Monday, August 30, 2010

За ваше здоровье!

To your health! That's the classic Russian toast and one I plan to be using frequently now that I have finally gotten off my butt and ventured out to Brighton Beach. While За любовь! (to love!) has a bit of a more poetic ring, "to your health" is the real McCoy and I think my journey out to Brighton did much for my health indeed.

I have always know Brighton Beach was a very Russian neighborhood, and I knew it had a beach to match, but it was just one of those things I had always wanted to do, but never got around to, since moving to the city. This Friday though, Vronsky and I decided to play hooky and hopped on the Q train. The beach is fantastic! I can't believe you can take the subway there, lickity split. Easiest trip to the beach I've ever taken. Yeah, there is a bit of trash and the seagulls are uber aggressive, but the beach is wide, the water calm and there's random guys and one babuska (Russian for grandmother) walking by and selling ice cold beers. The fact that they yelled out "beer!" in both Russian and English just thrilled me even more. It truly is "Little Russia," as our waiter, Sasha, can attest. He said that though he's lived here ten years, but when his friends back home ask him what it is like to live in America, he says "I wouldn't know...I live in Brighton Beach!"

People watching on the boardwalk, or any boardwalk, for that matter, is always a funendeavor, but it is ten times better when you are drinking an ice cold glass of Baltika (sorry, lush that I am, having vodka at high noon too much even for me) and stuffing your face with smoked herring marinated in vinegar and oil with sliced onions on the side, dark bread, and all the pelmeni you can eat (that's dumplings for you non-Russophiles, vareniki if you're eating someplace Ukrainian). Vronsky got the meet pelmeni but I prefer the potato, which is more typical of Ukrainian cooking. It was too hot for any soup, but shchi, cabbage soup is classic, although I don't particularly care for the big dab of smetana (essentially sour cream) that is added in, preferring borscht.

And then there is glorious shashlyk, meat skewers, where the meat is marinated in a combination of spices I have yet to find anyplace else. The combination of the slight heat from the shashlyk and the salty herring just make you want to suck down as many Baltika's as possible in preparation for a quick "sober-up" dip in the water. There were also blinis and pirogis, and an amalgam of side dishes, but by that point Vronsky and I were way to stuffed to eat another bite.

We waddled our way back to the beach and from there on to the subway, thrilled with our new discovery. Until the weather turns, you can find me in my crazy creek out on the sand within a stone's throw of Tatiana's, the Ocean View Cafe, and Primorski's, which is a must-hit on my next trip.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of "traditional" Russian food because to be perfectly frank, there is no such thing! Russia is so huge and filled with so many different cultures, from Siberian to Crimean to the "urbanites" in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Preparation of even the most basic foods like kasha or borscht or blini will vary region by region, and if you'd like some recipes, is a great place to start. Vronsky and I are contemplating going to Russia for our honeymoon, and getting out into the countryside to get a glimpse (and a taste!) of Russia outside the cities is a must. Until then, до свидания!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lobster and salty sea air

Vronsky and I went to Sag Harbor this weekend for a quick mini break to cure the end-of-summer blues and it was the first time either of us had the pleasure of enjoying that part of Long Island. Vronsky and I usually high-tail it down to Figure Eight Island in North Carolina, where is family has a house, when we are craving sand and surf, and as you already know, I am a devotee of the Great Lakes, but Sag Harbor has its own unique pleasures and is easy to get to from NYC without the chaos and "cheese" factor of the Hamptons.

It has a nautical, austere, rocky-beach kind of beauty, and the air has this wonderful salty smell that only made me crave beer and then more salt, which I tried to cure with some delicious fresh sea food. And this is a different sort of sea smell than what I smelled in say, the Caribbean or when I am down in Palm Beach. It is something I have only experienced along the sea-scape of the northeast, be it Nantucket, Main or, now, Sag Harbor.

It is amazing how connected our sense of smell and taste are. In fact, "retronasal tasting," or tasting with your nose is of utmost importance. If you read Liz Thorpe's (Vice President of the amazing Murray's Cheese) incredibly charming and wildly informative The Cheese Chronicles, she spells out the relationship between taste and smell with particular regard to cheese. When you eat cheese (or any food for that matter), there are very specific phsyical sensations associated with taste: sweet, salty, sour/acidic, bitter...but the mouth is actually quite limited outside of those taste sensations. Most of the romance of food, Thorpe maintains, comes after it's been swallowed. You exhale and the breath rushes up the back of your nasal passages and out your nose, and suddenly there are a million sensory impressions, most of which have to do with smell: grass, hay, stone soil, leather, soap perfume, swimming pool, chalk, pencil eraser, on and on. Smell is so tremendously linked to memory, and it is the smell of the harbor that colored all the meals I ate while I was in Sag. I wanted to taste the sea, but really, I wanted to eat food that capture that some amalgam of feelings that come with smelling the sea.

