26 April 2009

Make the best from what you have

Sometimes when I think of my habits I have a gut feeling that a clinician may tell me much what I don’t yet know about myself.

Here is the case: I get a feeling of enormous gratification that borders on a sense of gigantic accomplishment when I finish my food leftovers. Every time I save a wilting, suicidal vegetable, I feel as if I save the planet. It can be former -Soviet neatnik in me, or dormant environmentalist, or just weirdo. I am not entirely sure about the cause, but the effect is strikingly friendly to the environment. In other words, I do not throw away food. And just so you know, the extent of my culinary thriftiness is such that I even eat apples whole, with seeds, core and all (except stem). (A handful years back I read somewhere that apple seeds contain iodine, of which almost everyone has a deficiency, said the source; that’s why my apple craze, perhaps?)

I was brought up with a belief that to throw away food that still can be turned into a delicious meal is, at the very mildest, irresponsible, and at the worst, a sin of sorts (this part seriously scared the bejesus out of me as a child, although it did not stop me from being overly picky at the time).

The source of culinary dogma in question was my maternal grandmother. As a teen, or even earlier, she had tasted the firsthand experience of devastating horrors of Second World War, in Russia and former Soviet republics known as Great Patriotic War (Eastern Front). My grandmother spent her late green years shuttling between train stations. Her task was to swap pieces of family clothes or furniture for a bag of potatoes or beets (bread equated with gold and jewelry), the sustenance for the family of seven for weeks to come.

You-don’t-throw-away-food has been my grandmother’s mantra all her life throughout. Sometimes she reaches the extremes, though, trying to save rancid butter or meat of dubious freshness. Having suffered a few nasty cases of food poisoning under my grandmother's supervision over the years, I decided for myself that I should not throw away food which is still good -- that is, edible. True to my word I have remained.

In other news, they say Depression Cooking is hip nowadays. I asked Luke what he thought about this, and he asked me what Depression Cooking is. I appointed myself to the task of coaching the man briefly.

‘Have a forlorn potato, carrot, celery and leek? Throw them in a pot, not out of the window, and make a soup, for instance,’ I explained.

‘Ah, it’s like lemonade,’ he hypothesized.


‘When somebody gives you a lemon, you make lemonade,’ he further detailed.


Still, he insisted that I don’t understand. ‘Depression Cooking is simply making the best from what you have.’

‘Of course.’

Cold Beetroot and Cucumber Soup

This is a great way to put slightly shriveled beets to good use. Apart from that, I love this soup for a number of other reasons. First, it’s very easy to make. Second, there is something inherently right about the flavour combination of beets and garam masala. Then, there is crunch from cucumber and punch from shallot. And finally, all of this is united by the subtle creaminess of yoghurt that makes this soup nutritious as well as fulfilling. And I even don’t mention its eye-catching ruby colour!

Yields: 4 light first-course servings

2 medium beetroots
1/2 English cucumber
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
2 cups (500ml) plain yoghurt (preferably not low-fat)
1/8 tsp garam masala powder
Salt, pepper to taste
1 tsp lemon juice
Flat-leaf parsley (or cilantro) for garnish, finely chopped

1. Wash and half the beets. Put them in a large saucepan and boil till tender, about 1 hour.
2. While beets are cooking, slice the 1/2 cucumber lengthwise in half and sprinkle generously with salt. Set aside. Salt will extract excessive water which will subsequently make the cucumber crunchier.
3. Drain the beets and let cool; they should be tender but not mushy. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel off their skin and dice.
4. Drain the cucumber halves thoroughly, pat dry with a paper kitchen towel and dice.
5. In a medium bowl, mix the beets with the cucumbers, chopped shallot, yoghurt, garam masala powder and lemon juice. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir well. Check for seasoning and correct if necessary.
6. Refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours before serving. This yoghurt soup keeps well in a fridge for one or even two days.

19 April 2009

Curiosity can kill a girl

Dear Reader, the force of my curiosity is unmeasured, the consequences are unforeseeable. Neither of my parents seems to be recklessly curious, so I don’t really know whom I took after. I don’t know about a cat, but let me tell you this: curiosity can kill a girl, and that girl could be me.

