29 March 2009

Philosophy, Gertrude Stein, and Fish

Hi My Dear Reader!

Thank you for your get-well wishes to me, for your waiting, for being understanding and patient. You know, just as I was negotiating my stomach-flue and other petty grievances it occurred to me that I had fallen ill for a reason. Namely, I got so agitated lately with fears and doubts and worries and pursuits to get what I still don’t own, that I had forgotten what I already have. So I had to be reminded again what it is all about. I was forced, so to speak, to pause in order to re-appreciate, through pains and all, the simplicity of being well and able to walk, see, smell, hear, touch and talk. This is what really matters. For this I am grateful.

And now, why don’t we feast, humbly? (Apologies for an almost picture-less story: the battery on my photo camera went irreversibly flat!)


Evening, 19pm.

“Hi! Please chop up a medium onion. I’m on my way - will arrive in a few minutes!”

This is how my Indian friend Vijay usually speaks to me over the phone. Really, who needs long greetings, how-are-you’s and other conventional conversation-openers these days?

An hour later I heard a knock on my door.

“Where were you? The chopped onion may well have sprouted up before you have finally come!” I reprimanded Vijay for being so late while he processed further in my kitchenette, and plunked down on the table a carcass of smoked mackerel. You see, the guy has been rather self-assertive as of late. I reckon it’s because he has finally finished his MA in Western philosophy. On a footnote: when asked why he chose to study Western philosophy, Vijay said, ‘I wanted to know the difference between how people think in the Orient and the Occident.’ Globalisation!

Obviously, by now Vijay has accumulated tomes of wisdom that gives him authority to equally drool over Saint Augustine of Hippo and Karl Marx, as well as to create fusion dishes in the kitchen (I especially love this part).

Before I claim my point, let me digress a little. I come from a family where a smoked fish is considered a final, cooked product, that is, you don’t want to cook it further. At least, nobody ever thought of such undertaking in my family. Isn’t smoked fish cooked yet by definition? Apparently, not for Vijay the philosopher! Because this is what he did. He grabbed a heavy-bottomed medium pan out of a kitchen cabinet, and said that he was going to poach the smoked mackerel he had brought. Then he added that did I care to chop another – fresher – onion, I was welcome; if not, he’d prefer I don’t question his authority. Why guys with a completed degree in Western philosophy sound so highbrow?

It was a day when I coined a phrase ‘fish consciousness’. Meaning: be quiet and watch. So watch I did. But after a certain moment though, when a whiff of garam masala combined with a smokiness of the mackerel reached my nose and stirred my senses, I got verbose as hell. I remember I even rose on a chair and announced to the audience (that would be Vijay alone) that a Stein-esque oration is in my plans:

“A fish is a smoked fish is a cooked fish is a fish fish fish fish. Finish cook smoked fish. Hunger I am hungry are you hungry?”

“Are you all right?” my friend looked at me, his brow crinkled.

“Of course, I am. Poached smoked mackerel is all I need.”

“When did you go for a walk last time? You need more oxygen, I think,” Vijay expressed his concerns about my health, stirring the onion.

“Didn’t you like my improvisation a la Gertrude Stein?”

“Hm,” Vijay reached for an empty glass, filled it with water and handed it to me.

“She in fact screwed up the rules and pump her writings full of freedom and oxygen: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. It is so non-sensical that it is beautiful. Your poached smoked fish is non-sensical too.” I got off the chair, lifted a saucepan lid, took a small bite and added, “And absolutely delicious, by the way.”

Smoked mackerel, Indian style

1 medium smoked mackerel
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp garam masala powder
¼ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp garlic powder (or 1 garlic clove, finely chopped)
2 small chillis, crushed
juice of ½ lemon
1 ½ cups water

[Correction: after replicating the recipe on my own, I found that 1/2 cup water (!) will do]
Olive oil for cooking

1. With a sharp knife, divide the fish into equal parts. [Vijay used the mackerel’s tail and head, but I don’t think these parts are really crucial for flavours (after all it’s not a fish stock that we’ll make), unless you want wholesomeness on your plate.]

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, cumin, garam masala, garlic (powder) and chillis. Cook until the onion turns translucent but not brown.

3. At this point, add the water and the lemon juice to the saucepan mix well and bring to a boil. Low the heat to a bare simmer and add the fish. Cover with a lid and cook for 3-4 mins. Don’t stir - the fish is already soft enough and easily breakable. Keep the heat low so that the water remains hot but doesn’t boil.

4. Switch off the heat. Keep the fish covered for another 10-15 mins to infuse it with flavours. (You don’t need to salt the fish, for it is quite salty by definition).

5. Serve with steaming basmati rice.

A note: I highly recommend to sop up the fragrant fish gravy from your plate with a piece of naan or, why not, country bread.

