Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Russia With Love

My family on my father's side is half-Russian. Specifically we are from Belarus, and interestingly, when Michael met a few Russian people when we were living in Boston and told them my last name/maiden name (for those who don't know, it's Cherepon), they immediately knew Belarus! I find that fascinating, because if someone in the US says their last name is Smith, we wouldn't know that all Smiths live in Texas. So I was really fascinated by this.

Anyway, I'm pretty good with Eastern European and Russian cooking. Every year, my sister and I put on a big feast in January and do a lot of traditional cooking. I could certainly have counted that towards 80 Plates, but I felt like doing something from my family's countries of origin that I hadn't done before. Recently, the Fredericksburg Library had its semi-annual book sale and I went to the preview show and found a Russian cookbook. Inside was a recipe for beef stroganov and I decided that's what I'd make.

But wait a minute, those of you who have attended may ask. Haven't I eaten beef stroganov at your house before? Why yes you have, my fine friends, but you've eaten it the way my mom taught me to make it, which is quick, easy, and fool proof! To make that beef stroganov, all you do is add one pound of stew beef, one envelope of onion soup mix, and one can of cream of mushroom soup to your slow cooker and let it cook all day. It's quick, easy, and yummy, but not what I'd call "authentic".

According to my cookbook:

Created in the late 19th Century for a Russian count, "bef Stroganov" has become one of the world's most famous dishes. The recipe that follows is the classic Russian version. The numerous European and American variations called beef Stroganov do not in any sense reproduce the dish as it was originally made.

So there.

I gathered up my ingredients and you can see the fairly dismal looking picture in the cookbook in my ingredient picture. This cookbook was published in 1969 and has not exactly aged to perfection. Looking through it, I had to laugh at the photo of a Ukranian family sitting down to have their Easter breakfast, with two bottles of vodka on the table right in front of the kids' places at the table. Hilarious. Anyway, the only thing I did that varied from the directions was to buy the beef already cut into strips by the good people at Wegman's. I didn't want to stand around slicing beef all day.

To start, you combine dry mustard, sugar, salt, and just a dash of hot water to make a paste. I added about a tablespoon of hot water and wound up with more of a slurry than a paste. So my guess is that maybe even a teaspoon or water would do the trick.

Then it was time to slice up some onions. I needed four cups, which is about four onions' worth. I love this picture of the onion slices stacked in my grandma's measuring cup. The onions are very strong indeed, but I once read in the Old Farmer's Almanac that if you slice onions while keeping a piece of bread in your mouth, you won't cry, and I swear to God it works. At least for me. So there's your tip of the day.

As you can see, I bought the mushrooms pre-sliced, one pound of them. It would have been cheaper to buy the mushrooms in bulk and slice them myself, but I was feeling lazy so I let someone else do the work.

Now the first real part of the cooking made me nervous--you place some oil in a pan, turn the heat on high, and let the oil sit in there till it starts to smoke. Um, no thanks. I let it get good and hot till it was kind of running around the pan and kicking up bubbles, but I didn't wait to see smoke before I threw the mushrooms and onions in there. Then all you do is reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and stir the veggies around from time to time for the next 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, it was time to cook the beef. You cook it in two batches, since you use two pounds. This time the directions say to let the oil get hot but not smoke. Well, I just let it get to the same temperature as before with the onions and mushrooms and then threw in the beef. It got kind of bubbly and funny looking, but I guess that's what was supposed to happen! It cooked up just fine and then I got to add it to the mushrooms and onions, which I had drained off and returned to their happy pan.

From there on, it's pretty basic. You add in the mustard paste and some salt and pepper. Unfortunately, this did not photograph real well, but you can sort of see it there?

And then you add a dollop of sour cream at a time, mix it in, and wait for it to make a nice kind of sauce. I used fat free sour cream, and I do think the sauce might have been a bit thicker had I used regular, but I was willing to sacrifice a heavier gravy for a healthier option.

And then it was time to eat! I had mine over egg noodles and Mike had his with mashed potatoes (I had to pick the beef out of the mushrooms and onions for him!). I also had a nice side of steamed veggies and he did not.


I love making beef stroganov the quick and easy way, but man was it good to eat it the traditional way as well! Apparently it is traditional to serve it with crisp potato straws over the top of it, but I liked it our way just fine and dandy.

And I have to say, as I was making it, I was thinking it was one of the easier dishes I have made as part of this experiment. There were very few dishes created, unlike the usual sinkful of dishes I usually have to do, and since I was able to buy a couple ingredients pre-prepped, it made it even faster!

I really enjoyed this taste of the motherland. Yum! Maybe someday I'll eat it at the Kremlin with other heads of state. haha

At War With Our Bellies

So I finally have a few minutes to blog about our culinary journey in the Mediterranean. I had been in the mood for Greek food for a while, so I decided to go for it one day. I knew my sister would be over and that she digs cucumbers, so I knew she'd help me eat up tzatziki sauce. I am attempting to make peace with the cucumber, but it is one of my least favorite vegetables. I'm getting there though. From that came our menu of souvlaki and tzatziki from Greece. Then I decided if I was going to do that, I might as well add Turkey to the mix. Greece and Turkey have a long history of disagreements (the granddaddy of all international conflicts some might say), and it turned out that we were all kind of grumpy with each other as a family that day, so I enjoyed the cooking as it matched the mood of the household. I scanned my copy of "The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook" and found a recipe for zucchini patties in the Turkish cooking section and voila! A menu was created.

