Polar Vortex Cuisine

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Even though I have recently sought out sunnier skies, I still follow the winter weather around the country with great compassion. And there has been no lack of it recently. So I decided that, in honor of Chiberia, the new name given to the apocalyptic cold and snow Chicago has been getting of late, I would try to reconnect a bit with my Russian roots. While I have Russian ancestors on both sides of the family, Russian traditions have never played a part in my family’s culture. On my mom’s side, the old country is a little too far back to remember; my grandma’s grandparents came, I believe, from a place called Kovno, actually part of Lithuania today. And on my dad’s side, my grandmother came from Vinnytsia, Ukraine when she was a child, but never passed on a great deal of her native culture. My dad does remember a sweet plum jam that was kept in large container in the attic and dipped into all winter, to be spread over bread. And while his mother loved borscht, he rebelliously passed on the ingrained belief that borscht was a food to be shunned and reviled, which I’ve come to re-evaluate since I happen to like beets. But neither the plum jam nor the borscht recipes were ever passed to me.

When I was a child, we reconnected somewhat with Russia through a lovely family that we got to know by way of a Jewish program connecting Americans with new Russian immigrants. This was all part of the ‘Free Soviet Jewry’ movement in the 1980s, bolstered by Gorbachev’s glasnost policies, which made it much easier for Soviet citizens to emigrate. Since we are still in touch with this family, I recently asked one of them, our friend Svetlana, about dishes that her family enjoyed and that reminded her of Russia. She gave me some great ideas.

One of the recipes I took from her is one she says was her children’s all-time favorite food. It’s called Vareniki, and is similar to a gnocchi. She has memories of rolling out the dough and making the dumplings with her kids, a project they always loved. It was a hit in our house too! Here’s my adaptation. I used whipped cream cheese instead of the more traditional farmer’s cheese and it was delicious.

I also recently happened to be reading Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which gives readers a vivid portrait of life in the Soviet Union through the story of her mother’s family, and with frequent references to the foods, both real and fantasized, that defined Soviet life. There was some overlap in the recipes I was finding in various sources, dishes that were iconic home food of the Soviet period. One staple was Kotleti, (like cutlets) a mixture of seasoned, minced fish, chicken, or beef that is then pan fried. I offer two recipes for kotleti, one that I adapted and one from a book Bremzen refers to called the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, by Anastas Mikoyan. Mikoyan was a statesman whose career astonishingly stretched from Bolshevism to Brezhnev, and who was very involved in the modernization and improvement of Soviet food. The robust and iconic book catalogues simple Russian cooking, and is peppered with images that capture the Soviet esthetic as it related to food: hard work that was rewarded with great abundance. If you’re interested in culinary history, this book is definitely worth a look. It is an interesting example of how ideals and values get transmitted through food and recipes. Some notable aspects of the imagery includes page after page of drawings of canned food (showing off the full range of ‘modern’ Russian products), and idealized images of agriculture. Here are a couple of examples:

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The book is full of great pictures! So that brings me to cabbage, which I love, and which I think is undervalued in the US. While the Irish colcannon is usually my go-to cabbage dinner, this one for Ukrainian braised cabbage is quickly becoming a family favorite. The creamy ketchup sauce here puts a different spin on things. It is simple but comforting, and the combination of flavors works very well. I got this recipe (and made just a few small changes) from blogger Natasha at Natasha’s Kitchen, who calls it “a classic comfort food made in nearly every Russian or Ukrainian home.” I left out the pork and simply added the cabbage directly after the onion and carrots, but you could keep that in if you choose. I also recommend letting the cabbage brown a little on the edges before you finish cooking. This boosts the flavor just a bit.

‘Lazy’ Vareniki:

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  • 1 8 oz tub of whipped cream cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cup flour, more if needed
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Butter, to pan fry

Cherry sauce

  • 1 cup frozen cherries
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch

Mix the cheese, egg and sugar until well blended. Add flour and mix. Additional flour may be needed to achieve a soft dough. Be sure not to add too much flour, however, or the dumplings will be tough. Roll dough into ‘snakes’ about 3/4 inch wide. Cut with a knife, until all the dough has been formed into little pillows about 1 inch long. Boil the dumplings in plenty of water until they float to the surface, and then remove with a slotted spoon onto a plate.

