Monday, November 14, 2011

From Iron Curtain to Iron Chef: 20 Years in American Food

As of October 24, 2011, I have lived in the United States for 20 years. I’ll spare the reflections on growing up in two cultures, etcetera, suffice to say it’s been a pretty good run.
Let’s talk instead about these 20 years in food. My palate follows the typical immigrant child trajectory:  Instant infatuation with all things American; attempts to bring “American” food like tacos and lasagna into the immigrant household; followed by an eventual appreciation and nostalgia for the foods of the old country.  Let’s take a closer look:
1991: My family and I arrive in the U.S. from Russia.  The food we’ve known in the USSR is homemade and unvaried, made-from-scratch and pale in color. Fast food and snacks, wrapped in bright food packaging, are rare and expensive. Here, the sheer variety of food and its colors sends us spinning.  We eat our first American delicacy: Oreo cookies, purchased late in the evening from a hotel vending machine (we strategically go at night because we’ve never seen a vending machine and don’t know how it works). 
This is followed by daily discoveries: pink bologna wrapped in layers of plastic, tiny cups of purple-tinged yogurt with sprinkles, vanilla ice cream with strawberry streaks that make me think of marble, confetti-colored marshmallows in Alphabits cereal.  Life’s a kaleidoscope of color and gloriously artificial scents and flavors. My mom nearly mistakes a bottle of lemon-scented dish soap for lemon juice.
1991, later in the year: We acquire our first toaster and I spend an evening toasting piece after piece of Wonder Bread.
1992-1993: I’m mesmerized by the food American kids bring to school: diagonally sliced sandwiches that always include a piece of lettuce, pretzel twists in plastic baggies, Fruit by the Foot, gummy fruit snacks, fruit juice boxes with straws attached (“Americans think of everything,” my mom says!). Also, school pizza parties courtesy of Pizza Hut and classroom treats for every possible occasion, in an era before childhood obesity.  
1994-1995: I discover the microwave. My parents use it for reasonable purposes, like heating leftovers. I use it for eating my way through Pick ‘n Save’s frozen dinner selection. My favorite brand, for reasons that elude me now, is Kid Cuisine.  I ignore my mom’s borsch. Lunch is Lay’s sour-cream-and-potato chips, a box of Ocean Spray juice, and a Little Debbie brownie. My parents’ infatuation with American food is over. My mom declares that everything tastes like plastic.
1996-1997: Adolescent body image issues kick in: I decide I’m fat. It’s a good time to start eating “healthy,” since it’s the decade of low-fat everything: Snackwell’s, Healthy Choice, fat-free pretzels.  I oversee my mom’s cooking and complain every time she reaches for oil and butter. This causes some tension between us.
1997-1998: I dabble in cooking. Everything I want to make is “American”: lasagna, tacos, spaghetti. I’m not interested in borsch.
1998-2000: My infatuation with American food, both junk and home cooked, is ending. Weird, foreign food is kind of cool! Three cheers for multiculturalism. My mom goes on kick of Russian home cooking: pirozhki (little pies with meat, cabbage or mushroom fillings), pelmeni (Russian dumplings),  cabbage soups. I gobble it all up.
2000-2005: I continue to dabble in cooking, although my mom’s interest wanes. Food at home, and to this day, alternates between Russian basics like kotleti and the occasional lasagna. I watch the Food Network and read cookbooks.
2006-2007: Inspired by an explosion of food blogs and my very first kitchen, I launch Yulinka Cooks. My theme is Russian/Soviet food, and I stick to it, making vatrushki, tvorog, and kvass. Many of these multistep dishes are just okay and my photos are less than okay, but food blogging becomes my on-again-off-again creative outlet. 
2008-2011: Local and sustainable is big, and I dabble in some Milwaukee-area food coverage. I keep cooking and blogging, although with a bit less enthusiasm. I write about “American” food, which doesn’t resonate with readers—but Russian classics like kvass generate comments! 

Now: I’ve evolved into a decent cook and cook plenty, mostly Americanized basics, and mostly from scratch. I shop at farmer’s markets. I know better than to be impressed with Oreos—not local or sustainable!  
Still, at times I miss that fresh-off-the-boat innocence, that moment when packaged cookies falling through a vending machine seemed magical. (If I were making a movie, they'd fall in slow motion.) 
As my 20th Thanksgiving rolls around, I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to experience both worlds—the dark one for a little while, and the colorful one for keeps.

Photos from ConAgra Foods and Nabisco

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Russian Grocery Store Tour: International Foods


I'm surprised that I’ve never reviewed International Foods--the original Russian grocery store in Milwaukee. Opened in the early 1990s during the post-Soviet immigrant wave, International Foods is really the only Russian grocery in Milwaukee that gets press or the occasional American customer. 

Location: 1920 E. Capital Dr.,  Shorewood, Wis., (414) 964-7115.

