Archive for March, 2012

March 20, 2012

Operation Русская Кухня (Russian Kitchen)

Back home in New Jersey I receive monthly issues of Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines. It takes just one issue to make me want to change my whole life, at least culinarily speaking. I miss these monthly gifts (who doesn’t LOVE getting snail mail in this heavily technology based world?!) so I went out and bought the March issue of a Russian food magazine called Hleb i Sol (Bread and Salt). The recipes aren’t limited to traditional Russian dishes. On the contrary, many in this issue aren’t, but they did actually have a few articles and recipes specifically for the Great Lent, which to me is absolutely fascinating.

Although Russia has not completely rid itself of the leftovers of communism and the Soviet attitude/lifestyle, I can’t even express how awesome it feels to be surrounded by our own religion. At home, what happens at church and what happens in society (for example at a restaurant or a store) was always so separate. Here, it all comes together. Restaurants advertise their convenient lenten menus and grocery stores mark their suggestions for fasting (some products even have lenten stamps of approval on them). Almost every time I am at the store at least one customer is confirming whether a loaf of bread or a pie is in fact lenten. The only disadvantage to this is of course missing out on post-holiday sales in time for our celebrations. At home we always stock up on wrapping paper or ornaments after December 25th in time for our Christmas festivities on January 7th. Same usually goes for Easter candy. Here I guess we don’t have that luxury, but really the trade-off is so much better.

Lenten options at the grocery store. The yellow sign says "Products Recommended for Lent" and the boxes say "For Lent"

I plan to show a lenten recipe from Hleb i Sol in another blog post, but what I wanted to share this time was mors (basically fruit juice, but so much better). In this magazine they had a couple recipes for mors “like your babushka used to make”. We had been buying mors practically every week, so I decided it might be fun to try making it myself and feel like a traditional Russian cook from back in the day. I find that although many people buy pre-made items now, there is a pride in homemade Russian staples like pickled cucumbers and jam (especially if you also grow the ingredients or pick them on a trip to your ‘dacha’).

The recipe I followed calls for pressing out the juices of a mixture of forest berries and adding boiled water to the juice. Then you add a few cloves and some honey and let it sit for several hours until serving either cold or warm (remember to remove the cloves first!!).

I used brusnika, which translates to cowberry, which I have never heard of in English. It looks almost like a cranberry and is the red berry pictured above. I also used black currants (both bought frozen and defrosted).  I don’t have a strainer so it was difficult to press juices out of the berries and my meat mallet was just not doing the trick. I decided to boil the berries in water for a bit and then squish them as much as possible, add the clove and honey and strain it with the pot lid after.

I’m not sure this was the best idea. I think the skins of the berries made the mors much more bitter. I added some sugar to help, but I think now it’s only really enjoyable if you add hot water when drinking a cup. For now, the jug of it is just sitting in the fridge, neglected. When I return home to Jersey, amidst my kitchen gadgets that I remember fondly, I will try again and hopefully continue to make my own mors for years to come.  But this wasn’t a total disaster and I am happy that I tried it out. Something in which to progress.

My next traditional Russian kitchen attempt was zhavoronki. Little rolls shaped into birds that signify the coming of spring. Traditionally they are made on/around March 22nd (the holiday of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste), but I made them a little earlier this year to share with the volunteers. I used a friend’s recipe (that I believe she got from her cousin). Hopefully they won’t mind me sharing it here 🙂

Basically you dissolve one package of yeast in a cup of warm (NOT hot) water, then add 1/2 cup of oil and 1/2 cup sugar. Gradually add 2 cups of flour to make the dough. Add more flour as necessary (you don’t want the dough to be sticky, but you should be able to work with it). After kneading the dough for a bit, let it rise for about an hour. I had mine covered with a dishcloth and near a heater. I was very excited to see that the dough had risen! (I did double the recipe and it was fine)

Knead the dough again and then work pieces of the dough into a ‘log’. Tie in a simple knot – on the end that becomes the tail use a knife to cut the tip into three ‘feathers’ and on the end that becomes the head stick in cloves for eyes. You can also use raisins for eyes which you then do not have to remove before eating. Despite this convenient alternative, I am loyal to team-clove as that is how they were done in my family. So decide carefully because there is no going back. You are cloves or you are raisins. Not both. My husband comes from team-raisin and it causes awkward tension every spring.

Place the zhavoronki on a baking sheet. Poke holes with a fork or toothpick to let air escape as they bake. Also you can steep some tea in a little water (make it strong) and brush that on the dough to add a bit of color (instead of an egg wash). Oh, I’d like to add that I found the right flour – it was the one I assumed would be whole wheat flour after all.

Bake until golden brown. You can test doneness by carefully picking one up and tapping the bottom – if it sounds hollow it is done! Once they are out of the oven, brush some honey on them. This is such a clever touch (that I stole from my friend, Ksenia, who gave me the recipe).

