Friday, February 1, 2013

Sautéed potatoes with mushrooms

This is the ultimate Russian winter comfort food, and it's very easy to make. The only secret is, the potatoes and the mushrooms have to be cooked separately, then combined just before serving. Why can't we make it a one-skillet meal? Because the mushrooms need salt early, to help them release their water and become crisp; the potatoes, on the other hand, cook best without salt, that will make them break down and lose their shape, if added too early.

Here I made this dish with store-bought crimini mushrooms. Back in Russia we used any type of foraged forest mushrooms, with even more delicious results, or, in the middle of the winter, when no fresh mushrooms were available, we would rinse pickled mushrooms to remove the brine, and then proceed with the recipe.

I like to season my mushrooms with a little thyme, garlic, and fresh ground pepper. Most Russian cooks go for sautéed onions, and leave out the pepper. Try it both ways. Both are good.

Sautéed potatoes with mushrooms
Serves four

For the potatoes:
2 Tbsp olive oil
5 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Sea salt

Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes, cook, stirring occasionally, until almost tender. Season with sea salt, continue cooking until cooked through.

For the mushrooms:
2 Tbsp olive oil
8 oz crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/8 inch thin
Sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper
2 large garlic cloves, minced
5-6 thyme sprigs, leaves picked, stems discarded

Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, season generously with salt and pepper. Cook until the mushrooms release the liquid and it evaporates. Add garlic and thyme. Continue cooking until mushrooms and garlic are browned.

Combine potatoes with mushrooms, serve as a side to braised meat, or on their own.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Colors of winter

Short days, cold rains, the flu season... This is when we need more vitamins in our diet, to fight off this cold, and more colors on our plates, to add cheer to the long nights in front of the fire. Luckily, here in California, the winter farmers market supplies both.

Winter vegetables come in a palette of soft whites, muted purples, deep greens, and warm yellows; they go well with the gold of roasted chicken and duck, deep browns of braised meats, and the neutral tones of earthy grains. They prefer slow, thoughtful cooking techniques; they are complimented with sturdy winter herbs - thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, parsley. Winter vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and micro-nutrients that help us survive the cold and boost our energy when we need it most.

Beets come in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, golden, white. Slice very young, tender raw beets for salads, both roots and tops. Roast larger beets for salads, soups, or to serve as a side dish: trim the greens, leaving 1 inch attached (save the greens to add to soups or braised greens), wash the beets, place them in an oven-proof dish, add 2-3 Tbsp water, cover with aluminum foil, roast at 400 degrees until tender (pierce with a wooden pick through the foil to check), 30-60 minutes, depending on the size; let cool, peel. The beets are complimented with balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic, truffle oil, thyme.

Broccoli adds emerald green color and a wealth of minerals to the plate. Separate the florets, peel and slice the stems, steam in a steamer or in a microwave until tender, refresh in ice water to stop cooking and to preserve the color. My favorite way to serve the broccoli is as a cold salad with dried cranberries and sliced almonds, with a dressing of almond butter, Tamari soy sauce, and olive oil.

Brussels sprouts like to steam, sauté, or roast. They are complimented by garlic, lemon (grate the rind over them, squeeze the juice), and mild olive oil.

Cabbage comes in green and red, and in plain and crinkled Savoy varieties. The large outer leaves, blanched, make wrappers for cabbage rolls, with rice, vegetables, meats, or anything. The tender center leaves go into soups and sautés. Green cabbages have an affinity with apples, pears, caraway seed, white wine, and onions. All cabbages go beautifully with bacon and smoked meats.

Carrot adds sunny color, sweetness and vitamins to everything it touches. There are white, gold, and purple varieties too. Love it raw!

Cauliflower is not just a white flower. It's also gold, green, and purple flower! All colors do well steamed until almost tender, then sautéed, or prepared ou gratin. Cream of cauliflower soup is a life-saver for people who can't tolerate milk products: the pureed cauliflower supplies the creamy texture, no cream needed.

Celery: the crunchy stalks are a perfect snack, great for dipping; the classic combination of chopped onions, celery, and carrot, sautéed in a mixture of olive oil and butter, can enhance any soup or transform a grain dish. Celery also makes a great soup on it's own. Did I mention Bloody Mary?

Chard is a close relative of beets, and the leaves come in the same palette of jewel colors, and can be used the same ways as the beet tops. Steam, sauté, braise.

Fennel, thinly sliced, adds subtle anise flavor to salads, soups and stews. It's also great prepared au gratin.

Garlic is love, and an indispensable ingredient in almost every savory, and some sweet dishes. Every time I heat up an oven to roast anything, I also toss in a head of garlic, wrapped in aluminum foil. Serve roasted garlic with a cheese and fruit plate, add it to mashed potatoes, spread it on top of steaks, mix it into sauces for roasted meats and vegetables. Large garlic cloves, sliced thin and fried in olive oil, make garlic chips, a nice garnish to meat dishes.

