Friday, August 22, 2008

So very cherry

This is a Russian classic that my mom has been making for as long as I can remember. A rare treat though - probably once a summer - because let's be honest - like most of Russian food - it's an incredible pain to make.

I’ve probably already mentioned my theory, that Russian cuisine as such, must have been invented by men as a method of keeping the women in check, from getting any ideas of you know – having a life of their own. If you make Russian food for all three courses a day, you’ll surely be slaving in the kitchen for the entire time you’re awake. Chopping, picking, kneading, cutting, rolling, hand-crafting every morsel. But how good it is, how nuanced and well-balanced. Ah!

Vareniki - or sweet dumplings were made in the summer and pelmeni or salty dumplings in the winter. They come in completely different size and shape (vareniki are hand made, bigger and come in the shape of a crescent or a half-circle; pelmeni are smaller and need to be either handmade or made with a special dumpling-iron that makes them more round, with 6 corners), this is important and not to be confused :).

Sour-cherry dumplings or Vareniki. (serves ~5)

1 egg
1 glass of water
flour (enough to make it a kneadable, but not very rough, as you have to roll it very thin, probably about 1,5 glasses)
1 tsp salt

~1,5 kg of sour-cherries

butter for serving

To make the dough:
Mix and knead. Sprinkle some flour on the table and roll the dough out thin.
We have a special tool for making vareniki - a cutting-roll with a handle that cuts the dough into perfectly sized circles. But a glass or a cup or a cookie cutter will work just as well.
Cut out dough-circles that are about 7 cm in diameter.

To make the filling:
Take the pits out and leave the cherries on a strainer to get rid of the juice. Keep the juice. Mix the cherries with sugar and drain the extra juice again. You need the cherries relatively dry, otherwise the dumplings will fall apart.

Another typical varenik-filling is cottage cheese. If you use that, you need to make sure you drain it of the extra juice as well. Then mix with sugar and drain again.

And then it's time for some handicrafts. Take the dough-circle, put some (4-5 cherries) of cherry filling in the centre, fold the dough and knead the edges together so that it will end up looking like a fat, filled half-circle.

Sprinkle some flour on a tray before laying the ready dumplings on it - that way you'll be able to separate the two when it's time for cooking them. When you're done with making the dumplings you need to boil them. You can tell that they're ready when they come to the surface (keep them on the heat for 2-3 minutes after that). Serve them with some butter and a spray of the cherry-juice you've kept.

If you're not eating all of them at once you can either freeze some (before boiling) or butter the boiled ones (again, to be able to separate them the next day), put them in the fridge and quickly fry them the next day.

They're heavenly whichever way.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

After the holidays - fancy feasts

This will be the last US Holiday post I think. I'm getting a bit overwhelmed remembering all this and sorting through all the pictures :). And to be honest, my fingers are kind of itching to post some actual recipes. I've made some cool stuff recently.

But this is definitely not the least, even if last, of the vacation food posts. This is a small collection of the fancier meals we had.

We spent some time in La Jolla, near San Diego. Our favorite place to eat there was a pub-like place called The Spot. But in spite of it's humble interior, it really is premium food. And I had my first ever lobster there.
It was served with julienned vegetables, melted butter and garlic-mash and it was really great. I've kept my lobster-eating apron :)

But besides the lobster, which I kind of expected to be a hit, we were seriously humbled by the dessert that came after it. And to think that I was trying to weasel my way out of it and exchange it for a cheese-cake. The Spot's specialty - their bread pudding with vanilla custard and whipped cream was one of the most divine desserts I've ever had. It was super smooth and just heavenly. So if anyone knows how to make it, I'd be most grateful.

Besides The Spot, we also dined very graciously in Temecula. We went to an Italian place called Francesca's Italian Kitchen (apparently after the chef's wife). The chef himself and Francesca (the hostess) were both there and frankly, they're complete nutters :). So it was a meal with a show. Entertaining, but to a group of very tired Northeners as ourselves - a little overbearing. Francesca actually sang a bit of an opera for us (yes!). Being 'Italian' was their business and they took it seriously (although I'm pretty sure their accents were a lot less thick when they closed up and drove home). But enough of the moaning, all in all it was a cool experience and truly delivered both the bread and the circuses. Plus Francesca was very kind to hook us up with some wine tasting coupons and give us some pointers on where to go, who brings in their grapes, who grows their own etc.

And the food was excellent. We all went for chef's specials. A bunch of us had veal or lobster ravioli (me included) and Siim had fillet mignon in creamy sauce served with a side of what I think was crispy fried leek.
The only disappointment was the cheesecake, which was too fluffy, not cheesy enough and must have been deep-freezed and then microwaved.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Empire of Junk

I've met many people, who, without ever having been to the States, are sure, that the food there is bad. So for years ever since I was first there I've had to have these arguments, where I claim, that you can actually get best food there, because of the simple fact that you can get everything and there is a lot of competition.

