Albanian Frogs’ Legs, Fried Mussels, and Rice Balls

I have not yet started writing stories about my recent trip to Albania, but one of my surprising discoveries there was definitely the food. Albanian cuisine reflects the country’s geographical variety (from sea to mountain) and the cultural influences of its neighbors (Greece, former Yugoslavia, and Italy, just across the Straight of Otranto).

Today’s recipe is inspired by a dinner I had in Gjirokastra, at the restaurant Kujtimi. Although Gjirokastra is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River in southern Albania, it’s only an hour away from the sea line, and the menu at Kujtimi offers grilled meats, as well as fried mussels, trout, and frogs’ legs. There are also a few local specialties, such as qifqi, rice balls with egg and herbs. Since most of these dishes are prepared very simply and served without garnish, I chose to combine several of them on a single plate, with a few personal additions.

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Signature Russian Amuse-Bouche: Potato Chip, King Crab, Brains, and Caviar

Here’s a bite-sized dish to kick-off the holiday season in style! This very Russian combination seamlessly mixes poor and rich man’s ingredients, with potato and brains on one hand, and king crab and sturgeon caviar on the other. It’s not the first time I’ve paired crab and caviar (see here), and I’ve also posted recipes for pork brains and veal brains before. Combining the brains with crab, however, proves to be particularly successful, resulting in a creamy mixture that’s both delicious and approachable — the brains are nearly unrecognizable.

This makes for a great amuse-bouche with a drink before dinner. It’s just salty enough to make you thirsty, and rich enough to help you absorb the alcohol. And so you won’t be mistaken, this is to be consumed with moderation: after excluding water content, almost 50% of both pork brains and caviar is fat. And I won’t even talk about the potato chips and butter…

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Stuffed Vegetable Shashlyks, Eggplant and Zucchini Caviar

So you spent your summer preparing exotic shashlyks on the mangal. Making a döner kebab holds no secrets for you anymore. You’ve mastered the art of the lyulya-kebab, whether with meat or potatoes. And now you’re wondering: what else could you possibly put on a skewer to further defy gravity? How about stuffed vegetables, skewered transversely with their stuffing hanging dangerously over the hot coals?

This is more than just a dare, of course — it also makes for a delicious kebab! The idea again comes from Stalik Khankishiev, who briefly mentions it in Bazar, Kazan i Dastarkhan without giving an exact recipe. Thanks to yours truly, you’ll now have exact proportions and instructions, and you don’t even need to learn Russian.

Stuffed Vegetable Shashlyk

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Signature Sauce Base: Tomato Jus

When it comes to food photography, one thing you hear over and over is “natural light, natural light, natural light”. This is certainly true, but it doesn’t help me with shooting dinner in a Manhattan apartment. Maybe if I only cooked in July…

Anyway, I’m not alone, and I’ve found some useful, practical, and affordable tips from some bloggers like Pinch of Yum. So I recently acquired a Lowel Ego Digital Imaging Fluorescent Light and a piece of wood modestly called “Naturally Distressed Recycled Rustic Weathered Boards” on Etsy. To celebrate, I decided to do what a certain category of food blogs (usually the ones that swear only by natural light) seems to revel in ad nauseum: a pedestrian recipe with totally superfluous pretty pictures.

Well, not quite pedestrian. Even though you’ll find a few recipes elsewhere, tomato jus isn’t as hackneyed as cupcakes or cinnamon rolls yet. I’ve actually already blogged about it in my Russian pork shashlyk post, and I plan to use it some more. This version is extremely simple — no herbs, no garlic — but it tastes really good, partly because the jus isn’t mixed with stock or any other liquid.

Tomato Jus

Does the world need another picture of tomatoes on wooden planks? Of course it does!

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Bigos, Polish Hunter’s Stew

A national dish of Poland, bigos is a traditional meat-and-cabbage stew, often referred to as a hunter’s stew. The history of bigos stretches back to the 14th century: supposedly, Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila, who became king of Poland, served it to his hunting-party guests. The stew is also mentioned in Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem written by Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th century:

In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food,
You need health, live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of no mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.

(You’ll notice that historically, bigos is actually more Lithuanian than Polish!)

Bigos, Polish Hunter's Stew

The recipe’s pretty flexible, but one requirement is that there should be lots of different meats — hence the figurative meaning of bigos in Polish, “big mess”. The more festive the occasion, the more varied the composition. Pork, beef, and lamb are all good, as well as game meats like venison or hare, on account of the hunting connection. Smoked meats are also welcome, whether sausages, bacon, or ham. As for the cabbage, sauerkraut and fresh cabbage, or a mix thereof, are all acceptable.

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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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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.

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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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