Russian Crab Salad

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I've been looking through cookbooks and stumbled upon something that stirred a vague memory. The book was Please to the Table, the Russian Cookbook. And the recipe was for a crab salad, with rice. I thought it sounded peculiar, but then I remembered that long ago I've had it. During holidays when my mom would host gatherings, a similar salad was made. I remembered the taste, the texture. I've mentioned before that I tend to remember through food: memories that lay dormant, that I thought were forgotten are suddenly stirred awake. For some people it's a photograph, for me it's a dill pickle.

I was skeptical about the cookbook too. Partly because there really isn't a one way to make something in traditional Russian homemade cuisine. For instance, one of the more well known Russian salads, the Olivier, can be made in a hundred different ways. Sometimes it even has a different name. One family we knew simply called it a winter salad and made it with steak (they also made one in the summer, and subsituted steak with apples, and called it a summer salad). There is no one way to make Borsch, although someone once insisted to me that it could only be made "properly" with ox tails. But I like my mom's Borsch the best, simply because I grew up on it. It is my comfort zone.


Another reason why I was skeptical of the cookbook is because it's in English. When possible I prefer things in their native language. That goes without saying for cookbooks. This is so because a cookbook written in its native language doesn't need to explain itself. It doesn't need to apologize for being foreign. It doesn't need to say "we're weird, we put sour cream in our soup." It dispenses with the introductions and explanations and simply goes to the point: the food.

But in this cookbook, I have found recipes that are familiar, and dishes I had forgotten (so that with it as a guide, I can make my own version, as with this crab salad) and dishes that I've had but never learned how to make.


In this recipe the rice blends extremely well with the crab meat and it makes the salad more filling. The salad would have been served as is in a serving bowl, but you can also use it to make appetizers (or zakuski), by, say dolloping a small amount on endive leaves.

Adapted from Anya von Bremzen & John Welchman, Please to the Table

Russian Crab Salad
(Serves 6-8)

You will need:
1 lb lump crab meat (canned)
2 cups cooked white rice (2/3 cup uncooked), cooled
1 small onion or shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored and finely chopped
1/3 cup low-fat mayonnaise
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste
1 1/2 tsp horseradish, or to taste
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large bowl combine crab meat, rice, onion, celery, and bell pepper. In a measuring cup or a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, horseradish and dill until well-blended. Add to the salad and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Serve and enjoy.


Rutabaga and Zucchini Soup

Thursday, February 16, 2012

If this neither-here-nor-there weather, without snow and yet bone-chilling with its mild drizzle from the sunless sky, is any indication (along with some hog's prognostication), spring might be a long way off. A thick, root vegetable-based soup therefore seemed like a good idea. And flowers, which remind me of spring.


Many of my soups lately have been based on the some variation of the potato-and-leek soup, like this one, to which I added beets. In the recipe here, I used rutabaga instead of potatoes. Rutabaga is a root vegetable which is a cross between cabbage and turnip. The resulting flavor of the root is much milder than a turnip but a lot more flavorful if you want some variety from things like potatoes. Rutabaga is widely used in Scandinavia, especially this time of year (as for example, mashed potatoes and rutabaga, sometimes with other roots added, which is a welcome break from ordinary mashed potatoes).


This soup is gluten free. I've omitted cream, as I usually do, and I used the very stock generated from the vegetables as they are cooked, so the recipe is also vegan. I've also added a snippet of horseradish root, which is rich in nutrients and and contains antibacterial properties, just for fun. The soup is therefore hearty, healthy, flavorful and filled with good things.


Rutabaga and Zucchini Soup
(Serves 4)

You will need:
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks, chopped
1 small bulb onion (or a small yellow onion), chopped
1/4 cup dry whine wine (optional)
2 zucchinis, coarsely chopped
2 medium rutabaga roots (or 1 large), peeled and coarsely chopped
1 small knob of horseradish root, peeled (optional)
4 cups water
3 tbsp parsley leaves
4-5 basil leaves
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a stock pot on medium heat. Add leeks and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and softened, about 5-7 minutes. If using, stir in the white wine, bring to a simmer and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds more. Add zucchinis, rutabaga and horseradish and stir. Add water, cover and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook until rutabaga is tender, about 30 minutes.
2. Remove from heat. Strain the vegetables, reserving the stock. Process only the vegetables in a food processor to a consistency of a purée, working in batches if necessary. Add the puréed vegetables back into the stock pot. With a ladle, add the reserved stock, using as much as needed for desired thickness. Bring back to a simmer and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and serve.


