19 July 2009

My mushroom scheme

Dear Reader, hello!

I know, just a week ago I pathetically announced I’m going to take a short break from blogging, but life always throws in something new and unexpected, so here I am again. In a big need to confess if at that. So if you don’t mind, I’ll cut to the chase, since I am really supposed to be writing and even already finishing my premaster thesis. (I didn’t mention earlier, did I, that I’m writing about humour in the US presidential debates 2008 – my professor chose those as the database for his students’ various research works; the professor is American. Also, I’m the only one in a group of eight students of English linguistics who expressed a wish to write about humour; the rest, misguided minds, are writing about metaphors and other language-related matters.)

Dear Reader, before I go on, could you please take a closer look at the photograph above? You see those small browned chanterelles in it, together with crisp and fragrant (fried in olive oil with garlic) potato chunks? Good, because those mushrooms, uncooked, straight from the farmer’s market, were supposed to be an edible gift, ribboned carefully in a brown bag and all, for my friend Nico who had his birthday last week. Yet, instead of giving the mushrooms away, I ate them on my own. Needless to say, I did not, eventually, make it up to the birthday party: I called up to say I’d got a cold. First prize for wits, please.

I don’t know what to think of myself, really. Is it a premaster thesis-writing hysteria that took over me? Should I have thought twice before deciding to write on humour – turned out the stuff isn’t even remotely hilarious? Or am I becoming one of those people who are eager to trade dear friendships, and, you wait, family ties for good food? I am confused to no end.

At least, the woodsy chanterelles with lemon thyme and potatoes were delicious. The lemon thyme with its elusive citrucy whisper virtually put a spell on the potatoes as well as the mushrooms binding both with a complex and satisfying flavor, not the mention the savoury frolicking garlic that set back the sweetness of the puffy potatoes and the earthiness of the bright and spright chanterelles.

That said, you know what happens when the realization of committed something, can I say so, sinks in the next day, as your mind is cleared off the yesterday’s vagueness and you’ve got to face the consequences of your earlier misdeeds -- you get ablaze with remorse. To blow that out, you should approach the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. Which I found genuinely helpful in my case. I mean, I could not continue relishing the stolen-from-my-unaware-of-the-crime-friend mushrooms shamelessly plating them up, however adoringly, making eye contact with them and pretending that nothing had happened. So the next day I enveloped the scoops of sautéed chanterelles with potato in dough pockets, sent them to a pot of salted boiling water for a few minutes, and in return got parcels of vareniki . And I’ll tell you what, once I forked one varenik after another with its juicy-creamy mushroom-potato filling into my mouth, not a glimpse of any remorse was to be seen anywhere in my world…not even remotely. What a person I am.

I should tell you now that vareniki are the Ukrainian take on dumplings. Irrespective of their origins, however, these boiled doughy pockets happily stuffed with various fillings, savoury or sweet, are a beloved, revered food all over Russia as well. (When it comes to food, this Ukrainian-Russian division is gnawing at my heart; in days of yore (and I don’t mean the Soviet Union) it was one country with the communal cuisine where it wouldn’t be politically incorrect to say vareniki are Russian too. Oh well!)

Literally, varenik means a ‘boiled bit’ (from Russian, or Ukrainian, verb varit’, ‘to boil’, or the adjective varenyi, ‘boiled’). Legend has it that vareniki are offspring of the middle-eastern dyushvara, soup with petite dumplings filled with ground lamp and fresh herbs. But unlike the latter, Russain, ok, Ukrainian vareniki can as well be satiated with sweet, not only savoury, fillings such as cherries or strawberries. Speaking of which, I swore to myself more times than I can remember to make vareniki with cherries, my darling berries. Every Saturday past June I brought pounds and pounds of cherries from the market. And every Saturday they’d tiptoe in my mouth sooner than I’d roll out the dough for them.

Were it not for my ‘chanterelles crime’, I think the idea of making vareniki, even savoury, would still be a pipe dream for me. Doesn’t that give me a legitimate reason to be somewhat proud for my mushroom scheme?

A few technicalities…Various recipes have you use milk, egg and even butter to make the dough softer. However, both of my grandmothers, irrespective of each other, swear by buttermilk – cold, right from the fridge. This way, I was instructed, the dough will be soft and elastic which will prevent the dumplings in question from opening up in choppy, boiling water. Because I found myself in a situation where mushrooms were involved, I used them as a filling, sautéed with onions, garlic and lemon thyme (my newly discovered love!). Were I less sinful, I’d be free to use any other kind of stuffing – from sauerkraut to offals, from fruit to buckwheat porridge, as befit Russian and Ukrainian traditions. Enjoy the freedom of imposition, Dear Reader!