What food best capture that for me? There was the incredible lobster bisque Vronsky ordered from B. Smith's, but it was my own steamed lobster with corn on the cob and sauteed vegetables that really tasted like sea to me. I am usually not a huge fan of steamed lobster, if only because I am an idiot and can never seem to get it out of the shell without making a huge mess and almost loosing a finger in the process. The same goes with crabs, but at least I can suck off the old bay in the process. However, with Vronsky there to lend a helping hand, I was able to suck out every last bit of succulent meat and enjoy that briney, salty, unique flavor of whole lobster that is impossible to enjoy in any other preparation, be it bisqued, fried, or on a roll (especially on a roll...all you can taste is mayonnaise!). And while I did not learn of any specific dish or culinary tradition that was unique to Sag Harbor, I certainly look forward to coming back to B. Smith's on another weekend hiatus, hungry for another taste of that crisp, salty air.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Consider saffron

One of the neatest "thank you" gifts I have ever received from one of my authors was a tiny jar of greek saffron. I had never used the spice before in my own cooking, and for good reason. It is without question, the world's most expensive spice by weight and it is so rare and precious that it is seriously being touted as an alternative to opium crop in drug cultivating regions, especially Afghanistan.

Actual saffron comes from the thin and delicate red stigmas of the crocus flower, which must be manually extracted. Just a pound of dry saffron requires some 50,000 flowers! That is an entire football field of crocuses. The largest saffron cultivator today is Iran, but it is native to Southeast Asia and was first commercially cultivated by the Greeks. Spain is also a significant cultivator of the spice today, and there is a bit of cultivation in the United States and New Zealand. It has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, fabric dye, even medicine over the centuries, and today (unless you a practitioner of ancient medicine), the best quality saffron is saved for cooking.

Because of its preciousness, I feel that recipes that really immerse the dish in the flavor of this rare spice is the best. No sprinkling on top or using as a garnish in this instance. It has an earthy, slightly sweet, almost grass/hay-like flavor, but in deliciously unexpected way. Perhaps it is because saffron is still a relatively rare treat for my palate, but it truly does taste exotic to me in a way few things do, allowing me to picture myself in some exotic suq or bazaar, or soaking up some sunshine on the Mediterranean.

Since my saffron was specifically Greek saffron, and I have been on a huge Greek kick as of lately (both as a possible honeymoon destination and also because the latest issue of Saveur features Greek cuisine), I specifically sought out Greek recipes that incorporated saffron. The most popular one was for saffron rice, variations of which are also present in southeast Asian, Chinese, Indiana, Iranian and other middle Eastern dishes. This is one of the few times I made rice without my trusty cooker, so truly a momentous event! I was extremely pleased with this dish. It is simple, very easy to make and intensely flavorful. I think next time, I will add even more saffron to really give it color and kick!


About 25 saffron strands
1/2 cup of hot water
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of basmati rice
2 1/2 cups of water
salt to taste

Soak the saffron in the hot water for 10-15 minutes until completely plump and waterlogged. Rinse (and re-rinse) your rice in a bowl under warm water until it runs clear. Rinse again under a shot of cold water and drain. Heat your olive oil in a saucepan and add the rice. Sautee rice slowly until it becomes translucent. And the remaining 2 1/2 cups of water and salt and bring to a boil and then add in the saffron infusion.

Stir and cover tightly and then leave to simmer on a VERY low heat for about 20 minutes. Too hot and you will burn your rice. After about 20 minutes, craters will form on the surface. Place a piece of cheesecloth or a thin (clean) dishtowel over the top of the pot and then cover again with the pot lid and leave in a corner of the stove to rest for another 10-15 minutes. The cloth will absorb the steam from the rice and allow the grains to separate while also allowing them to absorb every last bit of flavor.

I think next time I might sprinkle some green peas and maybe even some sliced cashews on top...

Sound tasty? Here are two other saffron recipes to try when you get your hands on this incredible spice. Saffron Butternut Squash Soup from scratch and if you are feeling really ambitious, this recipe I saw on Guardian UK, saffron cous-cous, chickpea and lentil salad.

Is this love that I'm feelin'?

