Friday, January 31, 2014

Sautéed spicy Green Beans with Hazelnuts

I have been feeling like a supermarket version of the “Dear Abby” advice column.  I don’t know how often this happens to other people who are good cooks, but it is happening to me constantly, random people just turn to me and ask me…”How do you cook that?” everywhere.  At the farm store, at the fish counter, everywhere….  It is not like I am wearing a sign “I am a good cook, free advice here..”, neither do I make eye contact with people or god forbid smile at them… when I shop, I prefer to do it quickly, efficiently and with the least amount of interruptions… so I don’t know why people feel they can check out the contents of my cart, point to Kefir and ask “What do you do with that?”.  And here is the thing, I don’t mind, these off the cuff questions actually flatter me and I go into a lengthy recipe descriptions and poor people are probably no longer happy about the engagement….

What strikes me as interesting is that most people have no idea how to cook simple staples.  I get it that someone may need advice on how to cook squid or a whole goose, but mostly people ask about basic things.  Recently a Russian lady surveyed a big bag of sweet potatoes in my cart and asked what I do with them.  I didn’t want to admit that most often I buy sweet potatoes because my dogs love them, so I happily rattled off a dozen recipes for her and wondered if she will ever try and cook any of them.  She than pointed to Kale and asked what it was…so, I got on my horse and gave her a quick lecture on the virtues of Kale.  I think she is not coming back to that store ever again for fear of meeting me… her own fault, she started it. 
All these questions made me think of doing a post on my favorite side dish and a simple thing that everyone should know how to cook…green beans.  They are quick, easy, good for you and if done right delicious.  And if someone doesn’t like them it means somewhere in their lives they encountered the canned version which can turn even the most stoic stomach.

There are two types of green beans out there, the fatter, longer version and the Haricot Vert , which are also called French green beans, that are very thin and a bit more delicate.  I like the later just because I find them pretties, but really, there is not much difference in taste.

Sautéed spicy Green Beans with Hazelnuts

I lb of Green Beans ( Or Haricot Verts) washed and trimmed
3 Cloves of Garlic Minced
¼ tsp of red pepper flakes ( optional, or more if you want things spicier)
¼ cup of toasted hazelnuts roughly chopped
½ tbs of olive oil
Hazelnut oil (optional)
Salt to taste

Boil a large pot of water and salt it liberally, like you do pasta water.  Boil the green beans for no longer than 1 minute and immediately transfer to an ice bath.  This will preserve the crisp and color.

Pat dry with paper towels.  Heat a large skillet with olive oil to medium heat; toss in the garlic, pepper flakes and hazelnuts and sauté for 30 seconds.  Add the green beans and toss for another 30 seconds.  Taste and see if any salt is needed, if you salted the water enough, the green beans should be properly seasoned.  Transfer to a platter, drizzle with a bit of hazelnut or extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt or Fleur De Sel if necessary.

These can stay perfectly crisp and tasty in the fridge for up to 3 days, just reheat in the microwave.  Not a bad simple staple to have on hand for a side dish.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Kartoshka" Pastry

I did not abandon my blog, I just didn't have a single free moment in the last month.  Before the  New Year, I was too busy cooking to blog about it and after the New Year, I was nursing a slightly chopped thumb (let’s just say dull knives and alcohol should not be mixed).  So now with a fresh scar and newly minted inspiration, I can’t wait to get to cooking and writing again.
I recently came across a cook book advertising refreshed vintage recipes and it got me thinking, what makes a recipe vintage?  Are vintage recipes fads of yesteryear, where classics stand the test of time?  But even classics are constantly reinvented and refreshed with a modern spin, so why do we still call them "classic"?  This book claimed to put fresh spin on such things as macaroni and cheese, yeah, right, like that dish can be call "vintage" with every chef out there constantly reinventing it with lobsters, truffles and gold flakes.  What about cake pops or cupcakes, which are now a forgotten fad, overtaken by a cronut (this one I would like to make "vintage" right now) are they vintage yet, or do they need to be wiped off the memory of the whole generation to become old-fashioned? 
Vintage food is just like your grandmother’s lace and pearls, just waiting to be re-discovered and fashionable again. There is only one problem, often, no one is around anymore to remember what these vintage dishes were like… exactly.   People still remember eating a particular dish but no one can agree on exactly how to cook it or what exactly it is supposed to taste like.  I got one of those vintage dishes in mind to tackle and so I decided to start the year with something old.

