24 December 2008

Happy Holidays!

When I was in school, I had a math teacher who cordially believed that to make a biscuit batter you need three ingredients - bread, butter and sugar. It takes all sorts to make a world. What a fun.

With that, My Dear Friends, may you know your cakes and other lip-smacking creations, and have peace and happiness in come 2009.

Happy Holidays to you!

18 December 2008

Curious things

I’ve always wanted to write up a post sitting cross-legged on the floor of the airport.

It’s an early morning now. I am at the Amsterdam airport, Schiphol. Sitting on the floor. Cross-legged. Enjoying my breakfast. Typing up this post. (I’ll tell you what - it feels good, much better than I imagined!)

As it happens, I have just checked in and have another hour to spare before my plane to Russia takes off. Also, I have bought cheese(s) at the Duty Free Shop, ogled chocolates (I was tempted to buy a few, but then the ratio of chocolate versus clothes contents of my luggage is already 70:30 by the moment, hence I did not – hard times, no less), sprayed numerous perfumes on my both wrists, both forearms and even cheeks (for lack of more wrists and forearms): in short, I am good at managing my time like this, don’t you know.

By the way, you don’t think I mentioned my breakfast for no reason, do you? Good, because there are indeed a few serious reasons: a) I am having braised Savoy cabbage for breakfast (!) on the floors of the airport in Amsterdam (just for a record, usually my morning meals have more or less continental aspect about them), and b) this is the best braised Savoy cabbage I have ever had (on the floors of one of the largest airports in Europe, come to think of it).

I like to believe you tend to read these rambles of mine in order of their appearance. Yes? If not (sigh), then let me gently (re)acquaint you with this fact: I have a certain kind of affinity to cabbage. (You would have too, if it was the only vegetable – besides carrots, potatoes and beetroots – you were exposed to in your childhood, at cold winter times.)

Now, where was I? Ah yes, until recently though, I specialised in white cabbage mostly. The sort of Savoy was a grey ‘cabbage’ area for me. As I was busily eating my way through all the perishables before grabbing my luggage and going to visit my family, I somehow left a head of Savoy cabbage forlorn (I am rather foggy as to why I let this happen in the first place). Not wasting more time, I successfully utilised the dying vegetable with an assembly of rather different, but working well together, spices: East meets West, if you like. Now I am bound to think this is the best version of any braised/stewed cabbage I had come up with before in my kitchen in all my born days.

Braised Savoy cabbage: fusion

Yields 4-6 servings

1 medium head Savoy cabbage, quartered, cored and finely shredded

1 can peeled whole organic tomatoes

1 small dried red chilli, crushed

1 Tsp black mustard seeds

2 (smoked) garlic cloves, crushed

1 tsp turmeric powder

a large pinch of salt

2 Tsp olive oil

In a large non-stick saute pan (I used wok), heat the oil and add the mustard seeds , crushed chili pepper (flakes) and crushed garlic – make sure, you wear kitchen gloves before crushing the chili, otherwise, you might as well learn how it feels to be torched .

Fry the spices for about 30 seconds, or until the mustard seeds start to pop up.

Add the cabbage and turmeric powder, stir well. Sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is wilted.

After that, add diced tomatoes (with juices from a can), season with salt and stir well. Bring heat to medium-low and braise the cabbage uncovered for about 25-30 mins. At this point I also added a few small sprigs of thyme (for even deeper flavours). At the end, the cabbage should be tender but not mushy. You may want to garnish it with finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, just to add more colour to the reddish from the tomatoes and yellow from the turmeric. The colour parade, in other words!

So on the floor (still at the airport) I am sitting now, finishing up this curious breakfast.

That said, something makes me aware that all this crazy cabbage talking isn’t exactly what you would like to hear. Indeed, who in their right state of mind is preposterously praising cabbage NOW, at this time of year? It is just possible that this may occasion the startled look and what not. To avoid such a frost, I’ll tell you about oliebollen (a.k.a.oil balls in English). So if you are still with me on this, please hear me out.

'Sweet '

'Oliebollen’ remind me of Russian ‘ponchiki’ (pronounced pon-chi-ki or pon-chik ,if singular). Both are the roundel of dough (made of flour, eggs, milk, yeast, salt, baking powder and optional sweeteners such as raisins, currants, finely diced dried apricots etc), deep-fried in oil and sugar-coated (powder-sugar-coated, to be entirely correct).

In Amsterdam, street oliebollen vendors galore lure you into getting your hands, face, clothes pleasantly greasy. Honestly, you do not want their oliebollen, produced in large quantities without much care and passion. What you really want is oliebollen from Lanskroon, one of a few truly dutch bakeries in the city of many peoples, in the city of Amsterdam.

These fine oliebollen - crisp from the outside, with soft chewy and pleasantly yeasty interior, speckled/freckled with bits of walnuts and raisins, and seasoned with a curious spice I could not yet identify - brought back into my mind moments long-forgotten. When my grandmother made her ponchiki (Russian oil balls of sorts; for reference please see a paragraph above), she always carefree left them rest piled on a large plate, uncovered. Never would she remember that her granddaughter (me) would always sneakingly lick sugar powder off every single ball leaving them ‘glossy bald’.