But, undeniably, it is also the Motherland of Junk. But such good junk.

Here's a small assortment of the comfort food we fed on over the two weeks. 'A quarter-pounder is a cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast,' as my friend Oliver kept saying over and over again.

The best burgers we had were in a diner in a small town called Lompoc. That town left a deep impression in many other ways as well. We were never planning to stop there, but we had a flat tire and managed just crawl into the parking-lot behind the local Home Depot. There we were, standing around our rented Dodge like a bunch of morons as the spare tire was nowhere to be found. And we did that for about a half an hour. Until a guy came out of the Home Depot and did about 7 of the most unlikely things a stranger would do in Estonia. He:
1) stopped
2) asked if we needed help
3) suggested that the spare might be under the car (a surprise for us)
4) lay down on the ground to inspect said hypothesis
5) was surprised not to find it in the back, but instead of leaving lay down again and located the tire in the back
6) helped us to find a way to undo it
7) suggested a place where they'd fix it for us for free

We were almost teary eyed. Unfortunately the tire was sliced on the side, so it couldn't be fixed and the first place didn't have a tire that suited us, so we went to the next place where we were also treated with kindness and where our Dodge became the laughing stock of everyone there. About 4 or 3 men, some who worked there, others who were customers, gathered around the car, saying things like: 'God damn Doge,' or 'Another reason never to buy a Dodge'. While they were doing that, we were sent to the diner, the name of which I've forgotten, but there's a big sign outside, hat says 'Hi, let's eat'.

There they served us a mouth watering SoCal burger,a delicious Angus burger a wonderful veggie burger and some very decent potato salad.

Afterwards we went to a local market (apparently happens every week) and discovered that Lompoc actually made more than one appearance in 'Sideways', a movie we all like.

So cheers to Lompoc and all the friendly people there.

Speaking of Burgers, we had some other good ones, but we also had a completely miserable one. In a posh-ish Tapas place in Santa Monica, I was served and Angus burger with nothing but the burger, the bun and some cheese. And it was just bad. Dry, boring, bad.

But back to the good. One of the few culinary 'A-ha!' moments for me was a corn-dog. I'd never had one. Obviously I had heard of them in movies, but I always though that it'd be some kind of horrible, bland, hillbilly food. I was mistaken - not about the hillbilly part, but about the rest. I bought a chilly-cheese corn-dog in a Miner's Mart before Yosemite (and there were stuffed heads of dead animals hanging on that wall).

I also managed to make a complete idiot out of myself, by asking the lady behind the counter, what was in a corn-dog. To which she asked me whether I knew what a hot-dog was. I was almost expecting the next question to be, whether I've ever seen a TV. But it was my own fault. And the corn-dog was SO much better than a regular hot-dog. Yum. Maybe this is my business idea. Maybe I should start a corn-dog business here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's Vegas, baby

On and on with holiday food. Of course we didn't leave the West Coast without visiting planet Las Vegas - and it truly is a different planet. It's just so overwhelmingly overindulging in everything. Biggest hotels, most incredible shows, intolerable weather, all possible kinds of restaurants, etc.
In terms of eating, we didn't get out of our hotel, we stayed at the MGM Grand.

Out of the tens and tens of restaurants there we picked Trattoria Fiamma, a nice, kind of posh Italian eatery with trendy fireplaces (the slim ones where fire seems to be burning on the rocks, you know). Their menu wasn't big and stayed true to the classics, but the dishes we tried were impeccable.

Lovely buffalo Mozarella with ripe plum tomatoes.

A classic Ceasar’s Salad with just the hearts of Romaine lettuce.

And for the main course I had spaghetti with meatballs, which again, was just lovely.

We, of course couldn't leave without visiting Wolfgang Puck's. It was a week-night and we didn't make a reservation, but got in after about a half an hour (in which I made about 86 dollars of my 2 on the slots :). In terms of style, it was really simple, more like a bistro. The tables weren't big and they were placed a little too close together for my taste, but the food was good.

I had sweet-corn cream soup tomato salsa and what I think was Ruccola pesto. It was very nice, but the sweetness and the creamyness got a little overbearing towards the second half of the bowl. Someone also ordered chicken-soup, which surprisingly, was far too salty to enjoy properly.

We also ordered his famous pizza, which, apart from the fact that Italian sausage must be the most unattractive pizza-toppings on earth, was really good.

Besides these two we of course visited the Grand Buffet for some knee-bending breakfasts, had some great shakes and smoothies and some pretty decent Chinese at the food court, which they, for some reason, call the Farmers Market.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

After the holidays - go Asian

Continuing with the eats that California spoiled us with. San Francisco in particular offered some exceptional Asian cuisine, especially to someone who comes from a country where it is still difficult to get good Chinese fast food, not to mention the nuances of Thai, Vietnamese, Korean etc.

