Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas spreads

A picture collection of meals over Christmas.
Christmas Eve--duck foie gras from Victor Hugo markets in Toulouse, ham glazed in pineapple and star anise sauce, potato and egg salad, green salad

Christmas Day--roast turducken(turkey, duck and chicken roll with fig and pistachio stuffing); nectarine, basil and boccocini salad, fresh beetroot salad, steamed new potatoes with herbs, mango and chilli salsa

Christmas Day entree: prawn cocktail with tiger prawns, avocado, shredded lettuce and home-made Mary Rose sauce

Christmas Day table

Christmas log

Boxing Day: ham glazed with sour cherry and creme de cassis sauce; home-grown Puy lentil and herb salad; home-grown potato salad; green salad; couscous and pomegranate salad

Boxing Day dessert: pavlova

Post-Christmas soup: ham stock, home-grown onions and herbs and garlic with a pesto made from chopped cashews, herbs, garlic, chilli

Post-Christmas lunch: smoked trout with mustard and sour cream sauce, truffle salami, dolmades, cheeses,home-made pickled plums,  home-made brioche, scones, bread rolls

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Two yummy festive cakes

Chocolate and cherry cake
Frangourou Christmas log

Two gorgeous and easy cakes for festive celebrations!

The first is a chocolate and cherry cake I've adapted from a Black Forest style, the second an adaptation of the traditional French Christmas log--a cake I make every year for the family Christmas lunch. Both are easy--the log particularly so, as it does not even require any baking--and super delicious of course!

Chocolate and cherry cake
150 g dark cooking chocolate
150 g castor sugar
150 g unsalted butter
3 heaped tablespoons self raising flour, sifted
5 eggs
pinch salt

Melt the chocolate in a pan over low heat(add a little water first to stop it from sticking). Still over low heat, stir in the sugar. When all sugar mixed in, take pan off heat and cut the butter into small pieces. Put pan back on heat and stir in the butter a little at a time. Now slowly add in the flour, stirring constantly, and continue stirring even when mixed in, till it begins to thicken. Take pan off heat. Heat oven to 180 C, and get a round cake tin ready, buttering the bottom and sides and dusting with flour, or using baking paper.
Separate the eggs one by one--put the egg whites in a bowl, but add each egg yolk to the chocolate mix and stir in. When all egg yolks are used up, beat the egg whites till stiff, adding the pinch of salt, and fold into the cake mix. Put mixture into the tin and bake for about 40--45 mins. (Test if cooked by inserting knife into mix after about 40 mins)
Make a coating for the cake of more melted dark chocolate(I actually used Lindt's dark chocolate with orange pieces, delicious!) -You melt the chocolate over low heat with around 25 g of unsalted butter, a tablespoon of full cream and a tablespoon of icing sugar. Coat the cake with it when it's cold, and add halved sweet black cherries as decoration. Serve with whipped cream and/or icecream.

Super easy, super delicious frangourou Christmas Log cake(requires no baking, can be made Christmas Eve).
This was my mother's invention, we had it every Christmas when we were kids, and I still make it every Christmas.
1 packet sponge finger biscuits
200 g unsalted butter, melted
1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)
half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)
Cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.
Crush all the biscuits, add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That's what you do then--shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can also decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, rose petals, sugar holly, whatever you feel like!

To everyone I wish a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, and every other seasonal festivity, and a happy New Year. See you in 2015. A bientôt!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Brillat-Savarin, philosopher of food

Reblogged from an earlier post of mine, for a bit of pre-Christmas reading!

The Philosopher in the Kitchen..Very French-sounding concept, that, isn't it? It's actually the English title of 'La physiologie du gout' (Physiology of taste) by the great French writer on gastronomy, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin(1755--1826). It's a gorgeous book, full of witty and intriguing anecdotes, stories from his life, sharp observation, funny theorising and precise and amusing aphorisms, and I love it and frequently dip into it.

Born in Belley, in the Savoy region of France in 1755, Brillat-Savarin studied law, medicine and chemistry and became a lawyer in his home town. In 1789 at the outbreak of the Revolution, he was sent as a deputy to the newly formed National Assembly where he served for a short while. He later became Mayor of Belley in 1793, but during the Terror fell foul of Robespierre and his gang and with a price on his head, fled into Switzerland. One of the loveliest and most characteristic of stories about him is that when he was fleeing in danger of his life, he still stopped for lunch at an inn and had an excellent meal, and never mind the revolutionary soldiers hot on his trail! But to cap it all off, those very same soldiers also stopped to have a good lunch--proof that even in a revolution, gastronomy is to be treated with respect in France!

Later, Brillat-Savarin emigrated to America, where he spent a few years, earning his living by giving French lessons and playing the violin in an orchestra(he was also a gifted musician) but returned to France in 1797, under Napoleon's Directoire, and became a magistrate, living in peace, honour and gastronomic bliss in Paris for the rest of his life. He'd often written as a hobby, but was finally persuaded by his friends to write a book compiling his many observations, anecdotes and theories on gastronomy. He self-published La Physiologie du Gout in December 1825, but modestly, did not append his name to it. The book was an immediate success--and soon 'tout Paris' had guessed the identity of the author, and Brillat-Savarin was famous. But he did not long enjoy his fame, dying in February 1826.

