Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stalking the Wild Chestnut

It's Saturday afternoon, the baby won't nap, and we decide it's time to go for a walk. Berlin is in full-on fall mode, and we want to walk around as long as we still can. So we bundle the kiddo into his stroller, and head to Hasenheide.

Ah, Hasenheide. Each corner its very own dealer. I am thinking I should do an art project in which I collect the favourite recipe of each drug dealer in the park, and publish them all in a cookbook. And then I see it: a chestnut.

I had picked up a few chestnuts in Berlin in the past few days, but this time I really started to look for them, gathering them in my pockets. My husband got into the spirit of things. We realised we had no idea what chestnut leaves look like, but we followed stray nuts around the park path until we found a tree. Took a leaf to remember it by.

And it was a goldmine -- the wind was blowing hard, scattering more chestnuts down. I pulled two plastic bags from my purse, originally meant for diapers, and we gathered more and more. I managed to get stung by nettles as I reached for a few chestnuts under a fence. We started talking about maybe buying some cream, boiling the chestnuts, making a pasta sauce from the sweet meat.

On our way out of the park, we hit bonanza. Two trees, surrounded by dozens and dozens of chestnuts. They are so fresh and large and beautiful. I remark that the chestnuts I got on the streets of New York in winter were never so big and luscious. Some of them are still in the light green casing, so we have the fun of prying them free. The baby is sleeping soundly as we leave the stroller, and I pull out two thick shopping bags to carry our massive hoard. We imagine all the different recipes we can make now... roast a few, make pasta with others, perhaps a chestnut cheesecake...?

A little girl joins us for a while. But otherwise we get only funny looks. What silly people these are, we think, who don't see how much free food is available here for the scavenging. Every time we think we are ready to go, the wind blows again, and we scurry to catch the nuts that fell.

On our way out of Hasenheide, we are delighted, giggly. We kiss each other, and I smell the fresh air on my husband's face. We feel young. We are carrying enormous bags full of chestnuts, but we still stop to get some cream on the way home. On our way out of the market, my husband remarks that he should have bought some red wine too, as it goes well with chestnuts, but I proudly inform him I had some at home already. I'm just that kind of prepared wife.

So we go home, and I call a friend to invite her and her husband for dinner. We figure if they come, we'll have enough time to get a pork butt or something, and stuff it with chestnuts and herbs and roast it and make it wonderful. I tell her we picked up all these chestnuts, looking over to where my husband has started weighing our hoard on the kitchen scale.

"You found edible ones?" she asks.

"What do you mean, edible ones?"

Then she starts describing these beautiful, shiny, large chestnuts, and it turns out that they are not, in fact, edible. Actually, they are horse chestnuts, and they are poisonous. And we have about twelve kilos of them.

The second layer of ridiculousness? We had actually also picked about thirty edible ones, but they were unripe and looked so small, and their cases were so sharp, that I tossed them all out once we found the beautiful horse chestnuts. This is why dyed-in-the-wool city people should not try to forage. The supermarket is our friend.

So what do we do with twelve kilos of horse chestnuts?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Shakshuka for dinner

A friend and I were talking about food blogs lately. I said I didn't post to this one as often as I might like, because food blogs are so photo-oriented these days, and that's started to mean that they're super professionalized too. What I mean is: unless you have ten high-quality, processed photos documenting every step of the dish, taken either by natural light or with a serious lighting setup, nobody wants to see what you've been cooking. The way I see it, it kind of means the only people who can really make a food blog others would want to read are those who are working towards their cookbook deal and therefore investing serious time and money in it, or people who are already pros.

But that leaves little space for those of us who have day jobs, and who just like to cook and share what we're cooking. And to be honest, not only is that the only kind of blog I could ever hope to put together, but it's the kind of blog I prefer to read. If I want glossiness, I'll buy a food magazine. But I like the inspiration of what real people put on the table, and not necessarily after they've spent half the day "sourcing" the food in various farmer's markets, and the other half composing a plate. Who are these people cooking for? And doesn't the food get cold while it's being photographed?

