A taste of Spring in the far North

I’m going to tell you now about my very favorite food in the world. I know, you’re shocked – I’ve been writing this blog for almost three years, and only now do I decide to tell you about my favorite food in the world?

I have nothing to say for myself, no excuse. I think I’ve put off posting it for the same reason I’ve put off making it: it has a lot of ingredients. I don’t like to type any more than I like to chop (repetitive stress injuries in my hands and wrists), but in both cases there are definitely times when it is worth the pain.

So then, why now? The wonderful blogs Diet, Dessert, and Dogs and Affairs of Living are hosting a new monthly event called the Sweet or Savory Kitchen Challenge. I’m very excited about this event because its guidelines are meant to lead to glorious round-ups full of things that people on special diets (like vegan, no refined sugar, no processed foods; or “healthy, sensible diets” as I like to call them) can eat and enjoy. I know I’ll look forward to the round-up each month and always take away new inspiration and ideas, but I also want to contribute to such an excellent project myself. When I saw that the theme this month is Beets, I knew it was time. Some chopping, some typing – it’s worth it to share with you my favorite food in the world.

It’s a bit of an odd choice for this event, since from some perspectives it might not be construed as glowingly healthy – it’s basically a giant bowl of carbs. But this is total comfort food, and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than most comfort food out there – I think it straddles the line between indulgence and nourishment quite nicely.

A little history: My mom started going to Russia way back when it was still the Soviet Union. She made a lot of friends, did a lot of work there, helped a bunch of families to immigrate to the US. A few times I went with her, both before and after the fall of the USSR, and I grew up surrounded by wonderful Russian and Ukrainian friends. All this led to my studying Russian in college and eventually moving to St. Petersburg my junior year to do study abroad.

Russian cuisine can be amazing, and I had the chance to eat in homes all over the Soviet Union, from Moscow and St. P to the Ukraine and Siberia. Even when there was barely anything to eat – Bozhe Moy! – the things these women could do with a potato! Everything is strange and wonderful and particular, like the Salat Olivier, which contains potatoes and pickles and eggs and boiled chicken, all dressed with mayonnaise, and is much, much better than it sounds.

I don’t remember the first time I had the Russian salad known as Vinegret. But I do know that it had already become one of my favorite foods by the time I went off to St. Petersburg for my study abroad year. My host family was a mother and fourteen year-old daughter, money was tight, and, unlike the celebratory feasts I had always been treated to when I was just visiting the country, the majority of our meals were the simple, everyday food eaten in lower-income Russian households. Hotdogs, boiled and then fried. Potatoes, boiled and then fried. Cabbage, boiled. A variety of meatpastes spread on dry white bread. Throughout the whole winter I never ate a raw vegetable or fruit. I had made the conscious decision to stop being vegetarian while I was there (I would have starved and made my host family miserable), but my body simply wasn’t used to the kind of diet I was eating. I was constantly sick and the fact that the temperature was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit wasn’t helping.

The minute spring tentatively began to arrive in the frigid Northern city, I trekked out to the farmer’s market, rubles in hand. There among the potatoes and the cabbages I found what I had dreamed of finding, a few feathery stalks of early dill and a bunch of bright scallions. I loaded up my plastic sack (a true Russian never leaves home without at least one) with potatoes and beets and carrots and onions, made the long commute back home to our Khrushchoba (a play on the name of 1960s Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and the word for “slum”), and made a huge mountain of vinegret. I am a little ashamed to say that I sat in the kitchen on a stool in the otherwise empty flat and ate the entire mountain by myself. But the next day I did trek back to the market, buy all the same ingredients, and make another even more colossal mountain of vinegret, so that this time my host family, too, could have that tiny taste of spring.