I started out with the tzatziki since I felt it should all kind of blend a while. I used a combination of recipes from the Mediterranean cookbook and the Food Network. It seems all tzatziki recipes are more or less the same--cucumber, yogurt, garlic, mint, lemon juice, and some use sour cream and some don't. I went ahead and used fat free sour cream to try and make it a tad healthier. I apologize that the cucumber is missing from the ingredient picture! I started grating it before thinking that I needed to photograph it.

So step one is to grate a seedless (English) cucumber. You can usually find these in the produce section wrapped in plastic, as opposed to 'regular' cucumbers that are just out in their skins. Why is this? I wondered that myself. "Regular" cucumbers are waxed to retain moisture and prevent rotting. English cucumbers are shrink wrapped. Why? I don't know. That's just how it is. Anyway, I grated it and I have to say, this is one of my favorite 80 plates pictures just because I like how green it is.

Then I added some salt and let those suckers drain into the sink.

Meanwhile, I measured out 1 cup each of Greek yogurt and sour cream. Greek yogurt is thicker than "regular" yogurt. If you can't find it, you can use the equivalent amount of plain yogurt. Put it in a strainer lined with cheesecloth and let the moisture seep out of the yogurt for a while before mixing it up.

Once the yogurt and sour cream were measured out, I added tons of garlic. I used up the last of the minced garlic I had and then minced some fresh garlic, which accounts for the two different colors. Then a little salt and pepper and voila! The base was complete!

All that was left was to put in the cucumbers and let the whole thing sit in the fridge for at least an hour, or longer if desired.

Then it was time to get the chicken marinating. I had decided on souvlaki, which is a dish I never order, as I love eating gyros when we go for Greek food. Alton Brown did an episode of Good Eats where he showed you how to make gyro meat on your grill, but I just felt like trying something new. Plus, only God knows how Vesuvius would handle grilling a big mound of gyro meat. But I digress. The marinade for souvlaki in all the recipes I scanned seems to be pretty much the same ingredients, only the quantities vary. Also, souvlaki is very popular as a pork dish, although we used chicken.

Into the food processor, I put olive oil, lemon juice (was super excited I got to use my new Pampered Chef citrus press for the first time!), thyme, oregano, onion, and garlic and pureed the hell out of it. It comes out as a kind of yellowy whitish looking marinade.

Meanwhile, I was soaking my bamboo skewers in water and I cubed up my chicken. I poured the marinade over the chicken and stuck the bowl in the fridge to sit for a while.

Then it was time to turn my attention to the zucchini patties. One thing that kind of got me about this was that yet again I had to buy a special ingredient (in this case, self rising flour) and used exactly 1/4 cup of it. You can bet I'll be looking for recipes to use it up! I don't really mind buying things like fresh herbs because they don't come by the pound. But it gets my goat to buy jars and bags of things that I need a minute amount of! Oh well :-) Enjoy my money, Gold Medal. You make good flour, I have to hand it to you.

Anyway, to start, you grate both the zucchini and the onion, and then place them in a clean towel and squeeze out as much moisture as you possibly can. I couldn't squeeze and photograph all at the same time, so you'll have to settle for my before and after pictures, which I guess look basically the same!

You will have to take my word for it--A LOT of moisture comes out when you squeeze these through a towel. I was actually quite surprised.

Once that's done, you add salt, pepper, flour, parmesan cheese, mint, parsley, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, and an egg and mix it all up until it becomes a stiff kind of mixture that holds a patty shape. Then I shaped the little patties up and all the food was prepped except for skewering the chicken, which I did pretty quickly!

So I fired up Vesuvius, and at the same time heated up some olive oil to fry the zucchini patties in. I figured the chicken would take longer, but in fact they took about the same amount of time, so I was running in and out between the grill and the electric frying pan to get everything done at roughly the same time.

Then it was time to eat! YUM! Wegmans had some delicious soft pita bread--I really don't like that brand that makes the real dry pitas, so I was thrilled to find soft ones--so we added that and the recipe for the zucchini suggested we serve it with fresh lemon, so I wedged some of that up as well! I also happen to like lettuce and tomato on my gyros and figured it would be good on souvlaki, so I put some of that on the table too. It was quite a feast.

Then it was time to fix up a plate and eat!

How amazing does this look, huh?!

Then Judy decided to take a picture of the family sitting down to eat, with me in it for a change. As I said, none of us was really speaking at this point, and a picture speaks louder than words. She snapped this picture and promptly burst into tears. But now when I look at it, it kind of cracks me up!

So then she told us we HAD to smile, so we all put on our game face and smiled--even Dottie. Leah declined to participate--hahahaha.

Then it was finally time to dig in! The ceremonial first bite picture of the General--you can see that I remembered his mashed potatoes this time! No more rookie mistakes for me, no sir! Now I love Mediterranean food and I love Greek food, and I always thought it would be beyond my capabilities to actually prepare. How pleased I was to be proven wrong. This was a delicious meal that all of us truly enjoyed! We actually thawed our relations and really enjoyed ourselves during the meal--good food is definitely the antidote to rage :-)

We will be eating this again, no doubt in my mind. Try it yourself sometime and see!