Tangy and creamy baba ghanoush, or the eggplant dip that won me over

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As you make your way through an Israeli supermarket, your eyes are assaulted by colourful sales signs, gigantic tubs of pickles by-the-weight, and racks of fresh, fragrant spices. The colour scheme is akin to that of IKEA – a lot of white and yellow, with splashes of strategically-placed green, red and blue. Whether due to smart government legislation, or mere chance, produce is laid out in the front of the store, though the wares are often pricier and far less fresh than those at the souk.

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In further display of the country’s supposed commitment to healthy eating, sodas are at the back of the store, overstocked and overpriced. Between them lie the ubiquitous aisles of coffee, pasta and other dry goods, a no-man’s-land of pantry items that one must wander through in complete confusion if they hope to get to the staples of an Israeli diet: milk, yogurt, hummus.

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It is this corner, in the back of the store, behind the chips and by the soda racks, that Israelis usually shell out most of their grocery money. The dairy industry in Israel is exceptionally powerful, and with a holiday centred around milk and honey, a big emphasis on dairy-based meals, and a dizzying array of fresh, local yogurt and cheese products, it is little wonder that nearly every Israeli kid demands a cup of yogurt and a piece of bread with white cheese (gvina levana) as their pre-dinner snack.

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But dairy products are not the focus of this blog, nor are they the sole star of the Israeli supermarket. Like most denizens of the Middle East, Israelis also have an inordinate appreciation for hummus, tahini, and similar cold condiments. Slathered on chicken schnitzel, eaten alongside grilled meats, or shoved into a pita with falafel or shwarma, salads and condiments have a recurring guest role in most Israeli meals, whether eaten at home or on the go. Unlike in North American, where store-bought salads represent hurried meals eaten in lonely cubicles in front of a word processor, these neatly labeled and artfully branded packages are nothing to scoff at; in fact, they are often the only binding agent between the world of adults and kids, when at least everyone can agree on the necessity of hummus. What brand to buy remains another issue altogether.

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As recent newcomers, it took my family time to come around to the presence of pre-packaged pails of hummus, matbucha (a kind of Middle Eastern spicy salsa) and liver-flavoured zucchini, which continued to baffle me for more years than I’d care to admit. Ever suspicious of anything that wasn’t made at home, under strictly controlled conditions and with no chance of diphtheria, my parents had a strict embargo against store-bought salads during our first few years. Red cabbage in mayonnaise became our entry drug, the closest condiment to the mayo-laden salads of the Russian dinner table. Then followed hummus and Turkish pepper salad. Tahini remained banned.

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But one of the last salads to break the Eastern front of the Prints family was baba ghanoush. There was just something odd about this salad’s sponginess, the smokiness, and the presence of a creamy substance that wasn’t actually cream. My tongue hurt each time I had too much of it, a stern reminder not to indulge in foods beyond the creamy, mayonnaise-y, inoffensive realm of bland Russian food.

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But then, I grew up. I tried baba ghanoush in pitas with singed veggie dogs, burning-hot right off the grill; I slathered it on frumpy boiled potatoes, and discovered the sharp tang of this salad was just what the tuber needed; I liked it on bread with a bit of hummus and pickles, making each bite a zesty, smoky, creamy feast. But the real revelation came when I learned to make it myself, from good, fresh eggplants, and with full control over the amount of garlic (loads), lemon juice (tons), and tahini or yogurt (just a bit) that I put in. And so, this recipe was born.

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If you have been a baba ghanoush hater for most of your life, try my take on it. If you follow the traditional, vegan route, but make sure to use nice, plump and firm eggplants with green tops, you will get a mildly smoky, but tangy salad. It will be good, and you probably won’t know what you’re missing. But if you follow my advice and try it with yogurt, even simple vegan yogurt (just make sure it’s unsweetened), what you will produce is a silky smooth, sharp and filling salad, with just the aftertaste of smoke. It will make a perfect pairing for veggie burgers, pita bread, scrambled eggs, hot dogs (if you’re not keeping kosher), or just regular old potatoes.

