Happy Пасха

Our friends, Olga and Sam, came for dinner one night recently. Shortly after, we received an email from Olga — who hails from Russia — inviting us to a “Russian Feast”for a holiday called “Пасха” on an upcoming Saturday.

Lenin on Olga's wall

A studious Lenin on Olga’s wall

I’m a big fan of theme dinners. Sadly, we had a previous engagement (a wedding — get it, engagement!??), and asked if she could reschedule. We were free that Sunday.

“Perfect!” she said, “That’s the actual day of Пасха!”

What luck! Celebrating Пасха on the actual Пасха!

Olga, Leslie & the table

Olga, Leslie & the table

My understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet being a little lacking (to put it mildly), I had to look Пасха up on the web. Pronounced “Pasha” in English, Пасха, it turns out, is the Russian Orthodox Easter! I asked Olga what I could contribute besides vodka — my “famous” piroshki, I suggested. That sounded wonderful to her. So now I had to figure out how to make piroshki.

The first thing to do was find a recipe for piroshki. As great as the Internet is for finding obscure recipes, you sometimes just can’t beat the Time/Life “Foods of the World” series.

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I’ve written about these classic books before. They were a pillar of my childhood culinary education — I could often find my mother in the kitchen pouring over “Classic French Cooking” or “The Food of Spain & Portugal.” Although the books were published beginning in 1968 through the 1970s, the writing and recipes are surprisingly sophisticated and stand up to the best contemporary cookbooks.

Between books scattered across the divorce wasteland of my two parents, I’ve inherited a nearly complete set. In the spiral recipe companion booklet to “Russian Cooking,” I found exactly what I was after — a piroshki recipe whose dough called for butter AND lard (!!!) and involved wonderfully complex rounds of rolling, folding, rolling and folding again and again.

Piroshkis, pre-fold

Piroshki, pre-fold (and dough scrap wad)

Stuffed with the traditional ground beef, hard cooked egg and dill, the flaky egg-glazed pastries emerged from the oven just in the nick of our appointed arrival time. And within minutes we were down the street, settled onto outdoor lounges, sipping pastis.

Olga, as it turned out, had gone all out for Пасха. Her three sons — Max, Leo and Asa — had joined in the excitement. “We need to make menus!” they’d suggested. And there on the table they were: menus — seven courses!

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Somewhere in the midst of all it, I assumed, my piroshki would appear.

Dinner began with blinis with either caviar or Olga’s homemade orange marmalade. I opted for the caviar, of course. The Crawford boys’ enthusiasm extended beyond the menu to the service, as youngest son Asa tucked an arm behind his back and speedily and graciously brought plates to the table, aided by my eldest, Flynn, and cleared up as soon as the last bite was gone.

Next up was an exquisite gelled cube of chilled pork with horseradish, which was my favorite course of the evening.

Something went amiss between courses three and seven, the borscht promised in course three looked suspiciously like mushroom julienne, and the dessert arrived at the table before the main course. None of which mattered, of course. We were happy and full and pleasantly distracted by children running about and the stars and the sparkling lights from across the canyon.

Blinis with caviar

Blinis with caviar

Gelled pork cube

Chilled pork cube

Mushrooms and cheese. Mmmm

Mushrooms and cheese. Mmmm

Asa serving the borscht

Asa serving the piroshki (watch out for the dogs!)

Borscht with piroshki

Borscht with piroshki

The piroshki made it to the table as a side to the borscht, an unintended but ideal complement.

Everything was beautiful and delicious and seemingly authentic, although I’ve not been to Russia to confirm.

Sitting back in my chair, sated and happy with the last of my wine (we didn’t drink any vodka, it turned out), I saw Sam and Olga’s sheepdog eating piroshki pilfered from the plates of children. I hoped he was enjoying them, and recognizing the time that went into rolling and folding and rolling and folding to get that flaky crust.

Na zdorovya!

Na zdorovya!

With a tip of the balaclava to Time/Life for inspiration, here is my customized recipe for piroshki. Not sure what the next Russian holiday is… But mark your calendar and enjoy!

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Piroshki
makes 25 or so piroshki

crust:

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. chilled butter, cut into small chunks
4 tbsp. lard
6-8 tbsp. ice water

filling:

2 tbsp. butter
1 brown onion, chopped
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
2/3 lb. ground beef
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 egg, mixed with 2 tbsp. water

Mix together flour and salt, and then butter and lard. Mix with your fingers until flour resembles coarse meal. Drizzle in 4 tbsp. of ice water and gently massage and gather dough into a ball. If it doesn’t stick together, add more water 1 tbsp. at a time.