I have made much prettier zhavoronki, but they came out tasting nice. And the apartment smelled delicious! If I made scented candles I would start a Russian line and one would be Zhavoronki…along with a million others (Kulich, Sirnaya Pascha, Old Books, Church Insence. Note to self – look into this idea!). I was so excited to bring them to the volunteers as most of the treats I bring them are based on American recipes, until all of a sudden panic set it. These zhavoronki do not look like dainty little birds. And I have seen pictures online of Russian creations made from bread. They are impeccable. Was I about to make a complete idiot of myself by proudly bringing in these…I don’t even know what to call them…they looked like birds flattened on the side of the road! I was hoping the taste would compensate.

…I think it did. The volunteers were happy. And although one of them said my zhavoronki looked like ‘kambala’ – Russian for those flat fish that camouflage in the sand at the bottom of the ocean (in Russia nobody worries about hurting your feelings) – everyone seemed genuinely happy to eat them and pleased that I brought them in. I think Operation Russian Kitchen was a success…

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March 16, 2012

Vegetable Instincts

I am currently taking Top Chef University ‘courses’ online. I have to complete it by May (a year from when I signed up) before my registration to the site is cut off. Of course when I was in NYC working, I didn’t have the time or energy to do it, and now that I am in Moscow with lots of time on my hands, I don’t have all the gadgets in my kitchen or all the ingredients readily available. I am watching the courses anyway and just taking detailed notes. Many of the first lessons were a repeat of what I had already learned in my Fundamentals of Food Service class at Boston University. It’s been a good refresher and I have learned some new tricks as well. And it has brought on a whole bunch of kitchen tools I want to buy and culinary goals for when we are permanentaly back in the States (read: many, many more to-do lists).

At some point in one of the lessons they mentioned when boiling potatoes you put them in the pot with water and then bring them to boil, etc. Unlike pasta where you boil the water first.

I knew this already of course because I am…a person, but it’s interesting to think back to when it was that I learned that. I have no idea. I am sure it came from watching my mom cook or just being told when I was a kid. But it’s weird – I really don’t remember. I feel like there was probably one day I didn’t know how to cook pasta and then I just did. As if it’s instinct, like breathing or swallowing. It’s not like learning the hard way that you shouldn’t cool your finger in your mouth after you’ve stuck it in caramalizing sugar…or resisting the urge to try it while it’s still scorching in the first place. Somehow I just knew that potatoes (or carrots, beets, etc) go in before and pasta goes in after the water boils.

This all kind of reminded me of borsht, a traditional Ukranian/Russian beet soup that I made the other day from a recipe I found online (with the necessary changes to make it vegan). Pretty basic. I used a different recipe last summer and both were decent. I find that my soups always taste better the next day after the flavors have been able to meld together nicely overnight. What I was most excited about this time is that I julienned the vegetables (since I had nothing to really shred them with). I much prefer this over cubed…it somehow feels heartier and thicker to me.

Look how nice and uniform those veggies look. I am pretty proud of myself!

Despite my 40 different versions of the same to-do list, I managed to be lid-less and frying pan-less while making the borsht. Both were in the dishwasher and I happend to start the load already. I don’t think I would have been in the mood for washing them anyway after julienning all the vegetables, so I improvised:

I am still in search of the best recipe. The borsht in Moscow is pretty delicious, but many restaurants put meat in it, which I believe is correct according to Ukranian tradition. It’s weird for me though, because growing up I usually ate borsht during lent when meat wasn’t allowed. It was a fasting staple. In Moscow it is also a much richer/deeper looking color. I wish mine would turn out that way.

The church we sometimes go to in Spring Valley, NY has one of the best I’ve tasted, and there was a woman in Boston (who unfortunately remains a mystery to me) that would, every once in a while, bring my grandmother amazing borsht. While studying in Boston I used to spend many weekends at my grandmother’s apartment and I was always so excited when we scored a huge, delicious pot of it. We would warm it up and then dive in as we discussed school, boys, and life.  My grandmother had the best instincts for everything. I think she was just born wise. And of course it went beyond boiling potatoes and pasta. She always knew the right thing to say, and how I was feeling…and the perfect time for another bowl of borsht.

Ukranian Red Borsht (from allrecipes.com; leave out the meat for vegan, and use vegetable stock for more flavor)

Ingredients:

  •                     1 (16 ounce) package pork sausage
  •                     3 medium beets, peeled and shredded
  •                     3 carrots, peeled and shredded
  •                     3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cubed
  •                     1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  •                     1 medium onion, chopped
  •                     1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
  •                     3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 medium head cabbage, cored and shredded
  •                     1 (8 ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  •                     3 cloves garlic, minced
  •                     salt and pepper to taste
  •                     1 teaspoon white sugar, or to taste
  •                     1/2 cup sour cream, for topping
  •                     1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Directions

  1.                     Crumble the sausage into a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook and stir until no longer pink. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  2.                     Fill a large pot halfway with water(about 2 quarts), and bring to a boil. Add the sausage, and cover the pot. Return to a boil. Add the beets, and cook until they have lost their color. Add the carrots and potatoes, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, and the can of diced tomatoes.
  3.                     Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender. Stir in the tomato paste and water until well blended. Transfer to the pot. Add the raw garlic to the soup, cover and turn off the heat. Let stand for 5 minutes. Taste, and season with salt, pepper and sugar.
  4.                     Ladle into serving bowls, and garnish with sour cream and fresh parsley.
March 11, 2012

‘Shroom Addiction

It’s always fun when you can start making dishes without recipes – either you’re repeating something you’ve made before and have mastered or, even better, you are applying stuff you have learned from cooking other things to create a new dish of your own. I did this the other day when I made mushroom patties.