There is a Russian pastry called "Kartoshka", which means "potatoes".  I believe it is Russian, or to be exact Soviet in origin as I have never came across anything similar in any of the master pastry books.  It is meant to be made with sub-par ingredients easily found in Soviet era shops such as breadcrumbs, rum essence and chocolate substitute.  But according to legends told by grandmas it was not always that way.  These tales were told in tiny kitchens of mass-produced apartments, in voices hushed by the fear of being labeled a dissident.  Only dissidents would discuss the times of ‘Before”.   Before all food disappeared from the stores, before "kartoshka" started tasting like sawdust it was rumored to be the delicate indulgence made with good cocoa, brandy and real whipped butter.  If done right it has the perfect balance of sweetness, booze and chocolate.  And if the taste is hard enough to get right, the texture is even harder.... It is supposed to be perfect... Whatever that means.
No one in my generation knows what it supposed to taste or feel like.  We taste the dozens of varieties offered by every Russian bakery and can only agree that even the good tasting ones are not exactly "IT".  Even my mother's generation didn't quite know.  But i remember she tried to re- create it using my grandmothers taste buds memory as her guide.  I was very young so I don't remember the process or the taste but I do have her scribbled notes and her pastry books so at least something to go on.  I am not sure how I will know if I succeed but certainly a few tasters can be found around here.  And if I do succeed, generations of my family will benefit from this resurrected vintage recipe.
"Kartoshka" is not a baked desert, the pastries are rolled and then refrigerated to set up. And you have to start with a staple of Soviet desert products - dry vanilla bread. 
If you live in a 50 mile radius of a Russian grocery I suggest you go buy some, it is worth the trip, because the process of making vanilla bread and then drying it just to crumble it into breadcrumbs is probably not worth any desert, no matter how heavenly.  The best substitute for the vanilla bread crumbs is store bought angel food cake (try to find one that is not too sweet), slice it thinly and dry it in a 300F oven for about 20 min.  Than zap it in the food processor to make the crumbs.
Secondly you will need good cocoa powder and chocolate.  And most importantly booze.  Kartoshka  can be made with brandy or cognac but I didn’t have any so I used a combination of bourbon and very good dark rum.
 This recipe will make about 15 golf size pasties.


2.5 cups of vanilla bread or dried angel food cake crumbs

1/3 cup walnuts zapped in the food processor so they are as fine as the bread crumbs

2.5 tbs of good cocoa powder ( not Dutched) + more for dusting

1 cup half and half

4 oz of butter

1 cup brown sugar

Pinch of salt

½ cup semi-sweet or bitter-sweet (or mix) chocolate chips or baking chocolate

¼ cup of sweetened condensed milk

2 tbs burbon

1/3 cup dark rum

In a sauce pan combine half-and-half, brown sugar and salt and heat until sugar just dissolves.  Add the butter and melt over the low heat.  When butter if fully melted, stir in the chocolate and whisk until it is fully melted.  Take off the heat and let cool slightly.  Stir in the condensed milk.

Combine the bread crumbs, nuts and cocoa powder in the food processor and pulse a few times so that the mixture is even. 

Place the mixture in a large bowl. 

Add liquor to the half-and-half / chocolate mixture, stir well.  Slowly pour about half of the liquid over the breadcrumb mixture and stir until just incorporated.  

Add the rest of the mixture in small dozes until your batter is very soft but can still be shaped into a ball and hold its shape. Form small, golf size balls with your hands and place them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment.  
Cover with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours but better overnight.  When ready to serve dust with a little cocoa powder and bring to room temperature.

I think I might just go on a vintage recipe quest, those long forgotten Russian books look mighty interesting all of a sudden….