Saturday, January 31, 2009

Amy's Knock-Off

I made the filling tonight for another round of pirozhki. As I said before, I was going for a knock-off version of the Amy's Roasted Vegetable Pizza topping. I think it was pretty successful!

"Amy's" Roasted Vegetable Pizza Topping


8 small onions (I did 7 yellow, 1 red)
2-3 T oil (I used sunflower)
1/4 c nice balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste
2 roasted red peppers (make your own if you like, I used jarred ones)
About 4 artichoke hearts (frozen, canned, bottled, fresh cooked)*
1 1/2 cups of shiitake or oyster mushrooms (I used oyster)

*I didn't read the can on mine that carefully, turns out I actually bought artichoke bottoms. Also tasty, and much less expensive.


Caramelize the onions. When done caramelizing, deglaze the pan/pot with balsamic vinegar. Remove from heat. Chop the mushrooms, stir them into the onions. At this point: if you're going to use this for pizza, I suggest spreading this mix over your pizza crust, and then topping with strips of pepper and whole artichoke hearts (you may want to use more of them in this case). If you're going to use it to stuff a sandwich/pirozhki, or even to mix with pasta: chop the artichokes and the peppers slightly larger than the mushrooms and stir it all together. It's ready to go!

Serving Suggestion and Notes: I think this would be really nice on a pizza, or stuffed into a baguette for a quick sandwich. You could also easily use it as a dip at a party. It was tasty and easy! The most time consuming thing is slicing so many onions (and I sliced them pretty fine), and taking the time to caramelize them nicely. But, it is a great thing to make ahead and have around. You could even put it into small containers and freeze for fast use. As far as whether or not this tastes like Amy's version, well, I think it is very similar, but I think hers uses less red pepper. In my version, the red pepper over-dominated a bit. This may also be because her version uses tomatoes and a little lemon juice ... maybe the acidity balances out the pepper and the sweetness of the onions and balsamic vinegar.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Food in France

In general, the food in France is of much better quality than what I usually had access to in America. The produce in grocery stores is more varied, generally of higher quality and often more "local." The cheeses are bountiful and exude flavors, smells and textures I have never experienced in their American counterparts. And the eggs. My god, the cheapest eggs here are better than the organic free-range ones I used to buy back home. Let's not even get started on the restaurants, which simply are not comparable in most cases.

However, this foodie paradise comes with one caveat, which is good, or bad, or just plainly a fact of life, depending on your point of view. That is simply this: food here is variable. This may be a difficult concept for many of my fellow Americans to understand, as it initially was for me. It may in fact be so foreign that you have no idea what I mean. Allow me to explain as best I can.

When I walk into either of the three supermarkets that I frequent, I do not see strawberries in the month of January. Why? Because strawberries are not in season, and people would not dream of eating them in January. Sure, they are in season in other countries, and you could conceivably ship them to said grocery store, in hopes of selling them. But I doubt you'd be very successful. And the reason for that is--brace yourself here--to the French, eating strawberries in January is equally as weird as the idea of strawberries not being available at any time of year is to you.

But when I say that food here is variable, I mean more than that. I mean that when I walk into the grocery store with "oyster mushrooms" or "plain oatmeal" on my shopping list, I may not be able to find it, even if I found the very same product on the shelves of the very same store only a few days earlier.

Then there is the question of "Why is it even necessary to go to three different supermarkets?" (Not on the same day, of course.) That would be because they sell different things, despite the fact that they are, theoretically, competitors. Realistically, that isn't the way it works here. People aren't turned off by the idea of doing their shopping in more than one place; they're used to it, as that is the way it's traditionally done. Even if all the supermarkets did carry identical stock, it's likely that shoppers would subconsciously not trust this, and visit more than one anyway.

When food on French grocery shelves runs out, it is not instantly replenished. If you want bread, you should shop right after work, or it will be gone. Likewise for the popular mushroom variety, Champignon de Paris. Show up at seven o'clock in the evening, and you will be left with a few damp, mushy and misshapen specimens to choose from.

Holiday marketing does exist here, but is a smaller scale operation, both in terms of the quantity of goods and the duration for which they are available. In the largest store I habitually visit, there are presently three aisles devoted to Asian products for the Chinese New Year. Or, I should say, there were, last week. Today, half an aisle remains. When that stock sells out, more will not be ordered until next year. This is likely true for even the very popular items. I estimate that the total time holiday-centric goods remain available is a month, but, like most other food related things here, I wouldn't count on that as a constant.

