Thursday, 31 December 2009

'As the hedgehog and a bear cub met New Year' eve'

And a little gift from me - an old Russian cartoon on a 'proper' way to meet a new year! Shockingly unusual for me, it's not related to food, however note the yumis on the tables - no getting away from it all!

(No subtitles, but the language of cute little bears, Christmas trees and friendship is universal!)

S nastupayushim!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

More parsnip New Year treats

Amongst all the post-Christmas wilderness (partying, snowing and otherwise), here's a little bit of curiosity to amuse you.

My cockle-warming Parsnip and Parmezan soup has been a hit with a number of friends, and so whilst looking for another parsnip inspiring idea, I came across Elizabeth David's collection of Christmas recipes. One of them particularly caught my eye...

Pastenak and cress soupOr parsnip and cress soup - pastenak, according to David, is the medieval English word for parsnip , a corruption of the Latin word pastinaca. Now, the association I mentioned in my earlier soup post between the Russian word for parsnip - pasternak - and the famous Nobel-prize winner (yes, yes, Dr Zivago) doesn't seem all that laughable!

Did I completely confuse you? What I'm trying to say very pre New Year's Eve inarticulately, is that I just loved the feeling of discovering this little, unimportant linguistic link, which kind of felt fitting. In Italian the word is pastinache, in French panais - what is parsnip in your language??:):)
Back to the soup though...

To make the pastenak and cress soup you follow the same recipe as for my parsnip and parmezan soup, but omit the cheese and add a couple of handfuls of cress at the end, which makes the dish a whole lotta lighter and fresher. To me, this is a spring recipe really, so here's something that will work very nicely as your New Year's even starter - very a la Russe;)

Egg mayonnaise with parsnip cream
(taken from E. David's 'Christmas' edited by Jill Norman)

500 g parsnips, peeled or well scrubbed
3-4 tbsp of home-made mayonnaise (it needs to be rather acidic, so don't be shrewd with your lemon)
4-6 hard-boiled, organic, eggs

1. Chop parsnips into big chunks, bring to boil, simmer until cooked (some 20 mins), then puree and season with salt and plenty of pepper
2. Stir in your mayo, spread on a fanciful dish (I'd say a Soviet kitsch of a crystal dish in shape of a egg or a fish will work well here)
3. Cup eggs in half and arrange on top of the parsnip puree
4. Scatter shopped parsley

Nemirov honey coloured pepper vodka will work wonders here - match by taste, match by colour!

Thank you all my dear readers for a wonderfully food-laden year!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The King of all salads - the majestic Olivier

Whilst the whole of the Great British Island is coming to a hault under an inch of snow, the ingenious population is resorting to warming stews and increasingly intoxicating pints. Russians - local and otherwise - drink vodka (clichés are so necessary and so sexy) and eat fat-laden cubes of potatoes, meat and veg.

The Olivier salad - the glorious and (in?) famous Russian potato salad, created by a French chef in the tsarist Russia, and then eaten en messe by the 1/6 of the planet for the next century, is now consumed throughout the world, in different shapes and versions. When the winter comes with its culmination at the New Year's eve, Russians of all shapes and sizes think 'potato', 'mayonnaise', 'cubes' and start chopping. Here's the story of the little, but not that humble, Potato salad.

The significance of chopping at New Year's Eve

Chopping is precisely what I got to doing with my Russian champs the other night. No matter how many years we have spent away from the Mother Russia, end of December will always mean one thing and one thing only - New Year's Eve and Olivier. NYE in Russia is a curious combination of Western Christmas family traditions (kids and old are all there) and the debauchery of NYE partying proper (drink, drink, drink). Why this day, and night, got alleviated to such a level is easy to explain - the big USSR did not want to celebrate Christmas (25 Dec or 6 Jan as per Russian Orthodox calender) for the obvious, atheist reasons, but people still had that ingrained, pagan need to mark the winter solstice, fight off the dark ghosts of winter and hope for the future. Now Russia is free to celebrate whatever it likes, but 31 December is still the biggest and the most awaited day of the year. Olivier and its potatoes are the heroes of the night.

Why potato? Why salad?

Well, the significance of tightly chopped vegetables for the Russian physic would certainly be an interesting one to explore for my next Phd in psychiatry:), but for now let's just say the good old Peter the Great did well back in 17the century by bringing the scraggy tuber to Russia from his explorations in the Netherlands (being clean-shaven and eating potatoes became somewhat the thing a la mode). Now Russia is the biggest producer of potatoes in the world (after China, surprise?) and each Ruski is consuming nearly 150 kg of potatoes a year (are you dividing the figure by 52?!).

And let's not forget that some of the best vodka is made out of potatoes.

The link to the Dutch is not accidental - Van Gogh, with his ears still intact, drew this scaringly beautifully and ugly painting called 'The Potato Eaters'.

Incredible to think that just a century after Peter's travels, potato had already become the vegetable associated with the most trivial, dumb and belly-filling. I love the way their faces look like the bulbous potatoes themselves, hands are knobbly, rough; they are the off-spring of the tuber, all looking the same, no gender, spark or wit. Potato was not the piece de resistance of the most forward any longer...