The fact is, I started this blog to motivate myself to cook at home more often. It's worked. I've cooked a lot of amazing, and new, things in the past few years. But I tend to cook in the evening, and there's just no way to get that food to look good. I'm also in a rush, so I'm unlikely to take a dozen perfect photos of process. Sorry.

Anyway, my friend pointed me a post on The Yellow House on the topic, and encouraged me to keep posting. It's not about the quality of the setup, she said. So I thought, today, as an experiment, I would put up a recipe I worked up from a few inspirations online. I'd never tried shakshuka, the Israeli breakfast dish, before, so I didn't know how it's supposed to taste. But I could tell from every description that it is exactly the kind of thing I like: tomatoey, onioney, spicy, rich, and not particularly rule-bound. That's just the kind of cooking I love. And the experiment? Damn ugly photos.

That's right, I took some process snaps of the recipe, but since only my half-broken old point and shoot was to hand -- the one with the zoom that doesn't work and weird purple lines ruining half the photos -- and it was getting darker and I had to use flash, these are some hideous photos I'm offering you. (Not only were they ugly to begin with, but I processed them to make them even a bit tackier than before!) The end result was ridiculously delicious, but you won't be able to tell from these pictures. You'll just have to trust me, or better yet, cook your own version and taste it yourself.

The urge to try out shakshuka came from reading David Lebowitz's posts about his travels in Israel. Although I lived there for two years, I was so young that I remember little of the food, just the delicious falafel. And if I've had shakshuka before, I have no recollection of it. The way he describes it, it's a hearty dish you have for breakfast with some bread, digging into it with verve, sopping up every last bit.

My main inspiration was Yotam Ottolenghi's version on the Guardian website, which I liked because of the way he fries whole cumin at the beginning and slices the peppers into toothsome strips rather than chopping them fine. (The website also has a video of him making it, so you can see just how easy it is.) So for basic technique I'm indebted to him. But I also read the version on Smitten Kitchen, which I like for its liberal use of feta.

But I know what you are thinking. "Stop listing all of these footnotes, and show me those completely unappetizing pics!"

Sooo.... to make shakshuka for dinner...

I thinly slice some onions, then crush and slice a goodly amount of garlic:

I also slice three bell peppers into thin strips, and get it all ready while the cumin seeds gently fried:

 Some handfuls of fresh cilantro and parsley joined chopped tomatoes:

After the onions and peppers had fried for a while, the tomatoes and herbs joined them:

And with a medley of spices and sugar, melded together into a sloppy, yummy whole:

But the fun is not over -- chopped up hard feta and more parsley are awaiting their turn to serve:

I make little holes in the vegetable stew and break five eggs, one into each hole, letting them poach in the covered pan:

It all gets doctored up with the feta and parsley:

...and served with some leftover bread and a selection of hot sauces:

Just to keep this from being too culturally authentic, I try sprinkling on both Tapatío, brought over from the States, and some piri piri that was hanging out in the kitchen. Both were good!


  • 1 1/2 cups onion slices (about two small onions)
  • 5 garlic cloves, crushed and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 cup parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups tomatoes, fresh or canned, chopped small
  • 1 each red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, sliced into 1/4" slices
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • pinch Turkish saffron
  • pinch crushed red pepper
  • pinch sweet paprika
  • pinch hot paprika
  • 1 teaspoon harissa powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup feta, cubed or crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
Cooking Directions
  1. Put a large frying pan on medium heat, and dry roast the cumin seeds until they are fragrant.
  2. Add the olive oil, heat, and throw in the onion and garlic slices. Gently fry them, stirring, until they are translucent.
  3. Put in the bell pepper slices and turn up the heat. Fry for about 10 minutes until they get soft.
  4. Add the chopped tomato, the cilantro, half (1/2 cup) of the chopped parsley, and the sugar. Stir well.
  5. Now comes the fun: add all the other spices, improvising the taste as you go. The list I gave is just a suggestion. You might find yourself inspired to add more or less or different spices.
  6. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to medium, and cook the whole thing for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the tomatoes break down into a sauce.
  7. Using a spoon, make some dips in the mixture, and break an egg into each of them. Cover again, and let the eggs poach to the level of hardness you like.
  8. Take the pan off the heat, throw on the crumbled feta and the rest of the chopped parsley, bring to the table and serve!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Corn Soup aux homards