Vareniki with mushrooms, potatoes and caramelized onion
Yields about 12 medium-sized vareniki

For the filling:
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 cup mushrooms (I used chanterelles, but any mushrooms will be fine), trimmed and finely chopped
1 large potato, boiled and mashed
A generous pinch of salt
Olive oil for cooking
½ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3-4 fresh lemon thyme sprigs

For the dough:
2 ¼ cups all-purpose white flour
1 cup cold buttermilk
1/4 tsp salt

1. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the salt. Make a well in the centre and pour the buttermilk. Using a wooden spoon, start mixing the flour, working towards the centre. Once the buttermilk in incorporated, tip the dough out onto a generously-floured surface and knead the dough by hand into a ball. If it’s too sticky, add more flour, starting with ¼ cup at a time. Make sure you don’t over-knead the dough. Also, Don’t worry if the dough will be a bit thick. Wrap it and set aside to rest for 30 mins.

2. In the meantime, prepare the filling. In a large skillet, brown the onion over medium heat, 4-5 mins. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the mushrooms, season to taste. Saute the mushroom until they start to brown and there is no excess liquid in the skillet, 5-8mins. Fold in the fresh lemon thyme leaves and take off the heat.

3. When the mushrooms are cooking, boil up the potato in a small pot, until soft and even mushy. Drain and mash.

4. In a small bowl, combine the mushroom mixture with the mashed potato and fresh dill. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Don’t be shy with salt; it will breathe in more flavour in the vegetables mixture. Make sure there are no excess liquids in the filling or, when cooked, vareniki will be soggy.
5. Thoroughly flour the work surface and form the dough into a thick log. Cut the log into pieces of equal size; I made 12. Using a well-floured rolling pin, roll each piece into a thin disk, about 1/8’’ (0.3cm). I used a coffee mug to form neat disks, about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter.
6. Place a teaspoon of the filling onto each disk. Gently fold in the dough around the filling forming a crescent-shaped dumpling. Gently but reassuringly pinch the edges. Make sure the filling is well-sealed. Place the dumpling on a large floured plate. In the same manner, proceed with the rest of the dough pieces until you’ve run out of filling. (I should also tell that you may have more dough than needed. I did, so I froze my dough leftovers for subsequent uses.)

7. Over medium heat, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working with 5-6 dumplings at a time, carefully put them in boiling water. Don’t crowd them. Take care that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot nor touch each other. Once vareniki float to the surface, cook for another 3-4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with olive oil or softened butter to prevent vareniki from sticking to each other. Repeat with remaining dumplings.
8. Serve with caramelized onions and fresh dill, with sour cream alongside. Serve hot. But they are as good at room temperature too.

12 July 2009

I look forward

Last summer when I still worked in Moscow, I had a Scottish colleague named Alistair. During our breaks for lunch, we exchanged bits and pieces of everyday wisdom with each other. Or rather, Alistair taught me those, while I gave him eggplants, zucchinis, and gooseberries from the market. When the weather was merciless outside –tearful and windy – we, looking out of the office window, entertained ourselves with what seemed an Eng -Rus dialect (a hybrid of English and Russian). Offski homeski meant ‘time to go home’, offski gymski - ‘off to gym’, offski pubski…you get the idea. Language-wise, we didn’t restrain ourselves from mixing in more exotic words. When referring to an unpleasant person passing us, Alistair would use a Chinese phrase – he worked in Honk Kong before arriving in Moscow – that loosely translated as ‘crazy woman’. He might have used the same phrase even if the unpleasant somebody was male, but I don’t remember that now. What I memorized, however, was his Zen-like advice to me, in pure English: ‘To have a happy life, you should look forward to your dinner’.

Now, I look forward to dinner on a daily basis. And to breakfast. And to lunch. This whole business should sum up to a very happy life in my world, I reckon; however, the blues are visiting me these days. A gentleman named Lukas Bragg, my good friend and, generally, quite an insightful person, supposed it may be a post-birthday syndrome (PBS). I think it’s because he is jealous that I enjoyed
zee pizzas without him. But anyway…My mother likes to say that only idiots smile non-stop and that it is fine to sob as well. By way of deduction, I think I am not an idiot, which already makes me happier. Not to forget this breakfast-lunch-and-dinner thing.

