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Archive for the ‘Russian’ Category

It’s a mean, cold, wet day as I write, but I know Spring is here because morels have begun appearing. Tom and I dreamt about morels all winter long. We’d been planning an experiment of substituting wild mushrooms for the beef in a Stroganov recipe, so when we saw plump, pale golden ones in a good grocery store, we snatched some.

There are many “stroganoff’ recipes floating around, some pretty dismal – calling for things like canned cream of mushroom soup. The one I make is from the Russian Cooking volume of the ever-reliable Time-Life Foods of the World series. It’s billed as the classic 19th-century recipe for bef Stroganov, named for the great Stroganov family of imperial Russia and very different from the many European and American versions of the dish. It uses a technique I’ve not seen in any other recipe, and the results have always been delicious.

Now, morels are marvelous to eat but tricky to buy, because insects find them as tasty as humans do. I’m squeamish about creepy-crawly things wriggling out of my foodstuffs, so it’s Tom’s job to wash, halve, and carefully inspect all morels that come into our kitchen. Happily, this batch was very clean. We sautéed them in butter until not quite done and set them aside.

Next was more work for the knife man. He thinly sliced half a pound of white mushrooms and two cups’ worth of Spanish onions. Most recipes call for proportionately fewer onions, and most just sauté these vegetables. For our recipe, we put them in a pan with just a tiny bit of oil, covered the pan, and let it simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally. After half an hour, when the vegetables were completely soft and the onions had exuded a lot of liquid, we dumped them all into a large sieve and let the liquid drain away. (Knife man was half-tempted to save it for soup, but he didn’t move fast enough.)

Then we combined the onions and white mushrooms with the morels and a little paste made with Coleman’s dry mustard, stirred in some sour cream, and let it all simmer, covered, for just a few minutes. And that’s it: It was done.

Another unusual thing about this recipe is that it doesn’t call for serving the Stroganov over noodles or rice, as others do. It recommends straw potatoes. So my faithful knife man reduced a big russet potato to 2½ by ⅛ inch strips and we deep-fried them – twice; for less than a minute each time.

Finally, we plated the Stroganov, surrounded it with the crisp straw potatoes, and were ready to eat.

Don’t judge this dish by my less-than-prepossessing photo. Yes, the soft ingredients are all in muted gray-brown colors, more or less mushed together, with the straw potatoes offering the only visual contrast. It may have been a food stylist’s nightmare, but it was a gastronome’s dream to eat. The morels provided their characteristic and unmatchable woodsy flavors – a totally satisfying substitute for beef – and the onion-mushroom base provided an ever-so-slightly sweet and subtle background for them. The crunchy potatoes gave an essential textural contrast and pulled the whole dish together as a vegetarian delight, even for confirmed carnivores.

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Today starts my third year of weekly reports on my cooking adventures. In 2010, per a New Year’s resolution, I wrote only about making new-to-me recipes from my cookbook collection. Last year I broadened out to old favorites as well. For 2012 I’ll keep that openness. This post, about my just-past New Year’s dinner, covers one recipe of each kind.

Lobster Thermidor, despite the name, always strikes me as an ancien régime dish. It’s sinfully rich, but Tom and I get a yen for it occasionally. It has the kind of lushness and voluptuousness that is missing from much contemporary cuisine. In the same class, champagne and caviar, that seasonal classic, seemed a suitably over-the-top way to precede the lobster. And, in keeping with the ancien régime theme, I decided to try my hand at making blini to serve the caviar on.

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Blini

I had recipes for these tiny yeast-raised Russian pancakes in several cookbooks. The most authentic one called for buckwheat flour, which I haven’t been able to find lately, so I settled on the white-flour version in Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. The whole recipe was said to make 24 two-inch cakes; I thought 16 would more than do for the two of us and cut quantities accordingly.

Flour, milk, a bit of sugar, and yeast made the first sponge, which rose exuberantly in 1½ hours. Next I had to beat in egg yolks, blended with softened butter, more flour, and salt. Here I made what could have been a bad mistake. Without thinking, I broke the whole eggs over the butter and was already mixing them when I realized what I’d done. In the immortal word of a recent Republican presidential hopeful, Oops!  What to do – throw it out and start again? No, Tom counseled; just go with it. OK, I thought; after all, it’s only a glorified pancake batter; what could hurt? So I just went with it.

The next rising was even more vigorous than the first, producing a giant bowl of gloppy sponge that vaguely resembled the extraterrestrial creature from The Quatermass Experiment. This was the point at which the egg whites were supposed to have been whipped and folded in, but of course I didn’t need to do that. So on to the cooking.

The sponge was much thicker than a normal pancake batter, making it difficult to drop neat circles onto the griddle, but the little blini behaved beautifully, and didn’t stick at all. But oh, there were a lot of them! We ended up with 36, not the 16 that my two-thirds of the recipe was supposed to make. (Irma, what happened there?) Well, the extras will freeze, giving us an excuse to eat more caviar in 2012.

We had two kinds of caviar to taste that evening, both from American sturgeon. In the photo below, the one on the left is hackleback and the one on the right is transmontanus.