His book has had a long and honoured life in France ever since then, and in the greatest accolade of all, his name was given to a delicious soft cheese from Normandy, the Brillat-Savarin, and to a baba-like succulent yeast cake, the Savarin.

Philosopher in the Kitchen is most certainly not a standard cookbook--there are only a few recipes--but it's a great pleasure to read, with a timeless, engaging appeal. For it is not only about gastronomy as both a science and an art--but above all as a way of life. Brillat-Savarin was a gourmet, a raconteur and a bon vivant(funnily apposite, isn't it, how all those terms have to be rendered in French even in English, as it were!)but he also truly was a philosopher and his mind ranged widely over many subjects.

His book does not confine itself to observations on cooking or food and drink in general--he has chapters on all sorts of aspects of human life, such as sleep and dreams, and even including death! His historical and literary erudition is worn very lightly and though some of his theorising seems quaint now, a lot of it is still very relevant indeed and has been very influential. He was the first to suggest a low-carb diet as a way of countering obesity, for instance. And some of his aphorisms have entered common parlance. For instance, it was he who coined the famous aphorism, 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.'

But there's lots more worth quoting from in this book, here are a few for your pleasure:

The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

The Creator, who made man such that he must eat to live, incites him to eat by means of appetite, and rewards him with pleasure.

The man who invites his friends to his table and fails to give his personal attention to the meal they are going to eat, is unworthy to have any friends.

Another gorgeous aphorism which isn't rendered as such but which I'm paraphrasing from one of his chapters, on the senses, is this:

There are six senses--sight, hearing, smell, taste; touch--and love.

And to finish, here's an extract from a fabulous and amusing short chapter entitled 'Privations' which I think encapsulates some of this book's enduring charm:

First parents of the human race, whose gourmandism is historical: you lost all for an apple, what would you not have done for a truffled turkey? But in the earthly paradise there were no cooks or confectioners. How I pity you!

Great kings who laid proud Troy in ruins, your valour will go down from age to age; but your table was pitiful. reduced to ox-thighs and the backs of swine, you never knew the charms of fish-stew, nor the bliss of chicken fricassee. How I pity you!

Aspasia, Choloe, and all you others whom Grecian chisels made eternal for the despair of the beauties of today, never did your charming mouths taste the suavity of rose or vanilla meringue; you scarcely even advanced as far as gingerbread. How I pity you!

Invincible paladins, celebrated in the songs of troubadours, when you had smitten giants hip and thigh, set damsels free and wiped out armies of the foe, no black-eyed captive maiden brought you sparkling champagne, Madeira malvoisie, or our great century's liqueurs; you were reduced to ale or Suresnes wine. How I pity you!

And you too, gastronomes of 1825, sated already in the midst of plenty, and dreaming now of novel dishes, you will never know the mysteries science shall reveal in 1900, mineral esculences perhaps, liqueurs distilled from a hundred atmospheres; you will never see what travellers as yet unborn shall bring from that half of the globe which still remains to be discovered or explored:

How I pity you!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trinity celebration 5: Le Gateau Russe

The paperback edition of Trinity: The Koldun Code, is now out, and as the final reposting in this series of Russian-inspired pieces, I'm putting up again the beautiful recipe my husband David devised to recreate the 'Gateau Russe', or Russian Cake, my favourite cake ever, which as you'll see was devised in Southwest France, adapting the recipes of Russian emigres. Recently, a Russian friend told me that in fact this cake was very popular in Russia--but that the story went there that it was first devised in--Kiev! So it is called a Kievski there...or maybe not, these days :)

Celebration cake: David's beautiful Gateau Russe
Whenever we went back to Biarritz, when I was a kid, and were taken on one of our favourite outings, to the wonderful Dodin patisserie, I would always ask for the same cake: a 'Russe', or 'Russian'. This wonderful cake, made of hazelnut or almond meringue, layered with butter cream that was either flavoured with coffee or hazelnut, tasted like a slice of heaven to me, with its combination of breautiful crunchy meringue and lusciously smooth flavourful butter cream. It's a cake you only ever find in patisseries in the South of France, and only in the south-west at that--you never see it in the patisseries of Paris, or anywhere else in France. So you could get it in Toulouse and Biarritz but not Marseille, for instance. I didn't know why it was called a 'Russe'. Though I'm not sure who first devised it, I'd hazard a guess its origin might be in Biarritz, which was full of Russian exiles after 1917. Dodin's Patisserie has been going since the 19th century and though it lays claim to being the originator of the famous (and delicious)chocolate cake, the 'Beret Basque'(so-called because its shape ressembles the famous Basque headgear) it does not claim to have birthed the Russe, though its examples were always wonderful. (By the way, if you want to drool over some of Dodin's beauties, here is their website: )
Anyway to get back to my Russe, it's something that I not only loved in childhood but now too. But I always thought I had to wait to get back to South-west France to indulge in it again. I thought it would be one of those sorts of cakes that would be too difficult to pull off for a home cook and so each birthday in Australia, I'd put in a request for my second-favourite cake, the Gateau Moka. This is also a gorgeous cake--a Genoise sponge layered with coffee butter cream, and David, my husband, has made it superlatively well for many years. But a Gateau Moka is not easy to make too far ahead of time and transport and as my birthday was going to be in Sydney this year, I knew I'd have to think again. I remembered seeing the 'Swallow's Nest' cake in the Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow and thought, how about that, and then started thinking, that sounds a bit like a 'Russe'--and then David said, well, meringue's much easier to make ahead of time, why don't I have a go at a Russe? He made me describe it and started looking up recipes--and then made his own version which turned out spectacularly well and which proved a huge hit at the birthday party!
Here's his recipe for a beautiful 'Davidov' which I think I'll dub his version of the 'Russe'! And it shows that a home cook can indeed pull off a Russe as well as any patissier--all my siblings, who'd tasted the 'real' Russes, agreed that it reproduced exactly the look and texture and flavours we all loved at Dodin's!
The various bits of the Davidov cake can be made well ahead of time--several days ahead in fact. If you do that you need to conserve the meringue in an airtight tin and the coffee butter cream in the fridge. As the butter cream will harden in the fridge, you'll need to warm it up slightly when you are assembling the cake, or you'll break the meringue. This cake will serve up to 15 people. (It did at the party anyway!)

