Archive for ‘Food’

July 28, 2012

Egg Stains on the Kitchen Floor

Wow. So it’s almost been a month since my last post. Didn’t I write something somewhere before about keeping up with it more? That’s embarrassing. And also I think that’s what most bloggers say. So I’m being all cliche. Also embarrassing.

I feel like I have lots of things I could write about which makes me feel like I have nothing to write about. Does that even make sense? My parents just left after almost a week long visit here in Jersey. As they were leaving my dad said he would be waiting for the ‘ice cream post’. It’s amazing how supportive parents are. They shower me with undeserved praise and put up with my ridiculous attitude that I occasionally develop out of nowhere (why are girls so complicated?)…sorry about that, by the way.

My dad is my most enthusiastic blog reader. In fact almost their entire visit was narrated by him (out loud) as a blog post. I guess for motivation. Or ideas. I wish now I could remember what he said. It would undoubtedly be better than what I can come up with right now. I did steal his idea for the title.

One of the highlights of my parents’ trip (besides of course when my dad belted out the Happy Birthday song to his sister over the phone in the echo-y train station with other people around) was being able to cook with my mom. Having her here with me is certainly easier than trying to text her questions while whisking or sauteing, which I do often. It’s funny how as soon as someone is in the kitchen with you you start second guessing everything – even stuff you basically know. “Do you think this is done?”, “Is this enough salad?”, “Should I do this part first?”. I mean, you would think I never boiled water before or something.

Anyway, one of the things we made together was ice cream in my new ice cream maker. I was extremely excited to make one particular flavor – sea salt. On a trip to Ireland with Andy back in 2010 we tried Murphy’s Ice Cream in Dingle and I was intrigued by their sea salt flavor. It was delicious. Better than delicious – I hate using that word ever since I heard Bobby Flay give contestants on Next Food Network Star a hard time for using it…

It was the flavor of an overcast day somewhere on the coast. If that could be an ice cream flavor. When we returned to Ireland for a short business trip (Andy’s, not mine), I made sure we went back to the Dublin store to have the sea salt ice cream again. Andy may have had a different flavor (I’m sure all the flavors are good), but in my memory it was really just all about me and that sea salt ice cream.

I was so happy to discover that their actual recipe was posted online. I am very willing to travel to Ireland for another taste, but in the inbetween I can make it here at home.

You would think being that my mother and I are relatively ‘experienced’ cooks we could get it together to make some ice cream. Well, you thought wrong. It was our own little Comedy of Errors as we mismeasured the milk (220ml x 4 = 480ml, doesn’t it??) and then Mama scrambled the eggs in 1/2 of the custard (we were also making strawberry ice cream with part of the base). Not to mention the kitchen floor suffered little splats of egg whites (which will never be made into meringues, by the way, despite our going through the trouble of storing them in a convenient and very cute tupperware container). I think we were distracted by Papa’s constant blog narration.

In the end, though, the ice cream turned out great. Even the strawberry-scrambled-egg flavor. With Mama to the rescue, we put the custard in a food processor and then strained it through a fine mesh sieve. That helped a little. The sea salt, after we fixed the milk problem, was lovely and almost exactly how I remember the one in Ireland. It tastes fabulous with some caramel sauce on top (what doesn’t?). It will now taste like a happy visit with my parents. Mama by my side mixing and Papa sitting in the kitchen dictating my next post.

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June 21, 2012

Almost Out For the Rest of Summer

You know how when you finally decide to quit a job that is making you miserable, the last few days will inevitably seem so easy and fun. Almost enough to make you want to stay. The clients, boss or coworkers you wanted to strangle are suddenly interesting and make you laugh as opposed to make you want to jump out the window. Or as the excitement of the end of the school year approaches you suddenly like your teacher/professor’s lame jokes and are enjoying the class immensely. You become desperate to learn more and fear you will forget everything.

Of course I am not saying that we are miserable in Moscow, but I think Andrei and I are itching to get home for a bit. The heaviness one feels sometimes from living here is getting to us. And of course we miss our families. But now that our days are coming to an end, I am suddenly not ready to go. A large didn’t-do list swims in my head (much to my husband’s dismay) and makes me anxious. Places we didn’t visit, people we didn’t call or see, restaurants we didn’t try, churches we didn’t attend.

