Friday, July 31, 2009

Russian salted gruzd mushroom (солёный груздь)

uropean nations can be divided into mushroom-philes and mushroom-phobes. Italians, the French and the Slavs consider mushroom-picking their national pastime, while Anglo-Saxons dread the very idea of eating anything picked in the forest unless it was shot prior to that. English mushroom names sound like fancy diseases and do no good service to culinary appeal.

This mushroom is no exception. While the Russian name is a crunchy gruzd (pronounced groozd), in English it is known, to botanists mostly, as lactarius resimus.Truth be told, it is not favoured even among mushroom-loving Latin nations. Russians, however, consider it one of the three tastiest mushrooms.

Its culinary appeal is not immediately apparent: it tastes bitter and crushes easily. To ensure that gruzd’s crunchy texture is enjoyed at its best, a long and tedious process of soaking and salting is employed. It takes around two months and produces a delicacy usually served with onions or horseradish and vegetable oil, often to the accompaniment of ice-cold vodka.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Russian pearl barley & mushroom soup (перловый суп с грибами)

перловый суп с грибами, barley mushroom soupo Russian dinner is complete without soup. Most recipes are traditional and use  obscure cereals and seasonal vegetables with quite spectacular results.

Barley and mushroom soup is at the very top of my favourites. list. It takes some time to cook but the good thing you don't need to be there to wacth the pot all the time. It is rather light yet very filling, full of fibre and complex carbohydrates. The slowly cooked barley and caramelised onions give it gentle sweetness, while the heady aroma of fried mushrooms will keep you salivating like a Pavlov's dog throghout the cooking process.
  1. Soak a cup of barley and a generous handful of dried mushrooms in cold water overnight.
  2. Set the mushrooms aside and bring water with barley to a boil. Allow to simmer for an hour or so until the barley becomes al dente.

  3. In the meantime, cut 2 potatoes and a carrot into bite-size chunks. Set aside to dry.
  4. Finely chop 2-3 large onions and stir fry with the  mushrooms in olive oil until golden brown. Optional: 100 g smoked bacon.
  5. Tip the potatoes, carrots, onions and mushrooms into the pot with barley. Add salt, pepper and a couple of bay leaves, mix well and allow to simmer for about 20 more minutes.
  6. Serve with crème fraîche and chopped fresh parsley.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Russian oven-baked salmon pie (рыбный пирог)

I n the Western mass conscious, Russian diet inextricably revolves around the images of frozen cabbage eaten out of toilet bowls and people queuing for bread at 4AM on dark winter mornings. Thanks to years of Cold War propaganda, we all know that Russians are sullen-faced ruffians chasing vodka with raw potato peels in the midst of Siberian snowfields.

Reality, however, is rather different. With perhaps the only exception of convicted bachelors, Russians traditionally eat three warm meals a day. That extravagant habit explains why of all industrialised nations Russians spend the most time in the kitchen, one and a half hours a day on the average.

A day without soup is considered a wasted day. Although supermarket chains are doing everything in their power to change this, Russians normally eat whatever is in season. Spices are still used sparingly but fresh dill, parsley, horseradish, mustard are common. Sandwiches for lunch and deep fried food are an imported concept and frowned upon.

For me the most prominent feature of Russian cuisine is oven-baked dishes, particularly pies. Pies are made with leavened dough and eaten throughout the year. Fillings, as is the case with other dishes, are whatever is in season.

M
y favourite is my Mother’s salmon pie. The filling is de-boned wild salmon with black pepper and onions on a bed of buttery rice. The rice soaks in the fish and onion juices and keeps them sealed inside. The dough comes out golden-brown and crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside. Mother normally serves it with light fish broth in small bowls and a green salad. This time we had it with an underrated Austrian white, Grüner Veltliner. I brought it from my trip to Vienna as Austrians don't seem to favour exporting their wine.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Iraqi Grill House@ Edgware Road, London

We were enjoying a leisurely walk along the Regent's Canal from Little Venice walking towards the Camden Lock Market when a torrential rain caught us right by Edgware Road. Unprepared for such a treacherous turn of the weather, we got soaking wet and as it was closing on lunch time we took it as a sign and went on to look for a nice bite in a warm place on Edgware Road, the heart of London's Arab community.