Ingredients for meringue layers and individual meringue rosettes for decoration: 10 egg whites, 400 g castor sugar, 2 tablespoons cornflour, 150 g hazelnut meal. You will also need, for decoration on last meringue layer, some crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Method: Beat egg whites till stiff, add sugar bit by bit, beating well after each addition till you get a beautiful glossy meringue. Mix cornflour and hazelnut meal together, fold into meringue mix. On one greased or baking-papered tray, pipe some meringue rosettes for decoration; on another two or three, the meringue layers(this one had three layers). Bake in a slow oven(150 C) for an hour or so, till done(biscuit-coloured and reasonably dry.)

Ingredients for coffee butter cream: 6 egg yolks, 450 g butter(David used a mixture of 300 g unsalted, 150 g salted, but you can use just unsalted if you like), 2/3 cup castor sugar, 1/2 cup hazelnut syrup(or light corn syrup, or pure maple syrup--David used the hazelnut syrup--Monin from France which can be used to flavour coffee etc), coffee essence or make your own as David did with 2 tablespoons instant coffee and two tablespoons boiling water--it should be a thick gooey mixture--you can also use a small amount of strong espresso).

Method: Dissolve the sugar in the syrup in a pan on stove. Take off stove and let cool a little. Meanwhile beat egg yolks till pale and foamy. Little by little, mix the warm(but not hot)sweet syrup into the egg mixture. When you have incorporated it all, cut the butter into small pieces and add to the mixture, beating in well so butter melts and makes a thick cream(you can make this in the food processor if you have one.) The cream can now be used if you are putting together the cake or it can go in fridge till you put the cake together. (Remember to warm it before use.)

Putting cake together: Put the first layer of nut meringue on the plate, spread with some of the butter cake. Layer the next round of meringue, repeat, till you have used up the meringue layers and most of the butter cream(but keep some for the top and maybe the sides if you want. On the last layer, spread the rest of the butter cream, and decorate with the meringue rosettes and crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Trinity celebration 4: Zakuski spread for dinner

The fourth of my celebratory repostings in honour of the Russian setting of Trinity: The Koldun Code, is about putting on a fabulous 'zakuski' or aperitif spread, Russian style--but making it dinner!

