Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bacon Jam: Pig On A Baguette

I have a guilty secret. I have been keeping quiet for the past two months in fear that I would blurt it out without warning or proper fanfare; however, now I just feel like a greedy hoarder for not letting everyone in on it: Bacon Jam! For real! It exists!

Bacon jam might be the first good thing that has come out of peoples’ obsession with hourly web updates detailing what they are noshing on while sitting in front of their computer. I first stumbled upon these two beautiful words strung together on twitter, which lead to a deeper dive into a few blogs which had recipes for bacon jam, then… I turned to my stash of homemade bacon. A choir of angels sang out from the heavens and I knew how to fulfill this pork belly’s calling: Pork product in spreadable, edible form. Good God, man! Could it be as magical as it sounded?

Oh yes, it is pure nectar!

For my spin on it, I gave it a sort of Mayan-Mexican twist. Cocoa nibs (roasted cocoa beans) impart the essence of chocolate without adding any sweetness. The ancho and chipotle give it a bit of spice and smoky flavor, while the cinnamon adds subtle warmth. I used agave syrup (you can use honey as a substitute) which is a sweet syrup made from the cactus where tequila comes from… hmmmm maybe I should try a batch with a shot of tequila in the mix.

A smear of this smoky, spicy, bitter pork "pate" turns dignified guests into gluttons and beggars. After several bites and lots of moaning, an entrepreneur friend of mine immediately began conceiving of world condiment domination- move over ketchup, now bacon comes in a jar!

Pig On A Baguette

1 # bacon, cut into 1” pieces
1 onion, medium dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon chipotle powder (or smoked paprika)
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cocoa nibs, ground
¾ cup coffee
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup agave syrup (or honey)

1.       Dump bacon into a skillet and cook until fat is rendered and bacon is slightly crisp. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes. Pour out half of the bacon fat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 min.
2.       Add the sugar, all of the spices and cocoa nibs and stir over heat for 1-2 minutes.
3.       Pour in coffee, vinegar and agave and simmer on low for about 3 hours. Add water during the cooking if the liquid gets too low.
4.       Transfer to a food processor and pulse until slightly smooth. I leave it a bit chunky with bacon bits. Serve with baguette and apple slices.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Eating Moscow: Traditional v. Innovative

If it weren't for the touch screen waiter's monitor, you could be standing in someone's living room in Moscow circa 1979.
A secret restaurant in a Russian housewife's living room? Or a Russian-home-cooking joint and just another quirky thematic restaurant in the vast Ginza Project empire?  It is hard to tell the difference upon entrance, after you've rung the door bell on at what looks like a standard Moscow apartment building.

Someone answered the door and we were ushered into the entryway where we were instructed to hang our coats before proceeding to the table. Decorated like an old-fashioned and slightly worn living room, it was cozy and familiar.
Meat jello...
The menu, although authentically Russian was nothing to write home about. It may have been my fault for ordering the meat jello – but I like a challenge and couldn’t pass this one up. The “herring in a fur coat” – a typical Russian herring salad in beets and mayo has also been filed away under things I am glad I tried but don’t necessarily need to eat again. It was fine. But it is not something I will find myself craving after a fast.

Herring in a fur coat
The borscht was good, the mushroom julienne was creamy and warming, the blini with salmon were also done well. As I said, it was all authentic and it was all good. It just wasn’t great. The real reason to go is the atmosphere which was cozy and novel and allowed us to pretend we were getting a home cooked meal – even though there was a group of native English speaking tourists or expats a few tables over.

Mari Vanna is owned and run by the Ginza Project – hear of them? They have over 20 different restaurants and cafés in Moscow and have recently branched out into everything from fitness to taxi service to design to flowers to - sky's the limit - or at least something called "Ginza Sky". And they aim for world domination. They have opened a Mari Vanna in New York City and have plans for other projects abroad, rumor has it. 

But out with the old and on with the new...