For extra flavor, heat a nonstick frying pan and add a thin layer of butter. Fry the cooked dumplings until golden and transfer to a plate.

Finally, wipe out the pan and add the cherries, sugar, and cornstarch, dissolved in a bit of water. When the cherries begin to bubble, transfer to a serving dish and serve with the vareniki.

Kotleti:

  • 1 lb ground chicken or turkey
  • 1 small onion, grated
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 1 tsp salt
  • flour for dusting
  • 4 tbsp Butter, for pan frying

Mix all of the ingredients except butter and flour in a bowl. With wet hands, form the mixture into oval shaped patties, or whatever shape you prefer. Meanwhile, heat butter in a nonstick pan until bubbly. Dust patties with flour, shake off excess, and lay in the pan without crowding. Cook on both sides until golden brown.

Kotleti 2, or “Pozharski Croquettes”- (taken directly from Mikoyan’s book):

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Home-style Russian Braised Cabbage (Thanks to Natasha from http://www.natashaskitchen.com):

cabbage

  • 1 small cabbage head or 1/2 large
  • 1/2 lb or up to 1 lb of pork (I omitted this)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 large carrots
  • 2-3 Tbsp of sour cream
  • 4 Tbsp of ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp of brown sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp of salt, divided
  • 1/2 tsp of pepper
  • 6 Tbsp of olive oil

1. Shred the cabbage into thin slices using a mandolin or by cutting it in half or into quarters  then finely shredding each piece with the flat end of the cabbage against the counter. Place sliced cabbage into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle 1 tsp of salt on the cabbage and scrunch the cabbage using both hands for 30 sec to soften it.

2. Dice the onion and grate both carrots. Preheat a large skillet or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 Tbsp of olive oil. Saute onions and carrots for 5 min, mixing frequently. When almost done, mix in 2 tbsp of sour cream. Empty contents of the skillet into mixing bowl with the cabbage.

3. Cut pork into small cubes. Using the same skillet, add 2 Tbsp of olive oil and cook pork for 5 min over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When cooked through, add it to the mixing bowl with cabbage, carrots and onion.

4. Add 1 Tbsp of brown sugar, 1 tsp of salt, 1/2 tsp of pepper, 4 Tbsp of ketchup and mix all contents of the bowl together.

5. Add 2 Tbsp of olive oil to large skillet or dutch oven. And cabbage mixture  and set the heat to medium. Add 2 bay leaves. 6. Cover and cook cabbage for 35-40 min, stirring every 15 min. Reduce temperature to medium-low after 20 min. Add more ketchup or salt to taste, if desired. Remove bay leaves before serving.

Faux Filet

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photo-26A little off topic today, but I wanted to share with you an article from NPR related to a field I follow with great interest, and that is the development of animal product substitutes. This article talks about fish in particular.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/01/23/379124798/will-environmentalists-fall-for-faux-fish-made-from-plants

The thing that makes fish substitutes seem promising to me is that sea vegetables really do offer seafood flavor, in all its complexity, without the animal. Land animals are a harder nut to crack. Nonetheless I have at times been amazed at just how unimpressive the alternatives to meat and other animal products can be. I’m very skeptical that something like a filet mignon, smoked pork, or a roasted bird could ever really be recreated artificially. But there are some meat products that I think lend themselves fairly well to substitutes, primarily those that are more about texture than flavor. Boneless skinless chicken breast, for example- It hardly has any flavor at all, and it seems a shame that CAFOs full of chickens would have to live miserably and die in order to obtain such a tasteless product that people eat (I believe anyway) more due to it being inoffensive and versatile than because of any particular virtues it possesses. Beyond Meat is an interesting company that has recently gone mainstream selling chicken and beef substitutes that were designed, after much research, to be texturally nearly identical to meat. I have actually tried their grilled “chicken” and I would say my overall assessment is that it’s odd, but not entirely bad. The jury is still out for me on that one.

