Plombir, Russian Ice Cream

You might remember seeing plombir ice cream in some of my restaurant reviews, such as Mari Vanna and Ariana, and wondering what makes it different. Plombir takes its name from the French glace Plombières, a vanilla ice cream mixed with bits of candied fruits marinated in kirsch. However, it bears little resemblance to the original. As explained in Russian standard ГОСТ 31457-2012, plombir is defined by its nutrient composition, not its flavor. Indeed, for an ice cream to be called plombir, the fat content must be between 12% and 20%, and the sugar content 14% or above. There’s also a threshold for the total “dry substrance” content, which, I assume, represents the total amount of solids: it must exceed 37-42%, depending on the fat content. In other words, it’s much richer than your typical ice cream, especially if you err on the side of the upper bounds.

Of course, I have my own set of ice cream formulas, courtesy of Frozen Desserts. Putting it all together, I chose a fat content on the higher side, and worked backwards to find the perfect sugar content, which still turned out to be equally massive — this is definitely no diet ice cream. Next came the question of flavor. Although one can be make a plombir with pretty much anything, the most typical flavors in my experience are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, with vanilla leading by a wide margin. So I stuck to vanilla but I also added honey, to make all that sugar somewhat more flavorful. There are no alcohol-macerated candied fruits here, but in the Russian tradition, my plombir is topped with a preserve-like sauce laced with Armenian brandy (a soviet-inspired nod to the kirsch in glace Plombières), thus creating something that’s almost half plombir and half Plombières. You can use any fruit you like, and I’m presenting both an apricot-brandy sauce (its acidity helps cut the fatty richness of the ice cream), and a booze-free strawberry sauce (because a sauce made with ripe strawberries is always delicious). The key is to go easy on the sugar.

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Ukrainian Snapshot: Odessa Airport, September 2005

Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).

For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.

I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.

Plane to Odessa

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Yellow Perch Mousse, Eggplant Caviar, and Buckwheat Puff Pastry

Although my last ice-fishing trip brought back 100 yellow perch, some of them were smaller than others, to put it mildly. Once the heads, tails, skin, and bones were removed, I often ended up with fillets the size of my pinky. Lots of them. So just as when I made fish cutlets in a recent post, I decided to call my blender to the rescue once again, and make a fish mousse.

Since this is a Russian food blog, I had a good idea of the flavors I wanted to pair with the fish:

  • Buckwheat. I must say I’m very happy with this buckwheat puff pastry. I’m sure I didn’t invent it (a quick Googling shows a handful of matches), but it really tastes quite good.
  • Eggplant and parsley. You might recall a previous eggplant caviar recipe of mine, but this one is different, as the vegetables are 100% eggplant and I use gelatine to hold it together before sprinkling it with chopped parsley.
  • Dill. In Russia, the dish would probably have called for an entire bunch of dill. Here I’m just adding a little bit in my whipped cream rosettes. You could also try skipping the dill cream and adding the dill directly to the terrine instead.

Russian Cuisine - Yellow Perch Mousse, Eggplant Caviar and Buckwheat Puffs

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Chef Watson and the Russian Sour Cherry Barbecue Sauce

Back in February, I wrote about Cognitive Cooking, a project that I work on at IBM wherein computers help humans create flavorful, never-seen before recipes, such as this Baltic apple pie or this Russian beet salad. We’ve been quite busy since then, and our prototype, renamed Chef Watson, is getting ready for prime time. We released our first beta of the application to the public about a month ago, in partnership with Bon Appetit magazine. You can read all about it here, and register here.

One Chef Watson creation that’s drawn a fair amount of attention is the Bengali butternut BBQ sauce, a recipe that we designed just before the IBM food truck went to SXSW. But we actually tested two recipe ideas back then at the Institute of Culinary Education. The second one, a Russian sour cherry sauce, was never completed because we decided to go with the first one, but I still felt that it could be a great recipe with a little more tweaking of the proportions. Plus, it fits this blog’s theme perfectly! So I worked on a few more batches myself.

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Switching to the Metric System

I’ve been thinking for a while about using the metric system to weigh all the ingredients in my recipes. This is what many professional kitchens do, by the way. I long ago abandoned nonsensical cup measurements. I’ve made a reasonable effort to keep using ounces, but when it comes to spices and such, it just doesn’t make much sense. Teaspoons aren’t any more helpful, unless you’re using 1/16 increments.

From now on, I will measure all my ingredients in grams, unless the recipe requires a specific count of a given ingredient (one tomato, two eggs…). Dimensions will be similarly measured in millimeters or centimeters.

Let’s face it: if you’ve tried my recipes, you must already have a scale, and it can most certainly display weight in metric units (please don’t tell me you’re using an analogue model). So this change will only make your life simpler! Because at the end of the day, that’s is what it’s about: simplicity. No measuring spoons, measuring cups, hexadecimal conversions between pounds and ounces. Just put everything on your scale and measure away! Proteins, liquids, flour, cereal, seasoning — no job’s too large or too small!