Honestly, if I did not know, I would never guess that it was smoked mackerel we used: once poached in all these spices, the fish doesn’t have a very pronounced smoky flavour any more. Instead, it becomes juicy, and gets a more complex, deeper taste as well as aroma.

21 March 2009


My Dear Reader,

I should admit it’s been a tough week for me. To beging with, I fell prey to a nasty stomach flue, so not much food was involved, you understand. Next, Alex is not my date any more, it feels. So I will no longer be treated to his lemon meringue pies. Sigh.

It seems like a week to forget, as my long-time heartthrob and best friend Luke suggested after I had sobbed profusely. Indeed.

Yes, I have come here today preposterously empty-handed -- no story, no recipe; which is a legitimate enough subject for your discontent, My Dear Reader. Honestly, were I you, I would even slam the door shut in protest at my sluggishness.

Still, I hope you will bear with me for a tiny-little while. (Please.)

P.S. Frankly, things are not that bad. I'll see you soon!

16 March 2009

For a brief moment in history

When I was eleven, I dreamt to become fancy. What ‘fancy’ meant exactly, I did not know and, in truth, could not care less to learn. All I wanted was ‘do’ fancy things, such as calling my USSR-born parents ‘madam maman’ and ‘monsieur papan’ respectively, drinking strong pitch-black coffee a la my mother, wearing my mother’s high heels, and read Shakespeare, although not all at once.

There was something else - I wanted to set my hair in curlers every now and then. In my view, to wear curlers (at home) was as classy as to have on high heels (also at home). My mother begged to differ on my points, so I wore neither of her stilettos nor her metal rollers at the time. And yet, at the age of eleven I still wanted to be ‘fancy’, point. Other things being prohibited, I decided I should start drinking coffee, which my mother, surprisingly, did not mind. This is, in short, how I became ‘fancy’.

When it comes to beverages, alcoholic and non-, I learned two things from ‘madam maman’: always drink dry wine and never be shy with coffee. My Sober Reader, I hope you don’t mind that it is on the latter that I will extend today. (How my mother taught me, literally, to drink wine makes for another story, which I might tell you, that is, if you want.)

And that leaves coffee. As I said earlier, this boldness with the beverage I took after my mother. Being a heavy sleeper, her day would brighten up only after she made herself a cup of steaming coffee, be it at 7 a.m. or at noon. (My mother is a pianist, so artistic laziness was never foreign to her.)

Seeing that it were the early post-Soviet times, we did not have much choice of different sorts and labels of coffee, and, in fact, pretty much of everything else. All we could snatch was instant coffee, which, as I always thought, was made of something decidedly different than coffee beans – maybe dust, I don’t know. Said differently, the taste was bland and depressing. So it was about then that my mother, being a woman of musical artistry, was so creative as to think up a trick that changed my entire life onwards. (I only wish she had not spoilt my green years with nudging me insistently into becoming a musician as herself.)

'Madam maman' used a thin slice of lemon in her coffee.

Why not Baileys, Kalua, or Demerara Sugar, to name a few? Oh, I beg of you. The early 90’s were rather tumultuous times in new Russian history - we even did not have proper supermarkets in the first place. It was only after a handful of years, sometime between the midlle- and late 90’s, that those names did not sound gibberish to our musical ears any more.

That’s why a thin slice of fresh and (sparkles-out-of-your-eyes) sour lemon was preferred in my family to stale cinnamon powder or white sugar. At first I winced at the thought of lemon in coffee, then I took a sip from my mother’s cup, shyly; after which I hurried up to the kitchen, took another cup from a cabinet and imperatively asked my mother to make me her ‘citrus coffee’.
I had no idea why lemon and coffee worked so well together, but it tasted good and I liked it. I had a brilliant excuse to call myself ‘fancy’ at the time, even before we learnt what, for instance, De-me-ra-ra sugar is.

Now that I am doing my MA in English I hope I have developed my vocabulary enough as to be able to say briefly that lemon lends itself nicely to making coffee flavor more complex and deeper. Being acidic, lemon offsets the bitterness of coffee; and if you add a teaspoon of brown sugar to your cup, it will further enhance the heady notes of coffee (but this is optional). That said, there is no recipe as such. You simply brew your coffee the way you usually do, be it with a coffee machine or in a pot; and add a thin slice of citrus, or even a half, to your cup. As I suggested, brown sugar is optional here but recommendable.

So instead of being fancy (which it is not, supposedly), ‘citrus coffee’ is historic – post-Soviet and all. Also, it's tasty! What's more, drinking it is not as much ridiculous as, say, wearing curlers and high heels at home. (Here it should be noted that I, when home alone, wore my mother's stilletoes anyway; and even ruined a few pairs, to 'madam maman' greatest disgust. Sigh.)