This salad is a true Russian classic. It draws on the sustenance of those long winters in the beets and potatoes and carrots, root-cellar foods (my host-mother kept ours stored under the piano, with pumpkins and other squashes, too). It has the wild flavor of dill so beloved to Russian cuisine, and the peculiar surprise of the dill pickle, which the Russians really do love to put in many places I had never encountered it before (soup, salad, meat stews). And then there are the peas. I’ve seen recipes here in the states that call for frozen peas or even (gasp!) fresh peas, but for me the canned peas are essential. They’re mushy, true, but for me they are an important reminder of the time when mothers stood in line all day long, not even knowing if there would be anything to buy at the end of the line, just to get a can of Soviet peas to bring home to their children.

The salad does require a lot of prepwork, but it makes a large quantity and is truly delicious. The beets will turn everything a bright magenta, which makes it super fun to eat, and the flavors and textures mix and mingle in ways you simply can’t imagine from just looking at the recipe. Mmm… just writing about it makes me crave it. I think I could eat another mountain’s worth!

Vinegret (traditional Russian salad)
This recipe is modified slightly from the wonderful Russian cookbook Please to the Table by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman. Please see above for my justification for using canned peas, but if you hate mushy peas and are less of a romantic than I, feel free to substitute cooked frozen peas. For a really terrific picture of Vinegret, check out the glamour-shot over at Beyond Salmon.

2-3 large beets with skin, but stemmed, washed, and dried
3 med. boiling potatoes, peeled
2 med. carrots, peeled
3/4 cup chopped onion
3 med. dill pickles, in 1/2-inch dice
1 can of peas, drained
1/4 C. chopped scallions*
1/4 C. finely chopped fresh dill
Salt & pepper to taste

1 tsp dry mustard (or use fresh mustard, it’s fine)
1/4 tsp agave nectar
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
1/3 cup unrefined sunflower oil or olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

The harder but more delicious way to prep the beets: Preheat oven to 375, wrap beets in foil and bake until tender, about 1 1/4 hours. When cool enough to handle, slip off beets skins under running water and cut into 1/2-inch dice.
The easier and still tasty way to prep the beets: Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Boil beets in boiling water until tender, about 45 minutes – 1 hour, depending on size of beets. About 30 minutes into the beet cooking, add the potatoes, then add the carrots ten minutes later. Keep poking everything with a fork and remove each piece as it gets tender.
If you baked the beets, follow these directions for the potatoes and carrots: Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Add carrots and cook until tender, about ten more minutes.
Drain all veggies. When cool, slip skins off of beets under running water and cut beets, potatoes and carrots into 1/2-inch dice.
In a small bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the dressing.
In a large salad bowl, combine diced beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, pickles, peas, scallions, and dill. Toss with dressing, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
This salad is fabulous warm and scrumptious at room temperature and even better the next day!

*My instinct on the scallions is to chop the white parts only, but my host-mother Marina was shocked at the waste. She gathered up the discarded green parts and made a terrible spread/dip thing with sour cream and the bitter green scallion tops that we all tried to eat. Thank goodness for scrap stock, is all I have to say!

Earlier this week I’d been pondering what I might make for the fabulous Family Recipes event hosted by The Life & Loves of Grumpy’s Honeybunch, The Spiced Life, and Lynda’s Recipe Box. I’ve never entered anything, but I love reading the stories and memories people share about the foods they make. Tonight I was musing again on what I might make to submit when I realized that Vinegret would be perfect for this event! It’s a true “family recipe” belonging to all my extended Russian family, and has especially strong ties to memories of my St. Petersburg host family.

A little less socializing for a gluten-free, vegan Menu Plan Monday


Well, the awesome energy that was propelling my previous MPM stuttered to something of a halt last week due to fatigue, an abundance of social activity and the poor customer service of Eating with the Seasons (in other words, no more CSA box)*. So here’s another retroactive menu plan that harkens back to those glory days where we were actually making lots of new Moosewood recipes and eating fabulous meals every night!

After you’ve taken a look at the menu, please check out the announcement for this month’s Sugar High Fridays event. This is a super fun and incredibly long-running sweets event, and I have the honor of hosting this month’s round. If you like sweets (and who doesn’t?) won’t you cook up something fun and join us?