And of course after looking everywhere for Frank’s Hot Sauce or an acceptable alternative (Tabasco doesn’t really do the trick), I find one just a few weeks before our departure (a week from today!). My husband is obsessed with buffalo wings and at a loss of what to get him for his birthday (I am usually really good at gift selection) I decided to go on a full blown hot sauce search. And there it was on a shelf in a nearby grocery store – Red Devil Cayenne Pepper Sauce. How had I not noticed it before? Before all those countless let-downs at multiple restaurants with buffalo wings on their menu. “…but maybe THIS place does it right,” we would say to convince ourselves we had to order them again.

I googled Red Devil and indeed someone compared it to Frank’s. So I made a dinner of some of Andy’s favorites for his birthday. I had to do it a couple weeks early since his birthday was during lent (yes, yes…another one is currently taking place). We have a fryer at home (one of my better gift ideas) and the grocery stores sell the correct size wingette things, but here I had to make a few compromises (regular size wings because I was too lazy to cut them, baked in oven). They still turned out pretty good. Enough that Andrei started feeling sad about leaving Moscow too. Now that we could have our beloved chicken wings here.

Andrei and I have perfected buffalo wing-making for our taste. After they come out of our fryer, he tosses them in melted butter or margarine and then adds Frank’s sauce and vinegar. For this time around I just put the margarine and hot sauce in a saucepan together and added some vinegar. Then I tossed the sauce on the baked chicken wings (which I had seasoned with salt and pepper before putting in the oven).

I also made blue cheese dressing to go with the wings. If my mom wrote the 10 Commandments one of them would certainly be, “Thou shalt not use salad dressing from a bottle”. I remember the first time she came to visit us in New Jersey. I heard the fridge door open from the other room followed by, “Umm…WHAT is THAT?!” My heart stopped. I forgot to get rid of Andrei’s store-bought bottled Italian dressing! At least that was the only time (I hope) that I have really disappointed my mother. And at least I really could blame Andrei, because that stuff was certainly not mine! Nor were the squeeze bottle jam and BacOs that entered my house when my husband went grocery shopping on his own…the last time he went grocery shopping on his own.

To make the blue cheese I just mix mostly sour cream, a little bit of PLAIN greek yogurt, mayo, a tiny bit of sugar and white vinegar, a dash of salt, garlic powder and pepper and lots and lots of crumbled blue cheese. Yes, it’s not the healthiest dressing, but it’s certainly better than what you are going to buy in the store. And it tastes SO much better too (once you work out the ratios for yourself – be very careful with the yogurt and the vinegar, they ruin the taste the fastest).

One of Andrei’s favorite dessert is brownies. I found this recipe and they came out really well! The frosting on top is especially yummy. It’s funny, they tasted better with age kind of like a soup would. The next day they were even better than the first night we ate them (which made them even more delicious for my volunteer group the next day – who liked the brownies a lot!)

Another too little too late discovery was HP Sauce. It’s British and google search told me it’s sort of, but not really, comparable to A1 sauce, another one of Andy’s favorites that he misses from home. Apparently the Brits put it on EVERYTHING. It isn’t really the same as A1, but it has the same ingredients. So I bought it to surprise him with a steak dinner.

So now leaving feels completely unnecessary, right? Besides the fact that our visas run out July 1st…

I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about my last post because I am really going to miss Moscow until we hopefully return in the Fall. And perhaps some of the checklist was a little harsh. There is a lot that Russia could teach America (if my hater-of-everything-not-USA brother is reading this, he just fell backwards in his chair).

My friend shared an article with me and though I may not agree with everything, it does make some good points. I agree that Russians are more intune with nature (more <sort of> on this in my next post), and know how to rest their soul and their bodies. And although there are PLENTY of people here who seem to only care about clothes and cars, outside the borders of the city center there are many more humble, kind and spiritual people. So we will miss that.