Atmosphere: The original, sparsely-shelved Eastern European grocery store.

Customer Service: Who knows? Known for both a brusque Soviet attitude and the occasional sweet cashier.
Product Selection: Good selection of deli specialties and ready-made Russian party food such as salads, herring in a fur coat, pastries, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers and much more. I believe International Foods does catering, too. Otherwise, a decent selection of Russian basics, plus a small selection of Russian-language books in the back of the store.

Pricing: On the higher side, but not shocking.

Buy: The homemade deli selections.

Avoid: Watch out for stale bread and cashiers who give you the cold shoulder.

Final Rating: *** 

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

Other recommended Russian/Eastern European grocery stores in Milwaukee: Spartak, Parthenon Foods, and A&J Polish Deli.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Soviet Kitchen Items

The new book “Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design” has been getting some buzz. You can see a nice gallery of photos and stories from the book in Foreign Policy magazine. I can’t get my hands on a copy yet, but the preview inspired me to rummage through my parents’ kitchen in search of unsung icons of Soviet cookware design.

Perhaps the most iconic of my finds is this drinking glass—granyonyi stakan (гранёный стакан). This thick, 14-sided glass was manufactured and sold throughout the Soviet Union.
I’ve gleaned some factoids about these glasses from--where else?--Wikipedia (in Russian and English).

-These glasses are said to be designed by Vera Mukhina, creator of the famous Soviet sculpture “Worker and Kolhoz Woman”.

-They’re sturdy and made to survive falls on hard flooring, which is why they were commonly used on trains and in food service.

-Most importantly, according to Wikipedia: “An image of granyonyi stakan in popular culture is associated either with vodka and pickled cucumbers, or with tea and podstakannik.”

Speaking of which, this is the podstakannik (подстаканник), a glass holder, usually used on trains for serving hot tea.

Next find—a 1970s-era book called “Advice to a Young Housewife,” which contains recipes and good housekeeping tips. Check out the loopy illustration on the cover. (Previously, I blogged about Soviet recipe postcards from the '70s and '80s--canapes, potatoes and soups.)

An enamel camping mug—note the picture of black currants, the classic Russian berry.

If the above artifacts strike you as unironically stodgy, I must point out that not everything made in the Soviet Union was ugly. Check out these delicately painted porcelain tea and espresso cups, produced in the USSR in the 1960s.

The proof is in the logo--LFZ (ЛФЗ in Russian)--Leningradski Farforovyi Zavod, or the Leningrad Porcelain Factory.
Finally,  money. As my father noted, none of the above could be acquired without a ruble or two. Here, you can see one, five and ten-ruble bills, plus a ruble coin. I encourage you check out Wikipedia for on Soviet money Let me note that the paper bills include writing in the different languages of each of the Soviet republics—cultural sensitivity on the part of the USSR’s Department of the Treasury!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rhubarb Pudding Cake

I’m always looking to expand my arsenal of simple fruit cake recipes (more on fruit cakes—not the Christmas kind). This recipe is a fast contender for a summer favorite. You beat together some butter, sugar, an egg and flour, and plop the batter over chopped fruit. The recipe calls for rhubarb, but this would work just as well with apples.  The batter spreads as it bakes, creating a cake layer to cover the jammy, pudding-y fruit.

Here’s the recipe, via the Journal Sentinel’s Sunday food section, with a few modifications.

Cube rhubarb or apples into ½-inch chunks—you should have about four cups. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine 1cup flour, 1 ¼ tsp. baking power and 1/8 tsp. salt; set aside. In a big bowl, beat 5 tablespoons unsalted, room-temperate butter with a mixer until smooth. Add 2/3 cups sugar, beat well. Add 1 tsp. vanilla extract, ¼ tsp. cinnamon and 1 egg; beat well. Add the flour and ½ cup milk alternately to the sugar mixture; combine until just smooth.

Butter an 8-inch baking dish and spread the fruit in the dish. Sprinkle with about 2/3 cup sugar (less, maybe ½ cup, if you’re using apples, especially if they’re on the sweeter side). 

Spoon batter over the fruit—don’t worry if it doesn’t cover all the fruit; the batter will spread and plump up while baking. Bake about 45 minutes, and let cool before eating.

Good with whipped cream or ice cream…but who am I kidding, perfect when eaten with a spoon right out of the pan.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Finds in the Fridge

It still surprises me that after nearly 20 years in the U.S., my parents and I keep distinctly Russian food in our
respective fridges.

Like thrifty Soviets, we store it all in recycled plastic containers. (There's no Container Store in Russia, you know.)

Case in point:

What's this? Yogurt, you say? Oh, no.

It's homemade pickles!

And what's this? Iced tea, you guess? Nope--it's homemade kvass.

I doubt we're the only immigrants who do this sort of thing. What "native" food do you have in the fridge? Tell me on the Yulinka Cooks Facebook page. (Like my cross--*caugh* self--promotion?)