Ragout: The head chef of this trendy Moscow restaurant is Alexei Zimin, who is also the editor -in-chief of “Eda”, Russia’s only good food magazine according to the critics. The mag covers everything from up and coming Moscow chefs, recipes that range from traditional to innovative and finally, the kicker, the last section offers recipes for foods that can be made with common household appliances (Soup cooked in the coffee maker? Fish poached in the dishwasher? Chicken spatch-cocked between two irons, anyone?).

After stints with big magazine titles in fashion and travel, Zimin decided that if he was going to take the helm of a food magazine he needed a formal education in his subject. He signed up for classes at the Cordon Bleu in London and came back with real chef creds which propelled him from his editor’s office into the kitchen. He currently captains both ships – AH-MAZING.

Ragout was opened by Katya Drozdova, Muscovite restaurateur who also opened Khachapuri, the hip new Georgian establishment that we very unfortunately did not make it to. She is a 30 something mother who has, with these two standouts and other projects in the works, firmly established herself as one of the big names in the Moscow food scene.
While I tend to shun the hot and trendy in favor of the hole-in-the wall, taco truck, old men in the tea shop type establishments, this is Russian cuisine too I reasoned and so we joined the scensters at Ragout: me, Julie, her friend Ana, my friend Elena, a Russian food and travel journalist based in Italy and her friend Irina, a Moscow fashion designer. Hello lovely ladies! The scene was buzzing, the light coming down in soft spotlights from above, tables pressed close together in rows, the young and beautiful nibbling on seafood risotto or vegetable tempura, tuna tartar with avocado or cod served over white beans and chorizo. But the stand-out of the evening, and I am not a dessert person normally, was the bacon and egg ice cream with salted caramel and brioche. The ice cream tasted like bacon, the “egg” was little bits of apricot, the salted caramel was thick and luscious served on the side in a little pot and the brioche was like a deeply saturated French toast.

The evening was capped off with a visit to the members-only bar Petrovska (Irina was a member) – a soviet nostalgia bar where hipsters mingled with  middle-aged foggies – and us - not tragically hip, but not yet foggies. We danced to horrendously bad 70s music, drank vodka with a group of ladies who came of age in the 70s, and then were spontaneously absorbed into a high school reunion in the “kitchen” themed dining room (there were several rooms that were themed to look like a different part of a typical Soviet apartment.

The owners asked for donations and trolled flea markets to find old Soviet nostalgia from people’s homes which make the basis for the decoration. Soviet kitsch heaven.) We danced with a couple of very sweaty 50 year old men and swapped remember when stories even though we had no shared history (fake it till you make it!)

Whether you are young and hot or absolutely not, in search of babuschka's borscht or something you could just as well find in NYC, it's all typical Moscow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Eating Moscow: Georgian-style

I attempt to suck out the khinkali juice without squirting it all over my shirt
This is another post in the slowly-drawing-to-a-close Moscow series while simultaneously being a concluding post in the former Georgia series, which I wrote back in June of last year. A reader recently reminded me that I had promised a post on Georgian food and completely failed to deliver. And because Moscow offers some of the best Georgian food outside of the Republic and because I want to encourage as many Georgian food enthusiasts as possible, I go back and now forward to one of the most underrated, most overlooked, most delicious world cuisines - Georgian.