Zakuski spread for dinner
The other day, I bought this gorgeous book called 'Culinaria Russia', which like the other titles in this series, is not so much a recipe book(though there are recipes) as a marvellous journey through the culinary culture of this richly varied and extraordinary part of the world. For in fact it's not just Russia, ie the Russian Federation, that's covered, but also Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan(not sure what the latter four would think of being lumped in with 'Russia', but never mind!) There's wonderful articles and photos on all sorts of aspects of food, drink, folklore associated with food, festivals, looks at sub-cultures, and lots more. It's fascinating stuff!
But as I said, there's also recipes, and there's also the most mouth-watering pictures of food you can imagine. Four such pictorial spreads are devoted to the Russian tradition of zakuski, which can be usefully compared to the Spanish tradition of tapas, or the Scandinavian one of smorgasbord. Like those ones, it accompanies drink,(usually vodka, in this case) is often presented in small dishes(though it can be in bigger ones) and features both cold and hot dishes. Zakuski can be as simple as olives, gherkins and pickled herring, or as elaborate as you like. Salads also feature strongly; colour and pleasing pattern is important.
So, inspired by those pictures, I put together a bit of a zakuski-style spread for dinner the other day. Not all of it was traditionally Russian, but I was still inspired by the concept, the colours, the patterns. And it all tasted great, was simple and quick to prepare, and elicited many admiring comments, both as to the look and the taste!
This is what I made(see photo):
In foreground to right of photo, a Georgian-inspired chicken dish, with tomatoes, tomato puree, onions, dill, chicken stock, Tokay(supposed to use Madeira, but I didn't have any, so I substituted), lemon juice, sour cream. Added chorizo too as didn't have enough chicken! Basically, you just cut up the chicken and chorizo, brown in a little butter along with chopped onions, then add tomatoes, lemon juice, dill, stock, wine, and tomato puree, cook till done(about half an hour). Sauce should be lovely and thick, don't let it burn
In foreground to left of photo, is a mushroom salad. Slice button mushrooms thinly, toss with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice, dill, chives. Do this at least an hour or so before you eat the salad, as then it absorbs the flavour of the dressing most deliciously.
Behind the chicken dish, on right, in mid-field, is a grated carrot salad decorated with capsicum and sorrel. Vinaigrette for the salad is made with Dijon mustard, white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. To the left of the carrot salad, are smoked salmon rolls on a bed of sorrel: slices of smoked salmon simply stuffed with small gherkins and caper-berries.
Far left in background is the other hot dish, which is a Russian-inspired dish of finely cut lamb slices, sauteed in some oil with onion, then vodka added(not too much), cranberries, finely chopped garlic, caraway, and finally sour cream(and salt and pepper of course). Delicious! To the right of that, is a salt herring salad, made of chopped up salt herring slices(which I'd soaked in water first, and then in lemon juice as otherwise find them too salty), mixed with chopped apple, chopped walnuts, finely chopped fresh garlic, and chopped cucumber. Made a dressing for this out of a little olive oil, a little white wine vinegar, sour cream, dill, and wholegrain mustard, it went perfectly with the flavours. Then to the right of that is a warm (but not hot) salad made of braised scallops cooked in a little butter, a little white wine, with garlic, salt and pepper, decorated with capsicum, tomatoes, etc. To the right of that, just behind the bottle of Russian Standard vodka, a salad of avocado, tomato, olives and capsicum, with a dressing like the carrot salad(yes, I know, not very Russian, the avocado, but never mind, improvisation is the key in zakuski!), and finally, in the far background, a green salad with lettuce right out of the garden and a vinaigrette made of olive oil, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, with chives and garlic chives. For dessert we had the remaining half of a delicious strawberry tart David had made the day before.
It was a wonderful feast!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Trinity celebration 3: Russki a la frangourou

The third of my repostings celebrating the Russian setting of my new novel, Trinity: The Koldun Code, is about creating a Russian-style meal back in Australia!

Russki a la frangourou:
Traditional Russian dishes are great, and I've had a go at making lots of them--but I've also created my own new dishes, inspired by that distinctive flavour and style. The other day, I made a meal that was entirely Russian in inspiration, but not all the dishes in it were classic Russian--rather they were 'russki a la frangourou'. I used ingredients that are easy to obtain and economical as well. All the vegetables for it came out of our garden but of course can be got in the shops(with the exception of sorrel, which might not be easy to find--but you can substitute a little chopped rocket with the addition ofa little lemon juice, to approximate it.)

Incidentally, before the meal we had a small aperitif--a shot of vodka accompanied by a small dish of olives and gherkins--a very minimalistic zakuska. You can also add chopped rollmop herrings, smoked salmon, etc etc if you want to go more elaborate for that part of the meal. The vodka we usually buy is 'Russian Standard', (standard meaning 'top quality' here), from St Petersburg--it's made on a base of pure cold water from the vast sea-like Lake Ladoga, near 'Peters'. It's an excellent vodka with a good clean flavour--we first tried it in Russia but you can easily get it anywhere now. But there are other good Russian vodkas easily available, like the famous Moscovite vodka Stolichnaya, as well as Polish and Swedish ones which aren't bad(though this is considered heresy in Russia!) There are even vodkas made in France these days! If you want real Russian--which I recommend--check the back of the bottle for provenance.

Here's the meal:

Entree: Green 'shchee' soup made with sorrel and spinach

Main course: Chicken breast fillet in a vodka and cranberry sauce

Vegetables: Roast beetroot with garlic and sour cream

Carrots in milk sauce


Dessert: (not illustrated): Meringues with coffee cream.

For the entree:

This is a traditional Russian dish--'shchee' soup could almost be the national dish--it is basically a hearty vegetable soup, most often on a base of cabbage. But green 'shchee' is a spring dish made when the cabbages etc have finally run out and you get the first of the spring vegies popping up, ie sorrel and spinach. It is very simply made. Take a medium potato, cut into small dice. Chop an onion. Crush a clove garlic. Take a handful spinach, about eight leaves sorrel, and some dill. Fry the onion in some butter, add the potato, then the garlic. Stir till beginning to go golden. Add the spinach and sorrel, chopped. Add salt and pepper and some dill, stir well till softening. I then add a small splash of white wine or vodka(this is not traditional but tastes good!)and then some good stock--chicken or vegetable stock. Let it simmer till potato is soft, then either process or mash and sieve. Take a little milk--about 100 ml, mix in two egg yolks, beat. Stir through soup, and warm but do not boil. Serve soup with a dab of sour cream, and some chopped dill or chives.

Main course: This dish is my own invention but based on traditional Russian elements. Cranberries are frequently encountered in meat dishes. Fry the chicken breasts in a mixture of butter and olive oil till beginning to colour. Add a good splash of vodka to the pan, then some cranberry juice and dried cranberries. Salt, pepper to taste, also I add a little chopped tarragon. Cook gently in the sauce till the meat is cooked through. Add a little more vodka or juice as needed. (Sauce should be thick and glaze the meat nicely--you can also remove the fillets when they are cooked and reduce the sauce till thick then pour it over the chicken.)

