Archive for May, 2012

May 17, 2012

Tomato and Onion Seduction

As spring settles in, many restaurants along our street (Noviy Arbat) and others, set up their outdoor seating. Some restaurants go for a canopy hanging over simple tables and chairs, others have a full blown construction site outside their front door and produce gorgeous decks with heating lamps, blankets, exotic flower pots, etc. Regardless, I love outdoor seating. It is one of my favorite things about sunny and warm weather.

We went to the restaurant Ristoran Barashka on Noviy Arbat – we had gone there before in the winter. I was seduced by their new outdoor seating area (this happens often) and insisted that we go there immediately. Their menu has typical ‘restaurant in Russia’ items like shashlik and borsht, etc. They also have lots of stuff with lamb (obvi – barashka is lamb) like these amazing cabbage leaves (golubtsi) stuffed with lamb meat. This time I opted for rabbit kotleti (which are like oversized Russian meatballs). My husband had chicken shashlik. Both were delicious.

A table across the seating area had ordered a salad of tomatoes and grilled onions. I eyed it as soon as the waiter put it down in front of them. My vision when looking at things that are far away is not that great. I really should wear my glasses or contacts more, but I can spot pretty looking food from great distances (also pretty tablecloths, sales at Sur La Table, and giraffe print stuff). Anyway, I was mesmerized. The colors of the salad were gorgeous – bright tomato-y red and onion-y purple jumping off the white plate. I could only imagine how simple, light and amazing it tasted. Along with mushrooms and potatoes, I love onions (just not raw). Already too stuffed from our own meal I vowed right then and there to make this dish at home. It was dramatic, but very important. I kept staring at the table. They probably thought I was nuts. But it was just about the tomatoes and onions and not them. I wonder if that makes it weirder?

If anything I would just say I’m American. Which is my excuse for all awkward moments abroad. Before, I used to think this was a bad thing. Americans are loud, obnoxious and ridiculous, right? At least that’s what we were told they thought. And you could tell by their attitude that they did. So you never wanted to admit you were American. Then people loved Americans and we all had celebrity status when traveling…and now we just meddle in everything, I guess (my knowledge of politics and history certainly doesn’t help the ‘Americans are stupid’ stereotype) so they don’t like us again.

But as the guy at the table to the right of us was self-righteously barking orders at everyone and the women to the left of us were scowling at everything, including the innocent pepper shaker, I couldn’t help thinking how nice we Americans are. Now, as a former waitress of many years, maybe I am an exception, but a restaurant really has to mess up a lot for me to get super angry or annoyed. I understand that things can happen at the worst times and I understand the stress that a server might feel when something is taking too long in the kitchen or they forgot to leave out pickles, or you forgot to bring someone’s water, or someone ordered something that the kitchen, unbeknownst to you, JUST ran out of. Or you accidentally swiped the same card twice on a split bill. Or the server coming in after you just called out and you have to stay. Great servers make mistakes and really good restaurants can have an off night. It’s life.

Anyway, that night (I can’t remember if it was night or day because it stays so light out until about 10pm) happened to be a bad night for that particular restaurant. The weather was nice and we were enjoying the sunshine as the world passed us by on Noviy Arbat so I was already in a fabulous mood. I could wait all day for my meal. It certainly felt like I did. But I was happy doing so. Smiling, being pleasant with the servers, enjoying the moment. It gave Andrei extra time to check out Twitter and sports scores on his iPhone – so we were both set.

The people around us though should have just taken a raincheck and stayed home. Guy on our left was really peeved that the hookah specialist hadn’t come up to him for 20 minutes. I wouldn’t come up to him either since he was yapping on his cell phone for that entire 20min and wouldn’t stop if any restaurant person approached him. Then he felt he had waited too long to get his hookah. Then they couldn’t bring the beer fast enough. Then he could only pay with cash (and he wanted to pay with credit card) and I was ready for my beatiful outdoor setting to come crashing down on our heads. Not only does he have to complain to them like crazy, he gets back on his cell phone to tell his friend about it. And he is loud and it is incredibly irritating.

