Plov with Young Chicken: The Soviet Experiment, Part 1

Here commences the Great Soviet Experiment (or perhaps, that is, the second Great Soviet Experiment). I will be cooking something from each former republic, in order, because I am back in America and have nothing to do and miss the Soviet Union (historically and geographically).1 (That is, I will do this one and then probably forget about the whole thing.) I’m starting with Azerbaijan because it comes first in the Russian alphabet, and I’m doing this from a Russian cookbook.

It’s called Cuisines of the Caucasus and Central Asia, by William (or Vil’yam) Pokhlyobkin (Вильям Похлёбкин)—he’s also done cookbooks on the Slavic countries and the entire Soviet Union, which I thought was what I bought, but I guess it was too heavy so I got this one instead. It was a while ago in Bishkek, I don’t remember anything. (Important note about Pokhlyobkin, whose name is impossible to spell in English: it seems like he’s an expert on Russian cuisine, and just sort of decided to branch out into Central Asian and other former Soviet, so we should maybe not trust him too heavily. But it is nice to use the Russian-language cookbooks that one has bought. Also, apparently he once got into trouble for writing a book about tea.)

Anyway. For Azerbaijan, we are doing a chicken plov (#plov), because most of the other dishes were much meatier (mostly lamb), and no. Plov is basically a dish of rice and meat from Uzbekistan/Turkey/many other places that they eat all over the former Soviet Union because, at least in Russia, they are obsessed with the food of their culinarily better neighbors/take-over-ees. There are literally entire books about plov, which is something I would like to own, so I will not go into more detail on it here. It is very complicated.

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A Call for Comfort [Food]

It’s not hard to deduce from my few posts that much of my initial cooking experience is owed to the blog smittenkitchen. Deb Perelman’s anyone-can-do-this adaptations of recipes from well-known sources eased me into the idea of producing real, edible meals in my very own home. Successes from those recipes gave me enough of an ego boost to host my own seder (gasp!). The only real victim here is my boyfriend (you may know him as my handy kitchen assistant) who was perfectly happy ordering in 6 nights a week, reserving the 7th night for Trader Joe’s amazing 99-cent macaroni and cheese. You know, the one from the box with the little packet of orange powder. Okay also maybe my wallet.

The finished product is spectacularly beautiful, with an orange hue you don’t often get with sticky buns.

To get to the point – I serendipitously happened upon the BAKED shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn around the same time this pumpkin cinnamon roll recipe popped up on smittenkitchen. It felt a little bit (a lot a bit) like fate, and it was probably less than 24 hours later that I ordered the BAKED: Elements cookbook from that site I sometimes refer to. Of course, having the recipe (and two versions at that) is only the beginning. Months went by without any legitimate reason to actually make these buns. I hardly ever kept my pantry full of specialty goods like pumpkin, bread flour, or whole milk (I suppose nobody keeps milk in the pantry, unless it’s that new-fangled ultra pasteurized stuff, which I am skeptical of). I can’t even believe I used to consider those “specialty.” I mean, really, I get anxious now when there isn’t pumpkin in my pantry, right alongside shelf-stable cartons of cream. Regardless, it wasn’t until life got a bit more interesting (if you want to put it that way) that I decided to finally spend a good few hours learning some new techniques and making something I’d be able to indulge in as days upon days continue to unfold. A true comfort food emerges. As a side note, I also made ice cream (technically malted frozen custard with chopped hazelnuts. Yes, you want some.). Next week calls for chocolate cake (so stay tuned).

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Stop in the name of biscuits

I’m not sure why I make biscuits so often. (Once here and once before the blog, but I can’t remember much about that experience.) I’m not really a biscuit person (insofar as that’s possible while you’re still a human). I’m not from the South or anything. I love bread products, though, and hate kneading and long wait times. I also have a fear of white flour, possibly pathological, instilled in me by a psychopathic nutritionist I once consulted about my hypoglycemia. All of this led to whole-wheat biscuits.