Vegetables: Beets are often served with sour cream and garlic. This is my version: Parboil some small beetroot for about ten minutes, cut into pieces, sprinkle with olive oil and some garlic--either crushed or a couple of whole cloves can be nice. Roast for about 20-25 mins or until the beet is nicely glazed and the garlic is soft. Serve with a dab of sour cream and chopped herbs like chives. You can also use preserved beet for this if you like but it will have a different, more acid taste.

Carrots: this is a very traditional, and delicious, way to eat carrots. Cut some carrots either into sticks or rings, as you prefer. Cook them in a little butter till softening, then cover them with stock, either chicken or vegetable. Let them cook till completely tender, then drain off the liquid, add a nub of butter, a little flour, to make a roux. Stir around then slowly add a little milk till the sauce thickens up nicely around the carrots. It should coat them but not drown them.

You can also have boiled potatoes, if you wish, and/or rye or pumpernickel-style bread to sop up the vodka and cranberry sauce!

Salad: Whatever you normally have--we usually do lettuce and other salad greens plus tomatoes, with vinaigrette.

Meringues: This is a simple gesture towards a spectacular special-occasion meringue cake known as 'The swallow's nest.' The meringues can be home made or shop-bought. The coffee cream is made from whipping cream up with a little coffee powder, a little softened unsalted butter, and some sugar to sweeten it but not excessively(as the meringues are plenty sweet enough).

White wine goes well with this dinner. A good tea, like Russian caravan tea, can add an extra touch at the end, with caramelised (Vienna-style!) almonds and perhaps a nip of cherry brandy or similar, if you want to!

Prijatnovo appetita! (Bon appetit!)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trinity celebration 2: Russian markets

Second in my repostings, this one's about markets: in Yaroslavl, and in Moscow.

Yaroslavl markets, 2010
Yaroslavl is an ancient provincial town in the Golden Ring, on the Volga River about 300 km north of Moscow. We were really impressed by the amazing range of food available at the market, and how beautifully it was presented. The colourful fruit stalls--both fresh and candied fruit, which came from all over Russia-- were particularly attractive!
But there were also excellent fish stalls, which sold not only fresh but smoked and salted fish, and lovely red caviar(salmon roe); stalls selling pickles of all sort--gherkins in all sizes, pickled cabbage, pickled garlic, pickled onions; stalls selling nuts and spices like caraway and a variety of Caucasian spices..Vegetables included root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beetroot--cabbages, red and white--lots of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, sorrel--and lots of garlic(Russian cooking uses quite a lot of garlic) and onions, and herbs such as parsley and dill. Olives and olive oil(which surprisingly are also used a lot) and dried mushrooms(it wasn't the mushroom season) were also sold and there were various preserves of fruit, and jams. There were also dairy products--there's apparently a famous Yaroslavl cheese, though we didn't taste it, and butchers sold local lamb(there is a famous local breed)and beef, chicken and pork from further afield. There were also stalls piled high with Russian-produced biscuits, sweets and chocolates, and a stall selling, among other grains, the pearl barley which is used to make 'kasha', the famous Russian porridge, of which the charming (modern, English-language)Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow says, 'Man's thankful attitude to his daily bread is expressed in beautiful and tender names given to dishes. Take for example a pearl barley kasha. It is not a mere chance that the word pearl is present in its name. The dish bearing such a poetic name came to us from the distant past.'
I love it!

Danilovsky markets, Moscow, 2012:
 I was really impressed by Russian produce the last time I was there, two years ago; now, two years later, back in Moscow and renting a flat for 2 weeks, I've had even more of a chance to explore Russian culinary delights. And the Danilovsky markets was one of those delights, with the most gorgeous food presented in eye-catching displays. We wandered for ages!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

To celebrate the release of my new novel, set in Russia

My new adult novel, Trinity: The Koldun Code, first in the Trinity series, which is set in modern Russia, comes out as an e-book today, November 13, and in paperback on December 4. To celebrate it I'm going to be republishing over the next couple of weeks earlier posts of mine about Russian food and cooking, starting with a couple of posts about a trip to Russia I made in 2010, where I first discovered the pleasures of Russian cuisine!

