Friday, August 31, 2007

sorrel soup

simply sorrell

So really, how many childhood-memories-in-a-recipe can I recall before even the most congenial person rolls his or her eyes and groans “What is it with your perfect childhood? Why can’t you just live in the present?” And really I do, I promise you. It’s just that for so long I wanted to eat everything, but the cuisine I grew up with. And reading a piece in this week’s New Yorker magazine’s annual food issue by Gary Shteyngart, with whom I share many an immigrant experience, I paused to examine my teenage aversion to the cuisine of my childhood and my obsession with all things American-cuisine related, including those golden arches, I now so revile.

I don’t know what caused me to start craving my “ethnic” food so to speak. I put ethnic in quotations, because for as long as I lived in Russia, I was constantly reminded of not belonging. Being Jewish in Russia, had little to do with your religion (which my parents didn’t practice in the slightest), and everything to do with your “race” or “ethnicity” because that’s what it was and continues to be considered. So the Russian food I grew up with, mixed with the Jewish food of my family, was all mixed together, but I was always conscious of Russian culture as that to which I didn’t belong. It was only in America that my Jewishness became associated with my religions leanings, and where I came from, namely Russia, became my defining cultural adjective. When people ask me about my background, I tell them I’m Russian.

In any case, there was a long, long period, when I refused to go out to Russian restaurants and willingly eat and cook Russian food. I chastised my mother, I wanted to change, to adapt, and I was tired of eating the same kotlety and borscht I grew up with during my childhood. But something changed after I moved to New York. It wasn’t that I suddenly found myself surrounded by Russian friends, it wasn’t so much the presence of Russian cuisine in my beloved Brooklyn, where I first made my home in New York. It was something else, a feeling of loneliness perhaps, that made me crave the food again. Far away from my family, without a single friend in the city, working long hours in an environment that was harsh and pitiless, I would come home from work, throw a dozen of frozen pelmeni into the pot of boiling water and in ten minutes, I would have hot and hearty dinner waiting for me. A dollop of sour cream, a splash of white vinegar and I would sink into the couch with my bowl of meaty dumplings closing my eyes at each swallow – blissfully forgetting my misery if only for the few minutes it would take me to consume my dinner. I think it was then that I realized that you can leave home, if only temporarily, only to long for it again. I envied my Russian friends with families around them, I wanted that security as well. But I chose this lot for myself and had to stick it out.

schav according to an old family recipe

When KS and I met, I was delighted to learn that he had an appetite and a food curiosity that rivaled mine and while it took me awhile to cook for him, I definitely tried a few Russian dishes on him – and he loved each and every one of them. Stuffed cabbage, pelmeni, the Russian potato salad otherwise known as olyvie, borscht, mushroom soup, herring – KS ate everything and always went back for seconds.

And so when I begged him to get a sorrel plant for our rooftop garden and he acquiesced, I told him of this wonderful schav my mom would make for us in Russia where sour grass, its other name, would be abundant and cheap. We brought the little plant home and gave it a nice pot. But it never grew to anything big and I postponed the soup each time.


That is until last Saturday, when I found myself staring at bags of sorrel at our local green market. I was so excited that I grabbed the bag as fast as I could as if the other dozens of bags were suddenly going to disappear. I brought the bag home and proudly proclaimed, “Oh, I am making us some schav, baby!!”

To which KS replied, “Yeah, so um how do you make it?”

And this is where I drew up a blank. Sure, I’ve eaten this soup more times than I could recall, but I had no idea how to make it. Of course, mom, only a phone call away, patiently explained to me how to make this super simple soup. And when I say super simple, people, I mean, this is the pits. It’s as easy and fool proof as it gets. No wonder we made this all the time in the summer. And the little shrimpy me with no appetite whatsoever, would eat two full bowls of this every time.

This recipe is different than other schav recipes I’ve seen out there. I’m not sure why my family makes it differently, but I can honestly say I prefer my mom’s recipe to the other ones I’ve had. For one thing it’s more clean-tasting, and secondly, it’s clear and pretty. But like all childhood-favorite foods, we always think our version is better than everyone else’s.

We’re visiting my parents this weekend and my mother’s making borscht. I’m sure there will be other Russian goodies present. And I can’t wait.