In addition to food here being variable, it is, of course, simply different in ways. This is due, in some part, to geographical constraints--species that thrive in Texas are not ideally suited to grow in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, after all. However, I am certain that cultural preference plays its role. Take two plant species, for example: malus domestica (the apple), and solanum tuberosum (the potato). While both of these plants, and the bounty from them that we ultimately consume, are readily available in both France and America, there are noticeable differences in the varieties one would actually encounter during a routine grocery shopping expedition.

In America, arguably the most popular incarnations of these products are the Red Delicious apple and the Russet potato. They do not exist here. This in itself means nothing. Far more telling is the fact that nothing comparable to them exists here. There are no apples, at least not for sale in stores, that exhibit the almost candy-like utter sweetness and flat one-dimensionality of the Red Delicious. As for potatoes, they are overwhelmingly of the waxy variety. I occasionally see floury types, comparable to the Russet, but I would not by any means say that they are widely available. And they are much, much smaller than the Russet. I can only conclude that this is simply due to a widespread difference in what is considered "good food," both in terms of what is tasty and what is visually appealing.

All these aspects of the local food culture--coupled with the fact that the concept of 24/7 does not exist here--were initially frustrating. But, now I think that these circumstances have shaped me into a better, more frugal and more daring cook. When things are not conveniently available, you learn to make them yourself. When items you usually use are nowhere to be found, you must learn which substitutes work and which don't. Perhaps most importantly, you learn to lighten up, and just enjoy cooking and eating that miraculous stuff we put in our mouths--food!--because, after all, what you're eating now may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Weekend Cooking Project: Healthy Pirozhki

I'm going to make pirozhki again, mostly because I'm crazy in love with that beautiful, yeasty dough, and also because I just plain like bread pockets with stuff inside.

In that vein, my mission is going to be to "duplicate" a certain Amy's product that I've loved for years, but that I think has now been discontinued (not that I get Amy's products here, anyway). That would be the pocket sandwich stuffed with the topping from the Roasted Vegetable Pizza. I don't have shitakes, which are on the ingredient list, and I'm not especially inclined to go out and find them. But I'll work something out.

Mainly, I plan on making the dough itself healthier by using 50% whole wheat flour, 50% white flour and slightly less vegetable oil. I also plan on not relenting to the sad face my BF will put on when he finds out I intend to bake these ones.

So, I'm going to have some that have the "Amy's" filling, some with the carrot and onion stuffing I loved so much last week, and lastly, some dessert ones. The chief reason for making dessert ones is to clean out the jam jars and some of the frozen fruit in my refrigerator. I kind of plan on mixing them all together, and possibly adding some ricotta cheese to the filling, too. We'll see how it turns out. If I'm successful with the "Amy's" one, it'll be a major victory, since those products are so good but very expensive.

I may also try to make paneer, but I'm a bit lazy to do so, since ricotta serves as a fine replacement for the unpressed version.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cheap but Good: Explore your pantry, freezer and fridge

I don't know about you, but I somehow always end up with half used quantities of food in my freezer and fridge. Usually this happens when I buy a food item, planning to use it to make a certain dish, and I don't end up using all of it. It also happens that sometimes I stock my pantry too well, and forget just what canned or dried foods I have in there. I got to thinking about this, and came to the conclusion that I would probably save a lot of money if I tried more often to cook from what I already have in my kitchen. To test how well this could work out, I examined my pantry, freezer and fridge with the goal of creating something delicious without making a trip to the store for anything.

Here's what happened:

Today I had a few mushrooms and 200 g of ground beef left from pirozhki making. I definitely wanted to use the beef, because there wasn't room in the (tiny French) freezer to freeze it. And I'm always a fan of mushrooms, so I decided to use those too. Besides, if I didn't they'd get mushy soon. So I put the beef and the mushrooms on my kitchen table. Looked around some more, but it seemed that everything else would keep pretty well (random cheese, cabbage, pickles) or was already assigned to be eaten for lunch (lettuce, green onions). Ok, moving on to the freezer.

There I found a bag of chopped frozen spinach left from making palaak paneer. It had started out as a 1 kilo bag and there was only 250 g left or so. The lump of spinach was taking up precious freezer space, especially due to the awkward shape. I put it on the table to use. Things were interesting in the freezer. That's because my BF is a total carnivore and buys random meat when there's a good deal. Or when he thinks it just looks tasty. Which brings me to the 500 g of Italian sausage that was sitting in there. I took it out, placed it on the table, and examined my ingredients.