Metric System

Romanian Post – Centennial of the metric system in Romania – 1966

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Restaurant Review: Ariana

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Ariana, in Greenwich Village, is the brain child of Russian singer Ariana Grinblat. According to the web site, Ariana “has decided it’s time to update Russian cuisine in America”, and we at Food Perestroika couldn’t agree more. With the help of Mari Vanna alum Vitaliy Kovalev “from St. Petersburg” (presumably Russia, not Florida), she’s “looking to shock your senses, and redefine what you thought you knew about Russian food”. Of course we’ve heard that song before, everywhere from nearby Groupon-magnet Onegin claiming to serve “Russian fusion” to the short-lived midtown Brasserie Pushkin with its world champion chef and pricey menu. Will our senses be shocked in a good way this time around, or will we end up eating the same old shoe-sole Stroganoff and overcooked cabbage rolls? Read on to find out!

Russian Cuisine - Ariana

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Kremlin Menu Watch, Part 4

Vladimir Putin’s been pretty busy lately. No fishing party this year. He must protect Crimea and the Motherland’s citizens against the anarchy of evil neighbor Ukraine! To recharge his batteries, he was served a seven-course dinner at the 2014 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. On the menu were such delicacies as smoked sturgeon salad, white asparagus soup with caviar, and… Crimean flounder.

I couldn’t find the entire menu, let alone the recipes, so I’ll reiterate my usual complaint: nobody (except maybe a fraction of the attendees) actually gives a damn about what was discussed at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Okay, so the theme — “Sustaining Confidence in a World Undergoing Transformation”— is doubtlessly dear to Mr. Putin’s heart, given his fondness for transforming the world at his borders. Now just tell us what all those bigwigs ate!

Kremlin Menu Watch

At a meeting with members of the Russian Direct Investment Fund international expert council and international investors. Photo by the Presidential Press and Information Office.

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Back from Albania

I spent the last ten days in Albania, drinking mojitos on the beach, driving on mountain roads that give Georgia’s worst nothing to envy, doing some bunker sightseeing, and taking angered gas station attendants to ATMs. Of course, much local food was had. Stay tuned for recipes and travel stories!

Albania

Venison Steak, Red Beet-Cranberry Purée, and Country Fried Potatoes

As we’ve eaten our way through the deer I killed last fall, I’ve started cooking some of the backstraps, those beautiful 20+-inch-long pieces of loin. I’m thrilled to say that this is without a doubt the best venison steak I’ve ever eaten, and it has totally justified spending three days in a tree strand. The meat is both pleasantly gamy and butter-tender, thus surpassing beef filet mignon. And unlike restaurant servings that often consist of one tiny little medallion, for once quality comes with quantity! 

Summer may just have started, but read this post again in a month when the temperature hits 100 F and your AC breaks down. Imagine yourself in your mythical Russian dacha in the fall. After a fructuous hunt some previous day, you decide to hit the woods again to look for mushrooms after last night’s storm, and fill a basket within a few hours. You happen to walk by a cranberry bush on your way home, and fill another basket, patting yourself on the back for never leaving the house without two empty baskets. Before going into the kitchen, you stop in your garden, where, of course, you always grow beautiful red beets. And you still have potatoes from the last harvest. Skipping the part where you milk the cow, you collect the cream and make butter, you contemplate nature’s bounty as you pause between two chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you notice, almost in passing, that you now have all the ingredients for a dish that combines the five tastes: steak that will be properly seasoned with salt, a beet-cranberry purée that’s acidic, bitter, and sweet at the same time, and umami-packed mushrooms.

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Moldovan Impressions: The Cognac

In my previous Moldovan Impressions, we explored the local culinary traditions, visited the wine cellars, and discovered the renegade republics. We will soon leave Moldova to move on to stories of neighboring Ukraine, but before that, a little digestive is in order.

In capitalist societies, class inequality has led to Cognac being the privilege of the rich (and hip hop culture). Countries that were not so long ago devoted to socialism have been quick to try to replicate the Western lifestyle, in their rush to establish market economies (and hip hop culture). Meanwhile, bourgeois distilleries have ensured their monopoly through an appellation contrôlée — a rather dubious one, when you think of it, for a beverage whose double distillation most certainly erases any trace of terroir.

In the Soviet Union, however, the Politburo and the proletariat shared the same luxuries throughout the Empire. If brandy production started in both the Caucasus and Bessarabia at the end of the 19th century, one can thank communism for the spirit’s true democratization. Indeed, in 1978, the Ministry of the Food Industry decreed that every Soviet Republic must produce its own ordinary “cognac”. In Moldova, one producer of both the aged brandy and the democratic version (called Белый Aист, “White Stork”), was Kvint, in Tiraspol.

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