I will miss my new friends that welcomed me so open heartedly. I will miss being forced to speak Russian. I will miss sometimes hearing church bells on Sundays and being able to buy pelmeni, borsht, sirki, and piroshki anywhere and in extensive variety. I will miss the incredible church services, all the onion domes peeking out above the buildings, and my dear dear volunteer group. A few months away from them will feel like eternity. I will even miss the few homeless men who have proposed to me, and the one who always remembers my name and that I am from the US. And I might even miss the mean check out ladies at the store that really scare me.

And I will miss the birch trees. I hope the sounds from their rustling leaves visit me in my dreams.

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.

April 26, 2012

Easter: Part II

For some reason I decided to make sirnaya pascha (think cheesecake filling, but maybe a little less sweet) the same day as I made the kulich. I felt like I was on a pretty good roll, so why not just whip it up? Right, Olya, because it can be ‘whipped right up’. My excuse is that I was a rookie at sirnaya pascha so I had no idea – even though the recipe told me everything that was involved before hand. It’s not like it was hiding anything.

To make things even easier (sarcasm) I decided to follow a recipe in Russian that a new found friend on facebook shared with me – to go along with my naive ‘whip it up’ attitude.

First you squeeze 2.8 kilograms (roughly 6 pounds) of farmer’s cheese through a fine mesh seive and set aside. Psh, who needs pilates this week? – this was a serious arm workout. And I almost had to bury my new sieve next to my new mixer in my quickly growing kitchen appliance graveyard.

I was dorkily excited to buy the farmer’s cheese at a regular grocery store in Moscow. I kind of splurged on it as there were cheaper brands available – I had overheard a woman in the store ask a salesperson where their ‘amazing farmer’s cheese’ was so I really wanted to use it. Plus it looked like it was packaged and sent over from a farm. I just couldn’t resist. It came in little packages of anywhere from an inconsistent 264 to 311 grams so I may or may not have looked super silly standing there for 20 minutes with my cell phone calculater trying to gather the exact amount I needed over several pre-packaged containers 🙂 (Does anyone have a simpler way to do that, by the way??)

Anyway, with the ‘sifted’ cheese to the side, separate 10 egg yolks into a metal bowl (or double boiler), add a 1/2 cup of milk, 2 cups of sugar and one packet of vanilla sugar. Now, I wanted to use fresh vanilla beans so I opted to just replace regular sugar for the vanilla sugar. Having seen different sizes of packets of vanilla sugar, I wasn’t really sure how much regular sugar to substitute. I don’t think I put enough because the result was not as sweet as I would have liked.

The yolk, milk and sugar mixture gets heated over a pot of simmering water. You must stir constantly (and avoid making scrambled eggs) until the mixture becomes a thick cream. Take it off the heat and add 400 grams (or a little over 4 sticks) of butter that have been cut into cubes. Mix until the butter melts, and let it cool.

Add the milk-egg-sugar cream and 1 cup of heavy whipping cream to the farmer’s cheese and mix it very well. The recipe suggests using a blender. Probably even an immersion blender would work. I have neither so I got another bonus arm workout. Add some grated lemon zest. I used a vegetable peeler and a knife, which was fine, but it made me sincerely miss my microplane zester. Seriously, I miss it…like number one after family and friends.

Then the recipe says to add raisins, dried fruits, and/or nuts. We all know how I feel about this, so I will move on.

Line an upside down pascha form with gauze/cheesecloth (which I purchased at the pharmacy like a true local!) and fill it with your (totally fat free, I swear 😉 ) sirnaya pascha mixture.

Some forms come with pegs that will hold it over a bowl to drain. Mine didn’t, so I put one in a pasta strainer over a bowl and the other in my mesh seive over another bowl. If you can, add some kind of weight on top – I stacked a couple plates on each. They should drain for 12 hours or more in the fridge. Then you can flip it over and take it out of the form. If you don’t have a form at all, you can just put it in a bowl and let it set in the fridge. The XB on the side of mine (and most) stands for “Hristos Voskrese”, which is “Christ is Risen!” To which one would answer, “Truly He is Risen!”

My sister and I always had a theory that if you eat ice-cream in a giant spoonful, taken right out of the carton, without using a bowl, then the calories and fat do not count. It used to drive my brother absolutely insane. Not even sure why – it’s not like sticky drops of something on the floor by the refridgerator were uncommon in our house. In any case, I have chosen to apply this theory to eating sirnaya pascha as well. So skip the bowl and you’ll skip the calories too.