Continue reading sorrel soup.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

linzer cookies

linzer cookies

You know I sometimes forget that what I consider utter and sublime perfection might not be that sublime or perfect for someone else. It never ceases to amaze me though, because I, ignorantly, like to think of bliss as universal and indisputable, but of course, that’s never true. For example those cookies that sent me into sheer cookie heaven, were not even remotely blissful for KS. In fact, he confessed a few days ago, to not even liking them in the least – he preferred those cookies instead. Sacrilege as it may be to proclaim a dark, deeply rich, chocolate cookie as untasty; it does remind me that what’s good for the goose, isn’t necessarily goose for the gander. So the quest to make a cookie for KS that he’d like, nay, love was on – big time.

So there’s a little place we like to have brunch at, Kitchenette – it’s got a homey feel with country style brunches, neverending servings of grits, home made biscuits with strawberry butter and breakfast enchiladas that I can’t get enough of. Orange juice comes in Mason jars, tables are made of painted doors with glass tops. It’s a little bit of South, or at least the feeling of it anyway, crammed into a tiny Tribeca space. And upon entering the first thing you see are these decadent cookies piled on cake stands – peanut butter cookie sandwiches, macaroons and Linzer cookies. And it’s the Linzer that caught KS attention.

i didn't make enough :(

I’ve always liked a good Linzer cookie, but the whole construction of them scared me off a bit. This isn’t some drop cookie that you just let back and then enjoy. This involves using a cookie form, then making an additional hole in half the cookie disks, then baking, then cooling. And finally dropping a generous dollop of raspberry jam on a whole piece and put the holey piece on top. There, now that I’ve written it, it doesn’t seem that bad at all, but for some reason, in my head, when I thought about it – whoa, that’s a lot of steps.

cookie bottoms imperfect o's

Given my recent baking, um, endeavors so to speak I was a bit apprehensive about giving this cookie dough a go. First I failed at pie dough and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the upside-down plum cake visual appearance gave me nightmares for awhile. The humidity today made me particularly nervous – because I’ve been told humidity and dough are not friends. But I was not to be deterred, weather or not.

looking sticky flat disk

The dough did give me some trouble – after I chilled it and was trying to roll it, it went all kinds of broken on me. Too sticky, too unpliable, it was holding on to the granite for dear life, until I sprinkled enough flour on it to make it work with me – which means for all you out there, if you try this recipe – do not dismay if your dough doesn’t cooperate. There is a way to fix it! Also, if you roll the dough between the two sheets of plastic wrap, it tends to work better.

Also, we didn’t have hazelnuts as the recipe require, so I used pine nuts instead, which didn’t hurt the end results at all.

And finally, do not dismay if you don’t have the fancy forms for your cookie cut-outs. I didn’t – and used a small metal cup for the outline, and a tiny kettle top to get the small circles out for the tops of my cookies. In a way, it made the cookie construction that much more fun, albeit, they didn’t have that perfect Linzer look. Still, they tasted pretty heavenly to me and to KS. I guess there’s a cookie we can both agree on, even though it doesn’t involve chocolate.

Continue reading linzer cookies.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

shepherd’s pie

shepherd's pie - vegetarian, deconstructed and with a kick

I can be a real bore sometimes, I really can. I get one idea of a meal in my head and when someone tries to throw me a curve ball, I have a cow. It’s not that I’m unwilling to rethink a recipe, turn it upside down and change its appearance – it’s just that I get a vision in my head and then I’m hopelessly stuck in it, at least for the duration of the recipe. Call it “recipe tunnel vision”.

It’s been awfully un-summery outside as of late. Temperatures in the fifties, winds, rain and me shivering outside. I pulled my trench coat out, my sweaters are back on shelves out of their temporary storage. I was going to make gazpacho for you people, and now what? I’ve been so distracted by this early onset of fall, that I not only made my favorite porcini mushroom soup, but also, so distraught by my distress, failed again, to take pictures of this soul and belly warming concoction. Gazpacho? Salads? Where are my soups and squashes to roast?

So when I emailed KS about dinner a few nights ago and he emailed me back that he was already on top of it (I know, I’m a lucky girl!), the nosy me, of course, just had to know what would be served. The response – vegetarian shepherd’s pie.