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Different Kind of Fruit Cake

I’ve never made a layer cake with frosting in my life, but I do like baking fruit cakes. Not the kind you make for Christmas (though I suspect they get an undeservedly bad rap), but simple cakes that involve fruit covered in batter. They’re easy to make, reasonably light, work for breakfast or dessert, go well with coffee, tea, milk, etc.

Sour apples like Granny Smith work really well in these cakes, but so do rhubarb, strawberries, peaches, blueberries--anything that's tart. You don't need to do anything with the fruit besides cut it into chunks, and frozen berries work great. It doesn’t hurt to add a bit of vanilla or cinnamon to the batter. See the recipes below for details.

These are the variations I like:

The classic Russian charlotte: 3 eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup flour, ½ tsp. baking powder; mix; pour over fruit chunks; bake 60 minutes at 370. Here's my old apple charlotte recipe.

Yogurt cake: Similar to the above, but with 1/2 cup of  plain yogurt and sour cream, and a bit of oil for extra richness.A few weeks ago I made this cake using peaches for the fruit; recipe here.

Buttery cakes with a bit of yogurt or kefr for richness and moisture. See this rhubarb cake recipe for details.

Friday, July 22, 2011

When it's too hot for pierogies...

  • ...let NPR do your blogging for you. Check out their nice write-up of Soviet summer food--including okroshka (cold vegetable soup made with kefir), grilled trout, Azerbaijani salad, and syrniki (farmer's cheese pancakes). I've previously blogged about making your own farmer's cheese. And here's my version of Azerbaijani salad (chopped veggie salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers).

  • Did you know that Yulinka Cooks is on Facebook? That's a "like"! Never miss a Yulinka Cooks post, ever.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Russian Summer Tea

    The Merchant's Wife, a painting by Boris Kustodiev
    Most recipes are about ingredients and proportions and cooking times, but this one calls for the right atmosphere--the right atmosphere for a Russian summer tea.

    I’d guess that many Russians have sentimental memories of drinking tea for hours on warm evenings on their dacha (vacation country house).

    There will be sweets, fruit, fresh-picked berries from the garden, endless cups of tea, chit-chat with family and friends, the house cat or dog trailing around, all to the backdrop of the summer sun sinking into the earth well into the evening. It’s Russian pastoral.  (For a good cinematic version of this scene, see the movie Burned by the Sun.)

    Here’s an approximate recipe for recreating a Russian summer tea, whether you’re in Russia or, as most of my readers, somewhere across the ocean.

    July, July, August, early September

    Warm in the evening, but not humid. Breezy but not windy.

    Your cottage or country house. Oh, you don’t have one? A suburban backyard patio or deck, or even an urban balcony will suffice.

    Ideally, your extended family, with assorted friends and visitors on hand. Dogs and cats welcome.

    If you have a samovar, a Russian hot-water brewing device, use it. If not, make a big pot of hot tea, and be ready to brew more.

    Two or three different desserts—simple fruit cakes are always good. Chocolate candies. Two varieties of jam (black currant and raspberry recommended). Honey. Thinly sliced lemon. Three or four of the following: watermelon, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, grapes.

    This is a great occasional to talk politics, society and the arts. (And no need to brush up on the facts—the point is free-form chit-chat, banter, and humor--not accuracy.)

    Tuesday, July 05, 2011

    Summer Slacking Series: Milwaukee Farmers Markets & More

    What I’m doing during my summer slacking season:
    -Not blogging.
    -Making random-ingredient salads on weeknights. Here’s a tomato-brie-scallion-sausage-and-crouton creation with balsamic vinegar. I also made a tomato-bacon-pea salad that was surprisingly good. Sauté some chopped bacon, add a few handfuls of frozen peas and cook until the peas are just done. Let cool a bit, mix with sliced tomatoes. Chop up some scallions or parsley, if you have them on hand.
    -Making fake Mexican huevos rancheros: Heat up some refried beans in a small pan. Add an egg or two, sunny-side up. Cover pan with lid; cook 3-4 minutes (see the Beyond Salmon blog for more guidance on cooking eggs). Eat with salsa, chopped red peppers, scallions and sour cream.
    -Making iced tea with fruit flavorings: lime juice, lemon juice, whole strawberries (add strawberry chunks to the pitcher).
    -Checking out farmers markets in downtown Milwaukee. Here’s my brief guide:
    East Town Tuesday Market, 3 p.m.-7 p.m., Cathedral Square Park. The crowd: office people and various East Side types. This market is new in 2011, and, judging by the small turnout, I'll be surprised if it continues next summer. Atmosphere: Sparse. Chill. Buy:  Necklaces, hand-made soap, art prints, baked goodies. I haven’t seen a single fruit or vegetable for sale here. Bring: A wad of cash for the $50+ handmade jewelry.
    Westown Market, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Ziedler Union Square. Crowd: Office workers. Atmosphere: Company cafeteria. Buy: Flowers for your desk, lunch from the many food vendors and trucks, cookies for the afternoon slump. Bring: Your co-workers.
    East Town Saturday Market, 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Cathedral Square Park:  Crowd:  Crowded. Students, young professional types, young families. Atmosphere: Festive. Buy: Hey, this place sells produce, so buy a vegetable that’s in season. Bring: Kids, if you have them—the action’s at the playground.
    For addresses and a complete listing of Milwaukee-area farmers markets, see this guide in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    Sour Cream Cake With Peaches