Andrei will not eat sirnaya pascha unless it’s spread across the top of a piece of kulich. That is also a tasty (soul-healthy) snack.

***(When making the sirnaya pascha, I revised the measurments recorded in the blog for 2 kilograms of farmer’s cheese. That gave me enough for 2 sirnaya pascha forms plus some extra in a bowl)***

April 25, 2012

Easter: Part I

April 15th this year was Russian Orthodox Easter. And we got to be in Moscow. It was a tremendous blessing really, especially since last year we were in Jerusalem. Two years in a row spending Easter somewhere meaningful – Jerusalem because that’s were everything happened, and Moscow because you are celebrating with a good chunk of the city/country.

I do have to admit that it was still a little sad to be away from Burlingame, where I grew up. Every priest kid (PK) will say this because being where your dad is serving on Easter is always special. I shouldn’t really say that Burlingame is the best place to be on Easter, but…let’s be honest, it is. When we got married the fine print stated that since I was moving to New Jersey every Easter would be spent in California (life permitting). I was happy to make an exception for Jerusalem and Moscow.

Last year we were staying in a hotel so I couldn’t make the traditional Easter fare – Kulich (Easter bread) and Sirnaya Pascha (a caloric bomb of happiness made with farmer’s cheese and lots of sugar and eggs – kind of similar to cheesecake filling). This year, abroad but equipped with a kitchen, I didn’t want to miss out. I actually had never made sirnaya pascha before so why not now when I have access to all sorts of brands of farmer’s cheese just steps out my front door (back home it’s not always easy to find the right kind). It would be very silly and careless of me to miss out on this opportunity. Especially since special sirnaya pascha forms were also on sale at the grocery store. I mean, we just don’t get that in the States. What kind of born-and-raised-in-America-but-considers-herself-Russian-so-please-stop-offering-me-the-English-menu Russian would I be if I didn’t do it? Even if here you can also buy ready made kulich in almost every store, and even on the street!

For the kulich I used a simple recipe that my mom gave me the first year that I baked them on my own. That first year, I had my electric stand mixer mixing the dough as I cleaned up. Everything felt like a breeze. And there was only one dough rising. I know some people follow recipes that require several dough risings and strenuous attention to detail. I felt guilty that I was gliding across my kitchen in ease as I imagined in other kitchens there were women/men biting their nails in anxiety, sweating in overly heated houses and locking their kids in closests so as not to disturb the dough. Oh the horror those children must have felt when a ball they were secretly playing with went rolling down the stairs. In the end my kulich were only ok. The next year I used a more complicated recipe and again my kulich were only ok. Despite my mom’s culinary fame in parishes across the USA, Canada and beyond, she too has a kulich achilles heel. So I feel ok about it. This year was no different.

I decided to use that simple recipe since my results are basically the same. The recipe involves making a sponge by dissolving about 2 packets of yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm milk adding 1 cup of flour, a tablespoon of sugar and letting that rise until it’s bubbly (about 30min). Then you beat 12 egg yolks and 2 egg whites until light and creamy, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, some fresh vanilla, saffron that has been steeped in vodka or brandy, and lemon zest. Next add the sponge, 2 sticks of melted butter, and 2 lbs of flour.

I only have measuring spoons for measuring out ingredients according to American recipes. I used to psych myself out and re-count 7 cups of an ingredient, afraid I messed up the amount. Now I have to count out 16 tablespoons for each cup…it can get a little confusing. I bought a measuring cup here, but of course it’s marked with grams. Which is a little annoying, because it only has sugar and flour on it really. So it would be better to have a kitchen scale. I have been managing with the conversions though – no serious mishaps yet (knock on wood)!