Those were my memories as I was standing at the counter trying to quickly decide how many I wanted to buy. I bought a bagful.

So Folks, that’s the catch: first, you eat the cabbage. Then you go to town on desserts. And if you excuse me, I’ll finish off for now. Because I have only a few minutes left before boarding and I want to use this time reasonably – I intend to finish up that small(ish) bag of oliebollen before I get on board. I’ve got a long day ahead. I need to fortify myself.

Lanskroon (dutch bakery, plus ice-room - in summer)
Singel 385


14 December 2008

A very non-fictional story

Hello Friends!
I am sorry I don't want to bore you, but jinx discussion is on today's agenda (with a bonus, in the end). To minimize your feeling unease and so, here is my promise: I’ll keep it short - I’ll have a dash.

There are many different types of jinx. The NON-fictional story that follows is one of such.

Let’s start by saying you are invited for a party, or rather a pot luck dinner with friends. Your expected contribution is an assortment of bite-sized pastries: canales, macarons, rocher coco’s. What’s more, you want to look charming, even foxy. However, your intentions are ethereal illusions - that much unworldly, in other words. Because when you leave a bakery with a small box of grand treasure in your hands, you do a slightly unwise thing. Namely, you let your feet slide sideways and next think you know is that you are on the ground: bottom up, face down – so un-foxy. What’s even worse, you ruined your desserts: unforgiveable. A jinx.
You pull yourself – I mean literally – together and nonchalantly come back to the bakery which you left just a few minutes ago, if at that. You order the same assortment of pastries and avoid any eye contact with the bakers at the moment, who restrain themselves from asking you, ‘Gluttony: revisited?’ Oh, never mind.

Very consciously you walk back home to change. You still want to look charmingly foxy.

Finally, you set out – again, make a few more steps and feel how something with a ‘schlep’ sound gracefully lands on your head, that is, a black beret you are wearing. A large bird’s solid matter. A very big jinx.

At this point in the proceedings you are done. You call up your friends and say you are not joining them because you feel somewhat shitty, which is decidedly true.

As a new day arrives, you are hopeful and optimistic again. Bottomless optimism notwithstanding, a thick, grey cloud will appear on a horizon quite soon though: later upon the morning you will learn that your bicycle has been stolen, your ‘Harley’ of sorts. (Digression: at times when I happen to own a bicycle I always call it ‘my Harley’).

Now, you are tempted to be hateful. But after a quick consideration you change your mind: somebody is already so steeped to gills in their own bullshit that there is no point for you to add up to the collective misery, what with your ‘hateful-ness’. Instead, you say ‘jinx, jinx, jinx’ and let go.

Fine. Although hateful I wasn’t, I got upset nonetheless, almost whiney: I let my mind brood over those good times we had, my bicycle and me. For that reason – being near-hateful and heavily upset, I also became slightly devilish in my kitchen: I made a cranberry chutney with white wine vinegar and orange rind. Plus, I had it with salmon. And that’s the story: that’s the tears and then the pleasure.

A few words on cranberries. I know I only recently praised cranberries and such; you certainly have all the rights to raise your eyebrows and say, ‘Again?, with a high-pitched voice and all. But what else would you do if you still had a bag of fresh cranberries in your fridge (even after you made this and loved it!) and a trip off to Russia come Friday? (I am going to visit my parents and other family for Christmas, New Year’s, and again Christmas, Orthodox style, which is Russian too.)

Now would you please be so kind to listen? Please. White wine (red, too) vinegar knows a thing about cranberries, I reckon, because they are so good together (not to mention the colour, the deep ruby red!). ‘He’ is acid, ‘she’ is sour and astringent: a good match, especially if tended to by orange rind, cane sugar and a splash of lemon juice, for good measure. Normally I would never think of adding vinegar to cranberries, but I was upset and all that (ruined pastries first; then there was a bird, and a bicycle stolen, to crown it all), you understand. The final product, however, makes me truly chuffed. Very much so.

Cranberry chutney with white wine vinegar and orange

You’ll need:

3 cups fresh cranberries
2 cups water
juice of ½ lemon
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 Tsp white (or red) wine vinegar
orange rind or zest (from ½ orange)

What you do is basically you mix everything up (this is when you are upset), bring to a boil and immediately turn to a simmer for 30 mins or until desired consistency.
Although, a sort of an order in which the ingredients march into a saucepan shall not do your chutney any harm. That is, first, in a medium cast-iron saucepan, you dissolve sugar and lemon juice in water, add cranberries and bring the mixture to a boil.
Next: you turn the heat low, add the vinegar and orange rind (now, as I think of it, zest will be just fine, too), and allow it to simmer (uncovered) for 30 mins or so. (As vinegar evaporates, it might be a bit of an attack to the cook’s nose, what with slightly acid fumes and such. However, it passes quickly giving a way to a very interesting combination of flavours.)