P.S. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to show you the pictures of Moscow when I am in Amsterdam. But for a brief moment in history, let’s assume it is.

8 March 2009

Fair enough

It was one of those rare sunny hours of an ordinarily gloomy day in Amsterdam when the one and only wise thing to do - even if you had lots of others, decidedly more urgent ones - was sit on a sun-lit bench on a canal side, greedily soaking in the sunshine, and eating chocolate macaroons for complete happiness.

“We Amsterdammers deserve sunshine too,” said Alex, who is a New Yorker through and through; also, a writer, my date, and, among many other things, a quirky beet connoisseur, and – please embrace yourself - my personal brain coach.

I’ll explain in quick succession.

I met Alex shy of a month ago when I figured I’d better find a good date on whom I can test hundreds of to-try recipes rather than cook only for myself. (If I char a sirloin, for example, I’d better share it, you understand.) I took to the man because his favourite game as a kid was stoop ball (in his words: “a pink spongy ball bounced off a Brooklyn brownstone”); and also because he can make lemon meringue pie. And not to forget about the beets (beets!) thing.

Aside from such unique properties, Alex has a weefully quirky sense of order, or logics, or whatnot. For example, he may start by inquiring after my moods, which, I should say, is a wise thing to do in general; then, quite unexpectedly, switches to things that require my thorough thinking upon (‘What do you like best: bread or butter?’). When I get aflame with agitation in that I can’t figure out what to say (indeed, what do I like best: bread or butter?), he always argues that by asking me polar opposite questions he stretches my mind (a coach!) in different directions. He adds that if I want to hone my writing skills I should have a well-exersiced wild mind. Voila.

But back to Amsterdam. We were sitting on a sun-lit, dark wooden bench on a canal side, asking each other questions, and eating giant (real behemoths) chocolate macaroons. Ducks and swans busily navigated the canal waters; cars and bicycles manoeuvred down the narrow, cobblestone streets; Alex and I sunbathed, having on thick scarfs, woolen winter coats and all.

Then Alex asked me what I loved about Amsterdam (emboldened as he was by the sunshine). I paused to think. Here is what I said:

“I love the image of the city. To me, she looks like the Violinist by Chagall: real but also un-, quirky but so elegant. Just like the painting itself.”

“Fair enough.”

“Now your turn”, I said, nibbling on those chocolate macaroons.

“Perhaps the controlled chaos of bike traffic, feeling carried along by the flow, the ugly rusted things piled up by the canals, the vague feeling of being in a 1940s film on certain streets, the black bikes and umbrellas, and gray streets and skies.”

“Fair enough.”

Then there was a few minute’s silence, chocolate macaroons being a marvelous conversation stopper.

“What did you cook lately?” (This is, obviously, what he means by exercising my mind, you understand.)

“Beet salad with prunes and garlic-walnut sauce” I replied nonchalantly, brushing the crumbs off the skirts of my woolen winter coat.

“I think I may want a recipe,” said Alex (always the beet connoisseur), devouring the last left chocolate macaroon.

Fair enough, I thought.

I chanced upon the original recipe (Beets with Walnut-Garlic Sauce by Mark Bittman) when toiling through the New York Times’ Dining and Wine Section. In the adjacent article, Bittman argues for divorce between goat cheese and beets in salads (“We can give the goats a break!”), however scrumptious. Diversity won’t hurt.

I tweaked a few techniques in the recipe to meet certain limitations in my kitchenette equipment since the recipe has you bake beets in an oven, and puree the garlic-walnut mixture in a food processor; and I have neither the oven nor the food blender respectively. Which - I agree, My Dear Reader - is extremely trying.

I don’t remember from whom exactly but long ago I learnt that beets, prunes, garlic and walnuts pair breezily, each contributing to the sweet earthiness and a subtle acidity of another. In fact, this combination is quite common in Russian winter salads (or the ones my mother used to make on the run), with the only difference is that walnuts and garlic are not cooked. Now that I discovered this recipe I feel quite evangelical to spread the word of wisdom to my female relatives. They are all good cooks but more knowledge and, again, diversity won’t hurt indeed.

Beets with Prunes and Walnut-Garlic Sauce

Adapted from the New York Times and Mark Bittman

Serves 4

4 large beets, trimmed of greens, thoroughly washed and quartered
2 cups prunes, pitted and finely diced
1/4 cup olive oil
¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
juice of 1 medium orange
salt and pepper
ruccola leaves for garnish

1. In a medium sauce pan, bring 4 cups water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, add the beets and cook uncovered until soft (not mushy), 30 mins to 1 hour. Cool. Cut off the tops and roots and slip off the skins (they really peel off easily). Slice the beets into wedges or cubes and set aside.