Snippy girls on our left just couldn’t be happy about anything. Probably not about their failed facelifts either.

I’m not saying all Russians are like this. Just maybe most in Moscow. And there are certainly things here that Russia could teach America.

But in that moment I was proud to be an American. Gracious, friendly, and understanding.

The following night I re-created the tomato onion salad and it turned out great. The flavor combination of the tart tomatoes and the sweet (and in some places a little charred) onions just really hit the spot. It was really simple to make too.

I tossed sliced red onions (I later used white, which also worked well, but I think red is better) in some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of brown sugar. Then I spread them out on a lined sheet pan. I put them in a very hot oven and just kept track of them, so they wouldn’t burn. Somewhere in there I gave them a turn so they could roast a bit on the other side. While they were roasting I cut up some plum tomatoes (the ones here importated from Holland are so good!! I normally don’t prefer plum tomatoes. Early girls from California would also be amazing probably) and sprinkled them with salt to let them sit and release their flavors. Once the onions were done I added them to the tomatoes and tossed with a tiny bit more olive oil, salt and pepper. And that’s it. Such a simple dish that is so rich in flavors!

With the salad I served my very quick spaghetti alfredo. Basically I cook the pasta as per usual. Then I drain it, reserving some of the liquid and put it back on very low heat. Add a bit of butter, cream, and parm cheese and mix. Cracked pepper on top adds a lovely touch.

I also prepared some simple and tender chicken thighs to go with the rest of the meal. I seasoned the chicken thighs, seared them on a frying pan and them put them into a pot with simmering broth  until they are done (maybe about 20min? – they stay pretty tender so even if you go over you’ll be fine). I normally like to add some fresh herbs to the pot and maybe some white wine. I didn’t have either, but I had some leftover lemons so I sliced those and through them in. It really added some depth to the flavor.

We didn’t eat it outside but it was a very pleasant, light and airy dish. And no one complained that they had to wait a little to eat it.

May 4, 2012

The Most Expensive Chocolate Chip Cookies I Ever Made

One of the reasons I went ahead and bought the electric hand mixer to bake kulich was because I figured I could then make chocolate chip cookies and other mixer required recipes after. Recipes I couldn’t really do before because I was having an inner battle with myself over whether it was really worth it to go out and buy one I would only be using temporarily. The thought of trying to mix the kulich dough by hand in a very weak plastic bowl (the only big one I could find) was overwhelming so I gave in and bought the mixer (It was all of $12 – I’m not really sure what my problem was. Maybe it’s that I am used to having more cabinet space and I hate extra things on the counters). I was excited for the baking doors it would open afterwards. Well, If you read my post about kulich you will know that my mixer did not survive (duh, because it was $12).

Determined to make an American classic for my volunteer group, but not planning to go back to Ashan that week, I googled ‘How to Make Chocolate Chip Cookies Without a Mixer’ and found a recipe on the website/blog(?) theKitchn. Which is one of those websites/blogs(?) that make you want to be cooler/change your whole life so you try commenting on it and usually end up sounding more lame. I opted to Tweet instead, but that didn’t produce any earth shattering changes, fame, or even a retweet…oh, well. I’m bad at Twitter and worse at Pininterest, anyway. I was pretty excited about the recipe. Maybe I don’t even need the mixer after all!!…Psh, of course I’ll get it anyway. I was so good at talking myself out of it and then I got a taste of having one again.

So Problem #1 happened while collecting ingredients. Brown sugar in most stores here is what at home we call raw sugar. So, not brown sugar. I finally found some in the fancy store across the street. It came out to about $7.50 for 1lb. These have now become very fancy cookies.

