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Archive for the ‘Eastern Europe’ Category

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Instead of a globe-trotting recipe this week, I had wanted to write a simple guide to buying and serving good cheese. Cheese is a simple and powerful link with the past. Rich and poor alike, Europeans ate cheese for hundreds, even thousands of years. But cheese, like wine, is a very complicated matter that requires time, study, and lots of good samples; frankly, anything meaningful is beyond the scope of a short article. So, because I believe that in complicated circumstances simple examples can be best, I’m just going to describe the cheeses that I’m serving over the holidays, with some pairings. I’ll follow that with a few thoughts on buying and serving cheese. If that’s interesting to you, terrific. If that’s not, well then Merry Christmas and see you next year!

My Cheese Selection for the Holidays

By category and with pairings, here’s what I’ve got:

A Blue-veined: English stilton is a semi-firm, full-flavoured, crumbly blue, typically not as salty as Danish nor as creamy as young gorgonzola. Unlike French roquefort, there is no rye bread involved in the production of stilton, so it’s safe for coeliacs. Like most blues, it works well with rice cakes (yes, those big dry disks), dried dates (stone-in are more moist and flavourful than the pitted kind), and a big fruity tannic red wine wine, or fortified wines like sherry or port. Seasonally-speaking, it’s nice against cranberry jelly.

A Crowd-pleaser: Aged Dutch gouda (as opposed to the young, semi-firm cheese) is a hard cheese that’s sweet and caramel-like in flavour and everybody loves it. I like it with fig compote and any kind of toasted bread or cracker. I think it’s meant for beer, but if you don’t have any, try a dry apple cider.

A Soft and Downy: I do have a disk of camembert fait en Normandie ripening in my fridge, although it is neither name-controlled nor made from raw-milk (more on that below, if you’re interested). I buy what I can find, and even though it’s a factory cheese, as a whole plump wheel ripened to within a few days of its shelf-life it is not half-bad: garlicky and mushroomy. Soft downy cheeses with high cream content are great with sparkling wine and fresh fruit.

Two Firm and Rich: I have both an aged Swiss gruyere, which I find to be beefy and salty, and an aged English cheddar, which is sharp and toffee-like. Swiss-made cheeses are good bets: the Swiss, and this will surprise no one who’s visited their country, hold their cheesesmakers to very high standards, and they mostly make hard, hardy cheeses, the sort that travel well. The same can be said for two-year-old cheddars, although mine came from just up the road. I think that well-aged cheddar is nice with corn cakes (yes, those big dry disks) and lightly smoked Polish sausage. I like Swiss gruyere with cured meat, too, but the dry-cured kind like bundnerfleisch. Both cheeses can stand up to big whites or reds.

A Curiosity: I blindly picked-up an AOC ossau-iraty from the French Pyrenees, because you can learn something new every day. It’s a hard sheep’s milk cheese, supposedly a Basque recipe thousands of years old. It looks promising, and I think I’ll serve it with olives, serrano ham and a rioja.

But the Little Stinker: is thus far an unrequited love, as I am still trying to find a barn-yardy, washed rind cheese for this critical category. Sadly, all the reblochon in town is fake, the epoisse dried and sunken, and the Alsatian muenster oozing and slimy. In the UK this category is the toughest to fulfill (while under the USDA’s pasteurization laws it is nigh-impossible). But I still have a few days…

General Notes on Cheese

Thumbnail sketches are necessarily incomplete with such a complicated subject, but I do shop for, store, and serve cheese with a few broad biases:

  • Raw milk cheese is usually more flavourful than cheese made with pasteurized milk. The USDA bans European imports of raw-milk cheeses aged less than sixty days to the US.
  • Aged cheese is usually more flavourful than young cheese.
  • Soft, washed-rind cheeses (the rind looks moist and there is no fuzziness) are usually the most aromatic.
  • Soft cheeses should look plump in their cases. If they are whole, I can ripen them up until near their best-before dates for maximum flavour.
  • Name-controlled European cheese (AOC, DOC, DO, or PDO are the abbreviations you will see) is usually a best bet, though not always. The control is for region, milk, and production, but does not guarantee an interesting cheese, or proper handling. But the French, Swiss, Spanish and Italians do feel they having something worth protecting, and they are right.
  • At home, I keep cheese loosely wrapped in a closed (but not perfectly sealed box) in the refrigerator. Cheese needs to breathe without drying out.
  • I present cheeses in big pieces that have come to room temperature in their wrappers for the hour before serving.
  • Each cheese should get its own knife, and ideally have some room.
  • I pair cheeses with crackers, olives, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit, chutneys, and compotes. If I had good bread I’d certainly use it.
  • I pair cheeses with reds, whites, ports, sherries, sparklers, and ciders. If I had good beer I’d certainly use it.
  • A safe way to pair is to match cheese to the foods and beverages that are produced nearby (eg. brie with champagne, parmigiano with chianti, queso de zuheros with almonds).

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Kisiel (or kissel) is a pan-Slavic dessert, served either warm or chilled, the texture of which typically falls between a soup and a pudding. A traditional kisiel is made of a sour fruit, and Belarusians have a well-developed appreciation for the sour (eg. rye bread, soured cream, saurkraut). For the holidays, here is the simplest cranberry pudding, quick and easily made the day before if you like. The balanced sweet-sourness of a kisiel is a refreshing change from all those creamy holiday desserts, as it concentrates on the tart flavour of cranberries, the quintessential holiday berry. That said, this kisiel would love some sour cream or creme fraiche stirred into it, and perhaps a pinch of powdered cinammon dusted over, too.

There is very little to say about this pudding, technically. As it cools the percieved sweetness will change, so if it seems too sweet when warm rest assured that this will dull with chilling. Conversly, if you’d like to serve your kisiel warm you might like to reduce the sugar, too. What will change much less with cooling is its thickness. A classical kisiel has a rather fluid set, more fluid than western-European puddings, and I suspect that the incredible pectin level of the cranberries does as much of the setting as the potato starch (it is also true that available pectin levels change as fruits ripen, so any particular batch may give results that are a little more or less firm). But on any occasion what you see hot in the saucepan is essentially what you’ll get: the kisiel will thicken some more as it cools, but not much. If you would like it thicker, heat it back to a simmer add another 1/2 Tbsp of starch slurry in water, and see if you like that better. This recipe is for a simple naked cranberry pudding, so use the best ones you can find. To jazz-it-up, the aforementioned creams and cinammon would be nice, and a contribution from an orange would be lovely, too.

Belarusian Cranberry Pudding (Kisiel)

20 Minutes; serves four

hot water
3/4 lb fresh cranberries
3/4 cup cup sugar
1 Tbsp potato starch (may substitute 1 1/2 Tbsp corn or tapioca starch)
1 tsp sugar

1. Put the kettle on the boil. Don an apron; cranberry stains are stubborn.
2. Pick through your cranberries for rotten ones and give the cleaned bunch a rinse. Place them in a small saucepan with 3/4 cup water, bring to the boil, and simmer for ten minutes to pop them all open.
3. Mash the cranberries with a potato masher in the saucepan. Strain through a sieve, pushing the pulp around with a spoon. When it has mostly drained, rinse the pulp with 1/2 cup of hot water. Repeat. Scrape off the underside of the sieve.
4. Return the strained juice to the saucepan and heat to dissolve 3/4 cup of sugar in it. Stir as you heat to a simmer.
5. Make a slurry of the potato starch with 1 Tbsp room-temperature water. Stir the slurry into the cranberries and keep stirring as you heat to thicken.
6. Grind the 1 teaspoon of sugar in a mortar. Pour your pudding into serving vessels (via a funnel, perhaps) and sprinkle the sugar lightly on top to foil its attempt to skin-over. Chill and serve.