Does it seem like there are a lot of soup recipes on this blog? Are you quite sick of soup yet? Alas, this will not stop soon. I've mentioned before that I don't like repeating other people's recipes too much. So I only feel comfortable writing up recipes that I've altered a great deal, that I know are unavailable to the general public, that are from my family, or that I've invented wholesale. And let's face it, one of the easiest ways to invent new recipes is to make soup. You just throw everything in a pot and cook!

This particular dish came from a bout of pantry cleaning, and indeed, it is the perfect pantry dish. It could have been made very simply, but I wanted to use some of my fancier ingredients, namely, Coconut Oil and Lobster Base. So I tarted things up a little. But the recipe itself could not be easier to do. I decided to keep the aromatics simple and subtle, so as to let the broth and corn play center stage, but to add a dash of chipotle for a layer of spice. Fry, boil, puree, and that's it!

Corn soup aux homards


  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil (or vegetable oil, or ghee)
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 cans sweet corn (can use 2 lbs frozen)
  • 6 cups lobster broth (or any broth you have handy)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder (less if you want a milder soup)
  • 1/4 cup roasted pepitas
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sour cream

Cooking Directions

  1. Heat the coconut oil over gentle heat, add the chopped onion and fry until just soft and translucent, 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the chopped garlic cloves, and fry around 1 minute, but do not brown.
  3. Throw in the canned corn, the lobster broth, and chipotle powder.
  4. Boil for about twenty minutes, then puree with a stick blender.
  5. Garnish with sour cream, chopped red onion, and pepitas, and serve!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Herring under a fur coat variation

Probably the strangest gift we got at our recent baby shower was a package of herring from Belarus. The strangest, but as it happens, the very first one we enjoyed. It was from a Russian-American friend with whom I'd discussed the joys of herring and beets, and although she couldn't have known that I had an open can of sliced beets in the fridge awaiting their fate, it almost seemed meant to be that this delicious herring would be used for my take on the Russian salad, Herring under a fur coat.

I actually first had this layered salad at a Russian restaurant-cum-sauna in the distant suburbs of Dallas. It was a gorgeous creation, with shaved bits of boiled egg white making up the fluffy "fur coat" on top. But it also seemed very work-intensive. I thought I would make a version that would combine the right tastes, but skimp on the looks. I also wanted to make it a tiny bit lighter than the original version.

I started, as I always do, by looking through my cookbooks. I looked in Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, in Darra Goldstein's A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, in Russian Regional Recipes and in Russian, Polish & German Cooking. Zip. Zilch. While these books had plenty of recipes for herring and for beets, I couldn't find the one I was looking for. So after some googling, I fell upon (of course!) a recipe for it on Yulinka Cooks, one of my favourite food blogs. This version is inspired by her recipe, but takes a few shortcuts, and for the quantities I went by feel. Use this as a guideline, and adjust as you please.

Herring under a fur coat variation

  • 3 small potatoes, boiled, peeled, and diced
  • 1 can sliced beets, roughly chopped
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped
  • 1 package herring, cut into little pieces
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 3 pickles, diced
  • tablespoon fresh dill, more if dried
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Bulgarian yoghurt
  • to taste Salt and pepper
Cooking Directions
  1. Mix all the ingredients together.
  2. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Eat immediately with dark bread, or marinate overnight.
Now, this was good for dinner when I made it, and to be honest, I ate it for breakfast the next day too (pictured). But it was really after a full day in the fridge, once all the flavours got to merge and marinate, it was ridiculously delicious. It was nowhere near as beautiful as a painstakingly constructed herring under a fur coat, but the taste is, if anything, better.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Russian Beet Salad

I wish I were a better updater of this blog. It has, as far as I can tell, twelve whole readers -- why can't I think of them, and of their need for Romanian food?