Worldwide media spin machine
these days is trying to portray Arabs as archenemies of everything that the West holds dear, but we need to be reminded that it was down to the Arabs that much of the knowledge and culture of the Ancient world was preserved for us. Take Iraq. It is nowadays synonymous with war, suffering and destruction brought to this country by oil-hungry Uncle Sam and its faithful minion Great Britain. This painful image overshadows the fact that Iraq is also the cradle of world’s oldest urban civilization. And as is always the case with ancient nations, Iraq has a fantastic cuisine.

Iraqi Grill on Edgware Road is its very worthy ambassador. We realized that the very moment we stepped out of the pouring rain into its warm-coloured interior filled with mouth-watering smells. It is next to a miracle that any Iraqis would serve food to anyone speaking English after what America and Britain did to their country but we were welcomed warmly and treated nicely throughout our extended lunch.

Although the canopy proudly bears www.khankabab.com, Khan Kabab, in fact, is the name of a fast food outlet that used to occupy the same premises. Strangely enough, Iraqi Grill House have also inherited Khan Kabab's menu covers. I figure it must have been a cost-cutting measure.

We ordered mixed grill and mixed starters to try a bit of every specialty. The starters came on a large platter and consisted of:
  • three definitely hand-made dolmas, succulent and gently flavoured;
  • three lightest ever falafels I've ever had - without any perceptible trace of grease;
  • Arab fried potatoes, herby and spicy - this is how I imagined Spanish patatas bravas would be like, not the deep-fried autrocity with chilli sauce that you get;
  • the ubiquitous hommous;
  • moutabal - grilled aubergine and tahini dip.
The mixed grill came in the shape of chicken barbeque, grilled lamb shashlik and kebab - lamb mince with spices - one skewer each. All meat was excellently done - lightly charred on the outside, juicy inside. To accompany this carnal excellence were pickles and chopped sweet onions sprinkled with sumak.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Devon clotted cream with brandy

lthough it sounds like a surefire recipe for an early heart attack, it is an indispensable ingredient for cream tea when it served on scones with jam. There is an ongoing argument whether it originates in Devon or Cornwall. One things for sure, it owes its origin to the cows of Southwest England that produce rich milk that is high in fat content.

Clotted dream is made from unpasteurized cream left for hours to allow the fat content to raise to the surface and form clots.

In the olden days when appropriate calorie intake was a problem, this was a true luxury and nutritional boost. In our days of dietary overconsumption and sedentary lifestyle, it has become a guilty pleasure. Perhaps, it would be a wise marketing move to try and come up with some other word than clotted, which brings about not particularly favourable associations, but then clotted cream would not be the same by a different name.

In Devon, clotted cream is used instead of butter with the jam spread on top of it, while in Cornwall the opposite is true.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Palm sugar

unt Pranee, whose diminutive build does not easily mesh with her name meaning "cosmic energy", is fixing me somtam, a fiery salad of shredded unripe papaya. For many years that I spent in Thailand it became my staple food. In a hot climate like there your body craves a spicy kick to perk itself up, and somtam fulfils that function perfectly. In goes a staggering variety of ingredients: from pickled fresh-water crabs and fried peanuts to hog plum and fish sauce. What looks like fossilized mini-piles of blonde poop turns out to be sugar. Thai food is a balance of sweet, sour, spicy and tart so palm sugar was responsible for the sweetneess in somtam.

In Thailand palm sugar is made mostly from the sap of the coconut palm, so it may sometimes be confusingly sold as "coconut sugar" or "palm honey" while, in fact, it has nothing to do with coconut fruits or bees. Depending on the degree of processing, the colour may vary from pale beige to hearty honey brown.

It definitely brings in more complex flavour than refined sugar. It is also less sweet and it adds honey-like mellow mildness to whatever you put it into. In the countries where it is common, it is sold in huge dollops that are dirt-cheap. In Europe I buy it in miniature stacks of neat rounds encircled in strips of bamboo wood (as on the picture).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

High tea in the Tithe Barn, Abergavenny, Wales

s we drove from Cardiff to the wilderness of Wales, we happened upon this beautiful medieval town of Abergavenny. Wish we had had more time to spend there but we tried to enjoy as much of it as possible nevertheless.

First thing we did we went to have tea in the yard of the Tithe Barn, an ancient structure where monks used to store what local people would bring as the tithe, the church tax. Currently, it is converted into a very intuitive and interactive museum of local lore with a cafe downstairs.


This is tea, Welsh cake, clotted cream and home-made strawberry jam.