Oh and then the dreaming ensued. For the remaining hours at work, I was awash with anticipation – flaky pastry with potatoes, peas, corn, and other vegetables. I think that if you put a plain potato in front me of me, I’m in pure heaven, but mashed potatoes with the accouterments, or some other incarnation of them – few things make me happier. And so with visions of flaky pastry, I went rushing home, picking up a bottle of wine en route – to make our dinner all the more comforting. But KS, finding inspiration in the kitchen took the idea of shepherd’s pie and changed its structure by removing meat and crust. The result, not so much a shepherd’s pie, but rather fancy mashed potatoes. And yet, it tasted so much like shepherd’s pie that I took back my pouty face which was my initial reaction “What no crust? Why no crust? Must have crust!” But then again, my love of potatoes made that missing crust but a faint memory. I got so carried away with eating, that you get only one picture to feast your eyes on. See, this is what you get when KS makes me dinner – gushy write-ups and no pictures. I have much to improve upon!

Continue reading shepherd’s pie.

Friday, August 17, 2007

red pepper soup

soup, glorious soup!

Whether or not you’re working in finance and even if you understand the stock market about as much as cats can read, you have probably (unless you were camping for two weeks in the mountains) been privy to what the markets have been doing recently on sub-prime news. The malaise has spilled from the US indices, which have been languishing and have nearly lost all their 2007 gains, into markets world-wide. So even if a “naked short” makes you think of an unclothed midget, and an “option” to you is whether to take a nap or go for a run, chances are, if you have any personal investments whatsoever, you have watched them lose their gains – and it’s been a bit depressing to say the least. I know I know, what goes up, must, eventually come down.

But I’ll spare you the market analysis because I don’t feel qualified to really comment further, however, despite the fact that I work in the field. Suffice to say, it’s been quite busy at work, longer days, working from home, and I’ve all but forgotten that shiny beacon of light – the gym. When I am stressed out, I turn to my kitchen, not so much to eat, but to cook. The chopping, the stirring, the clean-up in between, all soothe and comfort me. They allow me some control over the world which often feels uncontrollable. And I like to get me some of that control from time to time.

it's pepper season adding a dimension of flavor

In times like these, stressful and worrying times, while most ply themselves with sweets and baked goods in times like these, I turn to the warm savories: soups, mashed potatoes, rice and endless cups of tea (not quite the savory, but warm!). As soon as this recipe flashed across my screen, it was pretty much all I could think about. Sure, I read words like “chilled” and “freeze”, but I knew this soup could be enjoyed warm as well as hot. I decided to cut the recipe in half from its original proportions, in case it turned into a soup for a small army and substitute sage for thyme. I’m rather indifferent to thyme as an herb and prefer the frosty-looking leaves of sage. But those are just the details. Oh and since there was no crème fraîche anywhere in our neighborhood (who knew, Tribeca?) we had to settle for sour cream. But in my Russian sour-cream adoring book, that’s hardly a tragedy.

loads and loads of peppers chopped and ready

I encourage you to try the soup first without the crème fraîche or sour cream and then add the dairy in – if your soup turns out anything like mine, you will notice how the dairy really accentuates and deepens the flavor. KS, of course, had to give his bowl a bit more kick with some home-made Trinidadian hot sauce, given to us by a friend. And the soup works both ways – warm and chilled – so if you make it and cannot wait to try a bowl that very same evening, go for it. Grab a light blanket, pop in a movie, eat this soup by spoonfuls. I was in such a state of bliss eating mine that I temporarily forgot about the Wall Street doldrums.