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Tangy and creamy baba ghanoush
 
With the addition of yogurt or tahini, eggplant is coaxed into a silky-smooth, sharp and filling dip or salad, with just the aftertaste of smoke. Make sure you use young, fresh eggplants, and preferably in season; an eggplant should have taut skin, firm flesh, and a green top (no mold!). Older eggplants have more seeds and therefore taste bitter.
Author:
Recipe type: dip
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Ingredients
  • 2 eggplants, medium sized
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • juice of ½ - 1 lemon (start with half, and add up to a whole lemon, to taste)
  • a handful of chopped parsley (about 1-2 Tbs)
  • ½ - 1 Tb salt (start with half, and add up to taste)
  • 1 Tb lactose-free yogurt, regular yogurt, vegan neutral yogurt, or tahini
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400F on the grill setting. If you're oven doesn't go high on the grill setting, set to 400F at bake. Prick each eggplant a few times with a fork, and wrap in tinfoil (each eggplant in its own tinfoil wrap).
  2. Cook for 40 minutes, turning the eggplant over once after 20 minutes. Check for doneness - if a fork gets through the tinfoil and breaks the eggplant's skin easily, they're done. Remove from oven, and let cool a bit in tinfoil.
  3. Meanwhile, chop garlic and parsley finely.
  4. Remove tinfoil. Split the eggplant in half and begin to scoop its flesh out into a big bowl, taking care not to get any skin (if any skin gets in, just remove it). Now, this step is important, and this is what will keep your baba ghanoush from being bitter and smoky - remove the big bunches of eggplant seeds from your bowl. Toss and separate eggplant flesh with a fork, ensuring all the big strands are separated.
  5. When eggplant flesh is ready, squeeze out the juice of half a lemon, add garlic, parsley, and salt. Reserve yogurt or tahini until later. Taste and adjust flavours; your dip should be zesty and garlicky, but not too salty. When you're happy with the flavour, add the yogurt or tahini; both will mellow out the flavour a bit, but yogurt will give it a nice tang. Taste again, and adjust flavours - I usually find I have to add a bit more salt.
  6. Serve as a topping for boiled or baked potatoes, with veggie burgers, meat (if that's your thing), or just plain ol' pitas.

 

Spicy garlic dill pickles, or the makings of a Russian birthday celebration

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It is the eve of my ninth birthday. I am lying in bed, awake, staring at the haphazardly-glued glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. The pickles I had in my salad for dinner are sitting in my stomach, their acid working its way through my body. The streetlamp outside is flickering, but every light in my house is off. My parents are long asleep. The clock is inching towards midnight, and yet I am wide awake. Tears are silently streaming down my face, burning a trail in my freckled skin. I am biting my tongue, holding back the sobs for fear of waking everyone up. One fact keeps repeating in my head: after tomorrow, I will only have 91 more years to live. I am almost down a decade. Time keeps slipping by, death is creeping nearer, and I am painfully aware of my mortality. I fall asleep eventually, exhausted by the utter terror of my age, and I dream psychedelic, Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired dreams, full of extra-large flamingoes and spiralling staircases on which I am too big to fit.

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*****

It is the eve of my sixteenth birthday. I am standing outside of a friend’s car on a hill overlooking Be’er Sheva. My friend Karina is looking at the clock, counting down the time until the hands strike midnight and I turn a year older. We are looking up to a star-filled sky, which for once is unobstructed by the lights of the city’s 175,000 denizens making their way through the night, sleeping, working, talking, making love. I feel so big and so small at the same time, but above all, grateful – for the people around me, for the others in my life, for the way things are going, for this view. Afterwards, we pile back into the car and toast to my health with shots of cheap vodka and bites of brined pickles.

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*****

It is the eve of my twenty-seventh birthday. I am dancing up a storm in my living room, surrounded by friends. A long table by the window is laden with Israeli hummus, cheese, homemade baba ganoush and, most importantly, pickles. Music that sounds like the soundtrack to the amorous coupling of R2-D2 and Tik-Tok is pounding from my speakers, and yet I couldn’t be happier. The clock is inching towards midnight, and as I realize it, I pound back a shot of bourbon. The next morning, I will wake up with a killer headache, a friend crashed out on my living-room couch, no appetite, and 20 pounds of small cucumbers ready for pickling on my counter. Running on empty, I will spend four hours submerging jars in hot water baths, boiling lids, and eventually producing 18 beautifully-packaged jars of spicy garlic dill pickles. But for the moment, I am oblivious to that fate; all that exists in the world right now is pounding dubstep, flickering candlelight, and liquor strong enough to burn a hole through my esophagus.