This time it all began with shampoo, whose list of ingredients spanned organic coconut and corn sugar syrup, garden mint essential oil and peppermint extract, among a few others. It also contained mysterious rhaussoul, which, according to words on the package, is used for a traditional African hair treatment. Provides light volume for the hair.

I tried the stuff on my hair all right, but I did not stop there. Given the knowledge of the ingredients, I decided I should taste it as well. Sure as hell curious, you understand.

Dear Reader, I've got to share with you - to let it out of my chest, if you will - what the thing was like. It tasted sweet and very minty. Besides, it had a suggestion of orange notes which I attributed to this certain rhaussoul. I decided this funky name stood for some exotic fruit of African origin or something. Or Dear Reader, I was mistaken. Check this out: rhaussoul is African soap mud.

As least it tasted of orange.

The moment the truth revealed itself to me I quickly washed my hands. I don't know, really, how washing my hands would help the matter, but that rhaussoul, it distressed me alright -- and it made me hungry. Today is Orthodox Easter, so I slid into my kitchen where I instantaneously figured I should engage my very startled mind with eggs preparations. Normally, I would simply hard-boil and paint them as we do in my family. But empowered (or distracted?) by the African soap mud in my blood, I stuffed the eggs instead. Quite devilishly.

Stuffed Eggs with Feta
Yield: 8 half eggs (the cook was hungry, so you see only six in the photo above)

I  like stuffed, or deviled, eggs, but until recently I always questioned the necessity to use mayonnaise for thickening the yolks. It just seemed redundant, as if you add yolks to yolks. So I used olive oil and a splash of lemon juice in lieu of mayonnaise -- I picked up this trick from Alice Waters's The Art of Simple Cooking. As to feta, it adds a desired depth, richness and creaminess to the yolks, it makes the yolks here better. A touch of Tabasco sauce at the end, and you got yourself a fine and simple deviled egg.

4 medium free-range eggs
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 ½ Tbsp feta, finely crumbled
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Tabasco sauce, to taste
1 Tbsp or more finely chopped spring onions, green parts only
Fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)

1. Cook the eggs. Put the eggs in a medium saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. As the water starts to boil, remove the saucepan from the heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes. Then drain the eggs and put them in a bowl with (ice)cold water. Once cooled, carefully peel the eggs and scoop the yolks into a small mixing bowl. Set the egg whites with the cut side up on a platter and salt slightly.

2. Working with the back of a fork, mash the yolks. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and mix well. Work the feta into the yolk mixture. (It’s all right if you still have small lumps of the cheese in the yolk mixture.) Add freshly ground black pepper to taste and salt, but go easy on the salt, since feta is salty enough. Add the spring onions. If the mixture is too thick, add some more olive oil – ½ tsp at a time - until you have the right -- easy to scoop but not too thin -- consistency. Add the spring onions. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

3. Fill the whites with the yolk mixture. Tip a tiny drop of Tabasco on top. Before serving, garnish with parsley (optional). If not serving right away, refrigerate until ready to eat (keeps well in the fridge for one day).

P.S. "Don't fear difficult moments. The best comes from them," says an almost 100-years old Rita Levi Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Italy. The woman should also be awarded some grand prize for her positive thinking, I'd love to add.

14 April 2009

Frivolity galore

Phew, it has been a week of exceptionally frivolous poetry and as much frivolous goat's cheese and sparkling wine consumption.

To illustrate frivolity galore, let me first begin with (so-called) poems of my production. What follows is one such example.


A dude took a pot and went with it abroad.
The dude was cute.

(And because he is a genius and such a progressive thinker, I am dedicating this couplet to Luke.)

Or another one:


Oh my, oh my, oh my -
I am glad I am still alive.
A river of sparkling wine and a pot of curry
Made my mind somewhat blurry.
(In case you question -- rightly so – the rhythm and metre in the poem,
Please know this: both are aggressively forced!
The meaning too, in fact.)

Holidays, I find, bring a great opportunity to learn new things about yourself. I, for instance, have discovered that festive alcohol consumption is a source of calamitous poetry in my life (see above). What’s more, I also found out that booze in cheese makes me loopy, somewhat. And, to crown it all, ginger juice in sparkling wine (or champagne) boosts a confident lunatic in me. Jo-ho!