I did extensive research and settled on this recipe, because you could use yogurt and I didn’t have any milk. It used a full cup more flour than the other recipes I found, relative to the baking powder and butter, but I decided to risk it; it sounds like she’s tested a lot of recipes, and her biscuits were very fluffy.

This is where things went south. While I was making these biscuits I was thinking, “This will either be a post about how my experimentation and idiocy make me a terrible cook… or how they make me a GREAT COOK.”

Ew why do they look so pink

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Stuffed focaccia

This week’s posts are brought to you by the unprecedentedly large amount of money I spent at the grocery store today. (I was forced to buy overly pricey organic spinach-arugula mix because there was no normal arugula, and I also had to buy non-poisonous fabric cleaner… I won’t say why. And also, swiss chard. And fuck you, delicious feta cheese. And enormous five-pound bag of whole-wheat flour that I bought because I think the old bag had gone rancid [thus a possible explanation for the badness of my Irish soda bread]).

So anyway, the first part of this week’s cooking is stuffed focaccia, courtesy of The Iron You, which I found through The Kitchn. (I LOVE the title of The Iron You—I haven’t read much of it but basically they use food and exercise to make themselves into superheroes. That’s my goal in life, too.) You may notice that I am procrastinating from cooking by adding tons of links to this post.

Back to business. I first made the dough so I could leave it to rise while I did other things (i.e. started dinner and the next post(s)). I proofed the yeast (combined it with warm water, sugar, and salt) and then added 600 g of w.w. flour, measured in my lovely kitchen scale, and the olive oil. I mixed it with a wooden spoon and was very worried about the fact that it wasn’t sticky—whole-wheat flour just seems to drink up any moisture. (My friend who is in pastry school says this is normal—whole-wheat flour is just really dry—but since the recipe was written for whole-wheat flour it was worrisome.)

Pre-kneading, but still. What IS this?

I kneaded for a while, on tip-toes, whole-bodily, for maybe five or seven minutes, until I decided to stop. I have no idea if it was smooth and elastic. It was easy to knead, though, because of the relative dryness. Now it’s sitting in a bowl, covered in more olive oil, rising away. Possibly.

Looks like a brain.

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aux Anything

There comes a time when a young lady needs to graduate from cakes and cookies and move on to more exciting endeavors, like pastries and breads (or a convenient combination of the two, as this post demonstrates). I’ve always wanted to make Martha Stewart’s Babka recipe, but jumping right into one of the most complicated (and expensive!) yeast cakes just didn’t fit my rational personality. The solution- a brioche recipe from Joanne Chang’s FLOUR cookbook. This recipe is in no way quick. I started it on a Friday and didn’t totally finish the dealings until the following Sunday– as in, over a week later. The entire experience brought immense joy and satisfaction into my kitchen, and according to this blog’s owner, the brioche aux chocolate that came out of the big mess was “the best thing [she] ever tasted.” This blog post is meant to offer some beginner warnings for those of you thinking of trying this out. I have absolutely no natural baking skills- so every success of mine is a true wonder and thanks to a detailed recipe. Hopefully, other amateurs can learn from my mistakes.

Everything should start with your basic butter foundation.

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Buttered matzah: the affliction of affliction

As you may know, because I allude to it bizarrely frequently, I am Jewish. EW, wow, I just ate something nasty. More on that later. Shit. OK, so this week is Passover, and I’ve been following it religiously (HA) (oh dear) and not eating either chametz or kitniyot. So basically nothing I normally eat on a regular basis.

I have been eating a giant amount of matzah (the other day my boss came over, looked at me, and said, “You’ve really been putting away a lot of matzah this week”; note to everyone—never, ever say this to anyone) and have encountered a number of challenges. You may think this is a joke. It is NOT. Buttering matzah is one of the most difficult things Jews face, cooking-wise. Brisket? Pah.