As with any other chutneys, this one can also be served with sweet or savoury dishes. Like I said I served it with salmon (the fish took up to it as much as I did!). (And am obviously going to enjoy it on a piece of brioche, in yogurt, with cheese on days to come - the recipe yielded a good 2 cups cranberry chutney, that is why).

1 December 2008


My latter-day habit is this: I splurge and binge. Not to worry. I splurge on spinach (and I talk kilos of spinach here); I binge on that same spinach. What else you want to know, Dear Reader?

All right, I used to binge on apples – massively. But then it occurred to me, for no particular reason, it was not so fashionable any longer, so I switched.

In other words, it dawned on me I am pretty much imperfect. What’s more, I kind of like it. Strongly.

To go on, every so often I talk to…myself. My friend Vijay says this is fine; it is just one of the ways, he goes on, I express my creativity (stifled in my childhood). But then Vijay studies philosophy and can rationalize almost anything; and his is my good friend, so I’m not sure he is purely objective.

I like to call myself a simpleton, although I am not. Ok, I heard you: I think I am not. And in the moments of enlightenment, when, with a start, I realize that my dear mind has run rampant and dares repeatedly flail my innocent nature with all those witty rotten remarks, I gently ask my mind to stop doing it and then call myself quite simply – dear genius.

My saucepans are a way too more expensive than my shoes. Mostly.

I start my days with what’s- for-breakfast thought, and round them off with that same thought, too (‘what’s for breakfast tomorrow?’). In between, my major point of focus is – what’s for lunch and then, for dinner. And I really, really like it. Very much.

I also digress when I talk. Just like now.

So let me gently bring your attention back to spinach. Since I re-visited the virtues of this sort of green vegetation lately, I’m having a difficulty to pay my attention to anything else but spinach: its nuttiness, its lushness, its meatiness, its deep taste, its natural creaminess.

In addition, I can’t help but smiling a Cheshire-cat smile about how the greenness of the spinach goes well with all things orange: from my orange colander to fresh, tart, fragrant mandarin oranges.

Now, Dear Reader let me take you – for a brief moment - to the country which does not exist anymore in real but only in people’s memories (and in state archives), the USSR. What with then governmental restrictions on imported goods, and – ahem – foods, we the USSR-ians ate locally and seasonally indeed. As I was growing up, citrus fruits – namely, mandarins galore – found themselves on my plate, or rather directly in my mouth mostly toward the new year’s holiday season: sometime around mid-December. It was this time of year when market stalls moaned under heavy boxes filled to the brims with mandarins. Tart, fragrant, soaked with the sun of neighbouring Georgia, unwilling to quickly yield to occasional pokes by impatient children (me), they were the tokens of approaching holidays. When my mother brought those boisterous orange fruits from the market, I knew it’d come time to be looking forward to more treats and to numerous presents, no less. The mandarin fragrance and the aroma of a pine tree, these were (and always will be) the quintessentials of holidays season to me.

So, when a few days back I spotted plump, voluptuous, boastful mandarins (still bearing green leaves on their tops) at the market, I was so on a ballpark. Those Proustian flashbacks, no less.

Spinach salad with cranberries and mandarins

The salad is that easy to make. It is essential that you use fresh organic ingredients; otherwise you’ll find yourself saying meh continuously.

Serves 2 (this is, of course, ideally).

For the salad:

200gr fresh green spinach
a generous handful fresh cranberries
2 mandarins (oranges, or a combination of both, will do too)
Pine nuts for decoration

For the dressing:

1 Tsp lemon juice (you can use white wine vinegar instead)
3 Tsp extra-virgin olive oil
a small pinch of fine cane sugar
a small pinch of sea salt
1/8 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
1 tsp mandarin (orange) zest

This is what you do:
Wash, drain and stem the spinach leaves; cut them into rather thick strips.

Wash mandarins; grate mandarin zest; peel and divide them in segments. Pick out any white pith.

Cut cranberries in halves.

Arrange the spinach, mandarins and cranberries on two salad plates (or, as I did, on one), sprinkle the pine nuts over and pour the dressing on top.

This is how you make dressing:

In a small bowl, dissolve salt and sugar in lemon juice. Taste and adjust, if needed. Salt and acid substances have such harmonious relationship in which the former (salt) brings the latter (lemon juice, vinegar) into a balance. Add the fresh-ground pepper.

Using a fork or small whisk, beat in olive oil (a little at a time).

Stir the mandarin zest into the finished mixture.

(You may want to add 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard before you start adding the olive oil)

I also think fresh-ground coriander will add interesting notes to the overall flavor combination.

In fact, this salad is a testimony to autumn and the gifts it bestows upon us: cranberries, spinach, mandarins – each contribute to the zestiness of the other.

P.S. My Gentle Reader, as I was writing this post, Vijay – my friend the philosopher – gave me a call and told me about something that made me clutch my head in despair. I think I shall better stop binge-ing at all. And you know, just in case, I really hope you will hear from me soon again.