Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 2

9 November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls, marking the end of the division between the East and the West. Within a year, the Eastern Bloc ceases to exist.
27 August 1991: following the failed Soviet August Coup, Moldova, like most other republics in the USSR that haven’t done so yet, declares its independence.
8 December 1991: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly meet to declare the Soviet Union dissolved.
25 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly resigns as the President of the USSR, and that office ceases to exist.

The communist dream is over. Everywhere across the Empire, the red flag is taken down, statues of Lenin dismantled, the Hammer and Sickle emblems on buildings and monuments desecrated.

Well, almost everywhere.Transnistria - Entering Tiraspol

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Venison and Root Vegetable Tourtière

Some readers may remember the tourtière du lac from M. Wells Steakhouse, a debauchery of game meat encased in pie crust that fits quite well with my somewhat idealized conception of Eastern European cuisine — the one wherein everyone hunts for their own food, and then spends their days making excessive yet elaborate recipes overflowing with meat, root vegetables, rich sauces, and pie crust.

As much as I loved the idea, I was a little disappointed that the various meats in M. Wells’ version were hard to distinguish from one another and suggested offering fewer meats, with variations on texture instead. Putting my money where my mouth is, I started working on my own venison-centric version.

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Venison and Beet Sausages

I’ve already posted recipes for goose sausageslake trout sausages, salmon sausages (with beef fat). With two deer in the freezer, venison sausages were the natural thing to do next, and I might very well come up with more than one version. Today’s venison sausages are made with beets.

Beets contain a flavor compound called geosmin that’s responsible for their earthy taste. In fact, the word geosmin comes from “earthy smell” in Greek. This is the same compound that you find in red wine with earthy notes, and fish with a muddy taste (more on this here). I couldn’t find a list of the flavor compounds in venison, but in my sausages, the smell from the beets serves as a subtle reminder of the deer’s natural habitat. While you can’t really pinpoint the beet flavor in the final product, you do taste something that complements the flavorful venison meat.

Venison Sausages

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Red Alert: Petrossian

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

PetrossianPetrossian, just a block south of Central Park in Midtown, is a strange beast. Contrary to what many people might think, it’s really not a Russian restaurant. It’s an “expensive ingredient” restaurant. And yet there’s a Russian connection. Kind of. Armenian, rather. Sort of.

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Lake Ontario Yellow Perch Ukha, Perch Fritters, and Perch Roe Croutons

Russian Cuisine - Perch Ukha

When I posted about my recent yellow perch frenzy on Lake Ontario, I forgot to mention one important fact that connects my ice fishing endeavors to the theme of this blog: yellow perch is closely related to the European perch, which is very popular with anglers in Eastern Europe.

In kitchens back in Mother Russia, perch is often smoked, fried, baked, or boiled, and served with all kinds of vegetables and mushrooms. It’s often the fish of choice for making ukha, a Russian fish soup that’s almost as thin as a broth.

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Lake Ontario Yellow Perch (Small and Large), Tomatoes, and Very Green Cabbage

My ice-fishing track record has been pretty disappointing this year. Disappointing as in not a single fish caught all season. Same as last year, come to think of it. I do feel like I know better what I’m doing: I read books, I talk to the locals, I sort of know where to look, I drill a lot of holes, I keep track of lake depth and structure. Sometimes I even see blips that look like fish on my sonar.

But all winter long, the fish didn’t bite. At least not my lines. Three times I’ve been to Saratoga Lake, reputed to one of the best fishing lakes in New York State — and got nothing. I spent a day on Lake George, dragging my sled though a foot of snow, struggling against incessant gusts of wind to prevent my gear from getting buried and my holes from freezing over — still nothing. Meanwhile, Outdoorsman Bill was parading on his web site with his daily bucketloads of perch and Putin-worthy pike.

I needed help. I wanted my own bucket of perch. So I made the five-hour drive to see Bill last weekend.

Lake Ontario - Ice Fishing - Yellow Perch

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Red Alert: Les 400 Coups in Montreal

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

Les 400 Coups Les 400 Coups, in Old Montreal, is one of Montreal’s best restaurants, and it specializes in local ingredients and seasonal cuisine. Red? Well, maybe this should just be an Orange Alert. None of this food is strictly Eastern European, but a few dishes certainly pinged my radar. They’re inspiring, as they’re made with ingredients typically found in Eastern Europe: trout paired with yogurt and beets, and arctic char served with sea-buckthorn and rye.

It’s been a slow time for bright, commie-red alerts, and it’s rare to see something in a restaurant of this caliber. I guess Daniel Boulud and his fellow three-Michelin-star chefs don’t often wake up thinking, “Let’s put a Beef Stroganoff on the menu today”. Or perhaps it’s just that Thomas Keller doesn’t give me a call when he adds a coulibiac to his tasting prix-fixe. So for now, let’s enjoy some French-Canadian, expertly prepared seafood…
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Cognitive Russian Beet Salad

Since I’m spending a week at the IBM food truck for the SXSW festival in Austin and don’t have a kitchen to work on my own recipes, let’s turn to Watson to make us something. (If you wonder what a food truck created by IBM looks like in the field, check out this article and video on Engadget.)

When I introduced the Cognitive Cooking technology, I explained how computers could be creative, and create novel and tasty recipes. It’s worth noting that rather than making all the decisions by itself, our technology engages in a dialog with the users, with repeated back-and-forth interactions between people and the computer. Yes, a machine can be creative, but more importantly, it can help humans be more creative themselves.

Cognitive Cooking - Russian Beet Salad

The Russian beet salad that James Briscione created is a great example. We started with beet as the main ingredient, and naturally chose Russian cuisine for inspiration, due to beets’ long association with Eastern European cuisine. James decided to make a salad, because this was sufficiently vague that he could have more flexibility in the preparation and the plating. The system came back with the following list of ingredients: beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, parsley, red wine vinegar, butter, white beans, pickles, prunes, black pepper (no margarine this time ;)). Sure enough, these were all very Russian. But did they really all go well together? We certainly hadn’t seen a salad quite like this anywhere else.

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Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 1

Welcome to Gagauzia

With only three and a half million inhabitants and a territory smaller than the New York metropolitan area, one might think that Moldova doesn’t have any ethnic conflicts. The composition of the population seems pretty straightforward: 70% Moldovans, followed essentially by ethnicities from neighboring countries, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Russians. Ah yes, Russia… Sure enough, this last bunch, concentrated in the border region of Transnistria, didn’t really welcome Moldova’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. If you check on a map, Russia’s not even a neighbor of the new state.

But Transnistria is a story for another day. In this post, I’m looking at a much lesser-known dissension, and the fate of a handful of irreducible freedom-loving, eastward-looking people of mysterious decent, who once declared themselves independent even one month before Transnistria. The Gagauz!

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The Chef, the Computer, and the Baltic Apple Pie

I usually don’t speak about my day job on this blog, mostly because it has nothing whatsoever to do with adventures in Eastern Bloc cuisine. Or rather, it didn’t until recently…

About two years ago, a small team of researchers at IBM (including yours truly) started working on computational creativity. By winning on Jeopardy, IBM has shown that computers can make inferences about the world as it is. But could they also be creative, and produce quality artifacts that have never been seen before? To investigate, we built a cognitive cooking system.

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