2. Dice the prunes finely. Combine with the beets.

3. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly browned, about 3-4 mins. Add the chopped walnuts and proceed cooking (over low heat), about 3-4 minutes more. Stir continuously to avoid burning. Turn off the heat. Let slightly cool. [At the end of cooking time I also added 1 tsp walnut paste, simply because I had some (bought in a deli store)].

4. In a small bowl, combine the walnut-garlic mixture with orange juice. Add a generous pinch of salt and garlic.

5. Toss the beets and prunes with the dressing.

6. Garnish with ruccola leaves or parsley and serve.

“Are you hungry now?”, asked Alex after I recited him the recipe.
“I am starving!” I testified.

1 March 2009

Some passion!

I don’t own an oven and this is awful. Whoever equipped this small shared student apartment that I am currently living in is a simpleton or a scrooge or even both. Yes, a simpleton-scrooge, that is who.

So without the oven in my possession (sob), I’m forced to make do with a gas hotplate. And that’s exactly why you, My Dear Reader, do not happen to be treated much in this place to things roasted (savoury) or baked (desserts). And I hate it, since I would love so much (God knows!) to treat you to desserts more often than I do presently. Now that I think of it I don’t treat you to desserts here at all. Oh, I really hate it.

I reckon you may wonder what about me? Well, I sure can manage for a while without cooked-in-the-oven savoury dishes but I cannot afford to miss out on desserts (thank you for asking). No, I definitely cannot. Thus, being left to my own devices, I’ve developed a survival plan. According to which I either stick to my friends, who own an oven (talk about mean), or I eat my way through luscious pastries from the bakeries in Amsterdam. Either way, I think I am doing pretty fine. So not to worry! Also, when I feel particularly bold and adventurous, I fix exceptionally interesting things on my hotplate. Those in search will always find!

It has come time to confess: two days ago I understood what lust for desserts really means. I made salty caramel sauce. And if it were not for my flat mate who generously helped me to devour the whole batch of this undisguised seduction right on the spot as soon as it cooled down, I don’t know what I would have to do. You can’t eat nearly 2 cups of caramel sauce on your own, can you? Oh. Oh. Oh.

At the moment I tasted this caramel sauce I thought I died of pleasure. Then I felt like crying. But then, I pulled myself together, grabbed a teaspoon and slurpy-ly relished the sauce which is in fact a dessert in itself. Some passion! I remember that after every few spoonfuls I text-messaged to Luke to tell him what was going on. Clearly, I was delirious. Poor man may now think I am a crazy, crazy woman. “Your filthy mind intrigues me”, read his reply.

“Mmmh. It is interesting what you can make, even without the oven”, said my flat mate, after her first spoonful.

I grinned and grinned. I felt ecstatic. This is where I should admit that yes, for a short while, that is, as long as I have my caramel sauce, I can do without the oven indeed.

Although my flat mate (see above) was very generous with her raves and praise for me, I shall hurry up to say that you don’t have to possess any extra powers to make this rich, silky, mind-blowing butter caramel sauce. You only have to be very, very careful. There are two reasons for this: 1) caramel is beastly hot and foams up devilishly when you add liquid substances to it, and 2) it will seduce you something fierce. For the sake of convenience and smooth operation, have all ingredients neatly laid out infront of you beforehand, since, after sugar starts up to melt, each minute counts. First, you melt - in a large heavy-bottomed pan - brown sugar, stirring it continuously. After the sugar has completely melted, give it a few more moments on the stove (do not boil!) and it will develop a deep, sophisticated brown colour, which is what you want.(I made a photo (see below) of the sauce and a bakery-bought caramel candy to show you the difference in colours.) Add the butter, stir it in, and switch off the heat. Finally, pour in the heavy cream and keep whisking until you see a sauce so smooth and beautiful that you will be forced to throw your elusive caution to the wind and succumb to pleasant madness and temptation. At least this is what I did.

The first batch of the sauce I made last Friday and it was gone within a few successive hours. Under such arrangement, as you may have guessed, I couldn’t help but duplicate it. Thrice. I know this sounds preposterous but I seem to irretrievably lose my mind to this caramel goodness. What bothers me a little, though, is I even don’t half mind. In fact, who would when the sauce is so smooth and rich and silky and toffee-like? An utter simpleton, that is who!

Since I followed the recipe for this salty caramel sauce to the letter, I figured it’s better if I refer you to the original version here. This woman, Dab of Smitten Kitchen, knows her butter, among much else!
Lastly, it turns out I am incredibly vulnerable to beautiful temptation. I have to admit it. That’s why yesterday I woke up to an idea that I’d better share this caramel treasure with somebody else (besides my helpful flat mate). So I poured my liquid gold in a jar, wrapped it up, and went on a date. Gentlemen love caramel too!

P.S. Can I just add that the sauce, when refrigerated, makes beautifully for caramel spread too? Oh. Oh. Oh.