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babkacopy500.jpg The indigenous name of this one is a bit confusing. Before researching Belarusian food I thought that a babka was always a bread-type dessert, but in Belarus it also refers to a meat pie with a potato crust, remarkably similar in taste to the Quebecois tourtière. In fact, if I needed to make a gluten-free tourtière for this Christmas Eve, I wouldn’t mess-about with gluten-free pie crust; I would make Belarusian babka with slightly different seasonings, and joyeux noël to all. Another way to think of this tart is as a giant stuffed latke, albeit a very treif one stuffed with both pork and dairy and as such rather violated. But the best advice for making a coherent latke is the same as for making a good potato babka crust: use a higher-starch variety of potato and squeeze the shreds as dry as you can.

The first time I made this babka, I used a very traditional farmhouse recipe, assembling the pie with raw pork mince in the centre and baking it until it registered safe on my instant-read thermometer. This worked fine, except that the interior was a bit low on flavour, being just salted and peppered ground pork and onion. So this recipe builds up the filling’s intensity by browning the meat, deglazing the pan, adding sliced mushrooms and summer savoury and thickening with sour cream. The “new” flavours are perfectly in keeping with Belarusian cuisine, and with pork, and probably are not in the least bit new. I expect that lots of babkas in Belarus are made this way because it’s really an obvious way to do it; I just didn’t find a precedent for it written in English last week. As for equipment, I used my bigger cast iron fry pan as the pie mold, but I think that any thick ceramic pie dish would work as well. I’d caution against a thin metal mould though, or your crust might scorch. Speaking of which, I was very happy with this crust, which didn’t stick to the pan, didn’t fall apart, wasn’t goopy, and browned nicely on top. I wasn’t expecting such good behaviour from a potato.

This homey meat-and-potatoes dish is a meal in itself, although a green vegetable side of some kind wouldn’t go astray. Nor would a beaujolais.

Belarusian Pork and Potato Pie (Babka)

100 minutes, including sixty baking and ten resting; serves four.

butter for greasing
1 onion
3 lbs medium- or high-starch potatoes (eg. Yukon Gold, Maris Piper, Russet)
1 /2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
8 oz lean ground pork
1/2 tsp dried summer savoury (may substitute thyme)
1/2 tsp salt
4 oz mushrooms
2 Tbsp milk
2 Tbsp sour cream (may substitute full-fat yogurt)
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sour cream (may substitute full-fat yogurt)

1. Grease your 10″ cast iron or ceramic pan and preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Grate one of your onions with the large holes of a box grater and place it in a large bowl. Shred the potatoes with the same side, tossing the sheds in the bowl with the onion as you go, which will protect them from oxidation (turning brown).
3. Squeeze (clenched fists are most efficent) the potato-onion mixture over a sieve, letting the juice run into another bowl. Get the shreds nice and dry, and set it all aside.
4. Sautee the onion in the oil over medium heat, and once it starts to soften add the ground pork and brown it. Add the summer savoury and the salt.
5. Slice the mushrooms and add them to the meat. Sautee until the mushrooms start to release their juices. Deglaze the pan with one tablespoon of milk. Repeat.
6. Mix in the sour cream and continue to heat the meat mixture to dry it a little. Taste for salt and pepper.
7. Decant the reserved potato liquid off of the settled potato starch and discard the liquid. Mix the starch and 1/2 tsp salt into the dried potato-onion shreds.
8. Press 1/3 of the potato mixture into the bottom of the greased pan. Place the meat mixture on top of this base, leaving the outer 1″ bare all around. Press half of the remaining potato mixture around the sides of the meat filling, and them top the tart with all of the remaining potato.
9. Spread the last 2 tablespoons of sour cream over the top of the tart. Bake for one hour. Let cool ten minutes before cutting to serve.