It all began when I said I’d love to contribute to a quickly-thrown lunch for four that was to take place on Saturday in a faraway corner of Holland, which is the city of Nijmegen where Luke lives (nearly two hours by train from Amsterdam down to a German border!).

After a fiery negotiation it was decided that I bring bread and goat's cheese from a farmer’s market. Was it a mild or sharp goat's cheese that I should bring, I asked. ‘Surprise me,’ was the answer.

In passing, I should note that, generally, the ability to surprise is my second nature. Yet, I fail to do so when I am expected to surprise, you know. To this, however, I have an antidote that I’ve developed over the last couple of months. It’s very simple: when you are asked to surprise somebody  -- surprise, that is, with your choice of goat's cheese -- go for quantity as well as for quality. You’ve got my word that the quantity alone may be very surprising to people. So instead of ravaging my mind with a task to choose one type of goat's cheese, I got three (needless to say, I would go for more if I were not on a lean student budget at the moment). These were: young and soft natural goat's cheese, sharp and ripe Tome de Chevre, and goat's cheese bathed in Vieux Marc Bourgogne and subsequently wrapped up in rosemary, for good measure. The latter, so rich in taste as well as spirits, made me later laugh like a sailor – loudly, snorting-ly, absolutely unladylike. Jo-ho!

The day progressed, and so did the degree of my spiritedness. When the evening fell, I reached the point of non-stop laughing and thus scared my companions a great deal. Who is this girl?

Speaking of alcohol consumption I must say that as a rule (and as my mother used to instruct me) I usually don’t go for more than a glass of wine at a time, one and a half at a pinch. The same mother, however, also instructed me that, shall a necessity for being hyper-frolic arise, it is better, even desirable, to indulge yourself in the gifts of Bacchus -- (sparkling) wine -- rather than trying ‘the-devil-knows-what’.

We are now in a position, Dear Reader, when I should tell you about my adolescence experience of taking my first sip of wine for which I did not express any interest well until my sixteenth summer. By then, all my peers had already got a lot of drinking savvy, and my mother thought that it was only a matter of time before I tried beverages stronger than soda. She did not want to hurry things up with my natural evolution, of course; still, she did not want me to end up completely drunk somewhere at a party where my peers could start nudging me to try this and that. That was how mother figured that she should be the person who would first introduce me to wine. She thought it would be simple and easy. Only it was not. Instead of trying red wine which mother gracefully poured in a glass and diluted with water (!), I spent the whole evening whining. I was scared - what! - to get drunk, which I believed I would as soon as wine would touch my lips. Eventually, I tried what I was offered. That made me stop whining.

But back to the present, that is, to last Saturday when I announced to everybody that I was going to make an easy cocktail of two ingredients: sparkling wine and fresh ginger juice. Luckily, I did not meet much resistance to my plans, so the festive evening proceeded. As did my laughter. Jo-ho!

Champagne with Ginger Juice, or Punchy 'Punch'

Loosely adapted from Monina Bhinde, via Leite's Culinaria

The idea found me together with this clip in which Monica Bhinde suggests a simple recipe for Guava Bellini cocktail, sewn together by guava puree, ginger juice and sparkling wine/champagne.

Having no guava puree at hand, I thought of something simpler. This: Over a small bowl, grate one-inch piece of fresh ginger (peeled). Squeeze the juice with your fingers. Pour the juice – 1/4 to 1/2 tsp - in a tall champagne glass and proceed with demi-sec sparkling wine (or champagne). Normally, I prefer Brut, but in this mix the sweetness of the demi-sec plays nicely against the fresh ginger's punch, leaving your palate slightly tickled and excited.

Drink as such, or assign it to accompany a spicy Indian meal, for instance. You’ve got my frivolous testimony that it's going to work.

I hope you had a nice Easter weekend, My Dear Reader!

5 April 2009

C'est magnifique!