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*****

It is the eve my twenty-eighth birthday. I am walking outside with Greg, crying. My nerves are frayed after two weeks spent surrounded by five people, three cultures, four languages. I have just had a huge fight with my sister, and I’m ready to give up on this whole family thing, let alone my birthday. I walk through the dark paths of Parc Lafontaine, bemoaning my fate, when Greg casually walks me to an envelope taped to a small stump. I open it up to find a card in my name, informing me of a week-long camping trip that is to start the Monday after my parents’ departure. The card is sweet and earnest, and it cuts me to my core. The woes of family arguments are set aside, if not forgotten, and I pull him to me in a big embrace. I feel happy and loved. I do not care that tomorrow, I will be a year closer to the end of my third decade. Time may be slipping away, but when every day is filled with so much love, so much sadness, so many reasons to be alive, I am not bothered. If anything, I am excited – about tomorrow, next week, next month. But most of all, I am excited for the pickles I am going to can in the next couple of weeks, firmly establishing a new tradition. Pickles for my birthday – after all, what can be more apt to celebrate the passing of another year?

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These garlic dill pickles are redolent with the heat of dry chilies, fragrant herbs, and a strong brine. Adapted from an old Mennonite recipe, they remind me of the briny Russian pickles of my youth, the dented cans of preserved cucumbers that line Israeli supermarket shelves, and of birthdays past. I hope that you give them a try, whether canned in a traditional hot water bath, or aged in the refrigerator; they are sure to bring a pucker to your lips in any shape.

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Spicy garlic dill pickles
 
These garlic dill pickles are redolent with the heat of dry chilies, fragrant herbs, and a strong brine. Adapted from an old Mennonite recipe, they remind me of the briny Russian pickles of my youth, the dented cans of preserved cucumbers that line Israeli supermarket shelves, and of birthdays past. I hope that you give them a try, whether canned in a traditional hot water bath, or aged in the refrigerator; they are sure to bring a pucker to your lips in any shape.
Author:
Recipe type: Preserves
Cuisine: Mennonite
Ingredients
  • For a jar of pickles:
  • 2-3 cups of small Cornichon cucumbers (or as many as fit in a 1-litre jar), washed and dried thoroughly
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 cup of white vinegar
  • ⅙ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup pickling salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 dry red chilli peppers, whole
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon of horseradish (optional)
  • several sprigs of dill
Instructions
  1. Thoroughly wash and dry your cucumbers. Pick through for any ones going soft, and discard.
  2. Thoroughly clean and sterilize a 1-litre jar with a two-piece lid. If canning pickles in a traditional hot-water-bath method, prepare all of your tools (I follow Food in Jars' Marisa McClellan's excellent guide for canning, http://foodinjars.com/2013/07/new-to-canning-start-here-boiling-water-bath-canning/).
  3. Line sterilized jars with dill, garlic, bay leaf, chilli, and horseradish. Pack with scrubbed cucumbers, leaving one inch of room between the top of the jar and the lid.
  4. Bring water, vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil in a large pot. Pour hot brine over the cucumbers, ensuring the one inch of room at the top remains (but no more!). Seal jars. If following hot-water-bath canning procedures, boil jars long enough for the cucumbers to discolour, 10-12 minutes. Otherwise, place jar in fridge.
  5. Wait 2-3 weeks to taste. When ready, serve pickles with vodka, hummus, or whatever floats your boat.

 

Wild berry galette, or when things work out perfectly

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There are those meals with loved ones that are just perfect. The lighting feels right, a mix of the setting sun with the glow of warm candle; the temperature is balanced, somewhere between warmth and cool, suitable to all tastes; the music is soft and unobtrusive, likely the result of careful pre-planning; the food is a harmonious blend of tastes that build on and intensify each other. The company is good, a mix of old and new faces that share stories, thoughts, and laughter. You feel like you want to stay in that moment forever, spending all of your days talking to these people, discovering them, filling your mouth and mind with these flavours, scents, sounds. And when you lie in bed later that night, replaying all of the night’s events, you find yourself forcefully awake for hours, shaken by the endorphins and the adrenaline of the meal’s perfect melange.

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And then, there are the everyday meals. The lighting is hardly pleasant, a mix of flourescent and LED bulbs meant to strengthen your kitchen’s puny natural light; the room is either too hot or too cold, in perfect opposition to the temperature outside; the food is pleasant but bland, and likely insufficient, as you’re finding yourself going back again and again to the one pleasant note of a simple tomato salad. The company is crabby, and people are talking over each other, cutting one another off in mid-sentence, a cacophony of discordant sounds and languages. You just want this meal to end, trying to fill your stomach as quickly as possible and get on with the rest of the day. The meal is not an end in and of itself, but an unwelcome interlude, forgettable at best and ruinous at worst.