The first step is to not use butter that has been in the freezer for a long time, improperly wrapped. (See paragraph one of this post. Throw out any such butter you possess.)

The second step is to take your butter out of the fridge to soften it. You cannot use hard butter; the pressure needed to butter will cause the matzah to break everywhere, and matzah will fly all over your apartment. The ideal way to butter matzah would probably be telekinetically, or maybe with one of those olive-oil vaporizers. Or nonstick spray. It would not affect the taste.

Then, take a piece of matzah out of the box. I have been using Yehuda Matzos because that is what my parents gave me.

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Irish soda bread: instinctive baking

The entire Internet was full of Irish soda bread this week (well, and corned beef, but I ignored that), and I’d been wanting to make some, in my ever-continuing pursuit of bread that does not involve waiting 3 years to eat it. Though simultaneously I am planning to make a sourdough starter soon, which is the opposite. Anyway. There were a million recipes, and I chose this one because it wasn’t sweet and had some whole wheat flour.

I took some butter out of the fridge to soften (I was very excited—usually I try to use butter straight from the freezer and it is disastrous) while I weighed my flours in my new scale.

Storytime: When I got the scale a few days ago, the first thing I did was try to weigh Fitzpatrick. He bit me really hard when I picked him up, but I held on valiantly. Then I couldn’t get him to stay on the scale. So I don’t know how much he weighs. But the scale only goes up to twelve pounds, which he is probably more than. Then I weighed a grapefruit, and it was 263 grams. Then I weighed some generic Robitussin, and it was also 263 grams. I found this freaky and really funny, but I have told this to like six people already and no one else thought it was funny. Alas.

Back to the baking. Flours, baking soda, salt. I squashed the butter into the flour with my fingers. (It never looked like breadcrumbs, as the recipe says, but I wasn’t aspiring for that because my cutting-butter-into-flour never goes like it’s supposed to. I am comfortable with this now and it seems OK.) Then I remembered I hadn’t made my buttermilk yet, so I did. Then I wrote a post about buttermilk. Continue reading

Rye bread + rutabaga

It turns out that when I am stressed, I cook really weird combinations of really weird foods. Tonight I made quinoa with cheddar cheese, rutabaga–carrot purée, and Swedish rye bread.

On my way home I was contemplating what to make for dinner, and I was like, haha, I should go get a rutabaga and finish that stupid experiment. Then I was like, well … I guess I will go get a rutabaga. I procrastinated for a while at home because I desperately wanted something warm and bready immediately, so I looked up whole-wheat and/or rye biscuit recipes, and then ended up finding the recipe for Swedish rye bread when I googled quick rye bread. It’s a quick bread (no yeast), but not sweet. I also pretty much picked the first rutabaga recipe I found on Epicurious because I wanted something edible, i.e. not just roasted vegetables (which were good the first night but unappetizing subsequently). The quinoa was just to round things out. The bread wasn’t really part of dinner, it just happened.

So. I went to the wax turnip area of the supermarket, and discovered that the wax turnips all weighed like 2.52 pounds. But then I dug around a bit and discovered some much smaller, different-looking wax turnips beneath the giant ones. These weighed less. Obviously. So I put two in my basket and went about the rest of my shopping. (Things got dicey when I spotted a jar of almond butter for $11.99. And there were no regular almonds in the rest of the store. But I didn’t buy them. And now I want almond butter desperately again.)

At the checkout counter, several things happened:
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No-knead bread, finally

I am four or five years late on this one, I think. Oh, wow, no, seven! (In 2006 Mark Bittman made no-knead bread with Jim Lahey and revolutionized everything that went on in the universe forever after.) I’ve been meaning to make it since I got my Dutch oven, but then never did, until a few days ago. I wanted to make it whole-wheat but also didn’t want it to turn out horrible, since whole-wheat flour doesn’t act the same way white flour does; so I just did one-third whole-wheat and the rest bread flour. (I need to make a style guide for this blog. I need to make a decision about the hyphenation of whole-wheat. AAGH.)

