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Grilling with Peat, Russian Pork Shashlyks and Potato Lyulya-Kebabs

I’ve been using natural wood for grilling shashlyks and other kebabs for quite a while now (I explained the process in my lyulya-kebab recipe post). The wood smoke certainly imparts some flavor, but the relatively short cooking time of a kebab means that the exposure, especially on an open grill, isn’t sufficient to achieve the same results as, say, traditional American barbecue. While I don’t want to turn my meat into something that only smells like smoke, I’ve been searching for some middle ground.

Looking at other smoked products, there’s one prominent example where tradition turned to a different combustible, more for reasons of availability than flavor in the beginning: Scotch whisky. You might not think of Scotch as a smoked product, and yet… Historically, peat was used in places where it was the only consistent source of fuel, such as Islay. The peat smoke would permeate the malted barley drying in the kilns, and the flavor of the whiskies produced owed so much to that smoke that distilleries retained the practice even after technology rendered it no longer necessary. The aroma of burning peat is so intense in fact that it’s called peat-reek. You can read more about the influence of peat on whisky here.

This is all well and good, but this is a Russian food blog, not a Scottish food blog. But wait — aren’t there other parts of the world that have peat?

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Russian Waste-Not Burger

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen some recent tweets about my upcoming talk on the Future of Food at TED@IBM. One of themes I’ll be discussing is food waste, and how recipe-generating Chef Watson can help. About 1/3 of the food produced worldwide is wasted, and consumers have their share of responsibility. According to a recent article on Yahoo, the five most wasted foods at home are sour cream, produce (especially celery), fresh herbs (like parsley and cilantro), citrus, and bread. So I decided to give Chef Watson a spin. I tried to input all five ingredients and create something with a Russian influence. The system offered me a few options. Crostini was probably the most straightforward dish to use large amounts of these ingredients, but sandwiches and burgers seemed more creative to me. I went for the awkwardly named “Russian celery, parsley, lemon juice, sour cream and bread” burger.

Russian Burger - made with 5 most wasted foodsChef Watson got back to me with ideas that were both inspiring and slightly puzzling. I have to admit some of the ingredients aren’t all that quintessentially Russian. Fennel and olives, really? That might make sense in Bulgaria, but much less so in Russia. However, a) all the ingredients go really well together, b) I can live with a Russian-Bulgarian burger, and c) there are indeed many Russian elements: the tomatoes, pickles, sour cream, rye bread, and veal. Besides, all in all, this is a really good burger.

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Ukrainian Snapshot: Vylkove, July 2013

Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).

Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.

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Caucasian Plombir-Apricot-Baklava Sundae

I’m not the world’s biggest dessert eater, but lately I’ve been thinking about ice cream sundaes whenever I have a craving for sweets, probably because the excessive combination of ice cream, sauce, and crunchy bits is guaranteed to deliver the goods if only in terms of quantity and sugar. During a recent dinner at Alder, I finished my meal with a delicious carrot cake sundae (even though I don’t usually like carrot cake or white chocolate). This reminded me how great a sundae can be when it’s well done, which it rarely is. Indeed, it seems that in most restaurants one always ends up with either cheap or poorly formulated ice cream, Hershey’s-like syrup, or inadequate glassware.

So of course, this means it’s time for me to come up with my own Eastern Bloc version. I already had the plombir ice cream and the apricot sauce to get started, but I needed something crunchy. And chocolate. And more Food-Perestroika-worthy flavors! Baklava seemed like the perfect solution: it’s not something you’d expect in a sundae, it’s made with honey just like my plombir, and like the apricots it can be be found in the Caucasus (where there aren’t enough desserts in my opinion). For the chocolate sauce, I opted for a dark chocolate and black tea combination, on top of whipped cream laced with more honey. Honey, nuts, apricot, chocolate, black tea: the result is sweet, sour, bitter, not too alien yet not totally hackneyed, and quite addictive.

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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 substance” 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.

Plombir, Russian Ice Cream Continue reading

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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