Well, several factors stand in my way:

1. Most of the time, I don't cook Romanian food. I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and love to experiment either with a variety of world cuisines, with recipes I find online, or with dishes made-up of leftovers and whatever's in the fridge.

2. I do almost all of my cooking in the evening -- after all, I work during the day. And since I don't have some kind of complicated photo setup, the pictures are bound to look pretty shoddy -- food shots taken by flash are never all that appetizing. Does anyone want recipes without the food porn?

3. When I follow cookbook recipes pretty closely, I'm uncomfortable reproducing them on the blog. I know people do this -- some pretty much fill their blogs with published recipes -- and I know one can acknowledge their sources and stay on the generally right side of blogger ethics. I don't mind doing this with Romanian cookbooks, as their instructions tend to be pretty vague anyway, and I figure most of them will not be available this side of the ocean.

Well, today is the day of exceptions to all three, and this is because I've discovered a Russian beet salad recipe so delicious, I've made it twice in less than a week and a half. Then I saw this recipe for Romanian beet salad on Romanian Food Blog, and it seems the stars had aligned. We need more beets!

The recipe is from literature prof and cookbook author (and general well-known foodie) Darra Goldstein's A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality. It's super-simple, and the first time I did it I used a shortcut that was just fine. Here's what you do, with some small variations from Goldstein's version:

Clean a pound of beets and roast them at 375 F for an hour or more. Let them cool, peel, and chop them into little cubes. (Goldstein has you shred them, but I love how jewel-like they are cubed.)

Then mix in three chopped cloves of garlic, three tablespoons of mayo, 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, and 1/4 chopped prunes. Plus salt to taste, of course.

Let the salad cool, then serve. I like the result on crackers, as in the picture here. It's quite sweet and rich, unlike the beet salads I usually make, and you can't eat a lot of it -- this is basically beet-based candy.

My shortcut? Well, roasting and peeling beets is a painstaking and messy job. And yes, the result is tasty, but you can also make this recipe as part of a weeknight dinner by just using canned beets and chopping them small. Now, that takes less than half an hour. I've prepared this salad once the "proper" way and once the shortcut way, and both are satisfying. I suspect I'll make it again before too long, though next time I'll add a bit of Bulgarian yoghurt to balance the sweetness.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Hungry Reader's Peanut Soup

Lately, I've acquired a pretty full collection of books by John Thorne. The obsession started with Simple Cooking, which I thought was exquisitely written. I remember writing Thorne, and receiving a very kind note back from him. I picked up a few more of his books from Amazon, and while Simple Cooking remains my favourite, I've enjoyed picking through the others too.

The thing about Thorne that appeals to me (other than his lucid writing) is that he seems to cook the way I do. When he wants to make a recipe, he looks up every variation of that recipe he can find in his collection of cookbooks, and then he makes up his own version. It's the cooking of someone who loves to read and research, but who doesn't have the will or the discipline to follow directions.

This is a preface to my peanut soup, a recipe with quite a few inspirations, but no real source. I've been craving an African-style peanut soup for a few weeks now, and every now and then would take a book off my shelf and find yet another version of it. Most of the ones I know basically use leeks and some peanut butter at the end, but I wanted something more, something richer. I wanted this:

The technique for this is pretty simple, one I use for all pureed soups. I gently fried three chopped onions, an inch of ginger (peeled and chopped), and almost half a head of garlic (peeled and roughly chopped). Then I put in three celery stalks (my advice? use just two), a large sweet potato (cubed), and five or so carrots (scrubbed and chopped). Then, because I thought all that richness would need a bit of spicy counterpoint, I seeded and chopped two jalapenos and threw those in too.

To make it hearty, I poured in enough beef broth to cover the vegetables, a cup of tomato juice, and two tablespoons of peanut butter. After cooking the veggies to softness, I pureed the soup with an immersion blender, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and mixed in a can of coconut milk.

