29 May 2012

Banana Bread

Do you ever forget that you have a few bananas still sitting in the fruit bowl or on the counter?  At our house, sometimes they seem to get over-ripe before we manage to eat them all.  What do you do with them?  Maybe smoothies.  Bananas do freeze well, so you can pop them in the freezer (probably better to peel them first, if you are planning on doing smoothies - it's a bit hard to peel a frozen banana...) and add them straight to the blender instead of ice.

I usually end up making banana bread when ours are so dark and over-ripe that nobody will eat them.  If I only have one, it goes into the freezer, peel and all, until I have enough to do the bread.  When using frozen bananas for quick breads, you will need to thaw them first, so it works ok to freeze them whole.

Banana bread is something that I remember my mom making more after we moved to Russia. She took an old Better Homes and Gardens recipe (the one I have now is from the New Cook Book, published in 1996, but her cookbook is significantly older.  I'm not sure exactly which edition it is, but I believe the recipe for banana bread is the same) and improved upon it by adding milk chocolate bars that already had either almonds or hazelnuts.  The combination of banana bread and chocolate might sound odd, but it is really good.

I actually took her recipe a little further by using half whole wheat flour and instead of milk chocolate, I add dark.  It's richer and works better with the banana flavor, I think.  Also, since I tend to buy plain chocolate bars, I add in a decent amount of chopped walnuts.  Between the whole wheat flour, bananas, nuts and dark chocolate, this bread is actually (maybe) one that can be considered a fairly healthy snack or quick breakfast.

The recipe also doubles and triples well, so if you have a large family or you want to give some away (and make people love you forever), just double or triple all the ingredients and divide equally between loaf or muffin tins.

So here's what you will need:
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3 medium over-ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil (I used canola)
  • 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Heat your oven to 350°F (180°C) and grease a loaf pan.  Set it aside for the moment.

If you have an assistant that needs a job, mashing the bananas is perfect.  Just put the bananas in a bowl and give them either a fork or a potato masher and let them go to town.  

Meanwhile, you can be combining the flours, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a medium mixing bowl.

Make a well in the middle.

Bulldozer was happy to help with this step as well.

Next, take the bowl of mashed bananas and add the sugar, egg and cooking oil.  Stir well to combine.

Pour the wet ingredients into the flour all at once and stir until just combined.  It will be lumpy, but you want to make sure that you've gotten all of the flour moistened.

Fold in the chocolate and nuts.

Scrape the batter into your prepared loaf pan.  It also works well in muffin tins or small cake forms.  Bulldozer likes to put a little batter into a teddy bear-shaped tin so that he  will have his own special bread.

Bake at 350°F (180°C) for 50 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.  I would start checking the bread after about 40 minutes, since all ovens are different.  Mine usually takes no longer than 45 minutes to bake.

Let the pans rest for about 10 minutes on a wire rack and then turn them out onto the rack to finish cooling.

If you can stand to wait (baking this bread will make your house smell awesome!), wrap the cooled bread in foil and leave overnight.  That lets the flavors come together and the bread slices more easily after resting overnight, too.

24 May 2012


Has it really been a week since my last post?

I'm really behind...but I have good excuses, I promise!  Between my parents moving from Houston to Newfoundland, house guests over the weekend and an almost-four-year-old who seems to still be in the terrible twos (or is it the terrifying threes?), life has been a bit busy.

But I have a lot of recipes planned for the near future.  Stuffed mushrooms, red lentil kibbeh, cold yogurt soup (wonderful for hot Texas summers!), Ossetian pies and many more!

Also, I recently found an amazing cookbook at Half Price Books.  It's called Please To The Table: The Russian Cookbook by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.  They traveled all over the Soviet Union (this book was published in 1990) and compiled four hundred recipes from all of the soviet republics.  Also, because this book was written with a Western audience in mind, cultural notes and explanations are given for each republic or region.  This helps to clear up the misconception that all of the former USSR is Russia, or identical to Russia.

Anyway, this is possibly one of the best Russian (and republics) cookbooks I have come across (and no, I have not been paid to write this - the book is out of print, anyway).  So far, most of the recipes are accurate to what I remember eating and watching being prepared in the ten years that I lived in Russia.  And the recipes are good enough that, last week, I was able to torture make all of my friends hungry, just by letting them look through the book.  Needless to say, by lunchtime, we all had very large appetites.

I will post some of the recipes from this book (giving due credit, naturally).  If there is anything in particular that you have heard of from any of the former Soviet republics and want to see a tested recipe for, let me know!  I will be more than happy to find and test recipes and then post them on the blog for everybody.  

Starting next week, I should be back to being able to post every couple of days, so let me know what you want to see.  I already have one request for Ossetian pies with bean filling, and I am working on the dough part of that.  I should have a good recipe soon, but it's taking a little time because I do test each recipe until I'm sure it works.

Thanks for reading and checking back regularly to see what's new!  Also, if any of you try the recipes, please let me know how it turned out!  Let us know whether the dish turned out well, or if it flopped.  Feedback is wonderful.  I will be happy to answer any questions or tweak the recipes if need be.