    I hate to waste food. Homeless kittens and puppies tug at some people’s heartstrings, but a half cup of soon-to-expire sour cream in the fridge makes me cry. In my zeal to rescue the sour cream, I found myself making this cake at 10 p.m. on a weeknight--and I'm glad I did. 

    My inspiration was Orangette’s yogurt cake recipe, in which I subbed sour cream for the yogurt. Dozens of yogurt cake variations have been floating around the blog world ever since Clotilde Dusoulier posted her now-famous recipe for this simple, traditional French dessert.

    Yogurt cake is lightly sweet and mild, kind of like pancake batter, so you can add  fruit, or nuts, or chocolate to spice it up. For my cake, I added a couple of sliced, soon-to-be-squishy peaches (it’s not just leftover sour cream that makes me sad).

    Sour cream makes the cake super-dense and moist, as does Orangette’s addition of lemon juice syrup that you pour over the baked cake. 

    Here’s the recipe with my modifications:

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

    In a large bowl, combine and mix well ½ cup sour cream, ¾ cup sugar, 3 eggs and 1 tsp. vanilla concentrate.  Add 1.5 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking powder; mix. Add ½ cup canola oil, and mix well.

    Dice a couple of medium peaches (or nectarines, or apples, or strawberries, or rhubarb—any tart fruit will work).

    Butter a 9-inch cake pan, and pour ½ batter into the pan. Add diced fruit on top, and then pour the rest of the batter to cover the fruit. Sprinkle with raw sugar.

    Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool cake completely.

    Optional: Juice an orange and a lemon. Add ¼ cup powdered sugar to the juice and mix well. Pour over the entire cake, and serve.

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Summer Slacking Salads

    June marks the start of my summer slacking season on the blog. Hey, in Wisconsin, warm weather begins in June and ends mid-September, if we’re lucky—so there’s some urgency to take advantage of it.

    These are my dos and don’ts for a nice summer evening in Milwaukee:

    Do: Go for a walk or bike ride on the lakefront

    Don’t: Go to the gym

    Do: Read on the patio at Alterra

    Don’t: Read at home

    Do: Get custard at Kopp’s

    Don’t: Bake

    Do: Make salad

    Don’t: Make anything that leaves grease stains on your stove

    So, salad. Here’s a little number I made on a hot day last week. Mix everything in a big bowl.

    • Brie, cut up in chunks
    • Sliced tomatoes (make sure both brie and tomatoes are at room temperature—they will taste better)
    • Chopped scallions
    • Black olives
    • Chopped parsley
    • Thinly sliced onions
    • Dressing: something Italian, or a red wine vinegar/balsamic/olive oil combo
    And here are a few other low-maintenance salads to make during summer slacking season, ranked by time commitment:

    Tuesday, June 07, 2011

    Russian Folk Remedies

    In February, I blogged about Russian cold remedies; come summer, let’s talk about cures for hot-weather ailments.

    • Russians put sour cream on everything—why not sunburned skin? I tried this after a few too many hours in the sun on Memorial Day. Sour cream won’t cure your sunburn, but it will soothe crispy skin. Make sure to use very cold sour cream, and smear on a thin layer. Wait 20 minutes or so, until most of it is absorbed, then gently wash off the rest. You can also use yogurt and buttermilk.

    • For tired, sore or bloodshot eyes, try the tea bag remedy. Brew some tea using tea bags (Lipton is perfectly okay for this). Remove the tea bags and let them cool, then carefully squeeze out the extra moisture. Lie down or sit back, and place a tea bag over each eye. Apply for…well, for as long as you want. This will feel very soothing and pleasant—it’s the world’s cheapest spa treatment.

    Other Russian remedies:

    For cooling down in hot weather—drink hot green tea, just like they do in Central Asia. 

    For hangovers—drink pickle juice.

    For stress and anxiety—valerian root drops and water.

    For fuller hair—wash it with raw egg yolks.

    Monday, May 23, 2011

    Russian Candy Review: Limonchiki (lemon drops)

    In this occasional series, I review candy you can find at Russian grocery stores.

    Previous installments:
    The Candy: Caramel’ki Limonchiki (карамельки лимончики)

    The Name: Loosely translated, limonchiki means little lemons or--my preference--lemonettes. Caramel'ki means caramels, but in Russian candy parlance this usually refers to hard candy with filling, rather than caramel.

