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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions

brown food ain't pretty, but it sure tastes good

Perhaps because I wasn’t reared in the culture of pork eating, I am at odds with the animal. It’s not like I didn’t have pork growing up – I remember slivers of lardo and slices of speck, and an occasional pork loin, slow-cooked, studded with garlic cloves and bay leaves. There might have been a cutlet or two in there somewhere. But pork, at least in my memory, wasn’t a staple in our household in Russia, and became almost non-existent the minute we landed in America. My father, for reasons he still can’t furnish, considers pork to be somehow less kosher (or more unkosher, to be exact) than other tref foods. His ruling was final – pork was out – and so it didn’t enter our house unless my mom and I snuck some in, mostly in the form of bacon.

flying pigs, who else?

And so, based on this history, I’m really weird when it comes to pork. Really, oddly, inexplicably weird. First of all – we must exclude bacon from the pork umbrella. Bacon is special and is a food group in and of itself. So is speck and lardo and other cured meats like prosciutto. But other stuff is fair game. Pulled pork sandwich? Yes, please! I’ll take seconds too! Pork chop? No, thanks. Pass. Yawn. Pork cutlet? Pass, again. How about an apple-cider braised pork shoulder? Um, here’s my plate, please pile some meat on it! Confused yet?

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Friday, October 1, 2010

beef randang – malaysian beef curry

beef randang

Today in New York is a rainy, sleepy day. The kind of day that makes me want to take a long walk in the park, wrapped in a sweater, with a scarf draped around my neck. It’s the kind of day that makes me realize that there is no place like New York, no city that actually makes the rain so welcome. Paris is lovely in the rain, but Paris is lovely in any weather. In London rain is pretty much expected and has a long tenure. But to me New York is loveliest when the skies are grey, the rain is falling, and there are puddles on the ground. The grey and rainy New York is lovelier than the sunny New York, at least to me.

beef randang beef randang

I took a walk through Central Park today en route to work, making my journey slightly longer, but much more pleasant. I looked at the runners wishing I could join them – I love to run in the drain, and while I know that sounds counter-intuitive, trust me – once you do it, you’ll be hooked for life. It’s my favorite running weather. Now, I’m not talking a deluge here – just rain and slightly cooler temperatures. It makes for a refreshing, invigorating run. I smiled at all the dogs jumping from grass to pavement and back again, sniffing roots of trees, grasses, wet leaves, greeting one another, their wet tails wagging in excitement. The mothers were pushing their babies in strollers – some were running, some were walking briskly; all had an air of contentment about them. It was the perfect fall walk.

star anise, cardamom, cinnamon

I love days like this. I love weekends like this even more. When you’re “forced” to hang out in your apartment, putting around the kitchen, wearing sweaters and leggings, drinking endless cups of tea with Ma Rainey playing in your living room. Even better if you have a record player, and can hear the scratches in Ma Rainey’s voice. Give me more of such weekends, autumn, and I will make more beef randang in your honor. Who doesn’t love a hearty, soupy, spicy curry, spooned over rice and served in a deep bowl?

beef randang

I’ve been thinking about beef randang, ever since the lovely Colleen and I went out to Laut near Union Square. I haven’t had Malaysian food in I can’t tell you how long, but I realized after our dinner, just how much I had missed it. Malaysian food is made for days like this when you want something cozy and warm, and salads just won’t do, and soup seems to be not filling enough. It’s the equivalent of a wearing a blanket, minus the actually literally wearing one. But should ever decide that blanket-wearing is a must for dinner, you are now equipped with the perfect recipe for such an occasion, where sit at your table and eat it wearing whatever you like: a blanket, flannel pajamas, fleece pants and a hoodie, or yoga pants and a sweater. Sometimes, it’s just best to stay in and dress down, don’t you agree?

beef randang

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Friday, July 16, 2010

oven barbecue ribs

barbecued ribs

In my next life, I want to be a pit-master. I want to live in Texas, preferably in the Hill Country, and dedicate my life to slow-cooking meat. I can’t imagine saying this twelve years ago at the height of my impassioned vegetarianism. Ironically, it was barbecue that brought me back to my meat-eating ways. Ribs, to be precise. My, how I’ve come full circle. I’m now not only eating ribs, I’m making them too. Twelve years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself ever eating meat, but now! Now one of my dream vacations involves a hands-on intensive course learning how to grill properly. Grill like I mean it – with gusto.

liquid glaze misemixing the rub

Sadly, in my current life, I am outfitted with an apartment sans a back yard, and subsequently without a grill or a smoker. If I want barbecue, I have to either go out for it, or make it myself. In my kitchen. Using an oven. I can just see barbecue devotees rolling their eyes as they read this – barbecue in the oven? You’ve got to be kidding! And I swear to you all that the second I get my hands on a backyard, some serious, real, honest-to-goodness grilling is going to happen. You can hold me to it. I’ll make up for lost time.