And it was pure luck both times. We stumbled into King of Thai - a fast food joint very close to Union Square - just because we were famished. It didn't look like much from the outside, or, to be honest, the inside. But it was jam-packed with people who clearly should know what good Asian food is all about. So we stayed and sat at the bar-like table near the wall and realized that the entire wall was covered with various framed honor-letters and letters of quality. Zagat's best for every year, etc. The service was very quick and friendly and the portions, so typically for the States were humongous. But they packed them up without you even having to ask for it, so we could finish ours in the hotel. For me and Siim, this was, without a doubt, best Asian we've so far had (not counting sushi here, impossible to have that in the same category).

I had egg noodles with beef broth and fresh cilantro. I wish I knew what the spices and sauces where that made the broth taste so good. Ideas, anyone?

Siim had fried chicken and fried rice, the rice he said, was the best he'd had. I guess it's all down to what you have to compare it against, but we were happy :)

Pot de Pho - organic Vietnamese noodle house. The second time we had a great Asian food experience was also just by chance. Driving through the hilly San Francisco (it really makes you car-sick I must admit) we somehow ended up in a quiet neighborhood with lot's of restaurants and picked that one. None of us had had Vietnamese before and our waiter was extremely amused by that.

We had Vietnamese spring rolls with prawns and tofu - apparently they're nothing like the Chinese ones. They're filled with noodles - in addition to whatever filling you've ordered and covered in a think skin - something that's probably made out of rice flour.

For the main course we all had pho, with chicken or beef or pork or the vegetarian version. Everyone was satisfied. For other Vietnamese cuisine novices - they first bring out a small platter of herbs and spices - marinated onion, cilantro, lime, mint leaves and chilly. Then they bring out your bowl of pho and you're to sink the herbs and spices in it. I still have no idea of what some of the vegetables in my pho were. The chunks were big, so I had plenty of material to sample, but some things I had just not had before.

And the dessert - most of us had vanilla-bean custard covered with chocolate sauce. I have no idea, if this really could be somehow Vietnamese, or typical there or justa CA add-on, but it was very good. As our waiter was so happy with us he brought us coffee on the house. 'Vietnamese coffee', he said, looking all mysterious. Apparently coffee boiled with condensed milk (canned). To a table-full of people who still remember the Soviet Union, the condensed milk, of course, was of no surprise. But we didn't have the heart to tell him, that this Vietnamese coffee sounds like Soviet coffee instead.

All in all it was a great experience. And the place looks really nice, they have bird cages hanging in the ceiling, it is quiet, light and cozy. And on that particular day it was filled with big groups of Vietnamese families having their family lunches. Sunday lunch, you know.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

After the holidays - California livin'

Sorry for the radio silence, but I've been away on a road-trip in California and a bit of Nevada (planet Vegas, to be more precise).
Oh, these were two weeks filled with all sorts of fantabulous experiences and a lot of finger licking food and a bunch of the cravings I've been having ever since I left were satisfied again.

So I'll be posting the eats, bit by bit. As America is the land of Breakfast, it seems only appropriate to start with some of the highlights of what we were waking up to.

Well not really waking up to, as mostly the hotels / motels serve something they call the 'continental breakfast', which in the worst case consisted of some Fruity Loops and milk and mostly of a doughnut or a bagel with some cream cheese. Now I have nothing against a good bagel, but after an almost 24 hour flight I'd like to be able to pick from an assortment of say 20 kinds of bagels and 20 kinds of cream-cheese - like you can in a bagel shop. So the sesame-bagels with plain cream cheese got old real quick and we ventured out in search of lovely cafes and authentic looking diners to get the real cholesterol-packed experience of the American breakfast. Waffles, pancakes, eggs and hash browns were the usual winners.

San Francisco, Honey Honey Cafe and Creperie (Nob Hill, Post Str 599)

It's a lovely little cafe quite near the Union Square, we went there two mornings in a row. The pancakes were lovely (although crepes are the specially there, we went for the fat American ones). I couldn't resist the traditional butter + syrup version and S had his with fresh strawberries.

And my eggs over easy with Cheddar were just what I needed to fight the wind of SF (what about that lovely California weather, huh?).

Another nearly heart attack inducing breakfast experience was at the 'World famous' Temecula Old Town Swing Inn. As you walk through the door you see a fridge filled with the most classical 'pie in the face' pies, topped with heavy whipped cream.

Temecula is a smallish town in the middle of a bunch of wineyards in between LA and San Diego, we went to some nice wine tastings there

and ate the sweetest (also the fuzziest) peaches the farmer had just picked that morning. But before all that, we completely over-indulged at the Swing Inn. Not surprisingly, breakfasts like these leave you feel full for the entire day, none of us wanted anything to eat before it was dinnertime. ˇ

I had my beloved hash browns with over-easy eggs. Others had giant breakfast combos, like 2 pancakes, 2 eggs, bacon and toast.