Next, I was unable to find vanilla extract. I probably should have just bought a vanilla bean since I didn’t know how to replace the extract with vanilla sugar, vanilla powdered sugar, vanillin, and every other vanilla option on the planet that these stores carry besides extract. I opted for just skipping it all together. Hold your gasps, the cookie flavor was actually fine! The other apparently exotic item in Moscow is chocolate chips. I have seen them once. In a tiny little packet around kulich baking time – and then they disappeared forever. Fine, I can chop chocolate bars into little chunks. Makes them even more homemade in my book! After all was said and done I got about 7 oz of chocolate chips for almost $4. That’s more than the cost of chocolate chips at home (where Nestle Tollhouse might cost about $3.59 for 12oz). So now these have become the Most Expensive Chocolate Chip Cookies I Ever Made.

This is how I followed the recipe (including the way I have to measure my ingredients in Moscow), but you can use the link I posted before for the original recipe: First mix 12 tbsp of granulated sugar and 12 tbsp of brown sugar until well combined. Smush out any clumps. In globs add/mix in the 114(ish) grams of softened butter (Here I got inspired and distracted by the idea of compound butter and daydreamed about what other ingredients I could make it with). Taste test a bunch of the butter/sugar mixture…I mean, what?
Add the two eggs one at a time, lightly beating the egg with a whisk (in the bowl but off to the side) first. Telepathically add some vanilla extract and hope that works. Add 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of baking soda (Sigh of relief that I needed baking soda because there doesn’t seem to be baking powder in any store either). Mix this well. Add all 36 tbsp of flour at one time (try not to lose count). Carefully mix the dough as few times as possible until there is no flour visible in the dough or anywhere on the bowl. Fold in 200 grams of homemade chocolate chunks.
Next is the part that inexplicably makes me so irritated…roll tablespoons of dough and space them out on a lined or greased baking sheet about 2 inches apart. I can’t stand this part and sometimes resort to spreading the mixture out in the baking sheet and just cutting it into Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars after baking. I can’t be the only one who has this revulsion because the cookie bars are actually an alternative option on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chips package. I am not really sure what makes me so annoyed. I love cooking and baking and I like cookies. I’m assuming it’s because not many globs of dough fit on the baking sheet when you space them out so outrageously far (why 2 inches, Recipe, why?!) so you have to bake so many batches. And you have to wait for the cookies and baking sheet to cool before you can roll out another set. Yes, I am starting to realize how insane and impatient I must sound.
I decided to selflessly put myself through the torture of scooping and rolling because I wanted the volunteers to have chocolate chips cookies. Also I could lick any of the batter that sticks off of my fingers and the spoon…I mean…what? I stubbornly only spaced them out like an inch and a half though. Barely. And fully expected to get a big cookie blob in the end. But I didn’t. The cookies came out brilliant. The first (top rack) tray came out amazing. They even had a store bought shape to them. (Oh, I baked at 190(ish)°C for 10(ish) minutes). I stared at them in awe. Fascinated that the best ‘American-classic’ cookies I ever baked were in Moscow. With no vanilla. And less than 2-inches of separation!
Now, we won’t talk about the other trays that accidentally stayed in the oven too long. It’s crazy how fast cookies go from golden brown to charcoal (usually this happens in the 5 seconds that it takes me to nonsensically set the timer for just 1 more minute – the third time). I ALWAYS second guess and take out the cookies just a tad too late. This recipe has a great tip though – take the cookies out of the oven when the sides are set and the tops are dry to the touch. This really helps as my overbaked ones weren’t as bad as usual.
In fact, they were fine. Just a little crunchier. And the beauty of it all was that I was serving the cookies to a group of people that aren’t familiar with them. So how would they know, really? I made them the following week again and their doneness was even better. The second time I added a tiny bit of cinnamon (still no vanilla) and mixed dark and milk *homemade* chocolate chunks. Yum. The cookies were all eaten.

(PS: There is one volunteer, whom I adore and think is a very generous person, who, every time I bring something in, likes to lecture me about how American sweets/foods are full of crap and that Russians aren’t used to that and prefer things that are less salty or sweet. I just smile and nod as I watch him take seconds, thirds, fourths…)