When the sky over Amsterdam is crying out its bowels and the wind is howling like a homeless dog, I find it somewhat difficult to persuade the blues to please get out of my room. Instead, I take heart and an umbrella, and trek to a bakery – offski bakerski, as Alistair the Scotsman would say -- to get chausson aux pommes, or pirozhok s yablokom, as I used to know it in Russia.

I should tell you now that since I was a kid I have always had a certain fondness for the words pirozhok, ‘turnover’, and bulochnik, ‘baker’. (I like to believe Russian bulochnik derives from French boulanger.) Not that there was a professional bulochnik in my family as I was growing up, or that I ate pirozhki (‘turnovers’) for breakfast, lunch or dinner, which, come to think of it, would not hurt a bit. Alas, neither was the case. It’s just that I always heard a chanting melody in those words, an underlying message that said, ‘Rain or no, a moustached, chubby bulochnik makes his pirozhki every day at the darkest hour before the dawn to put a smile on people’s faces later in the day, to reassure children and adults alike that no matter what, there he is, the bulochnik, to guard a centuries-old tradition of layering the fragrant, yeasty dough with rich and silky butter; rolling and folding it; doing his own magic with it every day; and, by extension, soothing people's souls’. And while such bulochnik and his pirozhki are there, I imagined, the world is safe, and fed.

Here in Amsterdam, pirozhki s yablokom (literally, ‘turnovers with apple’) are unknown, yet their fancier French counterparts chausson aux pommes took residence in a few of the local bakeries, and I consider it good manners that I pay my visits to them regularly. These chausson aux pommes and I, we developed strong camaraderie between each other. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more smile-inducing than slightly salty, buttery and flaky pocket of puff pastry that looks like a lacy-edged, glossy purse, filled with now-sweet, now-tart, perfumed-with-cinnamon applesauce/compote that, once the shattery pastry is bitten into, drips on my chin and clothes, distracting me from my worries. The wind still howled outside, and the blues were somewhere there, waiting to catch up with me. But I didn’t half mind. Actually, I did not mind at all. I looked forward to my next pirozhok s yablokom, my chausson aux pommes.

Lastly, it seems I will have to be going to take a short break from posting on my blog. There are too many things going on at the moment: I’m writing my premaster thesis that is due by Aug 3, which means that I have only two weeks left (aaaaa!) before I have to submit the whole thing. Plus, I’m doing my summer internship in editorial of the Time Out Amsterdam magazine(yay!!) which also requires my devotion and, to be honest, claims my energy as much as the thesis.

I hope you understand, My Dear Reader.

I look forward to seeing you soon again. And this, truly, makes me happy!

Enjoy your summer, friends!

*If in Amsterdam, you can find almost perfect chaussons aux pommes -- my only wish they were a touch tarter -- at Vlaamsch Broodhuis, Haarlemmerstraat 108 and other locations (http://www.vlaamschbroodhuys.nl/). Just so you know, chaussons aux pommes are appelkoeken in Dutch.

6 July 2009

Not ashamed

Friends, last Thursday, July 2nd, I turned twenty-five (25!). This was my first grand anniversary. The next one, I was told, is usually celebrated at the age of fifty, and then seventy-five. Then, if determined, diligent and persistent enough, one hits the road to centenary. But let’s not go that far. Not yet. As of today, my mileage is only a quarter-century. To praise the occasion, there was lots of chocolate chip gelato in the afternoon; as much wine and pizza shared with my friends Cortney and Martijn, and Katharina at radiant sunset; and giggle after giggle after giggle in between. Besides, as all grand anniversaries go, mine was full of reminiscing of times bygone and tastes forgotten. Then, between hearty laughs and numerous ‘cheers!’, there was sadness. And even tears, the ones that mischievously wet your eyes when your parents call you to congratulate their daughter with her first ‘big’ birthday, and you try to sound frolicking and cheerful telling them about your plans for the evening (like I said, wine and pizza) while the treacherous tears drop-drop-drop along your cheeks as if beads of water dripping from a thawing icicle. And despite the black, ink-ish stains of mascara all over my face (the performance like that I usually reserve for the end of the day, not for the nascent morning), I kind of liked those tears. I welcomed them. In my world, they were the heralds of the end of the cold war I silently announced to myself years ago.