A platter of cold cuts consisted of slices of bacon, ham, roast beef and salami as well as local bread, green salad and chutney. Nice and fresh but slightly overpriced at 8.60. Later we discovered that like in many places in the UK, museum entrance is free but the proceedings from the associated businesses go to the upkeep.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Whole fish baked in salt

ish does not need much cooking or spice. Its natural flavour is what we like it for. On top of black pepper only one mild spice or herb is allowed. Some spices are a definite no-no: nutmeg, for example, or cloves are too overpowering.

When preparing these two lovely forels, I stuffed them with just fresh lemon grass and some black pepper. Then I put them on a banana leave, covered them liberally with coarse sea salt and baked them in the oven until the eyes turned white. That was it, nothing to it.

T
he salt cakes on top of the fish and only ever so slightly penetrates the skin. Steamed veggies, potatoes or rice - nothing too strong smelling or pungent - go well with this.

It is impossible to ascribe this kind of cooking to any particular region, it is mostly down to the choice of fish sort and herbs. In Thailand, for example, local catfish (pla buek) is stuffed with lemon grass to make a tear-jerkingly delicious dish.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Welshman's caviar: laverbread (bara lafwr)

When I told my half-Welsh landlord I would be going on vacation to Wales, his first reaction was: "You've got to try laverbread!". My mind immediately conjured images of some kind of Irish soda bread. I couldn't be farther away from truth. Laverbread (dara lafwr in Welsh) is a a savoury purée made from seaweed boiled for a few hours. It is a specialty of South Wales and is hardly available anywhere else.

I found it in Cardiff's charming Central Market sold en gros. It seemed to sell quite briskly. Tastewise it reminds of pulpified nori, minus the spicy-ish kick which comes as no surprise considered how it is made. Although it does nto look very appealing (Floyd refused to eat it), it is easy on the palate. Welsh preferred way to consume it is for breakfast with bacon and cockles and it can also be made into sauce or laver soup or even, mixed with oatmeal, into cakes!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hou-tou-gu (yamabushitake): the wonder of China

The wonder of Da Shan, Monkey Head Mushroom!" Gaudy red characters on a package in my local Chinese shop cried for attention. They got mine. I had no idea what was so wondrous about this weird-looking fungus but I would just google it once back home.

It turned out the characters did not lie. Decoction of this mushroom (猴頭菇 - hou-tou-gu) is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat or prevent such conditions as indigestion, thrombosis, dementia, neurasthenia as well as the ulcers and cancer of the stomach, duodenal and oesophagus. It is known to reduce to level of lipids in blood.The secret behind such an astonishingly wide strike zone is ascribed to the polysaccharides that address the root of those seemingly unrelated conditions.

It is one of the Four Culinary Treasures of China, the other three are bear's paws, trepangs and shark fins. It is also known as Lion's Mane Mushroom, Bearded Tooth Mushroom, Hedgehog Mushroom, Bearded Hedgehog Mushroom, pom pom mushroom, or Bearded Tooth Fungus. Its Latin name, Hericium erinaceus, is only used in scientific literature while the Japanese name, yamabushitake (山伏茸) frequently occurs in commercial contexts.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chipotle: smoked Mexican peppers

or me chipotle (aka chilpotle) peppers for ever represent the ultimate flavour of Mexican cuisine. Their earthy smoky spiciness that kicks in with a delay, magically transforms any stew or sauce into Mexican fare.

The name originates in the Nahuatl language and stands for smoked pepper, chilpoctli.


Chipotle is a fully ripe jalapeño pepper, smoked until it loses all its moisture. It is an ancient preserving technique employed by Native Americans. There is also the en adobo (in brine) variety that I stock up on my visits to the US of A. I yet have to locate them in Europe.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kipper: the original red herring

Traditional English food is straightforward and quick to cook. Whether it is down to Protestantism or the busy rhythm of industrial society, I don't know. I first heard the word kipper in the famous episode of Fawlty Towers. It took 15 years before I got around to tasting it. Kipper is a herring, which, in a traditional bout of Northern European ichthyophobia , has been split from tail to head, gutted, salted, and cold smoked. As if that is not enough, the traditional recipe requires grilling it.

Although every effort seems to have been made to thrash the last whiff of the sea, the final product tastes rather nice. Before grilling, I sprinkle it with freshly ground black pepper and put a knob or butter on top. It comes out a delicious dark tan colour.