Knead/mix the dough until it doesn’t stick anymore. I grew up in an age I will call BSM – Before Stand Mixer. Kneading the kulich dough with my mom was a crazy job. We would have a huge tub of dough balancing on a kitchen bar stool, the furniture around us dusted in flour, my sister, mom and I taking turns dunking our hands in the super sticky mass. When you tried pulling your hands out, the tub would lift up off the stool. It was messy and time consuming, but it was fun. When the stand mixer came, everything changed – except the kitchen was still covered in flour (This was a Pavlenko kitchen, afterall). That’s why when I first did this recipe on my own it was also so easy, having the mixer work on the dough while you prepare the next steps or wipe up the layer of flour on your counters. But I look back fondly on bonding over a tub of sticky kulich dough. I bought a hand mixer this year to help out. It came with dough hooks so I was pretty confident. Well, I killed it. RIP hand mixer.

At this point you can add raisins too, but I really prefer kulich without them. Just like I don’t like raisins in my zhavoranki. Andrei likes raisins in kulich. Same situation goes for sirnaya pascha too – Andrei is for, I am against. I think spring time for us should just be called The Raisin Troubles. Sometimes I will do part of the kulich batch with raisins to be a better wife, but this year I didn’t.

…Divide the dough into your kulich forms (about 1/3 of the way up). Now, in the States we usually use old food/coffee cans lined with parchment paper or foil. The new kulich trend that is quickly spreading across Russian Orthodox America is to use glass beakers – the chemistry kind that can withstand high heat. These are great because you just have to grease the beakers, you can see the dough through them, and they make smooth edges (I plan to do this the next year I bake kulich at home). With aluminum you have those ripples which will sometimes bake into the side of the kulich. Some reporter one time did a piece on Orthodox Easter traditions and tried to explain a special meaning for the ripples in the sides of the kulich. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. The only things those ripples represent is how many bowls of tomato soup or cups of coffee that family had to get through before they had a working kulich form.

Anyway, I bought kulich forms in Ashan – because I can! 🙂 Greased and floured them, divided the dough into them and then covered them in a makeshift kulich incubator by a heater and let them rise for about an hour and a half. And they did rise so that was very exciting.

 Then you bake them at 350F for about 45 minutes to an hour. I overbaked mine a little. They still came out good, but a bit dry and crumby (as in it would fall apart into crumbs, not crummy, as in they sucked). They weren’t as dense as most kulich. But we are still happily eating leftovers so I think we’re ok.

To decorate, I usually just make a quick royal icing with powdered sugar, a bit of lemon juice and some water. Then pour it on the kulich and add sprinkles. For some reason my royal icing was coming out way too thin. I really think it was the sugar and not me, but who knows :). I went out once to get more sugar and try again, but then I gave up. So we had glazed kulich instead of iced. I like the big gold sprinkles I found.

April 10, 2012

The Adjustment Period

I am the type of person that will attempt to grab all the grocery bags out of the car, despite their weight or number, and carry them up the stairs to the front door, risking breaking everything (and incurring a possible dreaded extra visit to the West Orange Shop Rite) just to avoid taking more than one trip. Even though it would be so much simpler (and safer) to just take two trips. Or gasp…even three. I think this all began when my spoiled little self had one chore growing up: after my mom would pick up everyone’s abandoned items downstairs and place them on the staircase, I had to deliver them to each individual’s room on the second floor. To cut my chore duty time in half, I would try to do this all in one shot. I would throw on any jackets, put on my brother’s hats, drape my sister’s clothes over my arms, all while balancing stacks of my mother’s food magazines and my father’s thirty seventh all-in-one mini tool set from Walgreens. I remember being pretty good at this; however, I also have distinct memories of being yelled at after tiny screwdrivers and wrenches that turn into nail clippers would inevitably come tumbling down the stairs.

The one good thing about this is it was practice for apartment living. I don’t really have the comfortable option of two short trips from my car to the front door since my only choice really is to drag all the bags at once for several metro stops and a good 30 minutes total of walking on the street. Sure I could hail a gypsy cab, but what’s the fun in that? For some reason I choose to nervously reach for my key while holding two slipping bags on my shaky and sweaty pinky (not sure why I can’t put the bag down in the hallway, but just go with it), praying I don’t drop the one with the carton of eggs in it and crack them all. Yes, that has happened. I wouldn’t be a Pavlenko if it didn’t…Flash back to several trips to the grocery store: my mom holding an empty container on top of 7 others in her hand. Around her, salad, dressing, or blueberries spread (or bounce) across the entire produce aisle while my mother quietly, but forcefully, tells me to ‘just turn around, and walk away’. I think I’m starting to understand where I get this from…