I’ll tell you the fable. In my thirteenth summer, I decided that to be Russian was not actually so nice. There was nothing to be proud of, I’m sure you’d hear me say so at the time. My current understanding is that it had something to do with the dark communist past, the way a newly-born post-soviet Russia was portrayed in the western media as a country where wild, pigeon-footed bears tumbled along city streets, not to mention villages and small towns; where people drank vodka as if it were pure water and even fed it to babies; where mafia governs the authorities; and some such stuff. Nobody in my family, nobody I knew, was anything of those things. Yet it did not prevent me from feeling uber-guilty for crimes others had made (there is always the black sheep in the family, you know). I was a hyper-sensitive adolescent, so no wonder that after hearing such stories from the western travelers I developed a deep national shame soon enough. I made sure everybody in my surroundings knew my then newly-acquired wisdom according to which being Russian equaled being inferior. I informed my school mates, my parents, all my extended family members, even my neighbours about the situation. I was relentless. I can’t stress enough how much I would cringe when asked where I hail from. I can’t be certain, but I sometimes think some mass murderers would not feel as guilty about their bloody misdeeds as I felt about my country of origin. Since I turned twelve, the national blame was gnawing on me for the successive thirteen years.

A slow change was set in motion last fall. I arrived in Amsterdam to do my master studies in English Linguistics. In Amsterdam, I bought a book of short stories by Chekhov, one of the most prominent Russian authors of the 19th century onwards. The book was in English. (Did I tell you that irony and I, we live next-door to each other?) From it, I didn’t find the answers to the questions who’s guilty and what to do. Rather, the beauty and meaningfulness of Chekov’s word and his insights into Russian life, and the fact that Chekhov and I, we both, although centuries apart, were born in Rostov oblast, he in Taganrog, I in Shakhty, got me thinking, ‘Wow, I come from a country of this man… Blimey, I come from Russia.’

And then there is food.

In Russian South, sour cherries, sun-drenched and plump, are in season now. Them I miss painfully, since as I was growing up, I developed a habit of eating the goodness straight from a tree -- my family used to own a small country house with a tiny garden/orchard -- and spitting the cherry pits in air. From summer to summer, the ritual was sacred. In Amsterdam, I can afford these cherries only by the pound, or even less. I buy them now not so much for eating (5 euro per pound is just crazy) as for my yearning to remember the sunny days in the country house on the bank of the river Don, my grandmother’s pleasantly tart turnovers with sour cherries, eaten piping hot, at a wooden table with a plastic poppy-patterned tablecloth on the veranda…Talk about Proustian memory flashbacks.

More than the cherries, I miss my parents. In times long gone, they would bend over my bed early in the morning on my birthday, holding a plateful of dewy straw- and rasp berries, red currants and, you guessed it right, sour cherries, along with a bunch of meadow chamomiles from a market, and congratulate me, still sleepy. I, of course, would at first make a scene, pretending to be angry for being awaken at such an ungodly hour, but then, as soon as I’d recall it was my birthday, I’d show a sunny disposition and accept the birthday gifts. Oh memories!

All this is to say that I finally got it: for me, Russia isn’t anymore a piece of land, or a political regime. It’s solely my memories – of my childhood; of my father and mother, and my extended family; of people whose gardens I polluted with cherry pits…

So today, as somebody – and abroad, there is always such somebody -- addresses to me their dislikes of present Russian politicians or of past communist regime, I say, Sorry, can’t help it. I am not responsible for those. If you want to speak about Chekhov, or about Russian food, or about ordinary Russians, I am at your service. For the rest, direct your quarries elsewhere. Yes, I would say as much. Like I said, I am relentless.

With that, I think I’m going to have a bowl of sour cherries now.

[My Dear Reader, please take my apologies for not offering you any recipe today; I am still recovering after my birthday pizza marathon. Four of us – Cortney, Martijn, Katharina, and I -- we had five pizzas in a space of one sunny evening, on a bench by the best Italian pizzeria in Amsterdam. For those of you who may be interested, the place is called da Portare Via, which is on Leliegracht 34. Before I forget, did I tell you I burnt my tongue when dealing with pizza number five, Quattro Formaggi, the one with four smelly cheeses atop? Cheese, it seems, is going to be the story of my life.]