Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The fear of Blini.

Russian blini is not what you see on Iron Chef that looks like a tiny thin silver-dollar pancake (this is actually a totally different Russian dish called “oladuski”).  It is a delicate, lacy edged, light as air, glistening with butter crapes my mother used to make.  Just like she was taught by her mother-in-law.  My mother was known as a great cook in our family, a phenomenon baker, but the little secret was that my grandmother taught her everything she knew, literally starting from how to boil water.
 I can cook anything.  I taught myself how to make the most complex dishes and desserts.  I can whip up French macaroons and croissants, I learned how to debone poultry and make bread, I can plan and execute a menu of 30 dishes for 30 people in two day, but I can’t make blini.  I just can’t. 
When I was little, my mother taught me many things in the kitchen, but she mostly let me watch and listen, rarely letting me get down to the actual cooking.  On the contrary my grandmother let me get down to business in her kitchen.  She let me make and mess up cakes, clean berries for jams even though I ate more than I cleaned and help her make dumplings even though my share came out looking more like clumps of glue.  Her house was an ultimate playground and she spoiled me rotten.  She always wanted a little girl and having had two boys, I was adored beyond measure.  She let me finger-paint and roller-skate in the halls of their apartment; she sewed dresses for my dolls and indulged the messiest and smelliest chemistry experiments I could find.  Her huge kitchen was my favorite place in the world; it always smelled of my favorite foods and was filled with adventure.  It was technically a communal kitchen as my grandparents shared a huge pre-war apartment with an old maid who lived in a tiny room just of the kitchen.  (The room was originally meant for a maid, and its occupant instilled a paralyzing fear in me when I was little.  She was old and never married nasty woman, who wore her mousy hair in a bun and would appear and disappear without warning, never smiling or talking, just grunting at me through her pursed dry lips. I pictured her sitting in that little room contemplating ways to poison my whole family so she can have the apartment all to herself.)
It was in that kitchen that my grandfather was waging his never ending war on mice, it was that kitchen that had a stain on ceiling from an unfortunate condensed milk explosion (my grandmother was boiling cans of condensed milk for dolce-de-leche for her famous rum cake.  She forgot about them and they exploded with a force of a small nuclear bomb, covering the entire ceiling in sticky, delicious goo).  The place was filled with wonders, like a huge copper bowl that my grandmother made jams in, that doubled as my bathtub when I was a baby.  A mysterious water heating device, which was the only thing I was not to go near, pretty little tea cups decorated with pink roses, meant for guests that I could actually play tea-party with, many different rolling pins (one was said to belong to a famous baker to the czars) and many other trinkets that I could explore on my visits.  It was in that kitchen I was actually allowed to sift flour and separate eggs, spill things, burn things and start from scratch, stuff that was unimaginable under my mother’s reign of perfection.  My visits with my grandmother were cherished and anticipated like most welcome of gifts and we made a great pair.  We were the best of friends.
My relationship with my grandmother turned rocky after my mother’s death.  As a young teen I was burdened with a sense of misplaced loyalty, confused by a complex mother-daughter-in-law relationship.  And then one day, I grew up and realized that whatever battles I was fighting in my mom’s name were meaningless.  Overnight my grandmother became my friend once again, generously forgiving all the teenage bullshit that came before.  I visited her Brooklyn apartment often, sometimes to escape, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to eat. She was a tiny little thing, barely tall enough to fit under my armpit, but you should have seen her move around that kitchen.  She was like a little silver-haired hurricane feeding me my favorite fried potatoes and “kotletki”; which are little pan-fried Russian chicken meatballs, which I am now known for and are the only truly secret family recipe I possess.  She taught me how to make her rum cake and proper sponge cake and crapes.  How to make them thin and lacy and light as air.  Piled on with her homemade jam, they were a solution to any ailment.  And I made them impeccably as long as she was standing near.  Not helping, just standing, chatting, gently reassuring before each turn.  If she would leave the kitchen for any reason, my blini would clump and be ruined.  As soon as she would come back, each came out perfectly once again.  It was a mystery I could not explain, but didn’t think of much at the time.
She died shortly after my wedding, unexpectedly, leaving me with bitter regret of wasting so many years with her, wishing I had more time.  There was so much more I wanted to ask her, learn from her…
I didn’t try my hand at crapes for years and when I finally did it was a disaster, they were clumpy and lumpy.  They tore and fell apart when I tried to turn them and I didn’t know why.  I tried again and again with no better result, following batter recipes to a ‘t’, I had no explanation for my failure other than she was not there, standing near me.  After many unsuccessful tries I gave up, resolute to accept it as just something I cannot do without her.
Recently, on a quiet Sunday morning, I woke up, went downstairs and made blini.  No fuss, no big whoop. No metal preparation of any kind.   I mixed the batter by memory, and each one turned out perfectly fine, just like my grandmother’s.  I missed her more that morning than I did all the years she was gone…She would never stand next to me…she would never teach me anything…I could do this all by myself now… 