    The Look: An off-color yellow shell, with plum jam in the middle.

    The Taste: The shell is tart and the middle is sweet and jammy.

    Verdict:  Pretty good for hard candy. I give 'em an A-.

    In Milwaukee, you can buy limonchiki at Spartak in Whitefish Bay. Or, check out this guide to Russian/Eastern European groceries.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Russian Chopped Salad

    I couldn't resist taking a picture of my parents' Russian house salad. The base is cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley or dill, scallions, and either sunflower oil or sour cream for the dressing. Sometimes my mom will add any and all crunchy vegetables in the fridge. The only requirement for this salad is that it’s colorful. Here’s the formula:
    Base (all chopped):
    Parsley, dill, or preferably both
    Peppers—red, yellow green
    Red onions
    Olives, feta, or blue cheese (not remotely Russian, but good)
    Sunflower or olive oil, a bit of grainy mustard, dash of sugar, splash of vinegar, splash of pickle juice (secret ingredient)
    A few tablespoons each of sour cream or plain yogurt and mayo, dash of mustard, dash of sugar

    Wednesday, May 04, 2011

    A Call for a Cause--and Creativity

    Cookies for Kids' Cancer Bake Sale May 21: If you’ve always wanted to sample my baking—and you live in or around Miwaukee—you’ll have a chance at the Cookies for Kids' Cancer Bake Sale on May 21. Milwaukee food bloggers, myself included, are contributing treats for this fund-raiser organized by #MKE Foodies. You can also bid on one-of-a-kind stuff donated by Milwaukee chefs and restaurants in the silent auction.

    Event details:

    Bake Sale and Silent Auction for Kids' Cancer
    Saturday, May 21, 2011
    1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery
    901 W. Juneau Ave., Milwaukee
    RSVP on Facebook

    Call for Creativity: I love this flow chart of asparagus recipes by Mark Bittmann in New York Times' Sunday magazine. Cool and unusual way to write a recipe. So much food writing goes the memoir route—you know the type, we food bloggers have all done it:

    This asparagus morel quiche takes me back to childhood Christmases at my Norwegian great-aunt Norma’s house…. Or…. Whenever I make this mousse de jambon, I think of the time when I was 19, living in a little apartment in Paris, with this French boyfriend who broke my heart, etc.

    This kind of thing can be affecting when done right, but we shouldn’t always try to emulate Ruth Reichl or Molly Wizenberg. Let's get some inspiration from food bloggers who come up with creative ways to write about food—like the Amateur Gourmet’s restaurant review comics and DudeFoods' gonzo photos.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Soviet Recipe Postcards--Cooking With Potatoes

    “All in all, no other garden craze has been surrounded by so many legends, fairy tales, myths and fables as the potato….” So begins the introduction to this collection of potato recipes produced by Lenizdat, a Soviet publishing house. (I’ve previously blogged about their soup and sandwich recipe cards.)

    Potatoes are indeed big in Russian cooking, but I usually think of them in simple recipes, like soups or maybe boiled or fried and served as sides to meat. Let’s go on a retro-photo tour and see just how much you can do with potatoes in Russian cuisine. Like most old recipes, these are vague about proportions and cooking times. Email me (yulinkacooks at yahoo dot com) if you’d like specifics, and I’ll do my best to translate and clarify.
    Potato Kebabs--Who says there’s no vegetarian food in Russia? Granted, the editors suggest you deep fry the potatoes in lard before skewering them, but feel free to use vegetable oil.

    French Fries!--Again, the recipe calls for lard, but these fries are to be served with cucumbers and pickles, tomatoes, sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, salad, mushrooms and pickled lingberries and apples. Take that, McDonald’s!

    Soup With Potato Dumplings--called ooshki (ушки), or “little ears” in Russian, which aren’t unlike gnocchi. 
    Waldorf Salad (from French cuisine—editor’s note)--Boiled potatoes, apples and walnuts, with mayo, lemon juice, salt and sugar for the dressing.

    Potato and Meat Casserole--Call it Shepherd’s pie. You mix mashed potatoes with eggs, butter and sour cream, and place the mixture in a buttered pan. Top with browned onions and ground beef, and bake. Serve with pickles, sauerkraut, vegetables and “greenery” (zelen'/зелень in Russian, meaning fresh herbs like parsley and dill). This recipe, and the one below, make good use of leftover mashed potatoes.

    Potato Roll Stuffed With Eggs--Make dough out of mashed potatoes, stuff it with hardboiled eggs and bake. Good with schi (sauerkraut soup), according to the recipe!

    Beef and Potato Stew--I like this photo because it shows the essential condiments to the Russian stew—rye bread, pickles, sauerkraut, tomatoes, dill and peppers. And that’s probably kvass--rye bread beer--in the mug.