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Last week, as I travelled across the province of Quebec with my family and my partner, we have had our share of both types of meals. Not all days were pleasant, as we battled each other for attention, airtime, decision-making power. But many meals were spent enjoying each other’s company, languishing in the day’s warmth as we dined al-fresco, or the sun’s bright rays peeking in through the window. There were many blocks of cheese eaten, many glasses of wine and cider tipped back, many pears and sandwiches shared during afternoon breaks in the van, on top of beautiful cliffs overseeing the St. Lawrence river, on walks through the old port of Quebec City. There was a lot of joy, and a little bit of sorrow, as in all good trips. And there were several impromptu galettes.

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This galette came about on one of our best days, the celebration of my grandmother Berta’s birthday. We spent it in a shaded valley in Forestville, a small town a couple of hours away from Tadoussac. It is in Tadoussac that the rest of the world goes to watch the whales frolic in Baie Ste. Catherine, where the Atlantic Ocean kisses the St. Lawrence River. But we did our whale watching that day in Les Escoumins, another small town an hour away, where at 3 p.m. on a beautiful Wednesday twenty eager tourists and Quebecois citizens touched shoulders in their attempt to glimpse the world’s biggest mammal, the blue whale, in its natural habitat. And see them we did, as two giant tails and fins frolicked in the water in front of us for a couple of hours.

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Wind-swept and giddy with excitement, we went back home that afternoon, where we all came together to prepare one of the best meals of the entire trip, crowned with this dessert: a galette of wild blueberries and raspberries, picked that very morning by my parents and grandmother from the nearby forest. It really was a perfect meal, full of memorable moments, warmth, and even a few tears of joy. And I hope that if you make this galette, which comes together in under a couple of hours, baking time included, it will help brighten up your day as well.

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5.0 from 1 reviews
Wild berry galette
 
With a flaky crust that I go back to for all of my pie and galette making experiments, and a filling that can change based on whatever fruit or berries you happen to have in your fridge, this is a dessert suitable for all seasons and occasions. But it really comes into its own in the summer, when the season's ripest offering burst with juice. The crust is the same one used in my
Author:
Recipe type: dessert
Ingredients
  • Makes two galettes
  • Crust:
  • 500 grams, or 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 ml salt
  • 1 cup shortening, room temperature
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • For filling:
  • 3-4 cups of berries: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, currants, and even cranberries are all welcome here (you may want to adjust seasonings based on your berries - strawberries love lime, while cranberries would welcome a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg)
  • Fresh herbs and nuts, if available: a few sprigs of thyme for blueberries, cinnamon and nutmeg for cranberries, black pepper and lime zest for strawberries, pistachios for raspberries (sprinkle on top)
  • 1 Tb cornstarch
  • ½ cup - 1 cup of brown sugar (the amount of sugar used will depend on the sweetness of your berries. Start with ½ a cup, taste the filling, and adjust as needed. Remember that the flavours will deepen and caramelize when the galette has cooked)
  • juice and zest of ½ a lemon or a lime
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of balsamic or apple cider vinegar (optional, as needed)
Instructions
  1. To make crust, combine flour and salt in mixing bowl. Cut room-temperature shortening into flour with two knives until mixture is uniform and shortening resembles large peas. Do not overwork.
  2. Beat egg, water and vinegar together. Pour evenly over flour mixture. Stir with work until well combined and all of the mixture is moistened.
  3. Without overworking it too much, shape dough into a ball and lightly flatten into a circle of about 10 cm. Wrap and chill for 30 minutes (or longer, if making ahead).
  4. To make filling, clean all berries carefully. Pour berries into a large bowl, adding sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and zest, salt, and a teaspoon of balsamic or apple cider vinegar, taking care not to bruise the berries. Add fresh or dry herbs as possible, based on whatever berries you're using (see list and suggested pairings under ingredients). Mix everything gently with a wooden spoon, taste and correct flavours (adding sugar, or more lemon and vinegar if the taste is a bit monotonous).
  5. When crust has cooled and you're ready to bake, dust rolling pin and work surface lightly with flour. Roll dough to a uniform thickness of about ½ an inch with light, even strokes. If dough sticks, dust lightly with flour. Roll out a shape that is as close to a circle as you can, but don't fret - galettes are forgiving. If the dough is really sticky, rolling the dough on parchment paper and then transferring it on the parchment paper to a large baking sheet works well. If you don't have enough parchment paper, slide a spatula under the dough and loosen it, and then transfer it to a wide baking sheet covered with parchment paper (or even tin foil, if that's all you have) as intact as you can. Once again, don't fret too much - galettes are forgiving, and if pieces break off they can always be patched together.
  6. With a slotted spoon or a fork, pile filling onto the dough, leaving an inch of edges around. Fold the edges onto the filling, allowing some pieces to cover a part of others, and leaving the centre of the filling exposed. Add a gentle sprinkling of whatever herbs you used in the filling (if the filling is all raspberries, some crushed pistachios will work wonders). Brush the galette's edges with an egg. Bake in a 425F oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and bake for another 20-30 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and the filling is set. Do not overcook.
  7. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired. We had it as is, in room temperature, and it was wonderful.