Sour Cherry Tartlets

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I remember going to a pastry shop with my mom near where my grandmother lived when I was little. The shop was filled with intricate confections, pastries and various torts and cakes. I remember always running to the glass counter to look at a cake called "plolyanka," which means a meadow. It had tiny buttercream flowers and leaflets and mushrooms made of marzipan and raisin paste. As a child I was enamored with these handmade representations, which were also miniature, edible, and sweet. The pastry shop also had beautiful tartlets with custard filling and fresh berries on top, called korzynochki which translates roughly to diminutive handbaskets (as in, a handbasket you would carry to go berry picking). These were my favorite.


This experience repeated itself when I was an adult on a trip to Paris, where everywhere I turned there was a small pastry shop with outside tables and rows of beautiful berry tartelettes peeking behind the glass window display.

Despite of what a reader might think, I don’t actually like to eat sweets often. In fact, most of the time I prefer pickles to things like chocolate (maybe it’s the Ukrainian in me). When I do have desserts, I don’t like them overly sweet. This is one of the reasons why I also love sour cherries. I will eat them fresh with no sugar as if they were candy. Nevertheless, I remain captivated by beautiful desserts. I enjoy making them, and let others eat them, and I also love capturing them in a photograph.

For this recipe, I decided to combine two of my favorite dessert items: tartlets with a sour cherry filling, low on sugar.


The pastry is a regular short crust pastry with just a hint of sweetness. The trick is not to overdo the dough, as it can easily become too tough to work with. It also helps to have the butter and water be quite chilled. The dough itself is quick to make, as you combine flour, sugar and salt and then rub small pieces of butter into it to form a crumbly texture, then adding a few tablespoons of ice water to form the dough. I usually slice the butter into small pieces and then put it into the freezer for a few minutes to firm before working it into the flour.


To blend the butter completely into the flour, take a piece of the dough, form it into a ball and smear it in a quick motion across a cutting board or a piece of wax paper with the heel of your hand, repeating with the remaining pieces.


For this recipe I use whole wheat pastry flour. If unavailable, you can use all-purpose flour, but use 8 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp shortening instead of all butter like this recipe calls for, otherwise the crust may come out too brittle. I also partially pre-bake the shells before filling them and baking them again with the filling, so that the shells do not get soggy from the filling.


For these tartlets I use molds with removable bottoms, as i find them easiest to work with when separating the molds from the shells. To remove the molds, place the bottom of the tartlet inside the mold on top of a shot glass.


Then very gently press down around the sides of the mold. It should drop down easily.


Then slide the tartlet from the mold bottom to cool on a wire rack.

I used agave syrup to sweeten the filling instead of sugar. It cuts down on the tartness of the cherries, while still preserving their flavor without being overpowered by too much sweetness. The filling does not come out sour, mind you, just sweet enough. If you prefer yours sweeter, you can always use dark, sweet cherries rather than sour cherries. As always, feel free to adjust to your own taste.


Sour Cherry Tartles
(Makes 8 tartlets)

You will need:

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for dusting
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp butter
3-5 tbsp ice-cold water, plus more if needed
8 tartlet molds with removable bottoms (about 2 1/2 inch diameter)

2 lb pitted sour cherries, or two 14.5 oz cans of same (no sugar or other additives), drained
1/2 cup agave syrup
3 tbsp corn starch


Make the dough:

1. Whisk flour, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. Slice butter into 1/4 inch cubes and add to the flour mixture. Working quickly with your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture, breaking the butter into smaller pieces until the entire mixture has a sandy, crumbling texture (similar to granola). Add 3 tbsp of water to the mixture and mix swiftly with your fingers. The dough will begin to stick together. Add 1-2 tbsp more water, until you can form the dough into a ball (if the dough is too sticky, add a sprinkle of flour; if it flakes, add a few more drops of water).

