So spring is here (sort of — it was still 35 F in upstate New York yesterday). While I still have dozens of yellow perch from a recent ice fishing trip, I’m starting to see spring vegetables here and there. As the freezer must be emptied and the vegetables consumed in the name of seasonality, I wanted to create a dish to celebrate the transition from winter to spring.
The idea to make a blueberry pie started with a rather prolific day of blueberry picking last summer at Fishkill Farms, which left us with way more berries than we really needed to make preserves. Having found a recipe for blueberry pie filling, I decided to give it a try.
It didn’t strike me, then, how misguided this solution was for the original problem. First off, we ended up with even more jars than we would have if we’d just done a bunch of preserves, and these jars further reduced our usable refrigerator space, sitting next to my bric-a brac of wine bottles, sausage casings, and onion jams (a piece of advice if you ever make onion jam: no matter how good it tastes, you probably won’t eat quite so much of it). Second, my regular readers — and WordPress tells me they really do exist! — will probably have noticed that opening a jar, pouring its contents into a store-bought crust, and calling it a day isn’t exactly the style we go for on this blog.
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.
I’ve already posted recipes for goose sausages, lake 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was recently reading about potato waffles in Culinaire Saisonnier, and it sounded to me like an original, yet also forehead-slappingly obvious, alternative to potato pancakes. I started to picture a decadent waffle oozing with caviar, though down-to-earth material considerations soon had me downgrading to salmon roe. I wanted to transform the idea into a recipe quickly, instead of putting it in my to-do queue where it might have sat for years. This is also a good recipe for Valentine’s Day, your last big excuse to overindulge until next fall’s holiday season!
I’ve written countless times about khachapuri. This cheese bread is featured in each of my Georgian restaurant reviews at least once, if not more, and it appears on the menus of many Russian restaurants too. I’ve posted my Adjaran version, but I’ve never posted an Imeretian khachapuri, the simplest kind, which consists of a round bread stuffed with cheese. Many would consider it to be Georgia’s national dish
The reason why I’ve waited so long is that I wanted it to be really good. I’m sure I’ve read most of the khachapuri recipes ever published, and I’ve tried a good dozen different formulas. I also had to make my own cheese, which took yet more time to perfect; I’ve posted my takes on Imeretian cheese and sulguni recently.
Nothing’s ever really perfect, but the state I’ve reached satisfies me for now. Before I change my mind and decide to do a few more batches to find more details to improve upon, let’s talk about various criteria of a good Imeretian khachapuri…
- According to Tinatin Mjavanadze’s Georgia with Taste, the cheese should be only Imeretian, so that the khachapuri still tastes good when you eat the leftovers cold. A bread made with sulguni would have the texture of cold pizza, and many people don’t like that. I’m not a supporter of leftover bread, but the goal is still commendable. I’ve made sure my khachapuri’s still great when eaten cold, although I’ve found I can achieve this while still using some percentage of sulguni.
- In the Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, khachapuri is described as a baked good “with high cheese content”. Pokhlebkin suggests a cheese-to-flour ratio by weight around 2:1, and my formula’s pretty close to that — I use slightly more cheese, even! Yes, it does take an awful lot of cheese to make a khachapuri. I’ve “discarded” (read: forced myself and my family to eat) countless versions that were too doughy.
- Since it’s such a staple, there’s the idea that one should be able to prepare khachapuri quickly if need be. My recipe is indeed quite easy, with a yeast-free dough that contains matsoni (Georgian yogurt), another must-have ingredient. You don’t really have to make your own cheese; a blend of feta and mozzarella works quite well (more on this another time).
- As far as I’m concerned, a good khachapuri should reach what I call the fat saturation point, both in the dough and the cheese mixture. Add more butter to the dough, and it will become too soft. Add more cheese, and you’ll start seeing drops of grease in your cooked khachapuri. The proportions below strike just the right balance.
Yields 2 khachapuri of 9″ diameter
5 oz plain whole milk yogurt
1 1/2 eggs
11 oz flour, sifted
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
3.5 oz butter, soft
- Place the yogurt and eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment. Add about 2/3 of the flour with the salt and baking powder, and mix over medium speed until homogeneous.
- Add the butter and the rest of the flour, and mix again.
- Remove the bowl from the mixer, and knead the dough by hand for about one minute. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Yields 1 khachapuri of 9″ diameter
- Preheat the oven to 450 F, and place a dish full of water on the bottom rack.
- Slice the Imeretian cheese and sulguni. In a bowl, crumble both cheeses between your fingers. Season with black pepper, and adjust the salt level if necessary — the mixture should taste quite salty, but still be edible! I use an extra 1/4 tsp with my homemade cheeses.
- On a floured surface, roll the dough to an 11″ diameter disc (the shape doesn’t need to be perfect at this point). If you’re a perfectionist, make the edges a bit thinner. Place the cheese mixture in the center.
- Fold the dough over the cheese, just like you would wrap something in a hankerchief. Make sure the overlaps are minimal, otherwise you will end up with some very doughy areas.
- Flip over, and gently roll back to an 9″ diameter disc.
- Transfer the khachapuri to a baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper. Mix the egg yolk and water in a cup, and brush the dough with the resulting egg wash.
- Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Let cool 5 minutes, then serve.