A gentleman named Luke, thirty-four and a half years old, went to Paris (not for the first time), which is good. What is not good, however, is that he did not say a single word on that score to me. (Not that I would pester him to bring me a box full of macarons from Pierre Herme pastry shop, not at all.) I learnt about this gentleman's trip by chance, through his heinously nonchalant text-message that said, ‘I am in Paris’ (in the context of my question about when I could possibly expect him to sent me a new battery for my -- formerly his -- photo camera).

‘What are you doing there?’ I asked.

‘I am living, Anya. LIVING!’ (Author’s note: obviously, living stands for enjoying myself!)
Suddenly, I was made to think of my own life. One thought led to another and I was nigh on at the edge of self-orchestrated metaphysical crisis: ‘I am not in Paris – does it mean I am not living?’ The thought made me restless, hysterical even. I paced about my room, wringing my hands, giving curtains an occasional poke or straightening cushions on my bed. I thought, thought, and thought. I even lost my appetite for an hour. And this -- this – I could not stand any longer.

After a while I finally recalled that I am in Amsterdam, the city I’ve always loved; the city that made me cry (more on this in my future posts); the city that made my heart race – and still does. With that in mind, I said to myself:

‘Dear Anya, why don’t you spend a whole day in town, eating pastries (macarons and croissants), slurping on coffee and hot chocolate, basking in the sun, and sharing a laugh or two with Ernest Hemingway – your hero! Go have your ‘movable feast’!’

I loved my own idea. So much so that I felt obliged to treat myself to a pain au chocolat from a bakery that is 25 mins’ bike ride from my student apartment. The pain au chocolat looked like bullion of gold dappled with melted chocolate and tasted like a fine pain au chocolat should – magnifique! I could not help but eat two.

For my sweet and literary feast, if you can call it that, I picked up a day of Friday (April 3rd), and did what I did. Read on, My Dear Reader. Read on.

The day dawned limpid and warm. On waking up, I saluted the Sun, excused myself from any guilt, and off I cycled.

For a steaming cup of coffee I chose to go to Lanskroon (a fifity-years old dutch bakery and ice-room run by the Dunkelmans, a family that spins 100-years of baking history). I had my morning treat outside, on a lone one-footed round table whose name was Jack. I am not kidding - the name was neatly engraved on the side of the table. I could not help but ask Claudia (a Lanskroon's owner in the fourth generation) what it meant. Jack, I was told, is one of Lanskroon’s loyal customers which are many, as you might guess. I was tempted to give Claudia my name too but then it occurred to me I had yet to earn my reputation.

So standing and drinking coffee at Jack the table, I also caught up with Elizabeth Bishop. I flipped open a book I had with her poems and imagined her recite to me her Paris, 7a.m. The poem was beautiful; the coffee was ineffably fragrant; a golden, flaky, slightly salty and perfectly buttery croissant warmed up for me without even my request - thee will I remember! For a while, Elizabeth Bishop kept pampering me with her poetry . Now it was her A miracle for breakfast: “We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.”

I wish I could stay longer but the sun had steadied its wobbly feet on the streets of Amsterdam by then and I wanted to feel a reassuring touch of the sky luminary on my shoulders. So I closed the book, paid (decently) for my coffee and croissant, leaned on Jack the table once again, and set out for a further walk through the canals that seemed to have finally caught the sun on their surface. The city was radiating with glow.

Before I continue I’d love to mention briefly --just in a few brushstrokes, really – that I am a girl of many interests. I’ve brought it up because I fear you may be wondering if I have any other hobbies and interests which are not revolving around food. To this I’ll say I sure do. I love, love books and therefore call myself a ‘bookslut’, pronounced with dignity and affection (‘bookworm’ does not sound sexy, I find); I am endlessly interested in arts too, among much else. (I once spent a whole day in the Van Gogh museum where a guy named Theo told me that I should appreciate Van Gogh’s arts if I spent so much time scrutinizing his - Van Gogh's - works.) But at the end of the day, I unfailingly get hungry – this makes me predictable, I agree; and turn from an arts/books aficionado into a culinary motor mouth. And this you will have noticed.

