Tuesday, December 27, 2005

russian borscht

soup - ready to eat

Sometime last week, I felt the inspiration to cook and toss all my daily tasks to the wind. I suspect that sudden burst of energy and desire were prompted more by the cold weather and bone-chilling wind than by anything else. My mother, one of the best soup makers I know, happens to have an amazing borscht recipe under her belt. And when seasons shift definitely colder, borscht is one of the soups, along with Russian cabbage soup (schi) that I turn to.

Many an American has wrinkled his nose when a beet is introduced into a conversation. Growing up in suburban America, I was always defending the virtues of root vegetables: turnips, carrots, beets, radishes. Because I was an immigrant, my food preferences were considered strange at best, and disgusting at most. And I grew up thinking that not only beets were uncool (albeit tasty), but they were also a form of lower-income diet. Imagine my surprise when my monthly issue of Martha Stewart Living arrived (I must have been the only 16-year old with a MSL subscription) and I found a salad of beets and chevre beautifully displayed as one of the recipes. Either beets were gaining ground or Martha was going back to her Polish roots. Either way, beets were comin’ up!

These days, you will find beets in the most illustrious of restaurants. They’re tucked into salads, displayed in vegetable arrangements, cooked in soup, and hidden in chocolate cake. Their deep, rich color and sweet earthy flavor and texture are both filling and surprisingly light. They smell of the earth, of winter, and of home. And despite their lowly upbringing and modest looks, they’re quite elegant and sophisticated.

Borscht is a little bit of a commitment. Set aside a few hours over a weekend to make it if only because you want the flavors to gradually develop. Deeper flavor means more delicious borscht. To make up for taking its time, borscht is not a complicated soup to make. And as most soups often do, borscht tate better the next day. If you make this soupd with beef, it’s a meal in and of itself. Russians often serve it as a first course at dinner, but in smaller portions. Whichever way you choose to eat it, borscht is guaranteed to make this winter season a little more palatable.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

banana muffins with vanilla and cayenne

Warm Muffin

It was over a breakfast discussion of holiday treats that we began a muffin conversation. A coworker lamented about not having a muffin for breakfast and I offered to bring some in the next day. I thought, I’ve not cooked in awhile, and having just made soup the previous day, I was on a bit of a roll, if you can call it that.

After a run for a haircut, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up the baking essentials, and by another store for my muffin baking pan.

I decided to make banana muffins because of how comforting bananas can be in cold weather. The smell of banana bread on a winter morning is enough to get me out of bed. I abstained from putting nuts in it, in case any of my coworkers were allergic to them. And my high hopes of adding cranberries for that extra zing, were dashed when I realized that Christmas-ready shoppers bought up all that the store had. So these are pretty plain-Jane muffins, yummy as they are. Perhaps adding a bit of lemon zest would have done the trick? I think this now, a bit late for this batch, which has already been hungrily consumed by my team, ready for their Christmas to commence.

What I did add was a bit of vanilla extract, because Radish loves all things vanilla and a teeny tiny pinch of cayenne pepper. Trust me, on this.

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Thursday, December 1, 2005

porcini barley soup


Porcini Barley Soup

As soon as colder weather hits, my thoughts turn to comfort foods. Foods that are warm and liquid that make me feel all cozy inside. And what can be more comforting on a cold winter day than a bowl of soup? Mushroom soup to be precise.

I’ve made this soup every Thanksgiving for the last three years. I also tend to make in in the colder fall and winter months. It’s intensely flavored, fragrant and filling soup. People have been known to get seconds and some – thirds. When I was a little girl, it was one of the few things I would always have the appetite to eat. My mother served it to me with a thick slice of black, Russian bread with butter.

This is an old family recipe. I’ve elaborated on it by substituting some shallots for some of the onions. I think it deepens and complements the flavor of the mushrooms and gives the soup a deeper, more complex flavor. My mother, ever so reluctant to have the family recipe altered, agreed with me after tasting my version.

I insist on using only porcini mushrooms for this soup, otherwise the flavor is just not the same. You can find dried porcini mushrooms in specialty stores, or order them online – their dry state does not weaken their flavor. I’ve not encountered fresh ones in the United States, however, back in Russia where I grew up, we feasted on the fresh ones in the summer and fall.

Porcini mushrooms are distinctly flavored with a deep earthy, nutty, almost meaty flavor. It is my absolute favorite mushroom (other than a chanterelle, which gets second place in my book) and can be used to create an absolutely incredible sauce to mashed potatoes. Barley and potatoes add texture to the soup, so don’t skip them. You want stuff in your soup – stuff is very important, and fewer things make a meal more comforting than potatoes.

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