Russian Blini ( Crapes)
Makes 12-15 crapes
2 large eggs
1 cup of milk
¼ cup of water
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbs melted butter (cooled)
3 tbs melted butter for the frying pan.
In a blender, combine all the ingredients and blend until smooth.  Refrigerate the mixture for about an hour or longer (overnight works very well).  Pre-heat a 9 inch non-stick skillet and brush with melted butter.  Off the heat pour ¼ cup of batter and swirl it around so that the entire skillet surface is coated.  Cook on medium-low heat for about 30-40 seconds, or until the edges become dry.  Turn by either sliding the blini off the skillet edge and using your fingers or use a very thin flat spatula.  If you are really awesome you can try and flip them in the skillet.  The idea is to get the job done, so whatever work for you, use it and don’t worry about the theatrics.
Serve with sour cream, jam, red caviar, or commit an American atrocity, like my daughter, and slather peanut butter on the blini. 

And don’t forget to think of your grandmother, wherever and whenever she was from, she surely made some kind of crapes or blinis.  Maybe you are lucky and she is standing right next to you making them now.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mexican Chorizo.

Ohh, the things we do to make our kids happy!  Everyone knows that a key to every teenager, especially a boy ,is food.  They eat first, listen later… hopefully.  But at least if their stomachs are full, you stand a chance of being heard… Notice, I did not say they will act on what they hear. 
My son has grown up into a constantly hungry gourmet… I created a monster.  No matter how hungry he is, he will not eat just anything…  I mean he will not eat anything of sub-par quality or prepared in 5 minutes or less.  He will not eat junk food; he will not eat anything out of a box.  He will try any exotic food once, and usually ends up liking it.  His favorite pass time is searching for his new favorite foods, except he can’t find it… nothing has topped Mexican chorizo yet.  Things came close, but were still a hair short of ultimate bliss.  And not any chorizo will do, the best, the tastiest comes from our neighborhood Mexican restaurant “Abby’s”.  They make their own chorizo and it is to die for, just the right texture, perfumed with spices, kicked up with chilies, fatty and deeply savory.  I have to re-created it at home or he will eat me. 
Chorizo means sausage in Spanish… that’s it, it doesn’t mean spicy, it doesn’t mean prepared with certain technique, it just means sausage.  I already knew what makes a Spanish chorizo, which is completely different from its Mexican cousin.  Spanish chorizo is all about the paprika, and Mexican is much more complex.  After scanning the web for an idea of what goes into it I realized that the only common ingredient I saw between hundreds of recipes is an apple cider vinegar and tons of dried chilies of every known kind.  Did you know that there are 30 different kind of chili peppers that grow in Mexico?  You would think they invented this sausage just to use them all.   So I made a recipe of my own, frying up small batches of sausage to taste and adjust the seasoning.  Well, the kids tasted, I salivated (yes, still dieting….).  I think I came pretty darn close to our beloved Abby’s sausage….and I acquired a good supply of chorizo to use in hundreds of ways, respect and thumbs up from my son and a new appreciation for the sausage makers everywhere. It is not easy to make those links.

Mexican Chorizo.

3 lbs of ground pork (Once again, grind your own meat.  Take a nice fatty piece ( remember, sausage is not a diet food, it could be, but why?) like a pork shoulder.  If you feel there is not enough fat in your cut, augment it by adding some of the fat from a nice slab of salt pork, just grind it together.  All the meat should be ground twice on a finest setting of your grinder)
2 Dried Ancho chilies (stems and seeds removed)
4 – 5 dried Arbol chilies (stems and seeds removed)
2 smoked and dried jalapeno peppers (stems and seeds removed)
1.5 tsp of whole coriander seeds freshly toasted
1 tsp of whole cumin seeds freshly toasted
1.5 tsp of freshly ground cinnamon
2 tsp of paprika ( not smoked)
1 tbs of Molido Chili powder
1.5 tsp of cayenne pepper
1 tbs of dry Mexican oregano
1 tbs of kosher salt
1 medium onion diced
5-6 garlic cloves diced
1 -2 cups apple cider vinegar

Toast the dry chilies in a dry skillet over a medium heat until softened slightly. 
Set aside in a deep bowl, cover with onions and garlic and pour apple cider vinegar over the peppers, onions and garlic until it comes almost to the top of the mixture.   Cover with a small plate, set something heavy on top (like a large can of something) and let the mixture rest for 30 min to 1 hr.
In the meantime, prepare the dry spicy mix, by grinding coriander, cumin and cinnamon in a spice grinder. 
Combine with all other dry spices.
Pour off about half of the apple cider vinegar from the peppers and onion mixture.  Put the mixture and left over vinegar into a blender, add the dry spice mix and blend until a paste forms.  You can add a little water to the mix if the paste is coming out to thick.
Add the spice paste to the ground pork and mix very well.  Hands work best here. 
 You can now case your sausages or form patties or just leave the sausage meat unformed. 
Keeps in a fridge for a few days but can be frozen in zip top bags for weeks or even months.