Excursion to Russia:
I was drawn magnetically to this extraordinary country, its colourful, passionate, turbulent, imaginative people, their frightening and inspiring history, and magnificent literature, music and art. As a child and adolescent I read lots of Russian fairytales, plays, novels and short stories, and listened with delight to recordings of Russian folk music we had at home. For years, I dreamed of going there, but it wasn't till May 2010 that I was finally able to fulfill that dream. Not only did the country meet my expectations, it far exceeded them. Even the things I was expecting: the awe-inspiring scale of rivers and lakes and forests and plains, the gorgeous distinctiveness of the architecture, the scary relics of the past, the amazing richness and depth of the artistic traditions that still remain, had a huge impact, at first hand. But other things were quite unexpected: a combination of dry humour, nonchalance and exuberance; riotous spring vegetation and clothing and bright blue skies; the charming,intimate beauty of smalltown houses, the vibrant energy of the cities. And the excellent food.
Food wasn't really something I'd ever thought about in connection with Russia. Aside from caviar, vodka, pickled fish and borscht, I had no real image of it. And of course during the long Soviet dictatorship, there were so many food shortages and privations that the notion there was such a thing as Russian cuisine fell by the wayside, at least in Western minds. The few tourists who braved Soviet restaurants reported stodgy, badly cooked, badly presented food, and though the upper classes of the Soviet system ate very well out of the public eye, the majority of people certainly did not. And that did not improve but actually worsened for a while after the regime finally crashed in the early 90's. We kept hearing horror stories from people who'd visited Russia in the past, and resigned ourselves to an amazing cultural experience but bad food. So it was wonderful to be surprised into the discovery that things had completely changed. In my opinion, it's as good a sign as any of a country's recovery from hard times, when people start taking pleasure and pride in preparing and cooking food again, not only for themselves and their families and friends, but for strangers. And not just for tourists, or the wealthy, either, but for ordinary locals looking for a meal out. But the excellence of the food wasn't the only surprise; the other was the discovery that this was no modern phenomenon, and that travellers in pre-Soviet times had also commented on the excellence of the food.
A fascinating 1857 English book I own called Russians at Home, by Sutherland Edwards, describes the menu at a typical modest restaurant in Moscow then: 'the usual dinner supplied for three-quarters of a rouble(half a crown) consists of soup, with a pie of minced meat or minced vegetables, an entree, and some kind of sweet. That, too, may be considered the kind of dinner which persons of moderate means have every day at home. ' Edwards also talks about a popular Russian cookbook of the time, entitled 'Forty-Two Dinners' which rather in the manner of the successful Four Ingredients cookbooks of today, centred around a gimmick: four dishes only per dinner, up to dinner 42, with always a soup to start with(starting with soup is very much a Russian tradition.)Edwards quotes some of the menus: Dinner Twenty-Seven, for instance features a/batvinia, a hearty soup made of boiled beef, boiled beetroot, spring opinions, caraway seeds, and a puree or sorrel or spinach, with some chopped boiled egg; b/stuffed carrots; c/roast mutton with mushrooms; d/ Compote or jelly of almonds. Thirty-Three, a Lenten dish(Russian Orthodox tradition strictly observes the no-meat fast all through Lent), was: a/Oukha, or sterlet soup(the sterlet is a popular fish found only in the Volga); b/Fish cutlets with a sauce of oil and vinegar; c/Fried perch; d/Kissel(a kind of blancmange made with almond milk and fine oatmeal.) Other foods he mentions include various sorts of game, icecream, gingerbread(he makes the intriguing remarks that in pre-Christian times pagan Russians used to makes offerings of carved gingerbread to their deities—the tradition of shaped and decorated gingerbread endures to this day.) He also lists traditional drinks, from gallons of tea of course; kvass, an effervescent drink made from the flour of black bread and malt and served very cold(though rather an acquired taste for foreigners, it is still very popular in Russia); vodkas of all sorts, from the plain kind to flavoured ones(there are many kinds: for instance in Dr Zhivago a red rowanberry vodka is mentioned; and in Russia we sampled a honey and pepper vodka from Ukraine)and champagne, of which, he says, the Russians are very fond and consume in great quantities. While wealthy people drank French champagne, most people then as now drank the bubbly made in the Crimea or the Don River area, which cost only a fifth of the French variety.
By contrast, while Edwards extols these home-grown champagnes, the Frenchman Etienne Taris, in his 1910 book, La Russie et ses Richesses, sniffily says that the Russian wines can appropriate French place-names all they like, 'one can always tell their true origin'! Grudgingly, he admits that the soups are very similar to peasant soups in France; that the mushrooms are excellent, the fish and game very good; but otherwise he is not enamoured of Russian food, with its sweet and sour dishes, pickled fish, sour cream and black bread, tastes which are foreign to the French repertoire: and he makes the acid observation that 'no wonder there is such a fashion for French food in Russia!' But in both books, the exuberant Russian attitude to food—and life—is amply documented and obviously delighted in by the writers; but that's even more obvious in the quintessential Russian cookbook, Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives, which was the massive best-selling cookery tome of its day. It was an amazing compendium, a mix of hilariously extravagant, slapdashly insouciant and thriftily careful recipes, and a good deal of household advice, written by an extraordinary woman who ran a country estate. Reprinted umpteen times from its first appearance in 1861 to 1917, it became a huge cultural phenomenon, cherished by generations, carried into exile, and lovingly parodied by Chekhov, among others. Repudiated by the Bolsheviks as a symbol of 'bourgeois decadence', the book went underground after 1917, was circulated in 'samizdat' copies, and was never officially reprinted in its entirety during the whole of the Soviet period. But a few short months after the crash of the Soviet regime, reprinted copies of the book were being sold on the streets of Moscow, and today the book has once again taken its place as the great classic of Russian food writing. (It is now available in English, translated by Joyce Toomre, as 'Classic Russian Cooking', Indiana University Press)
That exuberance and abundance has come back now; and so we discovered a Russia where markets and shops are again filled with colourful arrays of fresh ingredients from every corner of this vast land; where even modest restaurants offer simple, fresh and delicious traditional menus and street-corner vendors sell smoked sausage hot dogs, cold glasses of kvass, caramelised almonds and luscious icecreams. We discovered the most spectacular and tasty candied fruit ever, specialities of southern Russia, from whole cumquats to apricot and strawberries; beautiful salads, from grated beetroot with garlic and vinegar to spectacular bowls of greens, tomatoes and olives; fantastic smoked and fresh fish from the cold northern lakes; a wide variety of soups; mushrooms served in all kinds of ways(Russians are very very fond of mushrooms—it's a favourite family outing, gathering mushrooms in the forest) a tempting array of zakuski, the tapas-like nibbles served with vodka, from olives and gherkins to pickled fish and little pies and dumplings; lovely berry and nut tarts; and the prettiest gilt gingerbread outside of fairytales. We also discovered that Russians, like Australians, love cooking outdoors, and a favoured recipe for a good meal out with friends consists of a handy river bank, a barbecue constructed of stones and charcoal, some freshly-caught fish, lamb shashliks with spicy sauce, various salads, some loud music on a radio, and plenty of beer!
Traditionally, Russian cuisine is dominated by the bounty of waterways and forest, by fish and game and mushrooms and nuts and berries and honey, but also by the necessities of long winters: by lots of pickled and smoked and salted fish, meat and vegetables. But because of the vastness of the land and its many climactic zones, it has access to an extremely wide variety of other things: the Caucasian vividness of fruit, vegetables, wine and lamb, for instance, and rich dairy products, especially cream, but also good yoghurt, and some cheeses. And the imaginative quality which has always characterised the Russian temperament is being fully applied now to local cuisine, so that traditional dishes are not only being cherished for what they are, but also experimented with, and new ways of highlighting the country's excellent produce, borrowing from all kinds of culinary traditions, are being tried.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lovely mixed-season meal