What about the Salad??

About the same time when Van Gogh was vaxing less than lyrically about the potato, a French chef called Lucien Olivier (a seriously flirtatious type, according to some) was re-inventing it in The Hermitage, one of Moscow's most celebrated restaurants. The original salad was rather different from the contemporary version and included amongst other ingredients hazel-grouse, veal tongue, caviar, capers and mayonnaise Provençal - a heady sauce of yolks and olive oil that the young Lucien had brought from his home-land.The legend has it that one of his understudies had stolen the recipe for the sauce and started making a version of the salad in another Moscow restaurant, naming the concossion 'Stolichnyj salad', or The Capital Salad' (the name still widely found in all sorts of Russian eateries). Over time, the salad had gone through the inevitable bourgeoisition(such a word?) process and is now using either chicken or ham or even frankfurter type sausage, tinned peas, boiled carrot and eggs, mayo out of the tub and, of course, boiled potatoes. Here's my version - a slightly trendified Olivier one might say:)

Olivier Salad

Remember - you can put anything into this salad, in whatever quantities, as long as you have:

1. potatoes, some kind of meat and mayonnaise
2. potatoes should be about twice the weight of the rest of the ingredients

You'll need:

1 small chicken (organic is preferable of course, but free-range is a must) plus a quartered onion, a halfed carrot, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns
4 v. large potatoes
2 medium carrots
2 eggs
a handful of peas, frozen
2 tbsp capers
1 tart apple
salted cucumbers (marinated will do too, but too sweet for my liking; go for the Israeli type - if concious permits - the ones on sale in Sainsburys have the right salty tang). NB: keep the brine.
1 onion

about 350ml of mayonnaise - home-made is less 'authentic', but makes a lot of difference. you'll need:

2 (organic..) yolks
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 Dijon mustard
1 tbp white wine vinegar or lemon juice
225 ml vegetable oil

I use Darina Allen's recipe for making my mayo.

You will need to start making the salad at least on the eve of your feast.

1. Put your chicken whole into a big saucepan, cover with cold water, add your stock veg, bring to the boil, and then simmer until fully cooked, for at least an hour. do not dare to throw out your stock - use it to make beautiful borsch.

2. Put washed but unpeeled potatoes into a saucepan and boil until fully cooked. Some 10 mins before they are cooked (when the knife is getting through the flesh with some difficulty still) add the carrots to boil.

3. Whilst potatoes are preparing themselves, boil your eggs until fully cooked, but not blue, 7-8 mins. Briefly cook your peas.

4. Leave everything to cool completely, perhaps until the following morning.

5. Peel the veg above, as well as your onion and an apple. Shred your chicken of the bones, discarding skin (although I eat it with crystals of salt).

6. Get chopping. I like it small, really small - the size of my small fingernail - but others prefer it big and chunky. Everything goes into one big bowl. Mix gently and season lightly.

7. Make your mayonnaise or just unscrew your jar. and now is the most important thing - start adding half of your mayonnaise and then a few spoons at a time and taste, taste and taste. Add more mayonnaise, more cucumbers, capers, onions - whatever you think is missing. Olivier is like a good Asian dish, it has layers of flavours: tart, pickled, salty, sweet, all married by the powerful mayonnaise. Who said Russian food was boring and one-dimensional?

8. Remember you left behind some brine from your cucumbers? add a bit to your mix, perhaps 2-3 tbp. it adds that je ne c'est quoa.

9. Sprinkle with dill if desired and eat in big gulps with chunks of good and sweet Russian rye bread.

Na zdorovye and s novym godom!

p.s. a short of lip-numbingly cold vodka - potato or otherwise - is very satisfying with Olivier.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A mediaval chelly

Do you know what these brown creatures are?

These are medlars - plum-size, apple-like fruits that originated in Asia (and possibly South-Eastern Europe) that used to be very common on the tables of English royalty in the medieval times, but have almost disappeared since then and are virtually unknown to the great British public. Well, I was exquisitely pleased to discover these rare fruits at the Stoke Newington market last Saturday - I happened to know of the mysterious medlar from my visit to the National Collection of apples, pears and...medlars a few weeks back. I bought some, I cooked some and here I'm passing on the wisdom:)

The lovely lady selling medlars at the market grow lots of little known apples in her farm in Essex. She also makes cute bottles of jams and preserves and, occasionally, some medlar cheese (essentially, a paste, akin to Spanish Membrillo), but that day she didn't have any for sale, so I bought a bag of medlars with an intention to try and make some myself.

Medlars need to be bletted - that is, to be half-rotten, or soften by frost and/or long-ish rest - before cooking. I bought them already in that lovely, gooey state and proceeded to making a dish that is something in between a jelly and cheese:

Medlar jesse or chelly (do pass on the new word!):

You will only need caster sugar, lemon juice and some spicing in addition to your medlars.