Beef, sausage, mushrooms, spinach. I thought I'd go with something Italian due to the sausage, which I planned on taking out of it's casing and mixing with the beef. Ok, if we're going Italian, let's look in the pantry and see what's available in the way of pasta.

The pantry expedition was the deciding factor in what I'd make. There I spotted, shoved towards the back, a box of never-opened no-pre-cooking-needed lasagna noodles. Interesting. I didn't remember buying them. I asked BF, "Did you buy these?" It turns out he did ... before we even started dating (we're going on two years). :-D But I checked the expiration date, and it was fine. Besides, they'd never been opened.

Fine, it looked like I was gonna make lasagna. Beef, sausage, mushrooms, spinach, noodles. Well, can't really have a lasagna without cheese (or tofu), so I went back to the fridge to see what was available. There was an unopened tub of ricotta. Aw, I had wanted to eat that with canned peaches (I love ricotta with fruit)! But, now I was kind of set on lasagna, so I put it on the table too. But what about mozzarella to go on top? We didn't have any. But I did spot nearly 250 g of chaource cheese. I thought to myself, "If they can put reblachon on pizza, I can use that to top a lasagna." I also grabbed an egg to mix with the ricotta, 2 cloves of garlic and got a 800 g can of peeled Roma tomatoes from the pantry (we always have a few cans of those around).



500 g Italian sausage, removed from casing
200 g ground beef
1 800 g can peeled Roma tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
250 g frozen chopped spinach
3 medium white mushrooms, chopped
1 egg
1 250 g tub of ricotta cheese
20 no-cooking-needed lasagna noodles
Salt to taste
1 T dried parsley
1 T dried oregano
1 T dried basil
About 250 g chaource cheese


Mix the beef and the sausage. Brown, then mix in the tomatoes (chopped), with their juice. Reserve a bit of the juice (about 1/2 cup). Salt the mixture to taste. In a saucepan, warm the spinach and the mushrooms until the spinach is completely thawed. Cool slightly, and mix with ricotta cheese and chopped garlic. Salt to taste, then mix with beaten egg. Spread the bottom of a large baking dish with the reserved tomato juice. Place a layer of 4 noodles over this. Cover noodles with 1/3 meat mixture. Layer 4 noodles again. Cover noodles with 1/2 spinach mixture. Repeat: noodles, meat, noodles, spinach, noodles, meat. Sprinkle top meat layer with the dried herbs. Cut chaource into 8 even wedges; reserve for later. Place lasagna into oven preheated to 350 degrees F (gas mark 6 in France). Bake for 20 minutes, then remove and top with chaource wedges arranged in a 2x4 matrix. Put lasagna back into oven and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool slightly before slicing.

Notes: Placing sauce/juice before the first layer of noodles is important if you don't want the lasagna to stick. When you remove it from the oven, there will be a lot of liquid around the lasagna. If you let it rest, that won't be a problem. This will form sort of a sauce (just the right amount). For vegetarian lasagna, make a marinara sauce and cut zucchini or eggplant into slices. Instead of the meat layer, put a little sauce, then arrange the veg slices, then top with some more sauce.

Serving Suggestion: Technically I'm going to say that this makes 8 servings, although they are large servings. I think that 1/16 of the lasagna with a nice green salad would be enough for me on most days!

UPDATE: I just did a calorie calculation for this dish, and it is NOT a light-weight. One eighth of it has 575 calories. Yikes!

Monday, January 26, 2009


So on Sunday I made pirozhki. I woke up early in the morning and started doing chores, including cleaning the kitchen to make sure I would have enough space to work. Then I trekked down to the local grocery store (along with 80% of the population of this little French town ... not much else to do on Sunday) to buy cream, and a chicken. I bought the chicken because I read on Yulinka's blog that pirozhki are best eaten with chicken broth. I decided, "What the hell, I'm already going to be in the kitchen all day, might as well do it right."