We begin with khinkali. If you are a dumpling fan, you will love these. First, the meat is usually  either ground pork or beef mixed with coriander and chilies. Coriander! So unexpected! So delicious! The chilies give it just a little kick, which could be tamed with a dab of sour cream. if you like. Second, the technique. There is actually a “correct” way to eat these adorable little nubbins. Grasp at the twisted knot and bite gingerly into the dough only. A small bite to make a tiny hole through which you will attempt to drink most of the broth that the meat has been stewing in. And I say attempt for two reasons: you will never manage to get every last drop out, which is actually a good thing. Save a drop or two for your last juicy bite. And secondly, as with any technique, this one requires skill – skill that is only acquired through practice. Therefore you would be wise to bow your arms into a square, bring the dumpling into you, flattening the square into a thin oval, ready to spring back into a bow when the broth inevitably spills out. Approach with caution, very slowly. My instructor was Jacob Jugashvili, Josef Stalin’s great grandson who I was put in touch with through a mutual friend. Jacob educated me not only in the art of the Georgian dumpling but also in history – or at least, his version of it. His recounting of events leading up to and following WWII would make historians gasp and would land him in jail in Germany – as he himself pointed out as an example of what a joke he believes democracy is. A painter, a Soviet nostalgist and a historical revisionist (he called himself a “researcher of the truth”) – needless to say, lunch was “interesting”.

One more note on technique, or maybe a rule: don't eat the doughy knot at the end. First of all, they will only fill you up, leaving you less room for the other delicious dishes on the table. And secondly, Georgians frown upon it. You will be told they will make you sick. This sounds to me like one of those reasons mothers make up to prevent their kids from doing something, like, "Fine go ahead and pick your nose but watch out for the sharp-tooth snail!" If you are curious, go ahead and eat one. It won't hurt you. It'll just make you look like a dumpling novice.
See the resemblance?
Khachapuri. My introduction to khachapuri was also sobering – in a completely different way. In the hangover cure kind of way. Out too late the night before with more friends of friends, a British journalist and a Canadian political analyst, the latter of which I met the next morning for a walk and lunch. Andrew and I dragged ourselves around a few city blocks before simultaneously admitting that we both needed an aspirin and hangover food i.e. something greasy and heavy on the carbs. Oh, and did we find it. He smiled when I described my ideal hangover cure: “I know just what you need,” he said.

And here is what we got:

When you say Georgian food, most people will have one of two reactions: a blank stare or “Cheese pizza and dumplings!” The cheese pizza is the khachapuri which comes in different forms, the most common being both stuffed and topped with cheese. For the brave and the hungover however, there is only one way to go – the adjaruli khachapuri. Shaped like a little boat with cheese baked in the center, its also topped with a raw egg and a generous slab of butter. So if alcohol poisoning hasn’t killed you, high cholesterol levels and a coronary blockage will. This dish was too much for Georgian-wine-hungover me to handle. You take a fork and stir the melted cheese, raw egg and butter together into a curdly puddle and then work your way from the outside in, picking off the barnacle of the dough boat which you use as a vehicle to get this soupy mess to your mouth. I might have finished half but I think that’s an optimistic exaggeration.

While khinkali or khachapuri are meals unto themselves, in order to sample more of the cuisine you might skip them (though you shouldn't skip them entirely) or order smaller portions and then opt for a number of the small dishes, mezze-style. And I highly recommend you try as many things as possible. Georgian food is a revelation for vegetarians – so many amazing combinations of spices and nuts, fresh salads and herbs, and cheeses in different consistencies – I really cannot understand why Georgian food has not taken off the way other cuisines have. Small plates to pass like Greek or Lebanese mezzes – washed down with Georgian wine or for the hard core – vodka. It is so easy to see how the supra (Georgian feast) culture has evolved.

A look at what you would find on your table at a Georgian restaurant serving mezzes:

Salads – so many delicious salads, the most common is a simple tomato-cucumber combination topped with either dill, coriander or parsley, oil and vinegar. Simple but so fresh – a necessary counter-balance to some of the heavier sides and khachapuri.

Badrijani Nigvzit – fried eggplant, rolled up and stuffed with walnut paste. To be devoured.