This week’s Gluten Free Menu Swap is being hosted over at lovely Gluten Free Goodness. For a huge compendium of Menu Plan Mondays, visit the giant list at I’m an Organizing Junkie.

Impressionist cauliflower
Raw kale salad with avocado and cherry tomatoes
Spanish stew with chick peas, potatoes, and artichoke hearts (Moosewood at Home)

“Sloppy sushi” rolls with nori, sushi rice, toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and flax oil
Steamed asparagus with citrus dressing (Moosewood Low Fat)
Broiled portabello mushrooms with miso-balsamic glaze (MLF)

Fennel-seasoned pan-fried tempeh (Moosewood at Home)
Glazed sweet potatoes with maple syrup and lime

Steamed napa cabbage with pickled ginger and vinegar-soy sauce

Nature’s Burger or homemade falafel with arugula and cherry tomatoes
Sweet potato fries
(made with white sweet potatoes – the best for fries!) with vegan aioli
Baby broccoli with garlic and soy sauce

Black-eyed pea curry (5 Spices, 50 Dishes)
Steamed beet greens

Broiled tofu (Moosewood at Home)
Kale with kale sauce
“Sloppy sushi” rolls

Quick vegetarian borscht (I added a Yukon potato and some caraway seeds to the recipe)

*For those who care, here are the reasons why we quit Eating with the Seasons: Mostly it was an issue of style. EWTS was more of an online delivery service, with a huge list of produce to choose from each week, much of it coming from farms far to the South or North of here. Two of the main reasons we get a CSA box are so we can be more connected to specific farmers who grow our food and so we can eat locally and in season. It didn’t really feel like that was being facilitated by the EWTS box.

But the capper was the poor customer service we received. The people we spoke to on the phone never seemed well informed about the CSA service, which was frustrating. Finally, we wanted to put our box on hold as we do periodically to check back in and make sure getting a CSA box is still the right choice for us. When I called to find out if we could do this, we were told that we would be purged from the EWTS membership and probably would not be able to get back in later. The way this was presented was as a kind of threat to keep us from putting our box on hold. (Of course it had the immediate effect of making me want to quit rather than just take some time off.) When I spoke to someone else there later, they had no idea what I was talking about and assured me we would remain EWTS members forever and could resume whenever we wanted. I hate to think that there’s one confused and/or nasty person spoiling the customer service for EWTS, but it was definitely a series of frustrating interactions! We’re going to try a different CSA soon, one that is more connected to a specific farm.

Middle Shelf & Door

The fridge project continues! One girl. One chaotic refrigerator. One New Year’s project. Watch her take on unidentifiable sauces in tiny tupperware, three plastic bags full of raisins, ziplocs full of things we think we’re going to eat but never get around to, and seven-year-old apple butter!

Who knows what secrets lurk in the heart of the middle shelf?

Who knows what secrets lurk in the heart of the middle shelf?

The top shelf called mostly for organization and patience. The middle shelf, however, would bring its own unique challenges. Almost two separate worlds in one shelf, the middle shelf’s front half is the home to snack material like bread and cheese and tortillas and baba ganoush. It has its share, too, of little bits of leftover sauce and dressing put into tiny containers and left to leak quietly onto the shelf below. But the back half of the middle shelf is more like a pantry – loose floppy plastic baggies of raisins, nutritional yeast, rice, and flax seeds are crammed into the back and make periodic surges forward, tangling their plastic tails in amongst the mochi and miso trying to live a quiet life up front.

Pulling out the contents of the middle shelf was like a revelation. It was as though a veil of crinkly plastic was lifted from my eyes. Hiding there I found several beets, fuzzed with mold around their tops but still firm and ready to go. I found a white onion that came in my CSA box – putting it at an August 27th, 2008 arrival date at the most recent. A box of tofu was just barely holding on, and several pomegranates had begun to wither in on themselves.