That said, let’s go on. I did not have any special route in mind, so I picked up from where I stopped (het Spui) and went down along the Singel (one of a many glorious canal). The weather was exceptionally warm – mellowing and confusing. Take clothing, for instance. Some traditionalists such as myself were seen wearing shoes; others – merry girls and very gay boys alike – were sporting summer flip-flops (!). It was toasty, even sticky at times. There was this guy and his chow chow - both felt appropriate to sunbathe on a balcony of their apartment. The guy was writ large topless; the dog did not have such fortune.

I walked and walked. The old, tall, lean Dutch houses looked like Viennese gentry to me. The gables on the houses reminded me of white, curvy toupees, the ones Mozart, I like to imagine, might have worn. The slanted brick houses gallantly bowed in my direction as I walked by. I felt as if I was moving through a shiny ballroom and each of them beseeched my attention, ‘Look at me, dance with me!’ (I did look at them and nearly got kicked off by a cyclist. O Amsterdam, the city of bicycles!).

Amsterdam is of course not Paris. Yet some Amsterdammers know how to do French things (I am talking about food, all right?). In their France-inspired bakery and lunchroom that's on Nieuwendijk 35, the two brothers Niemeijer (Marco is a chef and Issa is a baker) make exceedingly elegant and memorable macarons (mocca, pistachio, lemon, hazelnut, chocolate), croissants and brioches – what fancy you! O the bread they make (baguettes, paves, boules), there are no words enough to praise each!! To fortify myself, I bought un petit brioche, asked to put it in a brown bag and went further. The city waited for me outside.

The air smelled of apricot trees in their nascent blossom, of vanilla that wafted from the street candy-vendors, of oranges, and also of sour food from Indonesian takeaways.

On a cobblestone bridge, a skinny artist hastily tried to catch onto his canvas the moment of spring, along with the street bedlam. He painted a tall church in a distance. A few steps further, there was a bench and on it sat an old man in a broad-brimmed hat and woolen coat (not your ordinary flip-flops!).

Then there was Hemingway. At last I sat down on a nameless wooden bench and read, read, read his Moveable Feast. Also, I nibbled on my buttery brioche whose crumb was soft, its brown cap so delicately crispy (thanks to its glaze). I savoured it in measured bites together with a ripe pear I had in my bag.
After every few chapters, I stopped and made notes in my notebook. Notes about Hemingway and his wit; about Paris and my wishes to visit the city one day (haven’t been there yet – guilty as charged!); about Amsterdam and how happy I am to be living here, however temporary; about the brioche; and what I would love to cook. At the end of the day, as I said, I always get hungry!


A year ago yesterday I decided to take my father to the cinema instead of giving him yet another stationary piece as a birthday gift (he is a lawyer, so he has this strange penchant for pens, many pens). So after choosing between a vintage fountain pen and a ticket to a movie theater (the events unfolded in Moscow at the time), I decided on the latter. So to the movie did we – my birthday father and I – go.

The film was called A plate (the reason why I opted for this one in the first place), so I anticipated a food-centered cinematic masterpiece as well as a great time with my dad. It was neither. For one, the movie was entirely in English of which my father does not speak a word. He got grumpy and fidgety. I, steadily getting annoyed, refused to translate a single word (snowball effect, don’t you know). In addition, the movie was about the first Australian satellite (hence the name) or some such thing – no food as you see -- which sent both of us to the verge of grumpiness; and, if put simply, things were downright discouraging.

My father, as I wrote earlier, never openly expressed his love for me. His being shy, insecure, too manly – I don’t know what prevented him from hugging me every now and then.
Now as I reminisce of my father, being thousands of miles away from him, I see one image in particular that stings me just as much as it reassures me. Last August my parents brought me to an airport in Moscow from where I would take a flight not only to another country but also from my family (geographically, that is). It was then when I saw my father cry at the sight of me disappearing behind a customs checkpoint. He stood there, a tall man with his glasses on a tip of his nose, hands on his hips, and cried quietly. It was then when I finally understood what he felt all along, this man of a few sweet words, my dear father.

I read somewhere that ‘the only things in life you regret are the risks you did not take’. So every time now that I speak with my father on the phone I make sure I always tell him what I feel, risking being unheard or too vulnerable. We have much better relationship now, my father and I. We say to each other what we really feel rather than what we think alone. And we feel much. Yes, we feel a great deal.