When dough is neatly in a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Melt butter in a pan over high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, until onions begin to turn golden. Add ground beef and cook until browned. Remove from heat. Place in a food processor with dill and salt and pepper, and mince to a fine grind. Add in egg and pulse once or twice to mix.

Remove dough from fridge, shape into a rectangle, and roll out into a length 10″ to 12″ x 6″. Fold lengthwise into thirds, about four inches by six inches. Turn and roll out again, and fold into thirds again. Repeat twice more, wrap final packet in plastic, and refrigerate again for another hour.

Preheat oven to 400. To make piroshki: dust dough in plastic and roll out until 1/8-inch thick. Using a round cookie cutter or glass, press out circles 3″ to 3 1/2″ wide. You should get 15-20 circles. (Scoop up scraps and form a ball to roll out again after and get more circles.) Put about 1 heaping teaspoon filling in the center of each circle. Brush half the circle with your egg wash, and close to seal. Continue until all piroshki are filled. (And when those are done, roll out scrap ball, and you should get another 6-8.) Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Brush each piroshki with your egg wash. Cook 20-25 minutes, until golden.

Serve with borscht and chilled vodka, if you’d like.

Shortcuts

I’m one of those fancy chefs who serves small portions, treats the plate like a canvas and uses flowers and ingredients you’ve never heard of. But I’m also a fan of shortcuts.

Many of the world’s best chefs will readily admit to resorting to shortcuts when they’re cooking.

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While we were staying at the Casa Tres Coronitas in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last October, I asked the house chef, Marilu, to show me how to make her famous salsa. She was giving me a lesson and it was nothing out of the ordinary — tomatillos, onion, garlic, chiles de arbol, salt. And then she reached into the cupboard to pull out her “secret ingredient” — Knorr powdered chicken bouillon. Sure enough, when I tried it at home (with the bag of Knorr powdered chicken bouillon Marilu picked up for me at the supermercado), it contributed a salty umami depth that was missing before I added it. Couldn’t have been the MSG, could it?? More

Who You Callin’ “Lardo”!??

In one of my fancy meat shipments several months back, I received three large packages of hazelnut-fed pork fatback from some folks called Tails & Trotters in the Northwest.

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I couldn’t remember if I actually ordered them or not, my purveyor friend sometimes throws in bonus items I didn’t order.

Fatback, for those not in the know, contains very little to no meat. It other words, it’s pure fat. Silky, white, glorious fat. More

Gettin’ Me Oyrish Up

scolgin:

An oldie but a goodie, as we in the House of Colgin celebrate this greenest of days. May the road rise to meet ye!

Originally posted on skinny girls & mayonnaise:

You could say I’m well in touch with my Irish blood — I love cloudy days, I’ve been known to drink a bit, I’m given to song at the slightest provocation, I write poetry and tend to be sentimental and a bit melancholy. So St. Patrick’s Day is a more special holiday for me than it might for the average person.

One of the finest St. Patrick’s Days I ever spent was in Venice, Italy, with my sister Andrea. Wandering aimlessly, we happened to stumble upon a real Irish pub where we spent the evening with a couple from Ireland and an American GI and his mom. The exchange rate was strong, we realized each glass of vino rosso only cost .50 cents, and so we ordered half a dozen each and lined the table with them. The train ride the next day to Florence was a hard one.

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Kaiseki in the Rain

My friend Brian, he of raw milk and smuggled French cheeses, lives in a Japanese-influenced mid-century modern home in Pasadena. Approaching the house from the street, you come up a few steps to a large door framed by stained glass windows. Inside the door is not the interior of the house, but a raised, covered wooden deck bridge through a Japanese garden that connects front entrance and front doors.

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A couple years back, upon our first visit to his house, I commented that I wanted to do a winter kaiseki dinner on the bridge during a rainstorm.

I often present friends with interesting home situations with my wild ideas about dinners I want to do there (such as the winter storm seafood dinner I wanted to do at our friends’ Steve McQueen Malibu beach house), but rarely receive more than a polite nod. But Brian seemed enthusiastic. Then — now! — a couple years later, I receive a text from Brian. “We missed the storm! But there’s rain in the forecast for next weekend. Shall we do our dinner?” He didn’t have to ask me twice.