Thanks again!


17 May 2012

Garlic Eggplant

Did you know that eggplant is technically a berry?

As a kid, I never really liked eggplant.  I didn't really like garlic either, so the fact that I like and make this recipe is somewhat surprising.  But the combination of the eggplant, yogurt, garlic and cilantro is spicy, tangy and satisfying.

This is also one of those recipes that you can make for guests or to take to a party and make a huge impression.  It looks unusual and like something that you've put a lot of effort into making.  It's up to you whether to burst their bubble by telling them how easy these eggplant really are to make, or let them imagine you to be a great chef.

Note:  This recipe is traditionally made by frying the eggplant slices in sunflower oil.  Also, the filling is usually made with mayonnaise.  I have tweaked it somewhat to make it healthier and, in my opinion, tastier (never have been a mayo fan).  If you want to try making the eggplant according to the original recipe, just fry the eggplant slices in hot sunflower or canola oil and drain them on paper towels.  For the filling, substitute mayo for the yogurt and then fill and arrange them as directed below.

For my version, you will need:
  • 1 large eggplant (this recipe made enough for 5 adults, so if you are making these for a party, you may want to double or triple the recipe)
  • salt, for making the eggplant sweat
  • extra virgin olive oil, for brushing
  • 2 cups Greek-style yogurt
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • salt, to taste
  • minced garlic, to taste (I like these fairly spicy, so I usually add about 6-7 cloves)

The first thing to be done is to slice the eggplant into thin rounds.

Next, lay the slices flat on a layer of paper towels and sprinkle them generously with salt. This process helps to draw out the water and bitterness that is often associated with eggplant.

You will have more than one layer, and it is fine to layer them one on top of the other.  Just be sure to salt each layer before laying down more paper towels and starting the next layer.

Let the eggplant rest until you see beads of moisture formed on the surface.

Meanwhile, you can make the filling.  Combine the yogurt, cilantro, garlic and salt in a medium bowl.  Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of this step, as I was doing about 5 million things, and trying to be entertaining to a three-year-old.  A bit frazzled.

Also, preheat the broiler while you are letting the eggplant rest.

Once the water has come out of the eggplant, wipe them with paper towels.  Then, if your "assistant" still needs a job to do (how big should a kid be before he's old enough to do ALL the housework to burn his energy off?), let him put the eggplant slices onto a baking sheet and brush them with olive oil.
Pop them under the broiler, and watch carefully.  They will brown fairly quickly, and you will need to take them out when they get some lovely brown spots on them, but before they blacken and shrivel.  With how thin these slices are, and how hot that broiler is, it really doesn't take long to go from tender and mottled brown to charred.

Once they've cooled enough to handle, put about a teaspoon of the yogurt filling on the slice.  Fold in half, and place on a plate.

Repeat until you've used up all of the eggplant slices and filling.  Arrange them nicely on a serving plate and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.  Serve as a cold appetizer or side dish.

10 May 2012

Beet Tzatziki

Beets have something of a reputation.  Like broccoli, they are one of the vegetables that people either love or hate.  And, more often than not, I find people that dislike them quite severely.  Even the current President of the US is known for avoiding beets.  But why?  Cooked properly, beets have a lovely sweet, earthy flavor and a gorgeous color.

Perhaps it is the cooking method that is part of the problem.  Most of the time, beets are either pickled (and thus can be too vinegary to enjoy their true taste) or are boiled.  Boiling can very easily yield mushy beets with muted flavors.  An easier way to prepare beets is roasting.  Cut them into wedges, place them on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast at 400°F until a fork can be easily inserted.  Easy, pretty quick, and delicious.  I have also read about slicing them and pan frying in a little olive oil, and serving them over tender wilted greens with crumbled feta.  That, to me, sounds absolutely heavenly.

For this recipe, I decided to roast the beets.  I had three medium sized beets on hand, and needed a way to use them up.  So I looked through the various cookbooks I had on hand, and found one that promised to be easy and tasty.  This recipe is from Ana Sortun's Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is a wonderful book (that I picked up at the library) that explains much about the spices and herbs used in the Middle East.  I have tried a few other recipes from her book and will post about them in the near future.  It combines beets, yogurt, olive oil, dill, lemon juice and garlic to make a meze dish that will excite your taste buds, provide bright and wonderful color to your table, and bring you and your guests a host of health benefits.

For the Beet Tzatziki, you will need:

for roasting
  • 3 medium beets
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste
for the tzatziki
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/4 lemon)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups Greek-style yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly crushed black pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh dill, plus a sprig or two to garnish

To roast the beets, first wash them and trim the root ends off so that the beets will stand without rolling around as much in the pan.
Then rub them with a little olive oil and position them in a small, heavy roasting pan or skillet.  My small cast-iron skillet worked beautifully for this.
Sprinkle them with salt and pepper, pour in a half cup of water and cover with a double layer of foil.  Roast at 400°F for 45 minutes, or until tender when poked with a fork.