 

Russian strawberry compote, or the importance of water

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First of all, I owe you an apology for the radio silence lately. When I set out to write this blog, I had high hopes of being able to post twice weekly. But in the last three months, with the trip to Israel, move to Montreal, and now trip across Quebec, I have fallen off the bandwagon, slowing down the pace to a recipe a week, or even skipping a week. It doesn’t make me proud; I am a person who sticks to their word, and the failure to do so has been causing me a great deal of anguish. That’s not what I want. That was never the point of this blog, which was to be a creative outlet, a portfolio, and a forum to discuss the ways in which memory, family, cultures and food all intersect.

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Today, I wanted to discuss my discomfort publicly, and to make a commitment. I will get back on the wagon; I will get back to regular weekly posts, at least two a week. But it will take time. It likely won’t happen before the end of August, when my family has left Canada, Greg goes to law school, and I’ll likely have a lot more time on my hands. Time to experiment with local ingredients. Time to go to the market even more often. Time to play around with lighting in my dark new kitchen. And most of all, time to write.

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But then, today’s post couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. As it’s been a week since my last recipe, the publication of Cockroach Zine‘s water issue, bearing my article Spiked Water, it means I have a new recipe to share, without taking hours to write and edit a post and photographs. It also means I get to plug one of my favourite publications and a worthy creative endeavour. Meg Crane is one of the most tenacious people I know. She is a talented writer, photographer and editor whom I have had the pleasure of working with in OutWords, and she continues to amaze me every day as she juggles two magazine editing jobs, being a proud mama to three cats and the occasional foster dog, and being the wizard behind Cockroach Zine, a publication for environmental feminists, or anyone concerned with water, sex, music, and the likes. In short, and at the risk of sounding superfluous, she’s pretty awesome.

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If you’d like to read more of what Cockroach Zine has to offer, check out their Etsy shop. At $2 a pop for a digital copy, it wouldn’t cost you more than a cup of coffee to support an independent publication. And it would stand to make some people very happy. But without further ado, I bring you my family’s story with water.

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My family has always had a tenuous relationship with water. When she was 11, my mother nearly drowned in the sea, caught in a hidden underwater whirlpool that sucked her in against her best attempts to survive. Not much of a swimmer, she was paddling along the slow current when she felt her entire body getting pulled underwater, an immediate suction that was relentless in its power. She was swallowing water, coughing and sputtering, but more kept coming.

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She describes the feeling of finally giving up, of realizing that this was the end, of stopping her paddling and just letting the water carry her under. Then came the darkness.

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She was saved by a well-meaning lifeguard who pulled her to shore. After enough resuscitation, my mother was able to regain consciousness, coughing out all the water she had swallowed. She was fine, but she never felt quite so comfortable with seas, lakes, or oceans after that. She still refuses to put her head underwater while swimming. To her, water represents mortal danger.

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After moving to Israel, water took on a whole new meaning for my family. With its limited water supply, half the country of Israel relies on the Sea of Galilee for clean water. The other half extracts drinking and washing water from underground reservoirs, which get renewed after heavy rains. Water is a precious, scarce resource, not to be wasted or toyed with. Water guns are seen as frivolous, and during the annual Jewish celebration of abundance, Shavuot, kids delight in splashing each other with water balloons as a display of richness. In times of draught, the whole country goes into lockdown, water is rationed, and strict showering and plant watering times are enforced. To the country of Israel, water represents the stuff of life.