ribs, rubbed

Speaking of time, the key to making ribs in the oven at home is simply ample time. You can’t rush the process – or disaster will follow. This is a thing of patience: you surrender the ribs over to low heat for several hours and you let the slow-cooking process do its thing as the meat grows tender, flaky, relaxed. [I resist using words like “succulent” and “moist” because I strongly dislike them. These, as well as the word “juicy” make me shudder and lose my appetite.] Instead of just cooking your meat at high temperature, which can yield some tough and chewy results (fail!), you gently coax it into a state of gradual submission (success!), so it practically falls off the bone when you try to bite into it.

It didn’t hurt that the meat came from one of my favorite purveyors – these ribs were perfection, with a nice layer of fat to keep them from drying out, and a healthy pink color. I’ve been to the farm where these ribs came from and you can tell – these are some of the happiest and well-cared-for animals you’ll see. The pigs were practically smiling.

ribs, rubbed

I made these over the 4th of July, when the East Coast heat wave was in full swing and it was far too hot to do anything outside. I turned the a/c on, dialed the oven to 200 degrees F, and puttered around the kitchen busying myself with potato salad and pie until the ribs were done and ready for our plates. We ate them in a pinch with only a few ribs left over for the following afternoon lunch. When life gives you ribs – you fire up the grill. But when life gives you some ribs and an oven – well, you know what to do.

ribs, rubbed and rested

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

beef brisket with merlot and prunes

beef brisket with merlot and prunes

I’ve a soft spot for humble meals made quietly, slowly, with nothing more than basic ingredients. Dishes that cook over slow heat for hours, particularly meat. Meat, that when you cut into it, slowly falls apart, so soft you hardly need to chew it. Meat that comes with a rich, thick sauce. Meals like this – I could eat on an almost-daily basis.

brisket. hello, gorgeous!

Sadly, I do not. Partly because I try to be thoughtful about meat consumption, partly because I work hours that don’t allow me, upon getting home, make a meal, that cooks over several hours (albeit, sort of happily cooks itself as time goes by) because that would mean, I would eat at midnight. Or later. And while I’ve fond memories of making and eating goulash at 1 am in college, college this is not, and somehow showing up for work late isn’t the same as skipping your 8am accounting class. The tardiness policy at work just isn’t very lenient.

brisket mise

Beef brisket is just one of those meals that if you’re spending a few hours at home puttering around, or expecting company for dinner, can be made with minimal effort and some glorious results. The concept is rather simple. You take a fatty slab of meat, brown it to lock in the flavor, brown the vegetables, and combine everything with something like wine, pomegranate molasses (with which I’ve been having a decade-long love affair!) and some dried fruit. In this case, the fruit of choice is prunes.

browning the brisketbrowning the brisket

Wait, come back! I know I just said prunes and I know they’re about as sexy as granny panties, but, please give them a chance. Cooked in stews, or slow-cooked in wine, sugar and spices, they transform themselves into something incredible lush and luxurious. I know, I just called prunes “luxurious”, when nothing could be more pedestrian. But, have I ever lied to you? Well then!

ready for cooking

I learned, pretty late in life, that brisket is sort of this traditional Jewish meal served during holidays or Shabbat meals. I didn’t grow up with it, so I felt it was my cultural duty to master the craft. Of course, I was cooking dinner with which I was hoping to impress, and I chose a dish that I’d never cooked before. Smart? I’d say not really. Was I a bit nervous? Absolutely. But everything came together without a hitch and the meat cooked perfectly and didn’t resemble pressed sawdust neither in looks nor in taste. If you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for Passover – look no further than this. And while it is always recommended that you do a practice run with a holiday meal beforehand, I’m pretty certain you will succeed with this one because the building blocks of a great dish are already included in the ingredients and the cooking process. If you cook it patiently and slowly, you will get a “humble” meal that will delicious and festive enough to be fit for a king.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

merguez burgers

merguez lamb burger

I’ve wanted to make these for about a year now.

coriander seeds

A whole year – which is quite a long time, if you ask me. Sometime ago in 2008 (boy, doesn’t that sound like ages ago?) I wandered into a small Soho restaurant called Salt, a little cold and very hungry. I scanned the small menu and a merguez burger just called to me: it came with a mint-yogurt sauce and a salad inside a pita. It sounded perfect, considering it was a kind of day when you needed something filling and comforting, and especially, if you have a soft spot for merguez, like I do.