I decided to follow the dough recipe here, but my little cube of yeast was 42 grams, not the prescribed 30 grams. So, I followed the recipe roughly and ad libbed a little. Here's the dough that I ended up making:

Pirozhki Dough


1 42 g cube of yeast (I got mine in the refrigerated section, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't dehydrated)
2 t sugar
2 t flour
4 T water
1 kg flour (I used type T45, which I think is pastry flour)
1 c sunflower oil, + a little extra (1 T?) that was left in the bottle
2 c water, + a little extra (about 1 T)
4 t salt


Combine the first 4 ingredients in a (large!) bowl, mix well. Cover with a dish towel and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes. It'll be noticeably more puffy when it's ready. Now, carefully mix with the rest of the ingredients to form a soft, moist (wonderful smelling) dough. If it's too sticky, add a bit of flour. Don't let it be dry though. You will probably have to use your hands to get it thoroughly mixed. Cover with a dish towel, let sit in a warm place to rise for at least 2 hours. My BF says his mom often makes dough the night before, and leaves it to rise over night, so I'm sure you can leave it longer than 2 hours with no ill effects. The dough will roughly triple in size! That's some kind of magic, in my opinion. And did I mention that it smells great? When you're ready to use it, knead the dough a little, then cut into small-ish pieces. I actually didn't cut it, just tore off balls of dough roughly 2"-2.5" in diameter. To make pirozhki, roll out a ball on a lightly floured surface, not too thin, but until the rolled out circle is about the size of a small salad plate. Place 2-3 spoons of stuffing in the center and close well. Arrange the pies on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, leaving a couple inches between them. Let them rise again for 20 minutes. Then bake or fry in oil.

Notes: I had planned on baking the pies. My boyfriend had been hinting (he knew I was going to be making them) that he likes them fried. Well, I thought that I would bake them and have them done before he came home, but he came home early, just as I was about to start baking. He pouted. I fried. They were tasty, but a little too rich. I really do think I'd prefer them baked. Next time, I'll bake them, and I may try to use at least some whole wheat flour to make them a little healthier.

On to the fillings. I had originally settled on a ground beef and mushroom filling, as depicted here. At the last minute, I decided to make a second filling with carrot, onion and egg; it's pictured on the site I got the dough recipe from.

Pirozhki Filling: Carrot, Onion and Egg


1 very large carrot, or 2 medium, peeled and grated
1 small onion, chopped
1 egg, hard boiled
1 T sunflower oil
Salt and (lots of) pepper to taste


Sautee the carrot and onion in oil until onion is translucent. Remove from heat. Allow to cool, and mix with the egg, peeled and chopped. Season to taste. That's it! Simple, right?

Notes: I was surprised, I have to admit, but the carrot ones were my favorite. The picture of the meat ones looked so good, and they were tasty, but the carrot ones were something special. I really recommend trying this! This filling can be used with the dough to make vegetarian pirozhki; leave out the egg, and you even have vegan ones (or use firm tofu cubes).

Pirozhki Filling: Beef, Onion and Mushroom


400 g ground beef
2 small onions, chopped
3 medium mushrooms, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste


Brown meat with onions and mushrooms, stirring constantly so that meat remains in small pieces. When there is no pink left, salt and pepper to taste, and let cool before stuffing pirozhki.

Notes: Like I said, this was good, but not amazing like the carrot ones. I did like the texture of the mushrooms, though.

Overall Impressions: First of all, I'm in love with yeast. It was so fun making the dough. And I know I said it already, but that stuff smells great. I will forever think of yeast as magic in the form of a cakey, grey little cube. By the way, that cube yields to pressure really easily. When you try to crumble it into your bowl, don't push hard, lest to you want yeast everywhere. My mission now is to make a healthy pirozhok. Next time I'm going to make the carrot filling, a cabbage one, and maybe a mushroom and green onion one. Oh, and I'll give them different shapes so I can know what's inside each one. It's cheating, but so what? By the way, this recipe, fillings and dough, made 17 pirozhki (6 carrot, 11 beef) and 6 donuts. Basically I just split remaining dough into balls studded with raisins, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Tasty, but not quite like Dutch oliebollen.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mushroom Soup

I've made several impromptu variations of mushroom soup, but this one was really tasty. We had it last night for dinner and today for breakfast. Only I'm worried that in a couple of days we'll be completely mushroomed out, since today I'm going to attempt pierozhki and I've decided on a mushroom based filling.

Oh well. Is it even POSSIBLE to be mushroomed out? I don't think so. At least, I've never gotten there.