…I am letting myself get distracted. The point here is that this little habit has at least eased me into one of the adjustments of apartment living in Moscow. Really having to carry your groceries in one shot. But please, I’m a pro. Just ignore the coffee dripping down my hair and into my face. Yes, that has happened too. The harder change for me was mastering shoe removal upon entering the apartment. In the beginning I was tripping over groceries and overheating in my coat (when does that come off??) while balancing on the tiny entrance rug, afraid to step off until I took of my shoes. Russians From Russia (RFR), will take their shoes off upon entering their or a friend’s apartment. It makes sense since Moscow is a very dirty city, but it raised so many questions for me I kind of stressed myself out. Do I need to provide slippers for guests? Will they understand we are here temporarily and don’t have extra slippers? Should I bring my own slippers to a friend’s apartment? – or would BYOS have been on the Facebook invite? What happens if I didn’t bring my own slippers and the ones they have are too small? Do I still wear them? And if I stretch them out? Make them smell?

A lovely change is how great RFRs think our Russian is. They are fascinated that we speak any at all since we weren’t born here, didn’t live here before, and grew up in the States. And our parents weren’t even born in Russia/nearby (except Andrei’s dad). So I speak more confidently even though I know I am making mistakes. Because it’s a wonder I speak any Russian at all. But when I return home or talk to Russians Like Me (RLM) I revert immediately back to English. Because I feel like my Russian to them is much less impressive. Silly. But it’s the truth.

I think my Russian has been getting a tiny bit better. The accents here can sometimes be hard to understand. Or people also just talk really fast. I am taking pilates and the instructor speaks pretty quickly. It’s funny though because even in American fitness classes the instructor could be screaming, ‘Bend your knee!’ in your face and you will still be staring at your very stretched out and straightened knee trying to figure out what to do. But anyway, for the whole first class  I kept thinking she was randomly saying toilet. Pelvis in Russian is taz. A toilet bowl/toilet in Russian is oonitaz. When she would say to stand pelvis width apart, the combination of her sentence really sounded like oonitaz. Made for a confusing first pilates class.

Another difficulty, which sometimes happens to me in New Jersey or mostly in New York City, is not being able to find a lot of things in one grocery store. I feel it more here though. And the stores in the city center, of even Ashan, won’t always carry the same thing, even the next day. There seems to be less consistency.

Hence I used whole, instead of ground, cumin and elbow macaroni instead of orzo in this Spicy Chickpea and Lemon soup (which was almost identical to the delicious Hale & Hearty version):

So, I recently went to four grocery stores in one day in preparation for making traditional Easter (and one more lenten) sweets. Not sure if either store would carry all the spices I need, I picked up any that I saw along the way at each grocery store visit. When I got to the last place on my agenda, I still needed cardamom. I found it. It came in a convenient combo pack with the other spices I had already bought seperately. So if you need ground cinnamon or ground nutmeg…I have plenty to give away.

Because of all the prep for Easter and church services taking place during this last week of our Great Lent (hello, WHERE did the time go?!), our meals won’t be very creative this week. Plus I’m too exhausted from my full day spice hunt to come up with some brilliant dishes to close out this lenten season (no worries though, another lent is lurking just around the corner). So it’s soup, spaghetti, leftover soup, and more spaghetti on the schedule.

But I’ll very quickly share a meal I made (that I thought tasted pretty fabulous) from before our short trip to New Jersey. Judging by the busy week ahead, I don’t think I will be able to work this into another post before Lent ends, and I wanted to get it out there. Maybe someone sick of spaghetti and shrimp can use this (you know, since you would never dare to eat this outside of a lent 😉 ). A little twist on my mushroom patties:

Mushroom & Tomato Sandwiches served with Arugula & Orange Salad

For two sandwiches: Boil a medium size beet until tender (or buy pre-boiled beets). Meanwhile, dice 1-2 tomotoes. Toss in a bowl with 1 chopped garlic clove, fresh chopped basil, olive oil, white balsamic, salt/pepper to taste. Set aside and let the flavors soak. Chop about 3/4 lb of mushrooms (large slices of portobello would probably also work every well). Saute them until tender and liquid has evaporated. While they are still warm, season with salt/pepper and mix in some lenten mayo (I do try not to rely on fake this and that, but the lenten mayo in Moscow is actually quite delicious). Spread some of the mayo plus dijon mustard on one or both sides of some bread, preferably a baguette. Top with the mushrooms then the tomatoes and greens of your choice.