Baked Beets and Onions with Horseradish Sauce

Baked Beets and Onions with Horseradish Sauce from the middle shelf

The real source of chaos on the middle shelf was the aforementioned bags of dry goods, and luckily all these found happy new homes. Some went into the actual pantry, some into the freezer, and the rest were sorted into labeled jars and tucked back into the fridge where their plastic effluvium would bother us no more. Ever since the advent of our wonderful portable dishwasher I’ve been much more diligent about washing and saving food jars rather than recycling them away (no matter how much you wash it by hand, a pickle jar still smells like pickles!) so I had a great collection of multi-sized options to choose from.

The fridge door was a relatively easy affair, mostly a question of moving things I use more often into better positions. I’ve known for a while that I’m a mustard addict, but organizing the door forced me to confront my addiction. (Or do “normal” people keep 8 different kinds of mustard in their refrigerators?)

I ended up with quite a tasty meal from the middle shelf: Chili-glazed tofu (nothing like a tangy chili glaze to cover the tangy taste of near-spoilage!). A tubful of pomegranate seeds, great for snacking, especially when the house gets so dehydrating with the heater on. And a new recipe: Baked Beets and Onions with Horseradish Sauce (recipe follows below), with the door contributing a jar of grated horseradish that hadn’t made an appearance since Passover of ’05.

The plastic menace has been transformed!

The plastic bag menace has been transformed!

Top Shelf
Bottom Shelf & Crisper Drawers

Baked Beets and Onions with Horseradish Sauce (inspiration taken from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

Olive Oil
Salt & pepper

Grated horseradish
Sugar to taste
Salt to taste
White wine or sherry vinegar to taste

Preheat oven to 375 or 400 degrees. Scrub beets but leave the peels on and cut into large pieces. Remove peels from onions and cut into thick slices, sprinkle with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Line a baking dish with parchment paper (optional – makes clean-up much easier!) and spread out beets and onions in pan. Put about 1/4 inch water in the bottom of the pan and cover pan with foil. Bake until beets are tender, about 30-40 minutes.

Mix yogurt and horseradish to taste. (You want to make sure it isn’t too spicy or bitter for your palate.) Add a little sugar, a little salt, a little vinegar, but make sure to save the final seasoning for when your veggies are done, because the sauce tastes very different against the sweetness of the baked beets.

Stocking up, part I

Making ingredients is a funny thing. You put a lot of energy into preparing something, but you can’t eat it on its own. All that energy gets expended in the service of expending less energy in the future. (Or, sometimes, in order to have a version of some particular ingredient that you can actually eat, because dietary restrictions mean it’s not possible to buy it already prepared.)

The past few weeks I’ve prepped a lot of ingredients. Not because I’ve had extra energy (I almost never have extra energy) but because I’ve had a ton of produce that was just not getting eaten in time. And this is the other function of making ingredients, also known as “preserving,” because it gets your food into forms that don’t rot, or freeze easily, or will actually get eaten.

My stockpile has included:

* Scrap Stock, batch V, my first successful batch since May (I had a failed attempt in late June). Because I canceled several box deliveries this summer, and have been away a lot, my scrap stock production has really slowed down. Additionally, tomato and zucchini trimmings don’t work for scrap stock because they rot before I can collect a large enough batch of scraps, so the scrap box I keep in the fridge hasn’t been getting full as fast as it did in the winter and spring. But at last I produced 4 cups of lovely pink stock (due to the beet trimmings from the turnip pickles, see below). And just in the nick of time! I am now cooking with my stock faster than I am making it.

* Turnip pickles, which employed beets and vinegar solution to turn my four large bunches of uneaten turnips into yummy pink, Middle Eastern pickles. Now, of course, I have 5 jars of pickles. They’re refrigerator pickles, which means they’ll get too strong if I don’t eat them soon. What am I going to do with five jars of turnip pickles? Have a pickle party? If you live in SF, let me know if you want a jar of really tasty turnip pickles. The texture of these little guys is incredible! They go amazingly well with falafel, but are also a yummy snack all on their own.