It's the time of the year when all sorts of lovely mild-weather produce is coming out of the garden--the last of the spring things, the first of the summer ones, whilst in the pantry, the last of the previous year's jars are coming off the shelf. And last night we had a meal that represented very much that delicious between-seasons abundance: an entrée of gazpacho made of last year's bottled, herbed and chilli'ed preserved tomatoes, mixed with this year's new basil, onions and garlic; a main course of all kinds of spring and summer vegs: the last of the asparagus and broad beans, with sugar-snap peas and artichokes, the lot all simply sautéed in olive oil with a little salt and pepper, just for a minute or two, accompanying chicken thighs marinated in garlic, olive oil, lemon, lemon thyme, and basil, and then flash-fried, and deglazed with a little white wine. Dessert was fresh garden strawberries, with home-made strawberry icecream, flavoured with home-made strawberry syrup. The recipe for the icecream is my classic one, which you can find at this earlier post of mine.
It was all absolutely delicious, and very pretty into the bargain too!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nectar of the gods: Alpine strawberries

This year, we've got a very special treat in the garden: the five Alpine strawberry plants have begun producing. And these tiny bright red beauties are a sheer taste revelation, quite a different sort of fruit to the normal strawberry(which I love too!)
The taste is perfumed, so sweet it's almost like a fondant candy, with a hint of vanilla fudge in the strawberry. The texture inside is creamy, and outside the seeds are crunchy. And they look fabulous. A true wonder, and worth celebrating!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Trying our hand at Persian cooking

We were recently given a copy of Sabrina Ghayour's lovely cookbook, Persiana, which focuses on recipes from her native Iran, or Persia, but also includes recipes taken from neighbouring countries in the Middle East. There are fabulous recipes in there, fresh and intriguing, with certain dominant flavours--for instance, pomegranate, walnuts, onions, cumin, and lots of herbs including coriander, dull, parsley and chives. Here's the result of four cooking sessions spent with Sabrina's book:
walnut and pomegranate chicken stew served with herby rice; lentils and rice cooked together, and served with crispy onions and herbs; Persian frittata with broad beans; and fish in coriander, tamarind, turmeric and onion and garlic sauce. All were absolutely delicious and quite easy to make!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Two asparagus entrées

From early September on to the end of October, asparagus finds its way frequently onto our entrée plates. Steamed or braised, cold or warm, they always make a fabulous starter. Here are two simple and delicious ways to serve them: steamed, with a vinaigrette made from virgin olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard; and lightly braised in olive oil, with a slice of melted Brie on top.
Other delicious ways to serve include: the basic steamed vinaigrette variety with a chopped hardboiled egg, mixed with a little sour cream and mustard, scattered on top of the spears; the basic braised one with cooked small cherry chopped tomatoes and olives scattered on top--other toppings for cold entree asparagus include chopped smoked salmon or very good leg ham; and for the warm variety, sesame oil can replace the olive oil, and chopped stir-fried prawns with coriander and Vietnamese mint scattered on top. In fact, the only limit is your imagination, when you start with that basic delightful green handful of aspragus spears!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Simple but spectacular Mexican dinner