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But my grandmother takes on another approach to water. To her, it is both a precious commodity and a wasted resource, a thing to be improved upon. She loves to swim and does so nearly every day, trekking the two kilometres to the nearest swimming pool with my grandfather. She never puts her head underwater. After the swim, she goes to the sauna, where she sweats out half of her body’s weight in water. Some days, my mother joins her for the sauna, but never for the swim. And afterwards, they share a thermos full of lukewarm strawberry compote. In this shape, joined by the sweetness of ripe berries, water is at its finest to my grandmother. And you better believe that not a drop goes to waste.

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5.0 from 1 reviews
Russian strawberry compote
 
A refreshing drink for spring or summer, this Russian strawberry compote is my family's way to improve upon less-than-perfect fruit. Substitute strawberries for any other berries or fruit - apples are another family favourite.
Author:
Recipe type: drink
Cuisine: Russian
Ingredients
  • Amounts can be easily scaled up or down. Maintain a 2:1 water to fruit ratio.
  • 1 kg of strawberries, fresh or frozen (you can also use any other berries you have on hand)
  • 2 litres of water
  • ¾ to 1 cup sugar or suitable substitute, to taste (when my grandmother makes this for my diabetic grandfather, she omits the sugar altogether and uses the ripest berries)
Instructions
  1. Wash berries well and pick through them, cutting out all damaged spots. Pour the washed berries into a 3-litre enameled saucepan. Add sugar and water, in this order.
  2. Cook over low heat until boiling, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from stovetop immediately after boiling, and allow the compote to cool to room temperature.
  3. Preferably, consume during the day of preparation. If desired, compote can be poured into jars or bottles with a large neck and stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days (the less sugar, the shorter the compote’s shelf life, even in the refrigerator).
  4. You can also arrange extra cut-up berries in an ice tray, and pour the prepared compote on top. Freeze completely. To use, place berry cubes into 100-200 ml of warm water, and stir to combine.
  5. You can also freeze the strawberry compote directly in the ice tray, and add these berries (with honey) to dark, strong tea, for a true Russian treat.

 

Tofu in creamy zucchini and mushroom sauce, or when things are starting to fall into places

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I wake up in the morning to the faint sounds of honking horns and scattering squirrels. My room is bright, though the view outside is shaded by a large canopy of trees. I reach for my new phone, check e-mails, and play solitaire for a bit while Greg is sleeping. The cat comes over and nuzzles my neck, my face, my chest. We listen to the silence together.

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Eventually, I get up and make my way across the long, narrow apartment into the kitchen, where I turn on the lights even at 10 a.m. I have long since given up on harnessing the room’s barely-there natural light. I make a smoothie out of whatever is available, blindly reaching for bananas and beautiful local plums. I boil water, and make myself a cup of green tea. I sit on the dirty loaner kitchen chairs, covered in plastic bags to avoid any contact with my skin. I look out my window and enjoy the view of the boarded up windows of the building across from me. I sip on my tea slowly, listening to the silence.

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Eventually, I make my way to the refrigerator, sigh at its sight and remind myself a replacement is coming. I then open the door and survey the fridge’s contents, deciding on what I need to pick up at the market today. Those are my big decisions now: which tomatoes to buy, or what to make for dinner. I look forward to the weekly trips to Jean Talon market like a child looks forward to Christmas. When Greg gets up, we discuss the state of the apartment, what we still have to pick up – our bed was finally delivered last night! – and we sit together, listening to the silence.

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Bit by bit, my new life is starting to fall into place.

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After a week and a half in Montreal, I can honestly say I love this city. The streets are always full, but not crowded. People mill about at all hours of the day, going to work, drinking wine on terraces and patios, picking up vegetables at the city’s many daily farmers’ markets. There is a mix of breathtaking beauty and ugliness that peeks out from the cracks, eviscerating the illusion that this is just another European Renaissance city, reminding you of its vitality, stubbornness, wreathing, living mess. Free classical music concerts draw a hundred listeners to a concrete park midweek, the majority of them under 30. Haitian music festivals rival well-publicized indie rock concerts and firework displays for crowd appeal, and again, they are all free. There are communal kitchens and thrift stores steps away from Hermes boutiques. It is a city that both embraces and despises its residents equally, regardless of class, and treating them all with ubiquitous French ambivalence. This is truly a city that can eat its people, but so far has chosen not to.