2. Separate the dough into 3-4 pieces and form each into a ball. Taking each in turn, place on dusted wax paper and, with the heel of your hand, press down and smear the dough across the wax paper. This process blends the butter into the flour. Repeat with remaining dough, then form it back into one piece. Place in a bowl, dust with flour, cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

Pre-bake the shells:

3. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Butter each tartlet mold. On a dusted counter or wax paper, with a dusted rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 13 inch round, about 1/8 inch thick. With a cookie cutter slightly larger than the diameter of the molds, cut out the dough into about 8 rounds (you can also use an inverted glass). Place each round inside the mold, pressing it to conform to its shape. Fold in any dough remaining over the top and press it into the sides. Roll the rolling pin over each mold to flatten the tops.

4. Place the shells on a baking sheet, and in order to prevent the sides from shrinking and the bottom from bulging, line each shell with foil (additionally, you can weigh them down with baking beans). Bake the shells for about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, remove the foil, and prick the bottom of each shell with a fork to prevent it from rising. Replace the foil and bake 2-3 minutes more, until the sides start to separate from the mold slightly and the shells begin to change color. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.

Make the filling and bake the tartlets:

5. To make the filling, whisk together agave syrup and corn starch in a bowl, add the cherries and toss until combined. Spoon the filling evenly into the pre-baked tartlet shells. Bake at 375ºF for 20-25 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. Remove from oven and let cool slightly, then remove the molds. Cool completely on a wire rack before serving.


Norwegian Fish Cakes (Fiskekaker)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Probably one of the best ways to get to know a culture different from your own is through food. I have too many things to say about spending time abroad in Norway to fit into one post or even a multitude of posts, and if I did it probably wouldn't make much sense (except perhaps to a fellow expat) as it still oscillates between being one of the most exhilarating, one the saddest, one of the most memorable and at the same time one of the strangest experiences of my life.


However, one thing which surprised me when I came back was how much I missed the food. We spent about a year there, and however strange it appeared at first, we got quite used to the food. And liked it. A lot. From the fresh shrimp boiled in sea water sold by the fishermen at the Oslo harbor,


to raisin buns or boller sold at newsstands, to Tine brand dairy products, to smoked salmon and various other smoked fish, to makrell and tomato sauce paste sold in toothpaste-shaped tubes.


And fish cakes.


Fish cakes or fiskekaker (pronounced fis-kah-KAH-kehr) were sold at cafes and were available ready-made at supermarkets. They are extremely versatile. You can pop one in your mouth for a quick snack. You can make an open sandwich with one or two of them. You can have them for breakfast with eggs, or you can have them for dinner with gravy and potatoes.


The problem is, of course, that you can't get this food anywhere here. Ikea has a shrimp and cheese tube paste, or some variation thereof, which doesn't really approximate makrell in tomato sauce. And besides, it's Swedish. So the second time we came back to visit Norway, we went to the store and bought all of the above things, except the shrimp as it was too late in the season.


Knowing that it might be a while before we have it all again, we came back with a few souvenirs: a Norwegian version of monopoly with Oslo city street names (for a cool price of $100), and a cookbook of modern Norwegian cuisine. I have adapted the recipe from it for the fish cakes here, adjusted to taste and ingredients as the recipe called for quite a lot more milk (and also translated it, as the book is in Norwegian).


Adapted from: Tom Victor Gausdal og Ole Martin Alfsen, Familiekokeboka.