I told all my friends about these burgers, dragged them to the restaurant and even co-planned an engagement brunch for my friends there. And every time, without even bothering to sample anything else, I would order the merguez burger. It was and is that good, believe me.

toasted, waiting to be groundground

And while I wanted to make them, I was kind of intimidated of what it would take to make this Moroccan specialty. Would it even taste authentic and what steps would it entail? And what if it didn’t taste just like the version I fell in love with? Typically, I’m shy and reserved and fear rejection and never had the guts to ask the chef for the recipe, so I was on my own in making it.

mixing it all together

And just as I was ready to finally take the plunge, spring and summer came and put my plans on a seasonal hiatus. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for heavy lamb when it’s 90 degrees outside. I tend to stick to crunchy, cold things like salads and sweet, fruit-filled things like pies. Lamb in the summer – um, no thank you.


But, finally, winter settled in. Or more like winter barged in with snow and wind and sub-freezing temperatures. No polite knocking on the door or anything – it simply appeared one morning and decided to stay. All this has done wonders for my motivation, as all I want to do is just put on layers and layers of fleece, drink coffee and eat soup. Oh, and also, keep making these merguez burgers. Because these taste exactly the way I had them at Salt, and I’m over the moon with this recipe, courtesy of Melissa Clark. It’s a moment of triumph when you can recreate a meal exactly the way you had it elsewhere. A small, but solid victory, a jubilant “Yesss!!” you squeal to yourself in your kitchen. I love these so much, that it pains me to write about them and not have one for dinner tonight. In fact, I reheated these for dinner and while they were lovely, my heart is so with these merguez burgers that I doubt anything will eclipse them this winter season.

merguez lamb burgers

There’s everything in perfect balance here: the spiced, fragrant lamb; the cooling freshness of the minty-cilantro yogurt sauce; the crunch of the lettuce and juice of the tomato; the heat of harissa. It’s really, truly, wonderfully perfect – comforting, filling, warm, and yet quite different from the regular, expected winter fare. Portion control with these might be a challenge, but then again, if these get you through the brutal cold then my job here is done. You can make the portion control resolutions on your own – just don’t come back blaming me.

cilantro mint yogurt dip

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

stuffed cabbage

stuffed cabbagge

No one ever tells you this, but the week after you get back from vacation is impossibly busy. For all you know, you come back, relaxed and tan, full of those lovely umbrella drinks, sand in your bag – and then wham, you get knocked down by work and life that apparently had the audacity to go on without you. You return to a full mailbox, bills to pay and laundry to do. I mean, the nerve, right? Shouldn’t the world stand still while you’re exercising your right to a bikini and a beach chair every day for a full week?

hollowing out the cabbagesteaming the cabbage
riceonions & celery

Oh and don’t get me started on the cold. The bone-numbing, soul-sucking, stop-you-in-your-tracks cold. I mean, I can’t even properly describe my dismay. Someone at work mentioned today that New York average temperatures around now were always in the mid-thirties and, well, we’ve certainly dipped below that just about every day. As luck would have it, my flight got into Newark on the same day that security breach took place and the airport was in near lock-down mode. I suggested to the pilot we turn the plane around and got back to Dominican Republic and he gave me a stare. I thought to myself, “Fine, but it’s either this, or an umbrella drink, buddy – you choose.”

stuffingall mixed
lining the potremoving the vein

We’re not even a month into this winter and already I’m whining. I swear, as the years go by the cold gets to me more and more. I complain about it bitterly, but get very little sympathy. Russians are supposed to tolerate these temperatures without so much as a shrug, I am told. But since I’ve not lived in the blustery St. Petersburg winter in over 21 years, I really can’t claim high tolerance for cold weather. Even if you do give me a vodka shot to quell the pain.

how to rollhow to roll
how to rollhow to roll

What I find myself doing, however, is craving Russian food. Badly. I like the heartiness and honesty of it; the way that it fills me up and makes me feel warm as if wrapped in a blanket. A food version of Snuggie, if you will, but far more attractive looking. And for me, in moments like this, stuffed cabbage really hits the spot.

a view from the top

In Russia, we called this dish “golubtsi”, and I’ve heard my Ukrainian friends refer to them as “holubki”. My friend Ryan took it one step further and referred to them as “pigs in blankets” and when I made fun of him and told he confused the name with another dish, quickly proved me wrong. But whatever you call them, they are amazing. In fact, they’re even better in the next few days as flavors develop more, and, if that weren’t bonus enough, they freeze beautifully too. Which is a great asset when you arrive home from the airport at 1 o’clock in the morning, starving and cold. A few minutes of defrosting in a microwave and you have a comforting, warm, soothing dinner. And if my week is busy, I can manage it, because I can have dinner ready in mere minutes, and focus on those other pesky things that took place in my absence, clearing my schedule for more important things like editing vacation photos. Clearly, more of a priority than paying bills.

stuffed cabbagge

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