Mushroom Soup


15 g dried mushrooms (I used a variety)
6 medium white mushrooms
About 2 cups fresh oyster mushrooms
1 leek, white and light green parts, washed carefully
1 small onion
1 carrot
1 T butter
1 T oil
Water (I don't really measure, but I'm using my trusty 3 Qt pot if that helps)
Salt and pepper to taste
Bay leaf


First, place the dried mushrooms in a small pot or bowl, and cover with a couple of cups of hot water. They will need to sit for some time. Meanwhile, chop the onion and sautee in a mix of oil and butter (use only oil to make the recipe vegan). Peel and grate the carrot. When the onion is golden but not at all brown, turn the heat down, add the carrot and sprinkle salt over them. Let the veggies cook on extremely low heat and the salt will pull the water out of them. I don't know if it's the official term, but it's what I call "sweating" the carrots. That sounds kind of gross, actually, maybe I should think of a different word for it. Later. Chop the leek and add to the pot, stirring everything together and adding a little more salt. Chop the mushrooms, add them in, sprinkle with salt again. This routine of add a veggie to the pot, then sprinkle with salt helps take the water out, it also helps make sure the soup is salty enough. I've never once over salted a soup, and using this method I under salt them much less frequently. You can add pepper to taste at this point, too. You want to stir every so often to make sure all the veggies get cooked. By now the dried mushrooms should be soft enough to chop. Remove them from the liquid and add the liquid to the pot of veggies. It's a good idea to pour the liquid through a sieve to remove any grit. Chop the formerly dried mushrooms very finely, and add them to the pot. At this point, I add enough water to fill my 3 Qt pot almost to the top. A measurement doesn't really matter, you can add more or less liquid as your texture preference warrants. Add a bay leaf, stir well and check the taste. If it's good, allow it to come to a boil, and then you can serve it.

Serving Suggestion: This broth is really rich on it's own. BF added cream (goes without saying). I tried it and it was good but I preferred it without. Chopped dill and parsley sprinkled on top is tasty.

Notes: If you have a food processor, the longest part of this is sweating the veggies and soaking the mushrooms (at least 30 minutes, I would say). I guess it's not really a "fast" recipe, but it tastes so good!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Apricot Sharlotka

Lately I've been crazy about canned peach and apricot halves. I'm not sure why, but I'm nuts about 'em. They're so juicy, and they remind me of summer. So yesterday, I got the idea to make a sharlotka using apricot halves instead of apples. This is what I did:

Apricot Sharlotka


1 860 g can apricot halves
3 eggs
1 c sugar
1 c flour
1/4 t ground clove
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/4 c whole almonds
Oil + flour to grease and flour a cake pan


Preheat the oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a cake pan. Drain the fruit halves from their syrup or juice; discard or save for other use. Beat eggs with sugar until well combined (I just use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in flour and spices carefully (or you'll make a mess). Resulting batter will be quite thick. Arrange apricot halves along the bottom and sides of the cake pan. Sprinkle almonds over the halves. Spread batter onto the halves that are on the bottom of the pan. Bake at 325 for 50 minutes to 1 hour.

Notes: This sharlotka is much wetter than the apple one, so I decided to bake it for a longer time at a lower temperature. It came out done nicely, the very bottom was a tiny bit gooey. It wasn't gross though; reminded me of peach cobbler. I had to place a piece of aluminum foil under the cake mid way through baking, because syrup from the halves was leaking over the sides, spilling onto the oven and making a mess (and smelling like burning stuff). Next time I will drain the fruit better. I think that will make the bottom more cakey and will prevent mess. Some other things I'll try will be to put a small layer of batter before the fruit goes in, or to just grease the pan instead of grease + flour. Like I said, the slight gooey-ness wasn't gross, but I would have preferred it be more like a cake texture than a cobbler one. That's what I had had in mind, really. My boyfriend and I both liked it, though. It would be good with a nice hot cup of tea! Another idea I have is to grease the pan and then coat it with roughly ground nuts instead of flour. I think I'm not finished experimenting with this recipe.

Serving Suggestion: I waited for the cake to cool, slid a butter knife around the edges, and then carefully tipped it onto a plate so that the fruit side was facing up. It was very easy to cut this way and keep the cake more intact. Then when I put an individual slice on a plate, I turned it so you could see the crunchy top side and the fruity bottom.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spicy Beef Soup

Last night I found myself confronted with a situation: I had about 1.5 quarts of an exceptionally rich and flavorful homemade beef broth, and no idea what to do with it. It's not that I don't have any soup recipes. I've got LOTS of them, but they're all ones I've tried before. And this broth was so good, I wanted to do something special with it. (How did it get so good, you may ask? Well, the answer to that is that I wasn't in a rush. I put it on the stove and forgot about it for 3 hours.)

