Ukrainian Borscht

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Home cooking from last summer – borscht, a refreshing, cold beet soup which, according to Wikipedia, is the national dish of Ukraine.

I posted it then because out here, we were all suffering through a hot day.

I’m reposting it now because out there, they are all suffering through a hot war.
🇺🇦 Sending prayers for peace to the resolute people of Ukraine. 🇺🇦

Ukrainian Blintzes with a Twist

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Although I can’t know for certain whether my grandmother was Ukrainian, she did make memorable blintzes and she made them often. When I was a kid and just becoming aware of concepts like heritage, I asked her over lunch where she was born. Her responses typically consisted of a single word, in this case, “Brooklyn.”

I pressed on. “Then where were your parents from?”

“Brooklyn,” she replied, tersely.

“Then where…”

“Eat,” she interrupted, setting another plate of blintzes down in front of me figuring that I wouldn’t ask any more questions if my mouth was full. I never did learn about her roots.

Years later, I tried to extract her special recipe: “How much flour should I use?”


You get the idea. Anyway, I reverse engineered it and I’ve been making them ever since. In a single word, “yum!”

But I told you that story so I could tell you this one: The other day when I was in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood developing a revised itinerary for the upcoming revival of my Little Odessa food tour, I spotted a pint-size deli container filled with an obviously store-made creamy white mass in the dairy case of one of my favorite markets. The home spun label read Sirkovaya Massa (likely a romanization of Сырковая Масса in the surprising absence of Cyrillic characters). I recognized the first syllable, Sir- (Сыр-), as the word for cheese; a closer inspection revealed a list of ingredients: cultured milk, vanilla, sugar, and raisins and I divined that this “Cheese Curd Mass” would probably taste like an Eastern European take on cannoli cream, but more cream cheesy than ricotta based. It was sweet, rich, and absolutely delicious. But what to do with it? Spread it on a bagel? Serve it with fresh fruit perhaps? And then it hit me: combine it with an equal part of farmer’s cheese and make blintzes with a twist! This is a photo of the result, decked out with blueberries, blueberry syrup and sour cream – note the blue and yellow theme. (Next time, I’m might try adding mini chocolate bits to it for a real cross-cultural treat.)

How were they? In a single (Ukrainian) word, “ням!” Grandma would approve.

C’est Mardi Gras!

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C’est Mardi Gras! Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Ou en anglais, it’s Fat Tuesday! Let the good times roll!) The “fat” descriptor signals the last chance to consume indulgent, rich, high-calorie foods before the spartan Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday. Needless to say, New Orleans pulls out all the stops for its annual celebration with a virtual parade of Creole and Cajun culinary delights on display.

This is homemade Jambalaya, a rice dish that typically features spicy andouille sausage along with other meats or seafood. I’ve used chicken as the supporting player here, but in the past I’ve made it more traditionally with shrimp – that was back when you didn’t have to take out a mortgage to buy it. The Creole version contains tomatoes, the Cajun style that I’ve prepared here does not, but both incorporate a significant measure of spice. I start with a base of diced onions, celery, and bell peppers known as “the trinity” in Cajun cooking; it’s akin to mirepoix in French cuisine which consists of onions, celery, and carrots, or sofrito in other cultures where ingredients vary by geography – but whatever the provenance, it’s all about that base.

On the side, I made another popular Louisiana specialty, maque choux, a mélange of fresh corn, bell peppers, onions, celery, and tomatoes cooked up in bacon fat with more Cajun spices and a little cream at the end to ensure the proper degree of decadence.

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday post will feature a Lenten delicacy (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) that’s bloody delicious! Stay tuned….

Ukrainian Banush

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I’ve got Ukraine on the brain and if you’re following the news, you probably do too. I don’t delve into politics on this platform (although I certainly do elsewhere) but I feel the need to shine a little light on Ukraine, at least through a culinary lens.

I lead a food tour through Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach area, also known as Little Odessa; Odessa is the third largest city in Ukraine and a major center of tourism. On that ethnojunket, we sample delicacies from Russia as well as Ukraine and other Former Soviet Union satellite countries like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Sputnik – you know, the satellites.