Love is a funny thing. It certainly did not take a whole lot of love on my part to follow Vronsky down to Nassau in the Bahamas for a few days while he fed his own insane love of UNC basketball by watching them play two Bahamian teams on a pre-season training trip. I enjoy watching the games with him almost as much as I enjoy watching that vein in his forehead throb with every missed shot or un-called foul, but that is a whole other post for another time.

I have only been to the Caribbean one other time, and that was two years ago when Vronsky and I rented a house in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands with 3 other couples. I feel that is a bit unusual, given that it is so easy to get down there, it's damn gorgeous, and my mom actually spent her high school years in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, this trip to the Bahamas was only my second time, and unfortunately, it did little to change my admittedly preconceived notions about the region.

While I have no doubt that Nassau is rich in its own unique culture and traditions, I found myself a bit hungry for even a hint of something below the otherwise glossy "resort-town" surface. I am completely aware that us Americans/Europeans have done absolutely nothing to encourage the growth of Caribbean/Bahamian culture over the centuries, and perhaps it was a lingering bit of guilt that made me so cognizant of the fact that the primary industry there is by far and away tourism, that local restaurants make way for McDonalds and Wendy's, and that people rarely leave the mega-resorts that are akin to war compounds--the only time you really ever need to leave is to get to and from the airport, stifling perhaps any urge to seek out something beyond the walls of your respective hotel. And don't even get me started on resort food. It is just plain old depressing from a gastronomical perspective, akin to airport food: limp fries, overdone mass-produced steaks and burgers. In keeping with every bad stereotype of the American tourist, I saw one girl at our hotel order a Domino's pizza delivered to her room. The food at the Angus Beef restaurant in the hotel was apparently too exotic.

Hanging out at the basketball arena with a smattering of obsessed UNC fans and Bahamian basketball fans was one of the highlights of our trip for me, and our short time on the island did not allow for much exploring, especially as the gorgeous beaches were enough to keep me occupied for several hours everyday. But no trip for me is ever complete without at least a valiant effort to find great local cuisine, and there were two places that did not disappoint.

The first one was a little haunt called The Fish Fry that served fresh-caught seafood right on the beach. Fried conch and fried lobster were personal favorites of mine--the lobster is specific to the Bahamas and has a richer, albeit chewier, taste and texture than New England lobsters and is smaller in size. I was already in love with conch from my trip to the Turks and Caicos Island, and was beyond thrilled to enjoy it again.

The other place was the restaurant and the Marley hotel. I know, I know, I just went on a mini-rant about getting away from these resorts, but the Marley doesn't quite fit the mold of an Atlantis or a Sandals.

The Marley is owned and run by the Marley family, of one the great Bob Marley acclaim. I have always loved Marley's music, along with millions of others, and even though I've heard his songs a billion and one times, they never get old and I enjoy them tremendously. Some, of course, find an even deeper spiritual meaning in his music, and one of the managers of Marley's told Vronsky and me a bit about what it really means to be a Rastafarian, and it isn't just about smoking pot and wearing dred-locks, although he himself did both.

Marley's is nestled on a cliff side in Cable Beach, overlooking the water and surrounded by rich tropical foliage. Only 16 rooms are available, giving it a very intimate vibe, and the strong scent of patchouli put me in a groovy mood the minute I set foot on the premises. The menu is small but every dish I ate (and we ate there three days in row) was absolutely incredible.

My personal favorites were the Marley salad, the spicy grilled shrimp, and the "catch of the day," which was red snapper for us. The lobster duo was also spectacular, if pricey. For starters, everything, even the salad, capture what I always imaged to be "island flavor," that indelible mix of fruity yet spicy that is somehow exactly what you are craving on a muggy night. Wash it down with a super-chilled white wine or Kakalik, the Bahamian beer, and I am in sheer heaven!

I usually don't care much for coconut, but when it is toasted and shaved on my salad, it is the perfect touch of sweetness to counteract the ginger in the dressing and tang of the citrus wedges in the salad. The same can go for the sweet corn that came with the chili-glazed shrimp, or the polenta under my snapper (with the most amazing vegetable garnish on the side). It was the first time that I was really aware of the different flavor pairings and profiles and how it all matched together to complement the other elements of the dish: acid, sweetness, texture, heat...all those terms that are bandied about so frequently in "food speak" came through clear as a bell.