    Other recipes included in this set are stuffed potatoes, deep-fried potato dumplings (smazhenzi/смаженцы, from Slovenia), and, from Belarus, potato dumplings with mushrooms and pork (kalduni/калдуны) and potato pancakes (draniki/драники, which I once made). Contact me for recipes.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Weeknight Dinner Diaries

    Suggested ideas for weeknight dinners and a dessert, all made and enjoyed around these parts.

    Monday: Tomato, cucumber and bacon salad. Slice up tomatoes and cucumbers and fry up some bacon.  Let the bacon cool, then add to the vegetables, along with some sliced onions, if you like. For the dressing, a bit of mayo and sour cream is good. Salt and pepper liberally.
    Tuesday: I’m such a lobbyist for leftovers. Let’s say you have leftover pork loin (cooked in a crock pot with apple juice and soy sauce, surprisingly delish) and roasted potatoes from the weekend. Cut them up and sauté in a pan with some spinach. Add curry spices. Eat with dollops of sour cream.  

    Wednesday: There’s more time to mess around in the kitchen mid-week, so make this zucchini-bacon-and-cheese goodness. Slice up 4-5 zucchini and sauté in olive oil for 10 minutes or so.

    Place the vegetables in a foil-lined pan and grate some cheese over them—mozzarella and Parmesan are always good. Add some diced ham or bacon. Bake at 425 for 20-25 minutes, and broil last five minutes. Let cool a bit before eating.
    Thursday: If you’re running low on groceries by the end of the week, look around the pantry. You may be pleasantly surprised by the delicious things you can make using frozen, canned or jarred ingredients. For example: this posh-looking pumpkin soup had an unsexy start: an onion, garlic, canned pumpkin puree and chicken stock in a box.
    Method: Dice and sauté a big onion in some olive oil and butter. Add a few minced garlic cloves when the onions are almost done. Sprinkle on some spices—I used Penzey’s Southwestern mix, but you can get creative here. A bit of curry spice is always good. Add the pumpkin, stock (I used about 12 ounces) and ½ cup milk, and bring the soup to a boil. Turn heat to a simmer and cook on low heat for 10 minutes or so.
    Adjust the flavor to taste--I added 2 tbs. fresh lemon juice, 1 tbs. brown sugar, and ¼ cup plain yogurt. Play around until it tastes right to you. Add more stock or milk, if you like. Some diced ham or bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces and sautéed, is really good in this.  Eat with crackers or croutons, and extra yogurt.
    Friday: Have dinner out but make dessert! Slice up some strawberries, sprinkle with sugar and top with sour cream. Some cookies or chocolate wouldn’t be amiss here, either.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Cauliflower Not Mac-and-Cheese

    Let’s do a quick focus group.

    What comes to mind when you hear “cauliflower gratin”?

    French. Butter. Cheese. Milk. Baked. Rich. Crusty. Yum. Yes?

    The purpose of my research is to rebrand the cauliflower gratin. (A gratin, by the way, is a baked vegetable covered in a creamy cheese sauce.) Yes, this sort of thing is usually rich and fatty, but I like to think of my cauliflower gratin as a lighter version of mac and cheese—healthier comfort food for the winter months (or cold spring months, in these parts).

    Baked cauliflower is naturally bland and creamy, kind of like noodles, but with far fewer calories and carbs. A gratin is hot and bubbly, the food equivalent of wearing a fuzzy, oversized sweater. So you can have your crusty, cheesy hot mess in a baking pan without the nutritional disaster that is traditional macaroni and cheese.

    Here’s what I do, based on a recipe from the blog Chocolate and Zucchini: Preheat the oven to 425. Cut up a large head of cauliflower into small-ish chunks. Place in a foil-lined pan, and sprinkle with a bit of salt, black pepper and a dash of nutmeg.

    Melt 2 tbs. butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir 3 tbs. flour into the butter and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 1 cup of milk to the butter and flour, and bring the milk to a simmer, stirring to make sure the flour is dissolved.

    When the milk has a thick, saucy texture, turn off the heat and let cool for a few minutes. Add cheese—I usually add 3 tbs. whipped cream cheese, and ½ cup of whatever cheese I happen to have on hand, as long as it’s a fairly mild variety. I’ve used mozarrella, provolone, etc., successfully. (Comté is traditional for gratin, but we’re rebranding here.) Pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower.

    Sprinkle with breadcrumbs (optional), and bake 25 or so minutes, until the cauliflower is soft; then broil for 5 minutes. Let cool a bit and dig in.

    Monday, April 04, 2011

    Five Years of Yulinka Cooks

    So I’ve been food blogging for five years. The idea for Yulinka Cooks was hatched in 2005, when I discovered first-generation food blogs like The Amateur Gourmet and Chocolate and Zucchini. In March ’06, inspired by my first kitchen and armed with a $30 digital camera, I set up a Blogger account.

    Since then, I’ve written 239 blog posts, read 1,224 comments and went through five kitchens. I abandoned Yulinka Cooks a few times but couldn’t break it off for good.