There’s considerable crossover among the cuisines, but in this post I’m highlighting a dish I prepared that’s dear to the hearts of Ukrainians, banush (бануш, aka banosh, банош), a cornmeal porridge, first cousin to Romanian/Polish/Moldavan mamaliga and Italy’s polenta; the Ukrainian style is made with sour cream – make it with water and you’ve got Cousin Mamaliga or Zia Polenta. Most recipes I’ve seen call for cutting the sour cream with water but I use chicken broth instead plus the addition of a little butter for richness and bacon fat for a hint of smokiness.

It’s typically served with a sharp sheep’s milk cheese like bryndza crumbled on top and bits of bacon or salo, sometimes with mushrooms as well. I’ve plated it alongside grilled kovbasa on a bed of caramelized onions with sour cream on the side. Just one example of Ukrainian soul food.

🇺🇦 It’s no coincidence that I’ve chosen a blue plate for this yellow dish. 🇺🇦

Sending prayers for peace to the resolute people of Ukraine.

Have a Heart

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When I spotted chicken hearts (a personal favorite) while shopping in Chinatown, I purchased them without contemplating their ultimate fate. Something Southeast Asian perhaps, maybe even Malaysian, a cuisine I love partly because it’s been influenced by so many nationalities. I don’t usually do much Malaysian home cooking, and when I do, I follow a recipe pretty closely, but expediency prevailed over authenticity this time.

The sauce would be built on belacan, a hyperpungent fermented salted shrimp paste, but when deployed in proper balance with other ingredients, it’s all about umami, not funk – much the same way that the anchovies in Worcestershire sauce or Nonna’s Sunday gravy bring a certain je ne sais quoi to a dish. (Hey, five cultures in one sentence – not bad.) The aforementioned other ingredients in this case were puréed fresh onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass paste, red pepper paste, tamarind paste and palm sugar.

Next, I sliced some colorful fresh veggies into strips: red bell pepper, onion, carrot, bok choy, and Roma tomato (perfect for this because they’re not particularly juicy) and baby corn; rice on the side.

Stir fried the hearts first (they need to pick up color, especially if you’re not grilling them), then a batch of vegetables, added back the hearts followed by the purée and finally a touch of coconut milk to bring it all together.

And mirabile dictu (that’s six, but who’s counting?), I actually wrote down all the ingredients this time!

Unfortunately, not the quantities. Some things never change.

Jerk Chicken Salad

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It had been One Of Those Days and I decided to reward myself with jerk chicken from one of the best spots in Brooklyn for that sort of thing. I hadn’t been there for a couple of years (feels like I haven’t been anywhere for a couple of years) so my visit was long overdue.

I got a large order, brought it home, and proceeded to chow down – but after a few ravenous chomps, I realized that somehow its distinctive mojo had dwindled during the long hiatus.

Apparently it was still One Of Those Days.

So I stashed the remainder in the fridge with an eye toward reinvention; jerk chicken salad sounded like a plan. But when I embarked on the task, after tasting a bite, I became aware that most of the character had resided in the now flabby skin – definitely not a component for chicken salad of any stripe – hence the Jamaican accent would need to come from the dressing.

I always have a can of coconut milk in the pantry, but the base required something tangier. So I combined buttermilk with one of my “secret” ingredients, coconut milk powder; I never use the stuff to reconstitute into coconut milk, its intended destination, but rather for augmentation purposes like this. I tossed in a succession of ingredients with my customary reckless abandon, tasting along the way. (If you’re curious: I ended up with a little jerk seasoning that had been languishing in a jar in the fridge, Pickapeppa sauce, Jamaican curry powder, allspice, a few drops of liquid smoke, sugar, salt and pepper; the herbal element consisted of minced fresh hot pepper, cilantro, and fresh thyme, all allowed to rest so the flavors could meld.)

When the dressing was ripe, I folded it into the diced chicken along with diced mango for sweetness, diced jicama for crunch, and the white parts of chopped scallion for zing, let that mature for a while, and then plated it topped with cutting celery (aka leaf celery), the green parts of the scallion, and a sprinkle of smoked paprika.

Turns out there was no need to be concerned about how much cash I had shelled out on the original – I was delighted with the outcome. I should have heeded those Jamaican words of wisdom: “Don’t worry…be happy!”