This recipe is the result of that event.

Spicy Beef Soup


Approximately 4 cups good beef broth, chilled, fat NOT discarded
Beef from the broth
Fat from the broth
1 carrot, grated
2 small onions, cut into semi-rings
About 1/4 c chopped pickled zucchini (you can use pickles if you don't have these)
1 c of the brine from the zucchini
2 T tomato paste
2 T ajvar (this is the brand I'm using, but any will work)
1.5 T dried parsley
Salt as needed
1 small potato, chopped into small cubes (I chopped mine to have about 1/4" sides)


While the broth is still cool and the hardened fat is sitting at the top, remove it and place in a skillet. Add the beef, removed and chopped before chilling, the parsley, and start to simmer the broth. Melt the fat in the skillet, and fry the onion and carrot until they are soft and slightly golden. Stir in the zucchini and the tomato paste. Allow it to cook gently for a couple of minutes, then add to the broth. Add the brine and stir in the ajvar. Salt to taste. You can add more brine and ajvar as your taste warrants. Add the potato, and serve when it's soft.

Notes: Vegetarians can use vegetable broth and omit the beef, of course. Actually, I don't like meat in soup and avoided it. It was still really good. If you don't have ajvar, experiment with paprika, or baba ghanosh, or chopped roasted red peppers ... whatever you've got.

Serving Suggestion: I think it would have tasted good with a little dill as well, but we didn't have any. I liked mine plain, my boyfriend (of course) ate his with a spoon of creme fraiche on top.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cheap but Good: Grow your own Victory Garden

Lately I've been planning how to plant a garden (my first!) when it gets a little warmer. I don't want to grow flowers, rather, I'm dreaming of beets, spinach, kale, onions, potatoes, and--later on--tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and eggplant. I also want to grow several different herbs that I use often. I want to do this not only because many of those foods are tasty yet expensive, but also because I'm seeking a satisfaction that I can't get from my job. I want to do something physical, to make something, to be able to see results come from my work. I also want the joy of knowing that I am eating produce that has been grown in a way that is kind to my body and the earth.

The problem for me is that I don't have a very suitable space. Our shared yard is not very well taken care of, so it will be hard work to clear a space, if the landlord even lets me do so. On top of that, it doesn't get a whole lot of sun.

I'm hoping to overcome this by creating a container garden. I found a site that is great for gardeners who live in small places that don't really have a yard--apartments, condos, etc. I'm especially interested in the portion of the site devoted to growing vegetables.

I'm going to add the site to the list of blogs I follow. If anyone reading has successfully planted a container garden, I'd love to have your tips as well.

The title of this post refers to the Victory gardens planted during World War II. As Michael Pollan says in his letter to Barack Obama, who he calls the new "Farmer in Cheif", today such a garden could be part of "a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population." The article/letter is quite long, but is WELL worth the read. I also heartily recommend Michael Pollan's books.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Palaak Paneer and Looking to the Weekend (Paneer, Pirozhki)

Tonight I made some tasty Palaak Paneer. This is Indian style creamed spinach, with cheese cubes. There were a few minor things I'll do different next time, but overall it was good. Traditionally, saag is greens (of any kind) cooked in cream. Usually mustard greens are used, or a mix of mustard greens and spinach. When just spinach is used, it is palaak. I prefer the version with a mix of mustard greens and spinach, so if you can get mustard greens, use them!

Palaak Paneer


2 T oil
1 small onion
1 large clove garlic
1 T minced ginger
1 T gharam masala*
1 t tumeric
1 pod black cardamom
1 pod green cardamom
2 whole peppercorns
2 cloves
salt to taste
Squeeze of lemon
1 T cream
About 750 grams frozen, chopped spinach
Paneer cheese cubes-as many as you want

*Gharam masala is a spice mix. Usually, it has spices like cardamom, cinnamon, maybe clove, some black pepper. It's not 100% authentic to put cumin and coriander in, but most store mixes do it. I make my own, and I also put cumin and coriander in, because I happen to like them! I also put in a tiny bit of chili powder, some ground black pepper, some ground cardamom, and some ground fenugreek. You can basically experiment and find a mix you like. It's what I did. Once I found it, I made a big batch and put it in a spice jar.