Believe me, it will not last this long.  Here are a few ways to serve it.

Sauté some peppers and onions.  Fry up some of your chorizo until crispy.  Combine together top with lots of cheese and set under the broiler until the cheese is melted and is nice and bubbly.  Serve straight from the skillet with a few warm tortillas. 

Or better yet, make a hash.  Skillet fry your chorizo, than add a diced potato.  Fry until everything is crispy.  Add a little diced onion and red pepper and reduce the heat.  Sauté until the onion and the peppers are softened. Top with a sunny side egg Spanish style ( That is fried in extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt and smoked paprika). 
Call this breakfast, lunch or dinner… No hangover required!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

South East Asian salmon and raw vegetables salad.

Two things I hate about January, first January is the gloomiest month, with at least another 12 weeks to the first glimpse of spring.  December kind of keeps you busy with the holidays, so spring is not such a pressing though, but in long, cold and dark evenings in January, it is all I can think about.  Second, January means dieting, or in my case, a forced deprivation from something I love the most, cooking yummy food.  However, this year, I decided not to subject my family to the horrors of my diet, so I am cooking more than ever… Here is what they ate today…
I get inspiration for new recipes from everywhere.  But browsing (without the time limit) the aisles of a Asian supermarket get me going every time.  I already wrote about harassing people in that store for recipes from their homelands.  I have been very successful recently, scoring not only full recipes but explanations about some of the unusual products in that store and how to use them.  I am contemplating learning Chinese Pastry techniques and figuring out how a black chicken can fit into my next week’s menu.  This week was no different, I stumbled onto a Korean chili paste that I have been meaning to try forever, some fresh kefir lime leaves and some lemon grass and decided  - South East Asia would be an awesome place to take my family for dinner.  With a little hint of Korea thrown in for good measure.
I already had a beautiful salmon I meant to turn into gravallax, but decided to marinate and bake instead.  Served over a raw vegetables slaw, the flavors were complex and the meal was delicious ( or so I am told – remember I am not eating anything these days)

South East Asian salmon

6 – 8  8oz salmon filets
For the marinade:
4 kefir lime leaves chopped
2 cloves of garlic
1 inch knob of fresh ginger grated
Zest of one lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of one lime
2 tbs of Mirin ( sweet rice wine vinegar)
3 tbs of soy sauce
1 tbs agave syrup
1 tsp fish sauce
¼ cup of fresh squeezed orange juice
1.5 tbs of Korean chili paste (or siracha)
1 tbs of toasted sesame oil
2 tbs of vegetable oil
¼ cup chopped scallions
Salt to taste
2 sticks of lemon grass bruised

Preheat the oven to 450F.  In a food processor combine all the ingredients except the lemon grass in the food processor until combined.  Taste and adjust the salt seasoning. 
Place the fish in baking tray with tall sides and pour the marinade all over the fish, making sure both sides are evenly coated.  Scatter the bruised lemon grass on top and cover with plastic.  Let marinade for about an hour.  The fish should not be marinating for longer than 2 hrs. 
Remove the plastic and bake for 15 -  20 min until the fish is opaque but not dry.  Discard the lemon grass and serve over a raw vegetables slaw using the pan juices as sauce.

Raw vegetable salad:

2 large carrots – julienned
2 large yellow squash – julienned
2 large zucchini – julienned
1 small jalapeno pepper diced very fine
2 tbs of chopped cilantro
2 tbs of chopped parsley
2 tbs of chopped scallions
2 tbs of chopped mint
1 to 2 cups of fresh watercress (you can chop it roughly)
1.5 tbs of black sesame seeds
1 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tbs of honey
Juice of one lime
2 tbs of toasted sesame oil

Toss all the vegetables and herbs together.  Add sesame seeds.   Add salt, cayenne pepper, honey and lime juice and let stand a few minutes.  Add sesame oil and toss the salad lightly.  You can also add mango to this salad, it makes it slightly sweet and well suited for something like a Korean BBQ ( but that is another post)…

Delicious, healthy, full of flavor and takes you some place warm and exotic on a cold January afternoon.