Continue reading red pepper soup.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

banana bread

glorious scent

The one true rule in our kitchen between me and KS is that we will do whatever we can to manage our perishables in such a way that we don’t have to throw them out if they start to spoil. Leftover herbs become pesto, tomatoes with a couple of small spots get either a slow roast in the oven or processed into homemade tomato sauce, stale bread becomes croûtons. Sometimes this means deviating from trying something new as a recipe in order to salvage an ingredient or two. In every kitchen, there are most likely a few stories like this from time to time.

one hour away from bliss

Ever since we got back from South Carolina, the cooking hasn’t stopped. I’m already behind in writing all the food we’ve prepared – and I’m warning you, one picture in particular (pork chops, why won’t you photograph well?) doesn’t make you run-run-run to the kitchen and start cooking. But I’ve been wresting with meat photography – and no matter what I do, it just looks gross to me. No matter what angle, day light or otherwise, meat comes out looking gross and well, dead. Could it be my former vegetarian reacting? But never mind about that for now.

early sunday morning snack

We brought home with us a few bananas that served us as our snack food on the road. And you know how bananas are. Lush and yellow in the grocery store, luring you with their sweetness and potassium. And then you bring them with you into the car and the sit in this scorching heat for a few hours and bam! – a few brown, soft spots appear and you’re left with mushy, brown bananas. Personally, I prefer to eat my bananas while they’re perfectly yellow, but when it comes to baking – well, bring on the soft, the over-ripe, the bruised!


And so yesterday, while cleaning up in the kitchen, I glanced over to see the sad-looking bananas hang out on the counter, probably convinced that their fate was to wind up in the garbage. Not so, I thought and dug up my trusty Martha Stewart cookbook. In ten minutes, the batter was made, poured and what was to become banana bread was happily sitting in the oven. Instead of nuts (because I’m weird and don’t like nuts in my banana bread, go figure), I added cranberries. Every year, around Thanksgiving time, I buy two extra bags of cranberries and freeze them. And then through the year, dip into my stash for things like banana bread or whatever else. It’s served me well through the years and in my opinion, it beats those Craisins every time. The cranberries are magical in banana bread, truly making the flavor pop and develop a whole new dimension. And magical is more than I could have asked for, considering that the initial goal was manage a spoiling food and what I got in return was a sweet, dreamy treat!

Continue reading banana bread.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

mango salad with avocado and tofu

mango salad

Sticky, is how I’ve been feeling lately – sticky, thirsty and in constant longing for a shower. Little tank tops and shorts don’t help, neither do gauzy dresses. It’s not so much the heat as the humidity. Feels like the air is liquid.

We spent the greater portion of the Saturday swimming in such air, wondering various locations spanning Cobble Hill and Park Slope. We walked through a house party in Boerum Hill that used more sub woofer power than I ever imagined possible and my insides vibrated – it’s a unique feeling you should try it sometime. I wanted to find out what that hip-hop song was – because it would have made a great addition to my running mix, but it didn’t feel like the right move in asking.

We also learned that just because it’s a new construction, doesn’t mean it’s already construct-ED. It’s a bit of a downer walking up to a building that’s got scaffolding all around it, and is missing, say, walls and windows. While I’m good at visualizing, when it comes to real estate I need to see if for myself, no thank-you, autocad. Oh and upon turning around you realize it’s located right across the street from a correctional facility. Right. Next. Door. Or “f*ck da police” graffiti sprayed on the construction site. Lovely, just lovely. Real estate woes notwithstanding, we still got a good and enjoyable walk out of our Brooklyn real estate research, stopping by at Oko and sampling their frozen yogurt, which was good, but still not as good as making your own at home. Our consensus on Brooklyn prices – in-friggin-sane – the cost of living in a decently renovated apartment is not a bargain by any stretch of imagination. And when you already have visions of a backyard where you can grow your own vegetables and a door with a special doggy door at the bottom, urban living begins to look less and less sparkly and seductive. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

a refuge from the sticky air

Even with all this schlepping around, when it’s this humid out, I stop eating. I long for ripe fruit, sorbet, lemonade. Traditional meals don’t hold much appeal and I become much like a fruit fly, eating a peach here, nibbling on blueberries there. When I saw Louisa’s post on a mango salad with tofu, I remembered that back in college, when I didn’t want to eat anything (and I was a vegetarian back then) – I would make a version of a mango salad I had in a Thai restaurant once – with avocado, mango, a tangy/spicy dressing! I could live on that salad all summer, and often would make it for several days in a row. And while variety is the spice of life, I cannot place enough premium on tried, true and much beloved. And while the salad didn’t make up for lack of a/c in those summertime days, it certainly made the livin’ more easy.

Continue reading mango salad with avocado and tofu.