Turnip pickles with grilled eggplant and quinoa pilaf

Turnip pickles with grilled eggplant and quinoa pilaf

* Mushroom gravy, following a vegan recipe from Veganomicon. I bought a big bag of mushrooms at the farmer’s market a while back, intending to make mushroom-walnut pate with them. (YUM!) But then our Cuisinart died, and I had to quickly figure out a new use for them before they turned to sludge in the fridge. Mushroom gravy is the kind of thing that always balks me. If I see a recipe, like the delicious Another Sheperd’s Pie from Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites, that has a whole separate gravy-making component on top of the actual making of the dish, I will always skip it. (In previous, more energetic times I did occasionally take on these all-day projects, which is why I know how good that recipe tastes!) But now with several cups of delicious vegan, gluten-free mushroom gravy tucked away in my freezer, I have a leg up on all those hearty but time-consuming vegetarian classics.

There’s plenty more stocking up in this pile (including our new downstairs freezer finally getting put to use with all kind of grains and seeds and GF flours, courtesy of Rainbow Grocery and their 20% off coupons from the Yellow Pages). It does give me a secure feeling to have a little backstock of ingredients, and it gives me a happy feeling to know that they came from my own hands!

Raw raw raw!

Farmer B has left for the East, and only the farm gods know when we’ll meet again. She left us the best possible gift to remember her by, however – a huge bag full of farm-fresh produce. Tiny sweet peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and enormous amounts of curly kale. Duck and I spent the day with her before she boarded her train and we all decided to check out the Grand Lake farmer’s market for the first time. That impressive market, which is quite a party with live music, slides for the kids, and stands with prepared food of all kinds, yielded up Japanese eggplants, dry-farmed tomatoes, mountain blueberries, and perfectly ripe avocados, among other treasures.

We may still be mourning the loss of our favorite farm girl, but a body’s got to eat, right? It’s been robust at mealtimes for the past couple days, with my Cafe Gratitude-style rice bowl and Duck’s buckwheat soba with portobella mushrooms and zucchini, so I wanted something very light tonight. I wanted kale salad.

Raw Kale Salad with Avocado & Cherry Tomatoes

Specifically, I wanted a kale salad someone brought to a potluck I went to a few months ago, but with my brain fog I can now no longer remember who made it or what it tasted like, just that it was heavenly and I was so surprised and delighted at how tender and wonderful raw kale could be.

So I used the awesome-pants search feature over at Food Blog Search to seek out some kale salad recipes. I found a few different ones, but several of them involved lightly sauteeing the kale, and this quest had become, for me, all about the raw. I found one totally raw salad (with some variation) in three different places. I first read about it on the I Am Gluten Free blog, and then found another version on the Diet, Dessert, and Dogs blog, and finally watched a YouTube video of it being made! By this time I was sold. This isn’t the salad I went looking for, but it fit perfectly with the ingredients I had on hand, sounded delicious, and I was apparently going to get to do something called “massaging the kale.”

I decided to accompany it with a raw beet salad (I used a New York Times recipe as my starting point) and finish it up with a slice of green melon for dessert. (I know, the food combiners, who taught me about eating raw, are rolling over in their wheatgrass patches at my eating melon after a meal…) All in all, a delicious and incredibly colorful dinner.

The recipes are so simple, but I’ll write them out anyways. The part I’ve expanded on is the kale salad directions; every time I massaged the kale my hands would get oily and slippery and then I’d go to pick up a knife to cut open the avocado, etc. and it would be a bad scene. (Somehow the Raw Coach in the video doesn’t seem to have this problem!) So I thought a little guide to what order things should be done in would be helpful. Continue reading

The fourth way

Back when I still thought my problem with turnips was not having found the right way to cook them (as opposed to simply disliking them in general), I tried them three different ways in one night. Of course I ended up not very satisfied with any of those (because I don’t like turnips). But after trying some raw turnip that evening, I thought they might make good pickles. This, I suggested while the turnip project still had appeal, would be the fourth way to try turnips.