Warm the oil in a pot. Chop the onion, mince the garlic and ginger. When the oil is shimmery, add them to the pot. Sautee till soft, but not brown. Push the mix to one side of the pot, and pool the oil in the other side. Fry the gharam masala and the tumeric in the oil for about 30 seconds, then stir everything together. Add the spinach and remaining spices. Allow to cook until spinach has thawed, heated through, and excess water has evaporated. At this point, salt to taste, stir in paneer, allow to warm through. Stir in cream, lemon juice and serve.

Notes: Make sure your ginger is minced! My ginger got frozen (dumb malfunctioning fridge--long story) and thawed. It was really tough to cut (but very easy to peel!), and I ended up with a couple of big lumps of ginger. I think I may add a little more spice next time. Maybe a split dried chili pod. We didn't have paneer. I've *tried* to use cubes of other white cheeses before and it fails. You see, paneer is special. It doesn't melt. That's why it can be cut into cubes and put into curries. We had in the fridge a block of fresh white pressed farmer's cheese from a recent trip to Holland. I thought, "Well, maybe, what the hell," since that's basically what paneer is--pressed farmer's cheese. It wasn't a failure. The cubes got mushier than paneer would've, but not really melty like with previous efforts.

Serving Suggestion: This is best with lemon juice, rice and roti. You can eat with yogurt too (it's important to have something a little acidic with it), but I prefer lots of lemon!


Speaking of paneer, that brings me to the second half of this post, "Looking to the Weekend." This weekend I want to try something ambitious, cooking wise. I'm going to try to make paneer, which is similar to the Russian cheese tvorog. I also want to try and make something with yeast. I've been making Indian flat breads recently, and baking a little more (brownies, cookies, sharlotka). This is slowly but surely breaking my fear of bread and baked goods (even though I DID burn 3 cookies tonight).

So I want to try something more complicated than flat breads. I want to try ... something with YEAST.

I was thinking of trying to make Russian pirozhki. They look so good! Look at that mushroom filling! I love mushrooms so much. This site has a recipe that seems like it'll do. I've used (with a little tweaking) recipes from that site with favorable results. But I'm going to spend some time searching for THE ONE. I mean, it'll be my first time with yeast. It should be special!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cheap but Good: Getting Experimental with Pasta Sauces

Even though it definitely falls under the category of "cheap but good," I don't cook a lot of pasta, and not a lot of pasta sauce either. Not because I can't whip up something tasty, but because it's my boyfriend's "job." We have this sort of unspoken understanding that there are certain things that he cooks. Here's the list: fried eggs, mashed potatoes, pasta and associated sauces, pork. There are things that are "mine", too: soups, anything else done with eggs, beef, Indian food. Often I branch out and try to cook things that aren't on my list, but he knows what he is good at and sticks to it. I can honestly say that he does everything on his list much, much better than I do, even though I have more cooking experience.

Part of why his pasta sauces end up better than mine comes from his willingness to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. I tend to take a more cautious approach, selecting a few ingredients that I know will go well together. My result is always good, but strangely enough his is too. I keep waiting for one of his random sauces to fail and it hasn't happened yet.

His approach to making pasta sauce leads to a highly economical and tasty dinner, because what he does is take various odds and ends from the fridge--that may not have otherwise been used--and incorporates them into our meal. A few artichoke hearts left in a jar, likewise for some lonely green olives, the last splash of wine from the bottle on the table, the last tablespoon of cream in the tub, mixed with parsley that's just starting to wilt and that bacon that'll go bad if we don't use it the next couple of days. He usually throws in a dash of a couple spices too; sometimes unusual things, like cumin or coriander.

All these odds and ends combined with a can of diced tomatoes (or when we have them, a chopped fresh one) make a huge panful of sauce that we eat with whatever dried pasta we have on hand. All it needs is a tiny sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese to be perfect.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cheap but Good: Tomato Soup

This is easy, fast, cheap and good. It was the first thing I made for my boyfriend on my mission to prove that many American foods can be tasty, AND not make you die of heart disease. What's more American than tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich (which doesn't have to be unhealthy)?

