode to deconstructed eggplant parm inspires me every September. A couple of weeks ago, I layered eggplant and zucchini rounds with tomato sauce*, pesto and cheese, but you could keep this as simple as just the eggplant and sauce.

The general idea is this: Peel and slice 1 big eggplant and 1 big zucchini into rounds. Brush with some olive oil, salt lightly, and grill or roast until soft (about 30 minutes at 425 on a foil-lined cookie sheet in the oven; 10 to 15 minutes on the grill). Let cool.

Layer the largest eggplant rounds in a foil-lined casserole pan. I managed to fit about seven slices into my pan. Spread a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce* and pesto over each slice of eggplant. Sprinkle with some shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese. Place another slice of eggplant or zucchini on top of each of the sauced eggplant rounds. Top with more sauce, pesto and cheese.

Repeat the next layer with the smaller eggplant and zucchini rounds. Keep layering the vegetables until you’re through. Top the final layer with sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; then broil for 5. Let cool. This is best served lukewarm.

*This is how I’ve been making tomato sauce lately: Cut up a bunch of tomatoes. You need good, farmer’s market tomatoes for this, preferably ultra-ripe ones. Toss ‘em in a foil-lined pan with a couple of peeled garlic cloves, a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar, 2 tsps. each of sugar and kosher salt and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes. Roast at 400 until the tomatoes are pruney and caramelized, about an hour. Let cool. Run through a food processor for a couple of seconds. I like a chunky sauce; so I hit the “pulse” button on my KitchenAid for about 15 seconds. Ta-da!
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