Ground beef is another product that I think lends itself very well to replacement, since in many recipes it is more about the texture and the filling quality of the meat, rather than the flavor itself. As far as ground beef, my favorite substitute is probably textured soy protein, which can also be added to meat to extend it so you can use less. Another product I’d like to give a shout-out to is the Morningstar Farms Grillers Prime burgers. I love them!

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, here is an interesting article from Popular Science:

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/can-artificial-meat-save-world

Just Launched – Raw Spice Bar

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Just wanted to give you guys a heads up about a cool new website called the Raw Spice Bar, that delivers fresh spices to your door and helps you use them in authentic international recipes. According to the website, this is what you get with each delivery:

  • 3-4 freshly ground spice blends from one geography or region, enough to create 3 dishes serving 8-12 people
  • 3 kitchen-tested recipe cards, plus additional recipes online
  • Spice blend tasting notes, origin & history
  • Free shipping to both the US & Canada
  • Surprises like bonus spices, toasting tips, discounts and other fun stuff

No more using old, dull spices or not knowing what to do with the ones you buy. And I love the idea of exploring a new region every month. I’m looking forward to trying this! Check it out at: https://rawspicebar.com

Heirloom Restaurant

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On New Years Day, I went to the restaurant Heirloom, owned by 27 year old chef Clark Barlowe. It’s located in north west Charlotte, and housed in a building that looks like it might have been a Cracker Barrel in a previous life. Well, in a way that is fitting, since what we had at the New Year’s Day fixed price dinner was something like what Cracker Barrel might serve if it was taken hostage by Alice Waters…or Chef Barlowe, as the case may be. We had a family style dinner of roast chicken, black-eyed peas (they are said to bring good luck when eaten on New Years in the South), collard greens, cornbread, and crispy pork slices. They were not fancy, foamy takes on these dishes, mind you, but the dishes themselves, in their old-timey, homestyle glory. This was pure nostalgia- and when the chef came out to greet us, he confirmed that in fact this meal came straight from his grandma’s kitchen. There were traces of high-end cuisine, however, such as when fragrant woodland herbs were finely chopped table-side and worked into homemade butter for our cornbread. Another highlight was the mixed drinks, all made with house-macerated spirits and fresh fruits and herbs.

I know that this menu is not necessarily typical of the dishes on the regular menu, so I look forward to going back and seeing what else they have to offer. I’m happy to see this kind of restaurant thriving in Charlotte, all while supporting North Carolina producers. For an affordably priced, delicious farm-to-table meal in a very casual setting, check it out.

Heirloom, 8470 Bellhaven Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28216, (704) 595-7710

Happy Chanukah!

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Happy Chanukah!

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy Chanukah, and share with you a picture of my pinterest-fueled first night treats. I made marshmallow hershey kiss dreidels that came out very cute.

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I also found a recipe in a fantastic Jewish cookbook called Gefilte Variations by Jayne Cohen, for Fish in Potato Latke Crust with Horseradish Cream. While I didn’t actually follow the recipe, I was inspired to use latke box mix to crust fish and then fry.  I thought this was such a brilliant idea and I can say it came out really delicious. I’m not sure I’ve got it down to a science yet (the crust fell off in areas) and I plan to work on the recipe a bit more, but I highly recommend trying it. All I did was get a box of low-sodium latke mix, prepare as the instructions suggest, (adding just a bit of fresh ground pepper and garlic powder) and then use the mixture to coat filets of fish. You then fry them in vegetable oil until nice and golden. Gives you all the crispy deliciousness of latkes while being a bit more balanced than a whole dinner of latkes. Try it!

Happy Chanukah!