    I made borsch, pickled mushrooms and herring in a fur coat. I rose to the top of Google search results for a  while with my recipe for homemade Russian farmer’s cheese. I earned a bit of beer money in blog ads before BlogHer kicked me out for failing to update. I dabbled in food-themed travel blogging and memoir-writing. I got myself into a real newspaper. I picked up some Photoshop tricks and spruced up the layout. I wrote snarky reviews of grocery stores. I met cool people who read and commented on this blog.

    For better or worse, Yulinka Cooks has been the online backdrop to the better part of my 20s.

    If you’re reading this, thanks. I raise five shot glasses of vodka to you.

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    Random Yam, Potato and Bacon Salad

    Not to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good at scrounging up random ingredients to make a tasty meal. This is my typical thought process:

    Scene: Late-December weekday evening, 9:30 p.m. I’m in the kitchen, wondering what to make for a holiday potluck the following day.

    Problem: Everything I want to make requires either a trip to the store or an oven, which won’t be available at the party. Cut up some fruit and veggies? No, too lazy. Buy something that’s pre-made? I can’t---I mean, I’m a food blogger.

    Inspiration: Two yams and three potatoes, exactly five slices of raw bacon, parsley, Swiss cheese and some nice Italian dressing, all found in the nooks and crannies of the fridge and pantry.

    Solution: Roasted potato-and-yam salad with Swiss cheese and bacon.

    Method, if you eye the proportions: Cube and roast the potatoes and yams in olive oil at 425 until soft and caramelized (45 minutes or so).

    In the meantime, dice or cut up bacon and sauté until crispy. Combine bacon and Italian dressing (1/2 cup, about) in a big bowl. When the potatoes are done, let cool to room temperature.

    Add potatoes to the bowl with bacon and dressing. Marinate overnight in the fridge. Add cubed cheese and finely chopped parsley right before serving, and serve at room temperature.

    Lesson: Always poke around the house before you go to the store!

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Rice and Spinach "Kasha"

    This is another entry in my Winter Detox series, where I make food that’s a) appropriate for post-holiday fitness resolutions, and b) has a comfort food factor. This spinach and rice thing/kasha* is my go-to weeknight dinner when I feel like cooking for myself.

    No recipe here. I usually start out by sautéing some spinach with a bit of bacon (I know, not terribly healthy, but a strip of bacon is remarkably low in calories—about 40 a pop.) Any kind of cheese is good in this, as are sautéed mushrooms. Eat your spinach with rice or some toast on the side. Add a poached egg if you’re really feeling decadent. Good brunch dish, too.

    *Kasha is Russian for any kind of porridge/hot cereal, and I like to think of this as a kind of healthy, American kasha. Buckwheat—known as kasha in the U.S.—is called grecha (греча, гречнивая каша, or гречka) in Russian.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2011

    Product Review: Wafer Cake

    Whether it’s baked milk or pickled tomatoes, Russian and Eastern European grocery stores are filled with mysterious and sometimes delicious foodstuffs. In this occasional series, I review the good, the bad and the weird.

    I saved this post especially for March 8, International Women's Day. In Soviet Russia--and, I suppose, to this day--March 8 is an all-purpose women's holiday, a mix of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. If you're from Russia, this chocolate wafer cake is a totally appropriate gift for the women in your life--along with a bouquet of mimosas, the traditional flowers for this holiday.

    You wouldn’t think that a wafer “cake” (wafel’ni tort/вафельный торт) is anything special, but, according to my mom, getting your hands on one was a pretty big deal in the Soviet times.

    This cake is basically a big wafer, usually covered in chocolate, and always sold in a cardboard box. The brand in the photo is called Kapriz (каприз)--that is, "caprice"!

    The best versions of wafer cake crisp and fresh, and aren’t bad with a cup of tea or coffee. To serve, slice into neat square or rectangles, like a good Russian hostess.

    For a guide to Russian/Eastern European stores in the Milwaukee area that sell this kind of thing, see my shopping guides.

    Monday, February 28, 2011

    Winter Detox: Butternut Squash and Spinach Whatever

    This is something I like to think of as a post-holiday detox dinner. It’s healthy enough for New Year’s resolutions, it has a comfort-food factor for cold winter nights and it’s easy to make.

    Roast some butternut squash on a Sunday afternoon when you’re pottering around the house.* When you’re ready to eat, sauté some spinach in a bit of olive oil. Add cubed butternut squash and some cheese—almost anything works here, although I like whipped cream cheese because it makes a nice, creamy sauce and isn’t terribly caloric.

    Or add a bit of butter—it’s okay, a pat won’t set you back too much.  Eat with rice, pasta or as is.

    *To roast squash: Preheat the oven to 425 and line a large pan with foil. Cut up a butternut squash into 4-inch chunks. Don't bother peeling. Place squash in the pan; sprinkle with brown sugar, salt and black pepper. Add a splash of olive oil.