The result was rich and satisfying, with just enough of a hint of peanutiness. I do think I put in a bit too much celery, but the flavour blended in by the second day. The first day I served the soup with roasted pumpkin seeds and a bit of sliced scallion. When I served what was left as a New Year's Day breakfast (nobody present had energy for much else), I tossed some sunchoke slices in olive oil and sea salt and roasted them for 10 min at 400 degrees F. (I was inspired by the garnish for this walnut soup recipe), and added them to the other garnishes. As I expected, the nuttiness of the roasted sunchokes was just as good on peanut soup as it was on walnut soup.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dry-fruit cookies (Fursecuri - variation)

In the last post I wrote about roasting squash while I made raisin cookies. But although I had most of the ingredients in the house, I didn't have everything, and I was working from a different recipe than the one I posted here. The recipe I used, also from my grandmother Nadia, is more precise but makes about double the amount, that is, a truly impressive quantity of cookies. Make this full quantity only if you intend to give away boxes of the things!

The base recipe goes like this:

Cream 375 g of butter with 375 g of powdered sugar. Mix in six eggs, one by one, then 375 g of flour one tablespoon at a time. Add the grated rind of one orange, a pinch of salt, and finally, 375 g of raisins that have been soaked in rum.

On a cookie sheet (not buttered), place about half a teaspoon of dough for each cookie at 10 cm intervals, and cook at 350 degrees F for 7-8 minutes.

Pretty simple! Except I didn't really have enough raisins, so I substituted a mix of raisins, dried cranberries, blueberries, and cherries. I also didn't have any rum, so I soaked the dried fruits in a mix of madeira and tuica (Romanian plum brandy) for a good long while. And just to make sure the flavour would be rich, I doubled the amount of orange peel.

The result? Massive quantities of cookies, for one. They were also a bit darker, because of the madeira, but still very flavourful. In fact, having different kinds of dried fruit added a little variety to the taste. I encourage you to play with this recipe. Use whatever dried fruit you have, the liquor you soak them in, maybe even vary the kind of citrus peel you use!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Environmentalist's Squash Soup

Last week, in a hazy, happy holiday mood, I decided to make fursecuri cu stafide. I made a haphazard but tasty variation of my previous recipe (will post soon), and I worked with a different set of measurements -- one that yielded a much larger amount. The only problem was that while mixing the batter doesn't take very long at all, baking all of these cookies, even with four cookie sheets at my disposal, took the better part of two days.

It also occurred to me that quite a bit of oven energy was going to waste for these hours and hours of cookie baking. So I thought I could use the energy for two purposes, and roast some squash alongside the cookie baking. I cut two smallish butternut squashes in half, touched them up with a bit of olive oil, put them in a pan and loosely covered them with tinfoil. The oven was at 375 degrees F.

I probably left those squashes in there for at least an hour and a half, if not more. What came out was -- candy. I love to make squash soup, but I usually spice it heavily and just peel and boil the squash raw. Roasting, especially for a long time and at low heat, transformed butternut squash into a sweet bomb of squashy flavour. When I tasted this, I decided not to mess with it too much.

This was the easiest soup in the world to make: I took a good gop of butter, sauteed a couple of finely chopped onions in it over low heat, slowly, until they became sweet too. I added a few sliced garlic cloves (I would usually use a ton), and let them become translucent too. For the spices, I just put in a bit of ground ginger (probably around a teaspoon) and a dash of Ras el Hanout (mine is made according to the recipe in Ana Sortun's Spice), and fried them up with the onions. As the onions were becoming soft, I scraped off every last bit of squash from the skin, and threw it in there, finally adding just enough vegetable stock to cover. After twenty minutes of cooking, I pureed the soup with my immersion blender, probably one of the best kitchen purchases I've ever made. (I have a cheap little Proctor Silex that works like a charm for soups.) I seasoned with salt and white pepper, and added about half a cup of cream for the richness. It was Christmas, after all.

This was probably one of the simplest and most mouth-filling soups I've made. After all, I was also baking cookies all the while I made the soup! I'm a sucker for pureed soups made with Indian or Moroccan seasonings, but this one had such an intensity of flavour that it needed nothing but butter and cream to highlight it. And while I wouldn't usually spend two hours roasting squash just for a soup, in this case, the recipe was piggybacking onto my cookies. As you can imagine, it smelled good in my house that day.