A fresh batch of turnip pickles (with beet for color)

Fast forward many months. A new round of turnip delivery begins. Duck and I eat the yummy greens very happily (and for all the people who find this site by googling “turnip greens” or “how to cook turnip greens” I recommend preparing them, alone or with other greens, steamed and then topped with kale sauce or sauteed “Venice” style or Asian style with ginger and garlic). But the turnips themselves sit in the fridge, unloved.

Then I remembered a favorite culinary memory. In New York, all the falafel places give you these yummy pink pickles with your food. They always seemed like radishes to me, but with a more rubbery rather than crunchy texture. Finally I asked a falafel cook what they were, and he told me they were pickled turnips. As far as I know, these pickles were my main contact with turnips before the advent of the CSA, but I completely forgot about them. The memory returned in my time of need as I stood staring at several bags of turnips nestled amidst the lettuce graveyard in my fridge.

Turnips and beets awating their vinegar bath

But what turns white turnips into pink pickles? It turns out sliced beets do, and a bunch of beets arrived fortuitously in the next box. Google led me to a recipe on the madKnews blog, and I put my turnips in to pickle before leaving on my big Midwestern adventure. (These are “refrigerator pickles” so they don’t get canned, just stuck in the fridge to sit in a vinegar solution.)

Tonight the pickles had their grand unveiling. They’d been hanging out in their vinegar baths for thirteen days, several days more than the recipe recommended, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Duck and I wanted to showcase them in their optimal setting, so we made homemade falafel to put on fresh lavash bread with heirloom tomatoes, tender red leaf lettuce, a squeeze of meyer lemon and a generous spread of Haig’s baba ganoush, a local delicacy and one of my favorite things.

We tried the pickles straight first, and then rolled them into sandwiches with all the other goodies. The first pickle-only bite was so spicy, I felt like I’d licked the maror dish at Passover (that would be a bowl of horseradish for those of you who are seder-uninitiated). And Duck made a face when he tried his that made me certain I was going to be eating two jars of turnip pickles by my lonesome. But then his fingers kept sneaking back into the jar.

“You like them!,” I exclaimed.

“I don’t know if I like them,” he replied, “but I seem to be addicted to them.” At least that’s what I think he said – his mouth was full of turnip pickle at the time.

Subsequent bites proved a little more mellow. And the little guys were absolutely phenomenal in our falafel wraps. I’m having a hard time finding words to describe their flavor. Zesty, certainly. And so yummy I was stuffing another little slice into each bite of my wrap. It looks like, after what ended up being considerably more than four tries, I have at last found a way to enjoy my turnips! Continue reading

Scrap Stock IV – Mega-edition

Another consequence of being too tired to cook or blog or generally do anything was that my veggie scraps really started piling up. By early this week most of my fridge’s top shelf seemed to be devoted to scraps, waiting like pining lovers for the transformative kiss of the stock pot. So when I finally started to have a bit more energy, it was time to brew up some stock and get that shelf cleared.

I ended up having enough material to make two pots of stock, ending up with 13 cups of rich, savory broth, tinged a beautiful pink from the beet scraps. My freezer is truly well stocked now, which saves me from treating the stock like it is a scarce commodity.

Two pots of scrap stock

In this mega-edition of scrap stock:

Spinach crowns
Garlic peels and trim
Carrot trim and tops
Chard stem
Kale stem
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Fennel stalks
Apple cores
Radish trim
Leek trim
Green garlic trim
Arugula trim
Sugar snap pea trim
Thyme stalks
Red onion peels and trim
Shallot peels and trim
Mustard green trim
Beet trim
Bay leaves