Allow the beets to cool, and then using a paper towel, rub the skins off.  Grate the beets directly into a medium-sized bowl using the large holes of a box grater.  My personal suggestion is to use disposable gloves while doing this.  Otherwise, my friends and I have found from personal experience, you will end up with purple hands.  Unless that's the look you're going for, I strongly recommend using gloves.

In the same bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and dill.  Fold the ingredients together and reseason with salt and pepper if necessary.
Ana Sortun includes a tip that I have not used, but you might find useful.  She combines the lemon juice, garlic, and salt in a bowl and lets them stand for about 10 minutes.  According to Sortun, this process "takes some of the heat out of raw garlic".  Given that my husband and I like the heat of raw garlic, I skipped that step.  If you aren't a fan of garlic, you might try this step and see how it works for you.

Serve the beet tzatziki cold or at room temperature and garnish it with fresh dill, if you like.  Seriously, give beets a try!  Can anything possibly be prettier?

09 May 2012

Roasted Eggplant Dip

I suppose you could consider this a variation on baba ghanoush, which is a popular dish in the Middle East.  While there are countless variations, the basic ingredients are roasted eggplant, olive oil, tahini and garlic.  Spices and herbs added differ by region, and can include parsley, mint, lemon juice, chili pepper, cumin and many others.  Sometimes the eggplant is roasted in the oven, and other times it is roasted over an open fire to give it a smoky flavor.

For this variation, you will need:
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 3 Tbsp Greek-style yogurt
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Aleppo pepper, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle on top when serving
When you look for an eggplant, pick one that has shiny, firm skin.

Prick the eggplant all over with a fork, and then place on a rimmed baking sheet.  I lined mine with foil to make for easier clean-up.  Roast at 400°F for about 40 minutes, or until the flesh begins to collapse.

Wrap the foil around the eggplant and let it sit for another 10 minutes.


Split the eggplant and scoop out the flesh inside.  Place in a food processor bowl.

Add the yogurt, lemon juice, minced garlic, Aleppo chilies and 1 Tbsp olive oil.

Blend until smooth.
Serve on individual plates or small serving bowls with a drizzle of olive oil and pita bread on the side.

04 May 2012

Blini (And Anise Whipped Cream!)

Crepes are eaten all over all over Europe and have been brought by Europeans to nearly every part of the world.  Each language has its own name for this thin pancake, and the Russian name for them is блины (blini).  They are easy to make and can be thrown together for breakfast, lunch or dessert.  You can make them sweet or savory, depending on the filling.

For blini, you will need:
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/2 C water
  • 3/4 C milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 C all-purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 Tbsp sugar, optional
  • canola oil (if your pan is not non-stick)

Melt the butter in a large bowl or measuring glass.  Pour in the water and milk and whisk to combine.

Mix in the eggs.  Stir in a pinch of salt and sugar, if using.  (Note:  I only use the sugar when making blini to use with a sweet filling.)

Whisk in the flour gradually.

When you've mixed in all the flour, make sure there are no lumps.  The batter should be thin and smooth.

Heat a medium-sized frying pan over medium-high heat.

 If you are using a pan without a nonstick coating, you will need to use a little canola or sunflower oil to grease the pan.  My pan, however, is nonstick and I have found that the crepes will not turn out as well if I grease the pan to start with.  I would suggest that you try the first one with a little oil in the pan and see how it turns out.  If the batter doesn't spread nicely, try the next one with no oil.
 Using a ladle or measuring cup, pour a small amount of batter into the heated pan and, working quickly, tilt the pan until the batter spreads to cover the entire bottom.


When the edges begin to turn brown, flip the pancake with a long spatula.  It will only take a couple of minutes for each side, so you will need to watch them carefully.

When the blin is done, slide it onto a plate and cover.  Set in the microwave or over a bowl of hot water to keep warm.

Repeat this process until you have used up all of the batter.

 And now we can fill them!  This time, I used homemade pear preserves and anise whipped cream.  You can really use any kind of jam/jelly/preserves that you like, or fresh fruit to make sweet blini.
If you want to make savory ones, try filling them with sauteed mushrooms and onions or meat with carrots and onions.  That would really be another post in itself, so I will try to address that in the near future!

Here's how to fill/form them:

 Place one blin on your plate.
Put a nice-sized spoonful of preserves in the middle, and a dollop of whipped cream in the middle of that.  Sour cream also works well, if you don't want them overly sweet.

Fold in half over the filling.
And then in half again.  And enjoy!
For the anise whipped cream, combine 2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, 3 Tbsp sugar and 1 shot (about 1.5 ounce) of ouzo or arak in a chilled mixing bowl.  I actually poured ice into the bottom of the sink and put the mixing bowl in that, to make sure that it stayed cold while I was working with it.

Using a handheld electric mixer, beat the cream until it holds soft peaks.  Use for blini or trifle, or anywhere else that the anise flavor would complement the other tastes.

Homemade pear preserves with vanilla bean and cloves