The transmontanus was twice as expensive, but it was also twice as good – like fresh osetra, compared to the hackleback’s saltier sevruga style. Having been lovers of true osetra before we were priced out of the market for it, the transmontanus is a happy new year’s discovery for Tom and me. (But it’s worth noting that we’ve had hackleback from other suppliers that was both less expensive and more osetra-like than this day’s batch. Clearly, the world of domestic caviar holds many mysteries.)

Our transmontanus caviar

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Lobster Thermidor

Though labor-intensive, Lobster Thermidor really isn’t difficult to make. Despite the name, it doesn’t actually date from French revolutionary times. It was invented in Paris in 1896, in honor of a new Sardou play named Thermidor at the Comédie Française. An old-fashioned dish it may be now, but it’s incredibly good. I use Julia Child’s recipe from the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is more elaborate than some versions, less so than others. The whole dish can be prepared well in advance, leaving only 15 minutes of finishing in the oven at dinner time.

The recipe starts simmering together wine, water, aromatic vegetables, and herbs, in which the lobster is then steamed. Here’s my two-pounder, fresh from the pot.

The steaming liquid is strained and used to make a velouté sauce, which is then enriched with the lobster’s coral and tomalley, dry mustard, egg yolks, and heavy cream. The lobster meat is cut up, sautéed in butter, and doused with cognac. Some of the sauce is mixed with the lobster meat, along with a few sliced mushrooms, previously stewed in butter and lemon juice. The mixture is heaped in the halved lobster shells; topped with the rest of the sauce, grated cheese, and dots of butter; and finished in a hot oven. Voilà!

This lavish a dish wants simple accompaniments; we had steamed asparagus and small boiled potatoes. Tom’s wine closet produced a lovely 2000 Corton-Charlemagne to drink with it.

Rich as the dish was, we had no trouble finishing it.

So, Happy New Year to all, and my thanks to the faithful followers of this blog. In 2012, I hope to hear more from you in comments — whether to agree, disagree, or just tell your own cooking stories!

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Happily, this week’s new recipe redeemed my disappointment from last week’s. I discovered an excellent dish, of a kind I’d never made or even eaten before.

Great Meals in Minutes is a Time-Life cookbook series, like others I’ve written about here. In the early ‘80s, Tom and I contributed recipes for three meals to each of two volumes in this series: Brunch Menus and Pasta Menus. In fact, the picture on the cover of this brunch volume is of one of our menus: Smoked Sable and Salmon Rolls with Cream Cheese and Caviar, Chicken Breasts Bearnaise, and Broiled Peach Halves with Raspberry Jam.

Paging through the book recently for the pleasure of the handsome T-L food photography, I was struck by a menu from another contributor, Maria Robbins. The main dish was a Russian specialty: ham dumplings with an onion-mushroom-breadcrumb topping. It seemed heavy for breakfast food, but I could see it going well in bitterly cold Russian mornings. I decided to try it as a supper dish for a bitterly cold New York night.

Here’s the book’s picture of Robbins’s dumplings:My dumplings didn’t look exactly like that, but pretty close — and they were absolutely delicious. I’d never had dumplings as a main course before – only as accompaniments to stews or braises. This recipe stood on its own perfectly, needing only a crisp vegetable (I chose green beans) for textural contrast.

The dumplings are based on bread softened in milk, blended with minced ham, egg, ricotta, parsley, salt and pepper. They were a bit sticky to roll into 1½ inch balls, but flour on the work surface made the task tolerable. I plunked them into simmering water and enjoyed watching them rise up from the bottom of the pot, float around erratically, and roll over as they gently swelled. The first batch waited in a warm oven until the second was done.

Meanwhile, I was making the topping. This was minced onions, mushrooms, breadcrumbs, and parsley, sautéed in butter until golden brown. (Well, my onions never get really golden, but they did well enough.)  Then it was just a matter of sprinkling the topping on the dumplings and serving the dish.The flavors combined in a nearly magical way – the whole was much more than the sum of its parts. It also seemed distinctly Russian in effect. The dumplings were soft and tender, not strongly hammy but very savory. The topping was ambrosial. The dish loved red wine; almost it persuaded me it would love icy vodka just as well.

One tiny caveat: The gimmick of the Great Meals in Minutes series is that you can prepare each entire menu in one hour or less. For me, for this menu . . . not so. Granted, I’m not an experienced dumpling cook, but it took me over an hour, moving briskly, to make half the recipe’s worth (I did my all own knife work, not relying on Tom this time) – and I wasn’t making the fruit crudités with Roquefort cheese spread and the watercress and grapefruit salad that constituted the rest of that brunch menu. No matter: for me it was time well spent – fun to do, and the dumplings were a real taste treat.

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Vacation Ahead:  I won’t be posting here for the next two weeks. Tom and I will be in Belize on a birding trip. Tropical jungles, mountain forests, Mayan ruins, exotic birds and beasts, monkeys, maybe even an ocelot or a jaguar. No kitchens, cooking, recipes (unless I find a Belizean cookbook to bring home). Also no computers, so if anyone sends in comments during that time, I won’t be able to release or reply to them until I get back. My next post will come up in the third week of March.

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