First of all, let me start by telling you how much I love mushrooms…

..actually, I can’t, because I don’t know how to express just how much. But trust me, it’s a lot. It’s a weakness. I love discovering new restaurants and new food, but it is so hard not to order mushroom risotto or anything with mushroom sauce every time I see it on a menu. I pretty much have to make a pros and cons list and talk myself out of it. Kind of like my husband and buffalo wings. He just can’t stay away. When we started dating it was summer. In three months I ate more buffalo wings than the whole rest of my life before that first date. In turn, since meeting me he has probably eaten more mushrooms than he did in his life leading up to our romance. He was never a mushroom lover, but I married him anyway.

I also had a co-worker/officemate that loved mushrooms too. And we had the same hair. It’s like she and I were made for each other.

Anyway, I thought mushroom patties would be an interesting experiment given my addiction and the fact that we are back to vegan cooking. I made up my own recipe. It could definitely use some tweaking, but I think the flavor was good. But again, I love mushrooms. So from what I understand about having a child…they can almost do nothing wrong. And even when I’m sick of them, I still want them around. And when they are gone, I miss them.

First I finely chopped about a pound of washed mushrooms. (If my husband is finally reading this blog then please change that to VERY THOROUGHLY washed mushrooms…love you). Then I sauteed them with some minced garlic (I would have microplane zested the garlic into the pan if I had the microplaner with me) until all the liquid evaporated and set it aside to cool.

Next I sauteed half a chopped onion and added it to the mushrooms. In one of those sauteeing batches I added some chopped fresh parsley. I let it cool slightly before mixing in breadcrumbs and vegan mayo until the mixture became shapeable. In Moscow I haven’t been able to find regular breadcrumbs yet. I think either the dried kind or throwing a slice of white sandwich bread in your food processor would probably work much better. What I used, called smes in Russian, was more dusty…almost like flour.

I shaped the mixture into patties and rolled them in more breadcrumbs (seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika). Then I put the patties into the fridge to allow them to get cold/harden. I pan fried them with a little olive oil, turning once or twice very carefully, until they were heated through and had a delicious crispy crust.

Serve with sides of your choice. Mine were cous cous and a very simple salad.

The next day I broke up a leftover patty and mixed it with leftover cous cous for more of a ‘pilaf’. That was delicious too.

I welcome you to tweak my recipe into something of your own!

March 5, 2012

A Week of Blini

The week before Great Lent is called Maslenitsa (known in English as Pancake Week or Cheesefare) during which you can eat everything but meat. In Russia it’s a great time of festivals and festivities. Saying goodbye to Winter (except not really because I am still freezing) and getting ready for Spring. The toppings for the blini (non-breakfast pancakes) range from fish, sour cream, caviar, etc to cheese, jam, apple puree and so on. My favorite combination is sour cream, chopped eggs and smoked salmon. Delicious.

One night I made blini for myself and my husband at our apartment. I used my friends’ recipe that I tried early last fall (sometimes blini are good outside of Maslenitsa) and they came out pretty well. I have to say my dear lady friends did a much better job than I did! Although I made them in Moscow, the first time I ate blini from this recipe, in September, it felt more like I was in a little Russia. We were at a cabin in Pennsylvania that was COVERED in little Russian chochkis. We went mushroom picking the day before and sang Russian songs around a camp fire. So it really was like both times I was in Russia 🙂 Except this time I got to use Russian ingredients – like my favorite water here (never had an opinion, but this one is delicious – Cone Forest), Russian milk AND flour that is special for making blini, as you can see by the picture of a blini stack on the front of it. And Russian eggs that sometimes still have little feathers in the carton.


The recipe is basically to beat/whisk one egg with some milk (like french toast coating), add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Gradually add flour (mixing/whisking between each addition) until the batter is the consistency of sour cream, then thin out with seltzer water until you are ready to fry. Then ladle into a hot pan (with some butter) and cook it like a pancake.

There is a saying “S Pervom Blinkomom” that comes from the fact that the first pancake always come out messed up. It applies to things you try the first time and it doesn’t come out great…with practice it gets better. It translates to “With the First Blin”…for me it’s “With Every Blin”.

Anyway, all the festivities we participated in were great. At our friends’ apartment we had a filling out of marscapone, smoked fish and mustard. Definitely interesting. The blini there were super thin. I want to try his recipe next year – he used butter in the batter and not in the pan. No yeast and no seltzer water.

A few parks in Moscow had great festivals that we went to with AMAZING (best I have ever had) blini made to order. I had two, and probably could have had more. One with smoked salmon and sour cream and the other with mashed potatoes, crispy onions and mushrooms. So good! Still dreaming about it. We went to three festivals the last weekend. So I had five separate blini occasions. It does get old. And then you take a break for a day and suddenly you want more…it’s a blini phenomenon.

but now we are back to lent…