Grapefruit - juice it! This time of the year, we need tons of vitamin C, and the grapefruit delivers it, together with the tangy and pleasantly bitter flavor, and a wonderful aroma. Like most citrus fruits, it's a natural antidepressant.

Kale is a leafy cabbage, and it works well in the same types of preparations. I love to use kale leaves to wrap rice, vegetables, and meats, to make kale rolls. I also like it braised with onion, bacon, and white wine. Black Tuscan kale, aka Dino kale, aka "the favorite", is the darkest of them all, and has the deepest flavor and the highest vitamin content. It is friends with white beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic.

Leek, a mild, subtle green onion, works well in delicate soups. Also, try browning it in butter, than braising it with white wine and shallots, low and slow, until it's melting tender. Addictive. The white part is to eat; I use the green part to flavor stocks.

Lemon, my second main staple after garlic, is indispensable with fish and shellfish; it takes any green vegetable dish to the next level (think garlic and lemon green beans, or Meyer lemon roasted Brussels sprouts), and it's one of the best flavorings for a roasted chicken.

Mandarin: eat it out of hand, or add it to a green salad.

Onion, you already know... I like to marinate thin slices of red onion in 1 part sherry vinegar, 3 parts boiling water, with salt, sugar, and spices (whatever I'm in a mood for; say, allspice, cloves and cinnamon), to top burgers

Parsley root adds deeper, earthier flavor than parsley leaves to soups and stocks. My grandma always used the whole parsley plant, tops and roots, to make a soup. I like it her way. The root also roasts well, and is a nice, flavorful addition to roasted root vegetables.

Parsnip used to be a European staple food, before the potatoes arrived. It still mashes well, and a combination of mashed parsnips and potatoes is even better.

Potato. They say that the classic chefs toque has 101 pleats that represent 101 potato dishes that the chef knows how to make. I'm not there yet: I routinely make about 40 potato dishes. But my toque only has 17 pleats! I need a new toque. My latest favorite potato dish is smashed potatoes with garlic and herbs: boil gold, red, and purple potatoes until tender; let cool; mince garlic, thyme, rosemary, and parsley with some sea salt; spread the herb mixture on the cutting board; with the palm of your hand, smash the potatoes into the herb mixture; heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a large pan over medium heat; transfer smashed potatoes to the pan, cook until fragrant and golden, turning once.

Radish: winter radishes have thick skins and strong flavors. I like to peel them and cook them. Black Spanish and Watermelon radishes are great roasted.

Rutabaga: the big gentle "Swede" is sweet, and is at it's best roasted, or as a puree.

Turnip is sweet and crunchy. Peel it and roast it, boil it, or sauté it, then glaze it with honey and apple juice, balsamic vinegar, or soy sauce.

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Location:San Carlos, CA

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The island feast

It's always hard to come back from a vacation, especially one so perfect and food-centered as this one. Here are a few pictures from our South Pacific island feast.

Our destination was Tonga, an island kingdom located between Fiji, Samoa, and Cooks Islands, a short three-hour flight from New Zealand. From Auckland we took an Air New Zealand flight to the Tonga capital Nuku'alofa, then a charter flight in an antique 1944 DC3 airplane to the Vava'u island group, where we chartered a sailing catamaran to sail between the islands.

Picture a perfect tropical island, with a coral reef, a sandy beach, and coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, surrounded by deep blue waters, full of fish, dolphins, and whales. Now picture sixty of these islands, a few of them with little native villages or fishing resorts, most of them uninhibited, within one-hour sail from each other. This is Vava'u island group.

Tongans love their food, and are very proud of it. The local diet is based on tropical vegetables (taro, sweet potato) and fruits (coconut, pineapple, bananas), with a lot of fresh fish and shellfish, and some pork, with some potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lettuce thrown in. At the farmers market in the main town Neiafu you get a large basket of coconuts for $7 paangas ($1 paanga roughly equals 60 US cents), and a bunch of bananas or a pile of pineapples for $3 paangas.

Farmers market in Neiafu:

This is what we were using for snacks while sailing. Our regular afternoon after diving and snorkeling snack consisted of New Zealand cheese, salami, and crackers with bananas and pineapple slices, and a drink of an unripe coconut with a shot of rum poured in.

For breakfasts, I made simple omelets with bacon and cheese for those who were hungry in the morning; those who were not subsided on instant porridge, bananas, Turkish coffee and green tea.

Our divers and fishing lines proved to be useless in the South seas: the fish shied away from the divers, and it never got the lure. I had to go fishing at the farmers market. Fortunately, the local fishermen sell them (cheap) at the farmers market: spiny lobsters, barracuda, Pacific snapper, grouper, parrot fish, jacks, etc., come in fresh every morning. We grilled the snapper and trevally on board on our gas grill, and I pan-fried parrot fish fillets with fresh coconut flakes - all delicious, accompanied with a rice and vegetable pilaf, green salad, or boiled potatoes.