I mixed the ingredients together…

It was supposed to be extremely sticky, but was actually almost knead-able. I was worried.

…then covered it with my dough towel and let it rise overnight and the entire day. It rose. Continue reading

Boom. Fucking nailed it.

OK. I got home from kickboxing at 8. I started sauteing two large spoonfuls of pre-minced garlic (I know…) in olive oil in a small saucepan. I threw in the frozen contents of two tupperwares: chickpeas and whole canned tomatoes. I put a lid on it. I showered.

When I came back, everything was bubbling and thawed and warm. I stirred and then began making biscuits.

I made self-rising flour by combining all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt. I added more salt as per the biscuit recipe. I created a well in the center and poured in about 3/4 c of previously frozen plain yogurt. (Basically the entire point of these biscuits was to use the yogurt, which I bought a while ago by accident.) I stirred and determined there was not enough yogurt. Unfortunately I didn’t have any more—well, I did, but I smelled it and then put it in the garbage—so I added some leftover cream of borderline still-tastiness. I did the whole stirring thing. Dumped it out onto my clean, floured counter. Sprinkled a bit more flour on top. Folded, kneaded, patted into a 1/2-inch-thick circle. Cut out biscuits using the kickass beer mugs I got from my grandpa.

iPhoto sort of surrealized this photo. I really like it. It didn’t look like that in real life.

The chickpeas were still simmering in the tomatoes. (They were very liquidy, in case it just sounded like there were some tomatoes and chickpeas sitting in a pot together.)

I put the biscuits onto a buttered cookie sheet—oh, I forgot, this was the best part. In order to melt the butter onto the cookie sheet, I put some lumps of cold butter on the cookie sheet, then put the cookie sheet on top of the simmering chickpeas. The butter melted and I swished it around with the back of a spoon. I was very pleased.

Anyway, long story short, the biscuits went into the oven, I tasted and revised the chickpeas (salt + pepper + just a few red pepper flakes), and I ate, like fourteen minutes later.

EVERYTHING WAS REALLY GOOD. IT WAS A FOOD MIRACLE. And on a kickboxing night, no less.

No recipe for the chickpeas—just do whatever you want. I think it was so good because I simmered it for about half an hour.

Yogurt Biscuits
From Southern Biscuits, recipe courtesy of Serious Eats

2 c self-rising flour (or 2 c AP flour + 1 tbsp baking powder + 1/2 tsp salt)
1 tsp salt (or less if you make your own self-rising flour; my biscuits are rather salty)
3/4–1 c plain yogurt
Some butter

Preheat the oven to 450•. I know how to make a bullet point, but not a degree symbol. ° Ooh sweet.

Whisk together the flour and salt. Create a well in the center and pour in 3/4 c of yogurt. Mix briskly (don’t overmix like I did! It toughens your biscuits) until the dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more yogurt if there is leftover flour on the bottom (I added the cream at this point—there was really no cohesive dough.)

Pour onto a lightly floured surface. Flour the surface of the dough. Fold the dough in half and pat into a circle, about half an inch thick. Repeat once or twice more.

Use a biscuit cutter or cup/mug to cut out biscuit rounds. It’s best to make as many as possible out of the original dough circle; re-rolling will toughen the biscuits.

Put on a buttered cookie sheet (for biscuits with a crisper exterior; for a soft exterior, use a cake pan and crowd the biscuits together). Bake at 450° for 10-14 minutes on the top rack, turning the pan around midway through baking.

Also, brief note: These aren’t really like butter biscuits—they’re still flaky but sort of in a different way. I think generally I like butter biscuits better, but they are a giant pain in the ass to make because the involve that whole cutting the butter into the dough thing, which is my least favorite cooking thing of all time.