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Traditional Belarusian cookery makes much of buckwheat, a plant that grows better than wheat (no relation) under Belarus’ climatic and soil conditions. This example of a buckwheat pilaf is made with hulled wholegrain buckwheat seeds, whole seeds not yet cracked into the groats used for kasha. The seasonings are classic Belarus: bay leaf and black pepper to “beef-up” the vegetable stock (or enhance a meat stock), and finely-diced mushroom for an earthy flavour top complement the nuttiness of buckwheat. In Belarus a buckwheat pilaf might be eaten on its own, or with a sour cream garnish, or placed inside a roasting dusk or goose, a coincidentally gluten-free stuffing for your Holidays. Without the bird, this moist and flavourful pilaf would be a great substitute for holiday stuffing, served as a garnish beside your goose or turkey but without all the saturated fat. Serve or stuff, it’s up to you.

The single most important thing when making this pilaf is to purchase hulled wholegrain buckwheat seeds in their curvy-pyramidal entirety, not the cracked or ground version of same. The wholegrain seed will hold its shape better while remaining more distinct in the pilaf; cracked kasha, which is the Slavic term for porridge, tends to become just that. The instructions on my bag of grains, plain-old Tesco house brand, read to boil for half an hour, a cooking time that presumably would have given me porridge. Pilaf tenderness was arrived at in ten minutes. Many buckwheat pilaf recipes toast egg-smeared groats or seeds in order to keep them distinct, but this is not strictly necessary with uncracked seeds. Whole hulled grains that are well-toasted alone, simmered gently and not overcooked hold their shape well. It is important that the pilaf be reasonably dry at the end if it is to be fluffy, so it’s a good idea to knock it around a little on a large plate to let it steam-off. The onion and mushrooms are chopped very finely for uniformity, and the mushrooms are added late so that they retain their moisture. The amount made here should stuff a chicken easily, but to stuff a big turkey (or an astoundingly hollow goose) you would obviously need to make more. At worst, have some left over for a healthy side, or to use in the next day’s soup.

hotm150.jpgBy reading Dianne’s and Ilva’s blogs, I learned about the Heart of the Matter (HotM) Event Number 9: Holiday Food, which draws attention to heart-healthy eating and is coordinated this month by The Accidental Scientist. In my home I cook for multiple food allergies, some transient and some permanent, and I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone struggling to accomodate yet one more dietary need. So, in my first-ever entry into anything of the kind, I’m submitting this post to the HotM9 Event, as a gluten-free heart-healthy holiday food. In particular, I would like to dedicate this recipe to Dianne’s husband, and wish him a steady recovery from heart attack.

By my back-of-the-napkin calculations, I believe that each serving of pilaf (made with a low sodium vegetable broth, knowing nothing of that roast, and with no additional salt) contains: 275 kcal; 5g total fat; 1g saturated fat; 0g trans fat; 0mg cholesterol; 75mg sodium; 50g total carbohydrate; 3g fibre; 5g sugar; 9g protien. Pardon my sig digs.

Belarusian Buckwheat Mushroom Pilaf (or Stuffing)

Twenty minutes; serves four

2 cups vegetable broth (may substitute chicken or beef broth)
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 cup wholegrain hulled buckwheat
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely diced almost as small as the dry buckwheat
4 oz mushrooms, finely diced almost as small as the dry buckwheat
cracked black pepper
salt, as you wish

1. In a medium saucepan heat the broth to a boil with the bay leaf and black pepper.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet dry-toast the buckwheat over medium-low heat. Keep stirring and shaking and moving them around for a few minutes as they lose their green tint and turn a nut-brown.
3. Add the buckwheat to the broth, cover, and keep over the lowest heat until just tender, about ten minutes.
4. Heat the olive oil in the skillet and sautee the onion until golden, about eight minutes. Add the mushrooms and stir them around to heat and coat. In about a minute when they will start to lose their moisture take them off heat. Season with black pepper.
5. When the buckwheat is tender, turn it onto a large plate and gently fluff the grains with a fork to separate them and remove some excess moisture. Fold in the mushroom and onion, and season with salt to taste.

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