The Global Bakery

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The Global Bakery

I recently got my hands on a new book called The Global Bakery: Amazing cakes from the world’s kitchens by Anna Weston. The book runs the gamut from simple to elaborate cakes, and is divided into different regions of the world. I really enjoyed taking the world tour of cakes, and I think that the recipes seem authentically sourced. I saw some I knew and discovered quite a few that I had never heard of, such as Cornmeal Cake from Zimbabwe, and Melaxrini, an eggy cake from Greece. There are a few I was interested to try, one of which was Castagnaccio, a beautiful tart from Italy that combines chestnut flour, sweet wine and olive oil. As much as I wanted to try this one, I could not find chestnut flour, and so I’ll have to wait until I can order some online for that one. A Palestinian Almond and Citrus Olive Oil Cake also sounded divine and very simple.

But I finally settled on the Spiced Coffee Sponge Cake from Colombia, and I was not disappointed. This coffee cake is not only for eating alongside coffee- it features coffee in both the cake and the icing. The combination of fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and coffee makes a wonderfully fragrant cake with a rich, roasty flavor. Using coffee instead of other liquid in icing is also a great trick; I love the way it preserves the roasted coffee flavor that sadly dissipates so quickly in brewed coffee. I modified the icing quite a bit, however, both because of my kitchen constraints and because I wanted to lighten it up just a bit. I simply mixed coffee, confectioner’s sugar, a small amount of butter and vanilla extract. The result was more of a glaze, which suited me just fine. For a richer cake, try the full recipe. I also only used one pan, instead of the two layers recommended in the recipe. My cake came out a bit denser than what I would call a sponge cake, but then again, I am baking with a toaster oven, and without electric beaters, which are packed away until the new kitchen is done.

Here is Anna Weston’s delicious recipe for Spiced Coffee Sponge Cake, which is an adaptation of one from the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia:

  • 4 tbsp ground 100% Colombian coffee
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup caster (superfine) sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup warm melted butter

Frosting:

  • 1/2 cup brewed hot 100% Colombian coffee
  • 1/3 cup caster sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  1. Grease and flour 2 8-inch round cake pans. Heat the oven to 355 F.
  2. Combine the coffee and milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Then allow the liquid to stand on a low hear for 10 min.
  3. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or clean tea towel (or tea strainer) into a small bowl. Return the coffee flavored milk to the saucepan and keep in warm over low heat.
  4. In a bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, beat eggs until they thicken.
  6. Slowly add the sugar, continuing to beat well after each addition.
  7. Add the coffee-flavored milk and vanilla, stirring until just blended.
  8. Fold the flour and spices into the mixture until just blended, taking care not to overheat.
  9. Fold the melted butter in carefully.
  10. Pour the batter into the pans. Bake for 20-25 min or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  11. Allow the sponges to cool for 10 min, then turn them onto racks so they can cool completely.
  12. To make the frosting, combine the coffee, sugar, salt and egg yolks in a heat-proof bowl.
  13. Over simmering water, beat the ingredients until the mixture has thickened.
  14. Remove from the heat and continue to beat until the mixture has cooled.
  15. Add the butter one tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition.
  16. Add the vanilla and continue to beat until the mixture is thick enough to spread.
  17. When the cake has completely cooled, spread the frosting over one layer and place the other layer on top. Cover the cake with the remaining frosting.

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If you are looking for historical background on world cakes, this is not really it. The explanations are brief and it seems that Weston’s goal was mainly one of searching for deliciousness in every corner of the world. (A noble pursuit if you ask me!) I also appreciated the occasional blunt assessment of an exotic recipe, such as her admission that the Chinese Sweet Potato Cake, “kindly” shown to Weston by a couple of Taiwanese students, “didn’t meet with universal acclaim from my colleagues when I brought it into the office.” Ha! Poor kids.

But if you are curious about how different cultures celebrate with cake, Global Bakery is a really nice introduction, with great photos and lots of good recipes to try.

The Global Bakery by Anna Weston, New Internationalist Publications, 2014.