Fiskekaker, Norwegian Fish Cakes
(Makes about 6 fish cakes)

You will need:
1 lb white fish fillets (such as cod or haddock)
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg white
1 1/2 tbsp corn starch
1/2 to 1 cup ice-cold milk, more if needed
1 tbsp finely chopped chives (optional)
1-2 tbsp canola oil for frying

1. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and slice into large chunks. Grind the chunks in a food processor. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, the egg white, and corn starch and process until blended. Then, with the food processor working on low speed, slowly pour a portion of the milk through the chute. Continue adding the milk until the mixture has a texture of a moist paste, using as much milk as it can absorb without becoming too runny (you should be able to form it into a fish cake, even if a sloppy one; they will firm up when fried). Add the chives and process to mix. Place the mixture into a bowl.
2. Heat canola oil in a large pan on medium heat. Using your hands, form the mixture into slightly flattened balls (about 2-3 inches wide) and add them to the pan. Fry the cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Serve and enjoy.


Peach Cupcakes with Coconut Cream Frosting (Vegan)

Friday, February 3, 2012


As some of you know, I am no stranger to the cupcake. I have baked plenty for family, friends and work-related crowds, where some people have been known to ask if I was sure I didn’t get them from a bakery. (Leaving my reaction uncertain: to take it as a complement that these people think the cupcakes looked as good as the ones from a bakery, or as an offense in that they thought I was actually incapable of producing them?) In any event, I was enticed by the idea for these cupcakes because I liked the challenge of it: to make vegan cupcakes tasting as good or better than my ordinary fare.


I’m not vegan, but we make a lot of vegan and vegetarian dishes. Yet one of the bigger challenges for me has been vegan desserts and baking, because I’ve been afraid to stray from a recipe that I have tested and that I know works (and also knowing that precision is important in the chemistry of baking, as every ingredient is there for a reason). Maybe I'm simply afraid of failure, but I have discovered from my scientist husband that experiment is an essential part of learning, and that failure is an essential part of most experiments. So I have experimented, and I’ve learned that in order to make successful vegan dishes, particularly desserts, one only needs to know the purpose of the non-vegan ingredient you're replacing. And besides, who can go wrong with peaches and coconut?



Here I was experimenting with two different recipes at once: the cupcakes and the frosting. For the cupcakes, I started out as I would for a carrot cake, which doesn't call for milk or butter (using vegetable oil instead), leaving only eggs to get rid of. I substituted the eggs with apple sauce, adding more baking powder to compensate for the leavening quality of the eggs that I would be losing.


For the frosting I used coconut milk as my base. My frame of reference for this was cream cheese frosting. The only trick is to have the coconut milk be of a similar, thick consistency as that of cream cheese, to be able to whip it properly. As a result I used only the solids from the coconut milk (it's good to refrigerate a can of coconut milk overnight to help it separate).


I was pleased with the final result: one thing that Tony said when he tried one of these cupcakes, when I told him they were vegan, was "I'm surprised," muffled by a mouthful of the cupcake.


Peach Cupcakes (Vegan)
(Makes 12 cupcakes)

You will need:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup plain apple sauce
1 15 oz can peach halves (sugar-free or naturally sweetened)
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line a 12 cup muffin pan with fluted cups. In a medium bowl, combine together flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder and set aside. In a food processor or a blender, purée the peach halves (discard the juice or use it elsewhere), and set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat sugar and apple sauce with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined, 1-2 minutes. Add puréed peach halves, canola oil and vanilla, and beat until well-blended and the oil has emulsified, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in batches, and mix until just combined, about 1 minute.
3. Divide the batter between the 12 muffin cups. Bake for 30 minutes or slightly longer if needed, until cupcakes are a rich golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for 1 minute before transferring the cupcakes to a wire rack. Let cool completely before frosting.

Coconut Cream Frosting (Vegan)
(Frosts 12 cupcakes)

You will need:
1 15oz can of coconut milk
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp triple sec or other liqueur

1. Before using, refrigerate the can of coconut milk for several hours or overnight. The solids will have separated from the liquids, with the solids on top. Carefully spoon out only the solids onto a bowl (use the liquids elsewhere or discard). Add confectioner's sugar and triple sec, and beat with an electric mixer at medium speed for about 2-3 minutes, until ripples form and the consistency is smooth and creamy. Always refrigerate until needed. Pipe or spread onto cooled cupcakes.

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