    Roast 30-45 minutes, until the squash is easily pierced with a fork. Let cool and peel.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011

    Russian Cold Remedies

    Been sick yet this season? In Russia, you wear down the cold! In keeping with cold and flu season, here’s a rundown of traditional Russian cold remedies. None of these will cure your cold, of course, but all will make you feel better when you’re going through boxes of Kleenex and rubbing your bleary eyes.

    Tea: Tea is the Russian cure-all for everything—illness, hangovers, heartbreak, you name it. Brew yourself a pot of strong Earl Grey (see my user-friendly directions) and choose your add-in: lemon and honey, raspberry jam, or a good splash of brandy...okay, vodka.

    Raspberry jam: Whether you add it to tea or eat as is, Russians say raspberry jam is good for colds. I’m neutral on this.

    Oatmeal with raisins and butter.
    Kasha: I don’t know if this counts as a traditional Russian remedy, but it helps me when I’m sick. Kasha* (каша), in Russian, is any hot cereal, such as oatmeal or cream of wheat. It's usually made with milk, not water, and it’s good comfort food when you’re out of sorts. Eat with a big pat of butter. You can afford the calories when your immune system is weak, you know. (*Kasha refers to buckwheat in English--in Russian, however, buckwheat is called grecha/греча.)

    Hot steam: This one’s fun. Boil some potatoes in a large soup pot; drain when done. Lean over the empty pot, cover you head with a blanket—and breathe. The steam’s supposed to clear the nasal passageways. It’ll also open up your pores--kind of like a DIY spa treatment! Save the potatoes for salad Olivier, if you manage not to sneeze all over them.

    Gogol-Mogol: Also on the weird side is this eggnog-like drink. I have no idea if it helps cure colds, as I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid it. Gogol-mogol involves mixing a raw egg with honey, hot milk and butter. Here’s a recipe.

    Chicken noodle soup with meatballs.
    Soup: Chicken soup, of course, but any kind of hot soup will do.

    This is by no means a complete list. For more Russian cold remedies, including non-edible ones—ground mustard on your socks, anyone? —check out this blog.  And share your favorite cold remedies, Russian or otherwise, in the comments.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Russian Candy Review: Korovki

    This is part three of my occasional Russian candy review series. See also part one and part two.

    Who’s up for a little cow? That’s what these caramel candies are called in Russian—Korovki, which is short for little cows, plural (коровки=little cows/корова=cow, singular/коровы=cows, presumably full-sized).

    They come in bright little wrappers with a picture of a blissfully happy cow on the front. As for the taste, these are like a soft, creamy version of Werther’s butterscotch toffee. They’re a bit too sweet for my tastes, but work when I need sugar rush. I give them a B-.

    You can buy Korovki at most Russian and Eastern European groceries. In the Milwaukee area, I recommend Spartak in Whitefish Bay. For more on Milwaukee-area shopping options, check out this guide.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Times Are 'a Changing: Blogging in 2011 vs. 2006

    Yulinka Cooks is back in business! Did you miss me? If not, I can’t blame you. It’s hard to keep up with all the food blogs out there. We bloggers are competing for readers, page views, comments, attention. During my hiatus I've thought about how blogging's changed since Yulinka Cooks began back in '06. Here are my tips on blogging in 2011:

    Go hyper-local: Like the newspaper industry, food bloggers should focus on gaining a local readership. Cover local food, local restaurants, local farmers. Meet local foodies, organize local events (the Milwaukee-based food blog Burp! is doing this right).

    Find a Niche: It’s hard to sustain a food blog that’s all over the place. Pick a theme, the more unusual the better, and stick to it. (This pertains to all blogs, not just food—see the fashion blog Manrepeller for an example. The theme is clothes that confuse and repulse men. Weird? Yes. But in a universe full of fashion blogs filled with recycled industry gossip, this blog stands out and gets covered in the New York Times.)

    Forget Anonymity: When I started this blog in 2006, hardly anyone who read it knew me offline. Later, thanks to a mention in the local paper, local food blogger events and the ubiquity of Facebook, nearly half my readers seemed to be from the Milwaukee area. Co-workers and acquaintances (now Facebook friends) would mention my blog posts. My blog came up, unprompted, during job interviews.

    Social Media: You pretty much have to be on Facebook and Twitter now, if you’re a blogger.

    Be Creative: Remember when food bloggers got book deals? That stopped circa 2008. Great recipes and artsy pictures aren’t enough to pull in readers, let alone a publishing contract, unless you run a really major blog like Smitten Kitchen. So be creative. Be weird. Don’t settle for just another recipe-and-picture food blog.

    Have Fun: When blogging's fun, it shows! Also: find a few blogs that you really admire, read them and leave comments. The bloggers will appreciate it.  As will I if you stick with Yulinka Cooks. Thanks again for reading!  
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