Phakali – this post is inspired by the phakali recipe posted by Melissa at the Travelers Lunchbox. This dish is spinach based and combined with what Melissa describes as the combination that she'd "come to recognize as the country's holy trinity of flavors: walnuts, garlic, and a haunting herb-and-spice blend that offsets the biting freshness of cilantro and tarragon with the bitter, aromatic edge of fenugreek", and I thought as I read this YES YES EXACTLY! Every time I ate this I sat there in silence thinking: WHAT IS THIS?? I MUST KNOW WHAT THIS IS!!! The texture and weight of the ground walnuts, the hauntingly mysterious mixture of herbs - those of which I thought I could identify were estragon, coriander and dill – sometimes together, or separately. You know when you purposely keep a bit of something swirling around in your mouth, wracking your mental index of flavors to figure out exactly what it is you have just eaten in the hopes of attempting to reproduce it yourself? I did that bite after bite. FOR THE LOVE, WHAT IS THIS COMBINATION!?!? This combination is so unique, so specific to Georgian cuisine, I personally know nothing else to compare it to - you will simply have to try it yourself. 

Lovely Nick and Nino and the continuation of my Georgian culinary education
Satsivi – a walnut sauce served over chicken, usually cold which comes as a bit of a surprise at first but somehow makes it lighter, refreshing, delicious.

Shashlik – your typical kebab, grilled on a skewer, seasoned and perhaps alternated with onions, tomatoes or other vegetables.

Salguni – a salty sometimes rubbery freshmilk cheese akin to feta but not as crumbly.

And so, so much more.

If you have the chance to Georgian food, I cannot recommend it enough. If you have the opportunity to get to Georgia, ditto. And if you find yourself in Moscow, check out one of the following Georgian restaurants:



Friday, April 1, 2011

Eating Moscow: Eliseevskiy Food Market

In the middle of Tverskaya, the main thoroughfare through central Moscow leading out to the airport, you will find Eliseevskiy Food Emporium, a grand dame of supermarkets. Opened in 1901 by Russian businessman Grigory Eliseev, the store became synonymous with luxury, not only for the imported and hard to find items, but for the architecture and classic Neo-Baroque deco.

In short, the original structure was built at the end of 18 century, when Catherine the Great's Secretary of State invited architect Matvey Kazakov to build a Palace for his wife. The palace was passed down after her death and was eventually transformed into a literary salon where the likes of Pushkin and other writers and artists gathered. 

Eliseev bought the building at the end 19 century who added it to his comestible empire which already included the largest grocery store in St. Petersburg.  

Originally called the "Eliseev Store and Russian and Foreign Wine Cellars", the establishment opened with great fanfare, including a church service and priests who offered their blessings. Which is ironic because today, the wine and liquor section of the store is cordoned off; apparently, state laws prohibit the sale of alcohol within a certain distance from the church. And an official from the neighboring parish recently realized that technically, the store was within the legally unacceptable distance from their alter. Alcohols sales are currently suspended until the matter is resolved.

Yeah, this is what my neighborhood grocery store looks like too..

And the deli counter...

Although no one can claim to have as many mayonnaise-based salads as the Russians..

 Nor, unfortunately, as much caviar...

But we do have plenty of Heinz - which has obviously made its way into the former Soviet Union..

Though my home town grocer's ketchup bottle display definitely does not come with such elaborate columns, chandeliers and gold-flecked molding.

Nor such an extensive smoked fish selection.

Or these gorgeous chocolates with little cherubs on the packaging.

Although the deli looked amazing, the fish, the cheeses, the meats all so tempting, the only thing I walked out with were non-perishable items - chocolates. Four bags of cherubs in various sizes and shapes that I swore would be souvenir gifts for friends and neighbors - needless to say, I have eaten most of them myself. I don't know why I ever buy edible souvenirs "for friends" - they make it to their intended recipients 50 percent of the time - at best.

I guess after hanging out in the store for over an hour oogling the deli counter, drooling over the baked goods, handling the beautifully packaged confections, snapping photos of the enormous chandeliers and the hairnetted staff, we felt compelled to purchase. A small price to pay to visit this palace/literary salon-cum-grocery store.

The beauty! Of the grocery store!