Chickpeas for your chickpea

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Hi! I am resurfacing after a long hiatus in which, among other things, I moved cross country. I am now a North Carolinian! Unfortunately, my kitchen for the last few months has consisted of a temperamental hot plate and a toaster oven, while we remodel the kitchen of our new home, and this has also thrown a wrench in my blogging. But I am the proud soon-to-be owner of a beautiful new kitchen and I am eager to get back to it my cooking and writing!

Recently I picked up the book The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine, in an attempt to get more ideas to feed my son, who has become a very picky eater. She spelled out what is actually already my m.o., which is trying to incorporate easy-to-love foods into more suspect ones and vice versa- incorporating nutritious foods into snacks and desserts.  Putting an extra egg in pancakes, adding hot chocolate powder to a fruit and veggie smoothie or sprinkling cinnamon sugar on whole wheat bread, etc… Some may find this tactic objectionable, but Lapine advocates for it, saying that avoiding a power struggle, while still nourishing a picky child, is the way to go.  (You can push this too far, however. I bought a green powder at whole foods that tastes something like freshly cut grass and he slurped it right up at first and then wised up and stopped.)

This got me thinking about other ways, as she says, to use ‘yummy’ foods to sell ‘yucky’ foods, and I came up with a great one. My idea was to make roasted chickpeas, which I know are delicious, and can be eaten like popcorn, but glaze them with honey or sugar. So this morning, I put a can of chickpeas in a bowl, tossed them with sugar, cinnamon and a dash of oil, and roasted them until sticky and golden. This is what I did:

  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and dried with paper towels
  • 1 1/2 tbsp sugar (or however much you choose)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp oil
  • dash of salt

Preheat oven to 375. Drain the chickpeas and dry thoroughly. Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl and toss. Line a cookie sheet with tin foil and spread the chickpeas on the sheet. Bake until well-browned.

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They taste great this way, but after discussing the recipe with my friend Sarah, we agreed that it could be tweaked even further. I became stuck on the idea that I wanted them crunchy with a little sugar crust on them, like candied nuts. But the moisture from the chickpeas makes this very difficult to achieve and the sugar tends to just get absorbed.

So I came up with another option, but one that might require a trip to a grocery store that stocks Middle Eastern products. If you look in the Middle Eastern bulk snack area (dried fruits, etc) you might just find roasted chickpeas- not to be confused with uncooked dried chickpeas. Roasted chickpeas are already baked and dehydrated, and they deliver a delicious crunch. Once you have these, you can eat them as is, coat in a sugar coating, (recipe follows) or flavor them any way you wish. Cocoa powder or cinnamon would be great additions. If you cannot find roasted chickpeas, you could try dry roasting the chickpeas on a low temperature in the oven for 30 or 40 minutes until crunchy. The trick is getting them to turn crunchy without burning.

Candied Chickpeas

chickpeas

  • 3/4 cup dry roasted chickpeas
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp water

Add sugar and water to a pan and put over medium heat. When the sugar boils, stir to dissolve and then allow the solution to boil until it begins to thicken. As soon as this happens, add the chickpeas and stir until coated. Very quickly, the sugar will begin to crystallize. You can take it off at this point or wait another moment or two until further browning occurs. Transfer chickpeas to parchment paper or aluminum foil sprayed with nonstick stray. While still hot, break up the chickpeas with a wooden spoon and then allow to cool. The chickpeas will crisp up as they cool.

For a salty option, this is a new take on my grandma Betty’s Ranch oyster crackers that are one of my favorite snacks. (Stay tuned for a post devoted to Ranch seasoning, which I LOVE)

Ranch Chickpeas

  • 1 tsp Ranch salad dressing & seasoning mix
  •  1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped dill (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
  • 3/4 cup roasted chickpeas

Preheat the oven to 300°F. In a small bowl, add the oil, Ranch Seasoning Mix, and dill. Stir until mixed through. Add the chickpeas and toss until coated. Arrange the chickpeas on an ungreased half-sheet pan in a single layer. Bake the ‘crackers’ for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden.

(Note: The proportions of this recipe might depend on whether the chickpeas are salted. Experiment and adapt to your tastes.)