Tomato Soup


1 small to medium sized onion
1 medium carrot
2 T oil
3 T tomato paste
1 800 g can of peeled whole tomatoes (corresponds to US 15 oz can, I think)
2 cans of water
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
about 1 T dried parsley
about 1 T dried basil
about 1 T dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste


Chop the onion, begin to sautee it in the oil. Peel and grate the carrot, add it to the onion. Remove the whole tomatoes from the can and chop them, saving the juice. When onion is soft and translucent, stir in the tomato paste, the chopped tomatoes, and the juice from the can. Also add two canfuls of water, the bay leaf, the peeled and minced clove of garlic. Salt and pepper and herbs to taste. (I add about a T of each herb, but mostly parsley, second most oregano, least basil.) Let it come to a boil and then simmer it until the carrots are soft enough for your taste. For me this can be as little as 10 minutes if I'm in a rush, but it's best if you simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Serving Suggestion and Notes: I think this soup is best with a little sour cream or creme fraiche. I either stir it into the pot at the very end, or let each person put a little on their bowl. I don't sautee the garlic because I like the sharper taste; if you want it more mild, simply add it in when you add the carrots. This is very good even with just bread. I've also tried it with grilled cheese, which was great. Once I added noodles, and that was good, but the soup was much thicker. You could also try adding rice (cooked, or cook it in the soup).

***Cost Analysis***
Can of tomatoes: 82 cents
Carrot: 15 cents
Onion: 10 cents
Tomato paste: 50 cents
Garlic clove: 5 cents
I have large jars of parsley, basil and oregano that each cost about 2 euro and have probably 70 one T servings inside. So those three together cost 9 cents approximately.
The bay leaves came in a bag with like 100 leaves inside, and was also about 2 euro. So one leaf is about 2 cents.

Total cost of soup recipe: 1.73 euro, about $2.33 today

The recipe makes about 5.5 bowls, so that is 31 euro cents ($.42) per small serving (1 bowl), and 62 euro cents ($.83) per larger serving (2 bowls). Small serving is usually enough for me, with a bit of bread and a little sour cream.

Nutritional Info: Each bowl has approx. 110 calories (calculated using

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Amsterdam Trip

Happy New Year to everyone! S Novum Godum!

We just got back from Holland, visiting mostly Amsterdam, but also trips to Haarlem and Utrecht.

It was a lot of fun meeting the New Year in Dam Square, with a bottle of "champagne" (really sparkling wine) and two plastic cups amongst thousands of others.

Let me tell you, Amsterdam is a veritable junk food paradise!

They have tons of small storefronts selling thick slices of pizza, hot dog carts are everywhere and the ubiquitous FEBO is found in every district. The latter is an ingenious junk food store, which has a service counter where you can order things like a burger or piping hot fries, but also has an entire wall that is basically a vending machine. It's the old-fashioned kind, where you put in money and open a little glass door to get your food. So cute! There are also many kiosks/small storefronts selling vlaamse frites. I don't know what vlaamse is, but I do know that I like frites. Most people seem to eat them with mayonnaise. Waffle and sandwich stands are dominant in the museum area, along with some hot dog carts. (I tried a waffle with cherry sauce, it was great).

My favorite find though, was "oliebollen", Dutch donuts. I had previously thought the donuts I tried in the Hamburg central train station were the best ever; I was wrong. These donuts are similar to those--round, approximately tennis ball sized, no hole, covered in sugar--but these were crispier on the outside and had an inner texture more reminiscent of an American yeast donut. The Hamburg ones were a little more cakey. Also, the oliebollen are rolled in powdered sugar right after you order, whereas the Hamburg ones came pre-coated in granulated sugar (they also tasted a little vanilla-y).

That is, they're served this way if you order just one to eat then and there. IF you order 5, which I'm a little ashamed to say I actually did once (but it was to share!), they put them all in the bag, toss in a BIG scoop of powdered sugar, and hand the bag to you. Very fun to shake the bag around and then eat the tasty donuts. (And if you're feeling the effects of a certain other Amsterdam sweet, this can be a surprisingly interesting activity as well.)

(Image from

I preferred the plain donuts, although they also had a version that contained raisins, both golden and regular. My boyfriend preferred whichever were hot. The first day we chanced upon hot donuts, and since then at every donut stand he prefaced his order with, "Do you have any HOT donuts?" This confused and slightly irritated most of the vendors. But hey, if the man only wants hot donuts, he's gotta ask.

On one hand, I feel like I've got to learn how to make these things, they were so good. I ate at least one almost every day we were there. On the other hand, I think it's probably better if I remain uneducated on the matter. Not just for my health, but knowing me, I'll make and eat them all the time, but then grow completely sick of them and never want one again. And wouldn't that be sad?

No, better to just save the experience for the next time I'm in Amsterdam. Some things are just better eaten from a street corner stand, anyway, and I think this may be one of them.