It was pouring in Topanga, as if someone had taken a knife and split open the swollen belly of the black cloud above, when we left for Pasadena. But sometimes the rainclouds get stuck on our coastal mountains, and the sky was blue by the time we reached Pasadena. Nonetheless, Brian had set out his traditional kotatsu table onto the bridge surrounded by paper lanterns and plum blossoms, I had brought a bag full of ama ebi, striped bass, wagyu beef, simmered duck and other delights, and we would eat well.

The kotatsu on the bridge

The kotatsu on the bridge

The front door was opened not by Brian, but by his new friend Makkie, a very giggly and beautiful Japanese woman. This was a trap, I immediately concluded — like some domestic version of “Iron Chef,” a test of my meddle. You think you’re a Japanese chef, hot shot? I imagined Brian thinking to himself. Try cooking for a REAL Japanese person! But I didn’t shrink from the challenge — it was ON! I’d cooked French food for French people, Italian for Italians, Mexican for Mexicans… I’d even done chicken Kiev for our Ukrainian friends. I wasn’t easily intimidated.

We drank Japanese beer in the kitchen and then moved to the kotatsu. The blue skies had clouded over, and it was drizzling. The first course was raw ama ebi sweet shrimp and striped bass sashimi with herb flowers and a salad of greens — miner’s lettuce, sour grass and mustard greens — I had foraged that morning in Topanga.

Sashimi

Sashimi

Oishi!” Makkie giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Delicious, Brian translated. One point for the challenger!

Next we moved on to duck legs and thighs that had been long-braised in apple cider, sake and dashi broth, cubes of kabocha pumpkin lightly cooked in the finished broth. More “oishi,” more points for the chef.

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

From our beer, we had also moved on to sake. Makkie had brought a good bottle, and Brian had several to contribute as well. I once did a post on the evocative names the Japanese give their sakes — “Wandering Poet” or “Mansion of Dreams” — and while I didn’t catch the names of these particular sakes, each was more delicious than the last.

The kaiseki dinner, for those not in the know, is a formal and highly ritualized occasion in Japan. It is sort of the Japanese version of — and, I would hazard, the precursor to — the popular Western “chef’s tasting menu”: a series of small, seasonal dishes exquisitely prepared and presented. Some of the formality less typical of a Western meal comes from the prescribed ordering of the dishes. I’ve never been able to quite unravel precisely the rules and regulations, but it goes something like this: you begin with sashimi, followed by a simmered dish, followed by a grilled dish, followed by a steamed dish, followed by…

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

By nature, I like to break with tradition. So I took the spirit of kaiseki, with its attention to detail and season, and abandoned the formality. My tempura course — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin — might’ve jumped ahead of my grilled course. And where in the instructions does it say anything about a noodle course!??

Oishi” was my guiding principle for the night.

During my preparation of one of the courses, Makkie came into the kitchen carrying plates. She wanted to know how I learned Japanese cooking, where I got my ingredients. She wanted to watch and learn. Yes, I believed, the challenger had won the competition.

Wagyu steak — the "grilled" course

Wagyu steak — the “grilled” course

The promised rain still hadn’t come. We’d had a beautiful dinner, and after the final course of wagyu zabuton steak with broiled eggplant and fresh wasabi raw butter, we sat luxuriating under the heated blanket that covered our legs. The roar of rain pouring down all around us while we ate was not to be.

“It was a test run,” Brian said.

The kids were tired, it was time to go home.

Imogen under the kotatsu

Imogen under the kotatsu

It was, of course, still raining when we got home to Topanga. The clouds had gotten stuck. But then I received a text from Brian:

“Began raining just after you left. Makkie and I just chilled out on the deck and enjoyed the rain.”

I was glad someone got to.

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Braised duck with kabocha pumpkin
serves 4

2 legs & thighs duck
1 tsp. vegetable oil
salt & pepper
1/2 cup dashi broth
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup sake
1 cup cubed kabocha pumpkin

With a cleaver, remove the knobby bone from the end of the duck leg (chop it off) about 1/2 inch from the end. Chop the leg/thigh into 2 or 3 sections, depending on preference. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a small saucepan, heat the tsp. oil over medium high until it begins to smoke. Sear the duck, skin side down as applicable, until brown, about one minute. Turn over and sear the other side.

Reduce heat to medium and add three liquids. Bring to a simmering boil, lower heat to low, cover and cook for 90 minutes.

Remove from heat. Let cool, then remove duck and strain stock. (This can be done the day before serving.)

Place duck pieces under a broiler and broil until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes depending on heat and proximity to heating source. While duck is broiling, place stock in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add pumpkin cubes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

Scoop some stock and pumpkin cubes into each of 4 shallow bowls. Top with 1-2 pieces of duck and serve.

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