Parrot fish:

Cutting up a trevally:

Spiny lobster:

The highlight of the island cuisine is ota ika - raw fish - bite-size pieces of firm white fish, marinated with lemon juice, coconut cream, and vegetables, served with potato fries. This is addictive! Their fish soup is also coconut-based and delicious.

Ota ika:

Fish coconut soup:

Back to New Zealand, it was a completely different food experience. The country's main feature is rolling green hills, where they raise sheep, cows, and deer. New Zealand lamb feeds the world, but it tastes the best in New Zealand in spring. Beef and venison are fresh and tender. Even in the most touristy places you get a tender cut of meat, cooked to perfection and plated beautifully.

Rack of lamb:

Lamb chops:

Venison cooked on a hot stone:


Fish and seafood:

In Auckland, fish and seafood are great, and they do mind the presentation.

Street sushi is a Southrn Hermispere exotic, and, surprisingly, they are edible, and tasty.

Breakfasts and snacks:

Our captain's birthday falls on December, 1st. The International Date Line is set up all crooked and twisted in the South Pacific, to make sure that all the island nations are on the same time and date. So, after celebrating our captain's first ever summer birthday in Auckland by bar-hopping, we got on the plane to San Francisco on December, 2nd, and we flew into December, 1st and back into December 2nd, three more times. The turbulences didn't allow for a proper celebration on the plane, but we held tight to our wine glasses, and we toasted every one of our captains birthdays in and out!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Learning Indian home cooking

This month I started cooking for one of your typical international Californian families: the husband is from Hungary, the wife from India. Both love their native cuisines, and want to share them at the family dinner table, but with two little kids and two full-time jobs they of course need help cooking.

I have an extensive menu of Eastern-European dishes, including a few traditional Hungarian recipes, so I was able to satisfy the Hungarian side of the family just fine. My ideas of Indian cuisine, on the other hand, are limited to the menus of the local Indian lunch joints, and Californian dishes with "oriental" flavors. Luckily, the visiting Indian grandmother agreed to teach me a few traditional homemade dishes.

Today we had our first hands-on lesson:
Stir-fried cauliflower
Chicken curry

I was about to get lost in the family's well-organized spice cabinet (that takes up an entire floor-to-ceiling built-in closet), when my teacher showed me a tin box with a few spices that she uses in everyday cooking.

Clockwise from the top: cumin seed, ground cumin, turmeric, black mustard seed, asafetida, ground coriander; center, red chili powder.

Tadka, the traditional flavor base, is made of cumin, mustard and turmeric, cooked in olive oil.

1-1/2 cup yellow lentils

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
8 dried curry leaves
8 dried red chilies, with seeds, broken up
About 2 tsp (1-1/2 inch piece) jaggery (raw sugar)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped, to garnish

Cook lentils in pressure cooker with 3 cups water until very tender.

Heat oil in a pot. Add mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, curry leaves, red chilies, cooked lentils. Add water to make soup consistency, season with jaggery. Bring to boil, add chopped tomatoes, bring to boil again, serve, garnished with chopped cilantro.

Stir-fried cauliflower:

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp asafetida
2 cauliflowers, cut into bite-size pieces
4 fresh hot green chili peppers, with seeds
1 tsp salt

Heat oil in a large sauté pan. Add mustard seeds, heat until the seeds start to pop. Add cumin seed, turmeric, asafetida; add cauliflower, chilies, season with salt. Stir for a while, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, cook until soft and dry, stirring occasionally.

Chicken curry:
For the curry paste:
1 small bunch cilantro
1 small bunch mint
1 medium onion
4 large garlic cloves
3-inch piece of ginger
1 medium tomato
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp cumin seed

Roughly chop all paste ingredients, combine in blender, blend into almost smooth paste. Remove paste from blender; rinse the blender container with cold water, save the rinsing water.

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add curry paste, cook, stirring, until it starts to brown. Add chicken. Cook, stirring, until chicken pieces turn golden on all sides. Add 1-2 cups water from blender, scrape the pan to deglaze. Cook until the liquid thickens, 10-15 minutes. Taste, add salt. Stir in cream, cook 5 more minutes, serve over rice.

Menu today:

Chicken soup with wild rice and mushrooms

Stir fried cauliflower

Leek and potato frittata
Garlic green beans

Baked cod with tomatoes and bell peppers
Cannellini beans with kale and tomato

Chicken curry
White rice, flat bread (store-bought)

Cabbage rolls
Braised cabbage with caraway

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring vegetables


Steamed asparagus and broccoli with lemon dressing

Roasted asparagus with orange and oregano

Asparagus with saffron champagne vinaigrette

Grilled chicken with asparagus

Fava beans

Quinoa pasta with beans and asparagus

Fava bean dip with garlic and Meyer lemon

Beans and peas ragout


Braised leeks in white wine

Leek, spinach, and Gruyere quiche


Sautéed radishes and watercress


Steamed artichokes with lemon vinaigrette

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Location:San Rafael, CA