How to:

Put medlars, as they are, no need to peel or clean, in a saucepan; cover with an inch of water or so; bring to the boil and simmer until they become soft and almost fall apart (some 10 minutes or so). You may need to add a bit more water if it evaporates too quickly.

Plonk this medlar porridge into a sieve (or ideally a jelly bag, which I don't have) and let the liquid to come out, by pressing gently on the cooked medlars. You will end up with dark-brown silky puree.

Weight the puree, and measure the same amount of water. Put both into a saucepan with a pitch of allsprice, cinnamon, clove - really, whatever spices you like (I'm thinking adding some liqueur or brandy might be nice, like Estonian Vana Tallinn...) and sugar (about 1/4 of sugar to the original weight of your medlars) and a couple of table spoons of lemon juice.

Simmer until set (about 5-10 minutes, but you may want to try the official method of checking whether your jelly is set by putting a little of it onto a chilled plate, let it rest for a minute and then move up the mixture with a spoon along the place surface - if it wrinkles, it's set - but to be honest, I didn't really bother).

Pour the mixture into a jar or a nice bowl and let it cool. The result smells like Christmas itself, and the combination of the tart and sweet flavours, and the grainy and honey-like texture is quite special.

The chelly can be sliced into thin wedges and eaten beautifully with some tart cheese and sourdough bread, or - like here - with spelt biscuits.

p.s. and for my Russian-speaking audience, medlar is mushmula germanskaya, apparently. anyone has ever heard of it back in the USSR??

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Shrooms number 2 - Stoke Newington organic farmers market

Over the next week or so I'll be writing about the hero of the North London markets - Stoke Newington's farmers' market run by the remarkable community project 'Growing communities' . This is the only fully organic market in the country, which takes place every Sunday on the territory of William Patten school, on Stoke Newington Church street. Whether you 'believe' in organics on not, the fact that the organisers have managed to set up such a successful market whilst keeping to their rather strict requirements is something to take your hat off to. However, more on that later, and for now let's start our little tour with...Mushrooms.

Yes, after my first glorious attempt at shroom picking a few weeks back, I was ecstatic to encounter some of the same creatures at the market this Saturday.

The stall's name - 'Gourmet mushrooms' - doesn't really describe this modest little stall and its bear-like owner with a Tolstoy-esque beard and thick wintery coat. Let's just say I felt at home, back in my childhood, a fairytale feeling of being a little girl in a big, but wise and kind forest of birches, deep blankets of snow and perhaps even a hut on chicken feet not far away (oh, the surrealism of Russian fairytales)...

Doesn't matter that my own urban childhood was only partly like this, I happily got chatted to the fungi-king. the stall has a selection of cultivated (oyster, champignon) mushrooms and some wild varieties - a tiny bag of which set me back £2.50, but I felt the price was fair, I had a bag of magic forestness with me, the last breath of autumn before the winter closes in...

And this is my little treasure collection (from the left): wood ears (they do look exactly like little leathery pig ears! soak them for some 5 minutes before slicing finely for frying), deceivers - brittle and delicate and deceptively delicious, and blewits - apparently they are in a particular abundance 'once the leaves fall down'...

Voila! he result - a super quick and easy lunch - Wild mushrooms with sage and sourcream.

How to prepare:

- wipe your mushroom clean gently
- half if necessary (I like mine chunky)
- slice an onion and a bit of garlic
- fry the lot quickly in a bit of olive oil and butter
- add a few sage leaves and couple of table spoons of sourcream and perhaps some mustard
- toast a slice of sourdough and devour with a salad leave or two

Tip: melt some 'stinky' cheese on top of your sandwich. Arrigoni's Taleggio is sensational with wild mushrooms!

Friday, 4 December 2009

On warming those cockles

What a girl is to do when it is cold and wintery outside, when Christmas fever hasn't quite caught on yet and when her other, all important other half is away...

a soul-warming soup of course.

JC has left for the whole of December (a lucky thing will travel around Singapore and Thailand, but at least we will benefit from some lovely reportage from some bustling Asian food markets). And so I got to cooking - what else; a sweet and toothsome Parsnip and Parmezan soup.

You'll need:

a couple of large parsnips*
olive oil
Parmezan, grated
about 1.5 litres of stock, vegetable or chicken
Dukka (Middle-Eastern earthy spice of stone-ground wheat, sesame and other spice, can be bought from Arabica Food and Spice)

to garnish: parsley, good chunks of white bread and crispy bacon

roast the parsnip in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, sprinkle with Parmezan, and roast for another 5 minutes

transfer the vegetables into a saucepan, cover with hot stock, add a little salt and simmer for about 20-30 minutes

liquidise, sprinkle with dukka, parsley and bacon and serve in warmed bowls with cockle-warming chunks of bread.

I squeezed my eyes and imagined my dear JC in warm and humid urban forests of
Singapore - I hope the thought will warm his cockles too.

* did you know that a parsnip in Russian is pasternak, yes, that very author who gave us the drama of Dr Zivago? what an image I know:)