For the salad: Make a dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, a splash of white balsamic, salt/pepper. Toss two handfuls of arugula with some of the dressing, reserving the rest of the dressing. Remove peel and pith from one orange and one blood orange carefully with a knife along curves of the fruit – keeping it intact. Slice crosswise. Peel and slice the beet. Top bed of dressed arugula with orange and beet slices, and some black olives. Drizzle remaining dressing (to taste).

April 8, 2012

Zucchini Improv

I just got back from a fun date with my husband at a chain Italian restaurant in Moscow called Mi Piace. I enjoyed a delicious tomato soup from their lenten menu. We happily walked back home in the only slightly chilly evening to find we had walked ‘auto-pilot’ to our previous apartment building on Noviy Arbat (just one identical building over from where we currently reside). “We were due,” Andrei said as we back tracked to our current building.  We were bummed to only have discovered the lenten menu with one week to go. Last time we were there they only gave us English menus (everyone always guesses we are American) which never include the lenten options. This menu at Mi Piace is great because it includes a good variety of options instead of the typical fried potatoes with mushrooms (which I admit I could happily eat everyday for the rest of my life). Variety is key though because sometimes things can get old fast.

A great group was started on Facebook to let Orthodox friends share their favorite lenten dishes. It’s an excellent way for everyone to add some variety to their days of vegan-ness. Despite the vast vegan recipes now available, on Facebook and beyond, I find it’s easy to feel like you keep making the same things, or are ordering the same foods (raise your hands if you’ve eaten hummus, shrimp and pasta more than three times this week!).

In my Russian food magazine, Hleb i Sol (Bread and Salt), I found a nice alternative to the lenten staple of stuffed bell pepper – Stuffed Zucchini. I liked the recipe because it seemed like a hearty dish of just veggies with no rice (which also gets tiresome) in the filling.

In a very simple translation, you take two zucchinis (for two people as a main, or 4 if you are serving with a bunch of other stuff), cut off the ends and then cut them in half lengthwise. Using a spoon or melon baller, carefully scoop out the inside of the zucchinis creating a sort of boat and set aside. Drizzle the zucchini “boats” with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast them in the oven at about 390F for 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile chop the zucchini ‘meat’, fennel, garlic, and capers. Cube eggplant, peppers, and onion. Cut some green and black olives in half. Make a ratatouille with all the vegetables, some canned tomatoes with their juice (breaking them up with a spatula while they are in the frying pan). Add a bit of tomato paste, let it all cook, then stuff the zucchini boats and sprinkle with some bread crumbs. Put the stuffed zucchini back in the oven and roast for another 15 minutes. Top with fresh basil.

While I was prepping the dish, our neighbors from across the hall came by to ask if we could look after their suitcases. They were checking out of their temporary apartment but still had some time before their train. Although they were much more pleasant than the very very scary old lady in the other apartment across the hall that I swear was cooking little children in her apartment, they definitely didn’t make us doing them a favor easy! When they came back for their stuff they parked themselves in our kitchen (after 12am) and almost demanded tea. It was all easy to laugh off of course (since growing up we had all sorts of people in and out of our house all the time), except that when they were dropping their stuff off, I was cooking the ratatouille and distractedly added too much of the canned tomatoes. The result was very watery so I had to add some couscous to absorb the extra liquid. Although they didn’t come out like the picture, they were delicious nonetheless. It’s always good to be able to improvise.

…just like I had to improvise with this apple tart when I realized I had no foil. But that was easy – I guess I can’t really call greasing and flouring the sheet pan improvising :). I found a recipe that had a great tip – make a syrup by reducing water, sugar, and vanilla with the apple peels and brush the dough with it before baking. Makes for a delicious crust. I used lenten dough for this and thinly sliced apples. (before baking, top the apples with melted margarine, the syrup and sugar)

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…

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!