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I make it a point to speak French to the sales clerks, the bus drivers, the waiters. My achievements are negligent, but I am content. Some days, the anxiety sets in, but I set it aside: those are future Ksenia’s worries. For today, I will eat a bowl of wholegrain brown rice, topped with a Russian-inspired take on Asian food staples, tofu in creamy zucchini mushroom sauce, and listen to the silence.

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This dish was the first thing I made in my new kitchen, not counting a quick pasta with tomato sauce. Most of the ingredients are local, and though I have to remind myself it’s only the bounty of summer, this abundance can be intoxicating. Longing for home, I decided to bring in a distinctly Russian vibe to these staples: zucchini, tofu, mushrooms. Cooked slowly and languidly in a heavy-bottomed pan, they produce a decidedly comforting stew that can be spooned on top of rice or quinoa.

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Tofu in creamy zucchini and mushroom sauce
 
Cooked slowly and languidly in a heavy-bottomed pan, vegan sour cream lends this tofu in creamy zucchini and mushroom sauce a comforting Russian flavour, producing a great stew to spoon on top of rice and quinoa.
Author:
Recipe type: Main course
Cuisine: Russian
Ingredients
  • 1 package of tofu, drained
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 middle-sized zucchini, or your favourite summer squash
  • 2 packages or 400 grams of cremini, button, or any combination of mushrooms you have on hand
  • ½ cup vegan sour cream (or regular, if that's your jive)
  • 2 Tbs white wine or regular vinegar
  • salt, to taste
  • pepper, to taste
  • hot sauce, for serving
  • rice or quinoa, for serving
Instructions
  1. Preheat a heavy-bottomed pan to medium heat. Add 1 Tb of grapeseed or vegetable oil.
  2. Chop tofu into cubes. Ensure they are drained. Add to pan, and sear lightly on each side for a couple of minutes. Turn over, and repeat on the other sides. You're not looking to brown the tofu, just keep it from falling apart. Add salt and pepper to taste, and remove from the pan. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, chop onion into medium-sized pieces. Add more oil to the pan, and on medium-low heat, saute the onion until translucent.
  4. Slice zucchini into thin half-crescents. Slice mushrooms into slices of a similar width to the zucchini. Add to pan with the onion, cover, and cook on low-medium heat until zucchini softens, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove cover, increase heat to medium-high, add tofu and stir. Cook for another 10 minutes to allow water to cook out of the vegetables. If vegetables are beginning to stick to the bottom, add a bit more oil.
  5. When vegetables have reduced to a stewy consistency, add vinegar, salt and pepper. Taste. If texture is to your liking, remove from heat now, or reduce heat and continue to cook on a low-medium flame. When ready to remove from flame, add vegan sour cream and stir. Taste and adjust flavours as necessary.
  6. Serve with brown rice or quinoa, topped with fresh parsley or cilantro, and with a bit more vegan sour cream on the side. Oh yeah, and don't forget the hot sauce.

 

Cheese encrusted “grenki”, or the Russian take on French toast

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After a hiatus that probably felt longer for me than it did for you, I bring you a post about the things that sustain me lately: bread and tomatoes and breakfast. But mainly, I bring you an ode to a kitchen.

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My spatulas were gathered in an old tin container atop of a grease-splattered stove. It sat amongst curious little spice packages and a cream dish shaped like a kitten. It was not smart, modern, or all the things today’s kitchens should aspire to. It was homely and familiar.

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My counters were warped from water damage, peeling at the edges from careless dish washing, the damage from a hot pan, or too many turmeric spills. They were old and worn out, and I didn’t care for them. But they had a lovely golden splatter patina that they just don’t make anymore, whether because it’s gone out of style, or because it was truly inefficient. Perhaps both.

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My hallway was lined with cupboards, old and painted several layers of white paint. The top ones were so high I could hardly reach them from atop a stool, in all of my 5’2 glory (5’3 on driver’s license; I choose to believe the latter). They were filled to the brim with jars, staple pantry items like black rice and bulgur, and a soymilk-making machine. I loved them dearly. When I first walked into that kitchen, I could not imagine how I would ever fill them. When I moved out, I filled boxes with all the things that were left over, sending them to friends, family, to my new home across the country.