Chinese Tea Tree Mushroom Spin-off

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Picking up from two posts ago when I wrote about some leftover Chinese restaurant takeout goodies my friend and neighbor had dropped off: The parcel also included something the menu listed as “Dry Braised Agrocybe Cha Shu Gu”; the truncated Latin Agrocybe Aegerita and transliterated Chinese 茶树菇 apparently refer to what’s known in English as tea tree mushrooms, aka willow mushrooms. The cap is small (about ¼ to ¾ inch) and the thin, striated, tough, crunchy stem is about 6 inches long. The flavor is purported to be woody or earthy, but the dish was so spicy that the true character of the mushroom didn’t penetrate the heat.

Like last time, I decided to stretch the leftovers into something lunchworthy, but the burn from the dried red chili peppers, hot green peppers, chili oil and the like was considerable. What to do? I remembered the famous quote, “Noodles hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” or something like that, so rice noodz from the pantry were pressed into service to temper the fire. I added homemade char siu (the last of the freezer supply), sliced onions and celery, the customary seasonings, and came up with what you see here.

Mission accomplished.

I isolated a few mushrooms at the outset so you could see the genesis of the dish.

Just curious: have any of you ever tried these?

Chinese Bitter Melon Spin-off

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A friend and neighbor was kind enough to drop off some leftovers from Famous Sichuan on Pell St in Manhattan’s Chinatown. One was described on the menu as Sautéed and Dried Bitter Melon which consisted of exactly that, sans embellishment. I decided that instead of consuming it straightaway as a snack, I’d stretch it into a proper lunch using whatever I had on hand. (You’ve heard me sing that song before.)

Perusing the interwebs, I found that both Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines (among others) include stir fried bitter melon with eggs in their repertoires – fair game for me to riff on. Now, what would harmonize with those two ingredients? If you’re savvy about such things, you’re familiar with Tomatoes & Eggs, the epitome of the homiest of Chinese home cooking; I had some grape tomatoes with unusually thick skins, rather tough for eating raw but perfect for stir frying. I incorporated some reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms for umami and scallions for bite and happily, it turned out to be a great combination.

Here’s the “before” photo in case you’re curious about what started the ball rolling.

Stay tuned to check out what I did with the other leftover dish!

Fry Me a Liver

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Feel free to singe along!

Time for a little post-holiday-cooking-frenzy clean up, starting with spices. If you’ve ever visited the Home Cookin’ section of my website you’ve seen a photo of my custom made spice rack; there are 136 within easy reach – more if I have the energy to bend over to access the bottom shelf. But with that embarrassment of Rich’s comes the obligation and responsibility to purge the aging members from time to time; dried herbs and spices have a limited shelf life. (It’s one of the reasons I don’t offer recipes – is my powdered cumin the same vintage as yours?)

In addition to single spices, I also keep some commercial and custom spice blends that come in handy if I’m pressed for time. (Read: lazy.) Sometimes, I’ll grab one of those and amplify it with a hit of an ingredient that’s already in there to emphasize it, sometimes I’ll modify it with a spice that’s not present to bring a different character to the mix. Today I did both.

The base was baharat, a Middle Eastern heavenly, warm spice blend; I make my version with ground cumin seed, coriander seed and black pepper plus cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. Because it was viable but weakening, I adjusted it with additional cumin, coriander, and cardamom and then transformed it with some turmeric for earthiness and color. (Another example of modification: if I had wanted to go Turkish, I would have incorporated mint.)

That would be the dominant seasoning for the beef liver which I had soaked for a few hours in buttermilk and dredged in seasoned flour (garlic powder, salt and pepper). I pan fried it with sliced onions and a liberal dose of toasted, kicked up baharat. The side dish was long grain rice with julienned fresh basil and fennel – seeds as well as fronds.

And if you’re going to singe along, be careful to pay attention when toasting the spice blend.

You’ll never get to heaven with burnt baharat.

Cooking with Canned Water Chestnuts

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Sticking with Chinese home cookin’ for the Lunar New Year (so I used sticky rice 🙃), this dish was cobbled together from hyperlocal sources: bok choy, leeks, and red bell pepper from my previous trip to the supermarket, lap cheong (Chinese sausage) ever-present in my freezer, and canned water chestnuts from the pantry.

Some advice about cooking with canned water chestnuts:

Don’t do it. Just Don’t.

Otherwise, it was a tasty dish.

(The same can be said for canned bamboo shoots, regardless of brand.)

But seriously, if you can make a case for using the godforsaken things, I’d like to hear it.

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