I've eaten a lot of great meals and when I cook, I always try and make sure different flavor profiles are represented and what have you, but the chef at Marley's, Mama Lur, and her team, put a tremendous amount of thought into each element of the dish and Vronsky and I were completely blown away. Plus, the relaxed vibe actually lent itself to people actually talking with one another and just "feelin' the vibe." I actually learned a few things about the history of the island and even about Marley's music in the process. I don't know if I will ever be back in Nassau, but if I do, I know where to find an excellent meal and original, exciting, company.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A nice use for those over-ripe bananas

I am one of those weird people that like their bananas super under-ripe. Not completely green, but I definitely like hints of green on the banana and definitely no spots. It is just too sweet for me once the fruit gets to that point, and yet usually the last one or two bananas in the bunch is always past the point that I like to eat it by the time I get to them, especially if it has been warm in my kitchen, which has been everyday this week.

Luckily for me, however, I stumbled across this great and easy recipe for banana bread in Triathlete magazine that specifically asks for overly-ripe bananas, lots and lots of spots a plus, and is incredibly healthy to boot. As I near the date of the triathlon and marathon I have done a pretty scattered job training for, the new few weeks promises to be filled with lots of long runs and bikes to make up for all the mileage I failed to put in earlier this summer.

This recipe is a favorite of Australia pro-triathlete Kate Major:


1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I like Trader Joe’s organic, but there's also nothing like classic Nestle!)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 very ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs

If you'd like, you can always add some walnuts or raisins for additional variety.


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Mix all ingredients together well.

Pour into a greased loaf pan.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Let it cool before serving.

Perfect for breakfast or a pre-workout snack!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

C is for Camp Food

I have just returned from my annual trip to "camp." And yes, I mean that I am an actual grown-up and I still go to summer camp. But this is not just any summer camp. It is this fabulous oasis on the shore of Lake Walloon in northern Michigan that is owned and run by the University of Michigan for alumni and their families. My parents (both Michigan grads) started taking me there when I was six years old, and twenty years later, I still love it. The funny thing is, I am far from the only one. Most people who "camp" there have also been going for 10+ summers, and everyone tries to camp the same "week" so that you can see your friends again year after year. I have become incredibly close with my "camp friends," to the point that one of them is a bridesmaid in my wedding.

Us camp friends think nothing of visiting each other cross country (duh, we're friends from camp is how we explain this to others who look at us like we are insane) and rehashing old memories is half the fun of every reunion (Paul, do you remember that time when I beat you in the "Teen Regatta" when we were 13? Oh yes.) And that's only half the fun. There's windsurfing and sailing and horses. Archery and rock polishing. Booze and campfires. Everything you could expect from a summer camp that caters to people of all ages, and that includes delicious, nostalgia-laden camp food.

What says camp more than s'mores? Whether you are 5 years old, making them for the first time, or trying to impress the boy next to you with your mad s'more making skillz at fourteen, eating the ingredients right out of the bag at 3am while trying not to fall in the fire when you're nineteen, and then back to eating them like a normal human when you're an adult, s'mores are delicious.

There's also crispy bacon and slightly soggy scrambled eggs in the morning. Yeah, they are probably egg beaters, but so what? They are fuel for the big day of activities ahead, and just squirt a little ketchup and sriracha sauce on those bad boys, serve with a side of corn flakes and some spotty banana and you are good to go!

And let's not forget baked beans and corn on the cob and slightly undercooked hotdogs. Nor should we forget burgers that are grilled to hockey pucks alongside veggie burger pucks, for any vegetarians that are missing their daily dose of carcinogens.

There's also the salad bar where the grandmas always take an hour to move through the line, picking out any and all cherry tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower florets and lettuce pieces that are not bruised or browned as they go before you have a chance to get any.

And then there is "bug juice!" My dad always told me it was made of bug juices (duh) and for a while I believed him, although what it really means is that those drinks are so sugary that the bugs are drawn to it like a bright red (or yellow or purple) drug.

And of course, there is "Fun Dip" and Pix Stix, Ice Cream Sandwiches and freeze pops of course. Plus those bizarre little ice-cream cups you eat with that wooden stick that is your "spoon." Deserts so blissfully sugary and filled with food coloring, the highlight of the entire experience was not the taste, or even the sugar high, but the fact that it turned your tongue, lips, fingers and teeth a very unnatural color.

It is worth saying that camp food has improved from a gastronomical perspective over the past twenty years. We now have a frozen yogurt machine and taco night, an omelet station and even Mongolian barbecue. And yet I still look forward to "cook out" night, where I don't care if I get baked bean residue on my watermelon, and while I would never eat a burger that was black on the outside, still moo-ing on the inside, ANYWHERE else in the world, when it is on the shores of Lake Walloon, I can simply can't wait to bite in. A glass of over-sugared, sandy lemonade while catching the perfect breeze is just a bonus.