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I could wax poetic about every little part of that kitchen, where I spent an inordinate amount of time cooking, photographing, and trying different ways to put cilantro on a plate so it would look better. It was amongst those strange spice packets, atop that stained counter, in front of those wall-to-ceiling cupboards that this blog was born. It had become a place of solace during gloomy winter days, the backdrop for grumpy morning fights over all-too-rare breakfasts together, and the site of roaring laughter and clinking glasses during parties. I won’t be exaggerating if I said that it was the room where I spent the most time.

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It was also the perfect place to make breakfasts. When your eyes were still glued shut with cobwebs, and your brain was fuzzy from too much wine the night before, you could find your way across the cupboard-lined hallway and into the large space of the kitchen. You could lean on the counters, pull some stale homemade bread from a shelf, and scramble some fresh farm eggs while your favourite pan was preheating. You could chop onions and garlic with a sharp knife on a much-loved cutting board, and you wouldn’t worry about the spills. Perhaps, you could grate the brand of vegan cheese that you can only find in the cornerstore into a side bowl. You could pour oil into the preheated pan, dip your bread in the egg mixture, and, without thought, let it caramelize and crisp on a medium-high flame. You wouldn’t really have to worry about anything burning, because things rarely got too hot on that stove. You could stumble onto the little breakfast nook in the corner, bask in the sun’s rays at your back, drink some tea, and daydream while your bread fried in egg batter, turning into grenki, or the Russian variation on savory French toast. You could then sprinkle it all with some cheese and garlic, top with a tomato, and dig in.

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And now, you couldn’t do all that anymore. Or perhaps you could, but it would look different. The flame on the stovetop would be much lower, because my new stove burns everything. You wouldn’t want to sit in that breakfast nook, because the chairs left behind by the old tenants are a little grubby and waiting to be replaced. You would have a better cutting board, the same pan and knife, but none of that incredible vegan cheese. The tomatoes would taste better. But the grenki would still be delicious.

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These photos were taken in my old, white, sunny kitchen on Wolseley Avenue, during our last days there. When my cupboards were sparse, the fridge nearly bare, and most of the dishes were packed away, most of our meals were variations on the theme of eggs. The first few days in this apartment, with even fewer supplies, were no different. At first, I avoided cooking in a kitchen that brought me to tears upon first sight, where the fridge was moldy and rusty, the dials on the stove broken, and where there was to be no shooting in the scarce natural light. But through love, care, and a lot of bleach, this place has slowly been coming to life as a place I would like to spend some time in. Quick eggs and bread were necessary provisions. And these grenki made the transition a little bit easier.

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Cheese encrusted "grenki", or the Russian take on French toast
 
Cheesy, fragrant from garlic and spices, this Russian take on savoury French toast will make any morning into one worth savouring.
Author:
Recipe type: Breakfast
Cuisine: Russian
Ingredients
  • 3-4 slices of thick bread
  • 2-3 eggs
  • ½ cup milk (or if you're feeling rich, an equal mixture of milk and cream)
  • pepper
  • salt
  • spices of your choice (oregano, chili, etc)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tb butter
  • ½ cup grated cheese
  • nutritional yeast (optional)
  • parsley or cilantro and ripe tomatoes, for serving (optional)
Instructions
  1. Grate ½ cup of vegan cheese. Mix with nutritional yeast for a more cheesy flavour, if desired.
  2. Mince garlic finely. Cut bread.
  3. In a bowl large enough to dunk your bread pieces into, whisk eggs very well, as if for a very fluffy omelette, until bubbles appear on the surface. Add milk, salt, pepper, and spices of your choice.
  4. To a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, add 1 Tbs of vegan butter replacement (or butter), and 2 Tbs of oil. Bring pan to medium heat.
  5. Dip bread into eggy mixture. Leave to soak for 5-10 seconds on each side (depends on your bread: fluffy white sandwich bread needs less soaking, tough rye needs more).
  6. Place bread slices on preheated and pre-oiled pan, and fry for about two-five minutes on one side, covered (until bread is golden brown - do not let it burn! Length of time will depend on your oven and bread itself). Turn bread slices over to the other side, and lower heat to low-medium. While the bread is frying, sprinkle the already-fried side (that's facing you) with shredded cheese and minced garlic, and cover with a lid or a bowl to allow the cheese to soften a bit. Let cook until cheese melts and bread is fried, about five minutes.
  7. Remove from hot pan onto a paper-towel lined plate. Serve immediately, sprinkled with chopped parsley (in my house, particularly gluttonous morning involved layering each grenka with tomatoes and sour cream. But that's just greedy.... and delicious).

 

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