What’s more, I now share his inexplicable enthusiasm about okroshka, a russian cold soup, the one I formerly despised, loathed and all that, the one that I now can’t get enough of, just like my father. A familly legend has it that in his childhood, my father requested okroshka as a special treat instead of a birthday cake! This is definitely not my style. But anyway…

Okroshka (Russian Cold Soup)

Serves 8 or 4 (The recipe can be used as a starter or as a main course)

This soup, being easy to make, nutritious, so fresh and summery, makes for a capital-P pleaser. Honetly, I am ashamed to admit how much I used to hate it as a child, and if truth be known, well into my early twenties.

Note that a few steps such as cooking and preparing the eggs and potatoes should be done in advance.

As the name in russian suggests, the main cutting technique to be used in this recipe is chopping solid ingredients in small cubes/pieces. The name okroshka stems from a Russian verb ‘kroshit’ which means, as you might guess, to finely chop.

And lastly: as with many traditional dishes, every Russian family, it seems, has their own way to make this soup. Below I suggest the way okroshka is made in my family. With one difference, though: I do not use bread beverage (for the sheer lack of the thing abroad) and substitute it with diluted yogurt.

½ long cucumber, chopped in small cubes (make sure to use cucumber with tight, not wrinkly, skin; also, do not deseed or peel the cucumber – you want crunchiness in the soup)
3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1 medium-sized sausage (the higher quality, the better), finely chopped
3 medium-sized potatos, peeled, cooked and chopped in small cubes(choose a variety that does not get too starchy and crumbly when cooked)
2 cups plain yogurt
2 ½ water
juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

1/2 - 1 cup fresh herbs for garnish, finely chopped (traditionally, dill, spring onions or flat-leaf parsley are used; I, however, added fresh basil because, for one, this is what I had; plus the freshness of cucumber combines with that of basil are irresistible, to my taste)

strong mustard for garnish (highly recommendable!)

Cook the eggs. Opinions differ between how many minutes exactly you should cook the eggs in order to have them hard-boiled but without causing a grey-ish ring around the yolks and, by extension, a rubbery texture. Some say it’s 9 mins, others maintain it’s 12. I usually go for 10 mins (a compromise of sorts). Bring the eggs to room temperature (this will prevent them from cracking in boiling water), put them in a small saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. As the water starts to boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover it and let sit for 10 minutes.
Cook the potatoes. Peel and wash them. Put them in a medium saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook until the potatoes are done - they should neither be al dente nor mushy! When the potatoes are ready, drain off the water and set them aside to cool completely.

While the eggs and potatoes cook, chop the cucumber and the sausage.

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, water and lemon juice. Add vinegar and a very generous pinch of salt. Mix well, taste and adjust the taste to your preferences: you may want to add more salt or lemon juice/ vinegar. The final taste should be acidic but not sour.

When the eggs are cooked, place them in a bowl of ice-cold water to stop them from further cooking. Once the eggs are cool, crack and peel them. Finely chop them.

When the potatoes are completely cool, finely chop them too.

Put all solid ingredients in a large saucepan (do not mix) and pour over them the yogurt mixture. Stir gently – do not overdo, you want the crunchy texture in the soup. Check for salt, add more if needed. Season with ¼ tsp freshly ground black-pepper.

Lastly, fold in the finely chopped herbs. Stir carefully and refregirate for at least 3-4 hours, preferrably overnight.

Serve chilled with a small dollop of strong mustard!

The soup keeps well for a few days in a fridge. You may want to add fresh herbs, lemon juice, or salt to spike it up a bit if serving on the next day(s).

*Gebr.Niemeijer's bakery and lunchroom

Nieuwendijk 35, Amsterdam

Opening times:

Tuesday to Friday 8:15 - 18:30

Saturday 8:30 - 17:00

Sunday 9:30-17:00

*Lanskroon, dutch bakery, tea- and ice-room

Singel 385 (close to Spui), Amsterdam

Opening times:

Monday to Friday 08.00-17.30

Saturday 09.00-17.30

Sunday 10.00-17.30