One of the many wonderful things about Mexican food is its combination of simplicity and rich flavour, and this was very much key to the meal I made for a family dinner the other day. The centrepiece was delicious pressure-cooked adobo chicken interpreted in my way, surrounded by various side dishes and a pile of warm white corn tortillas, so each person could make their own individual servings. Not only did it taste and look fantastic, but it was also easy to prepare. And it went down a treat!
For the adobo chicken: (I made dinner for seven, but am noting here quantities for 4, to make it simple. Pressure-cooking it is simplest, fastest and best but if you don't have a pressure-cooker, use a normal pot and cook for up to 2 hours)
4 chicken thigh fillets, or 2 chicken breast fillets--no need to cut them up.
one medium tomato, whole
one red capsicum,chopped into pieces
pinch cumin seeds
4 garlic cloves, whole
chopped fresh coriander(keep some back for adding at serving time)
1/4 cup wine or cider vinegar
3 tbsps honey
chilli to your taste(don't overdo it!)
1/4 cup water.
Put all the ingredients in the pressure-cooker, add the water, and cook for 20-25 mins from the time  the cooker starts steaming. Let out steam and open cooker, then, using a fork, scrape the meat until it goes into strings or strands(as pictured), which gives the chicken its characteristic look. The sauce created from all the other ingredients will mix in with the strands and make a lovely moist mixture. Sprinkle reserved fresh chopped coriander on top to serve.
While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare the side dishes:
Guacamole made from two avocadoes, crushed and mixed with some chopped onion, garlic, tomato, salt, pepper, a smidgen of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon; mushrooms stir-fried in olive oil, with preserved capsicums and garlic chives; tomato and capsicum sauce made from mixed chopped tomato and capsicum, cooked slowly in olive oil with chopped garlic and some chilli; mayonnaise sauce consisting of mayonnaise mixed with a little yoghurt; sour cream; and green salad dressed with vinaigrette.
The tortillas should also be warmed ahead of time--I do this in a non-stick frying pan, with no oil added. Can also be done on grill.
Put in dishes and relax--everyone makes their own mix.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Delicious axoa--Basque veal stew

We brought back some powdered 'piment d'Espelette', or Espelette chilli pepper from the Basque country--in fact, from the small town of Espelette itself--and this week we had the first dish flavoured with it: a deliciously tender and flavourful axoa, or Basque veal stew. The piment d'Espelette powder, with its rich, full flavour, like the very best paprika ever, really comes into its own in a dish like this, which is cooked slowly and is most satisfying in winter.
And it's pretty easy too!Watch out though you don't overdo the piment d'Espelette--it's best enjoyed in sparing amounts, to get the full flavour and just a hint of heat.
You need: veal steaks or roast, cut into pieces--quantity depends on how many people will eat it! Chopped onions. Capsicums(red peppers) either fresh or chargrilled preserves in olive oil. (We used the latter, as it is even more delicious than with the fresh ones). If you like, you can use green capsicums too. One half teaspoon of powdered piment d'Espelette--(there are places you can get it from in Australia, such as Herbie's Spices online) or you can also use good paprika. Olive oil. Chicken stock. Salt, pepper.
Fry the pieces of meat gently on both sides. Remove from pan and keep on a plate. Fry the chopped onions and the capsicum till the onion is golden and the capsicum if fresh, is soft(you only need to do this a bit if using the preserved kind.)Then put the meat back in. Stir well together. Add salt and pepper. Add the piment d'Espelette/paprika. Stir well, and cook for a few minutes before adding the chicken stock to cover. Simmer over low heat for about an hour, or till the meat is tender. You can also add parboiled potatoes and carrots to the dish if you like. Axoa is also often traditionally served with rice.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Back in Sydney: Shenkin lunch

Back from our overseas trip, and in the Shenkin cafe in Newtown, Sydney, shared a lovely hearty lunch with my son, inspired by Israeli dishes: shakshuka eggs for me--eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, in this version with eggplant and haloumi as well, and pita bread--and Israeli breakfast plate for my son, featuring smoked salmon, avocado, poached eggs, and 'labbane' or yogurt cheese, with olive oil and of course pita bread. Fabulous!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Four days in Seoul, 6: Cook it yourself

Had a great meal on the final day in Seoul: a 'shabu' meal where you get a whole bunch of lovely ingredients at your table--thinly sliced raw beef, a plate of various vegetables, plus later noodles and to finish off a rice mixture to use up the last bits of sauce in the pan--which you cook yourself at your table, in a pan of bubbling broth. Delicious and fun!

Four days in Seoul, 5: Buckwheat dumplings and ginseng soup

Very traditional old-style dinner menu on one of the days in Seoul: lovely buckwheat dumplings filled with chopped wild vegetables; and nourishing chicken and ginseng soup, featuring a whole(very small) chicken cooked in a ginseng broth. Simple, delicious and quite soothing to the stomach as well as we were feeling rather an overdose of chilli from previous meals!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Four days in Seoul, 4: Wonderful Korean barbecue in Dongdaemun

Dongdaemun, even in shopping-mad Seoul, is full of places to shop--from swish department stores to ramshackle market stalls. And full too of great places to eat! And we had a Korean classic there, barbecued meat, but not your usual burnt offering. Here it's deliciously tender deboned marinated pork ribs, cooked over charcoal at our table, cut into small pieces when cooked and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves, with all kinds of tasty side dishes, condiments and sauces added, from thinly-sliced garlic to kimchi, thinly-sliced radish to (very hot!) green chillis. Perfect!