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Forgiveness Canapés Inspired by Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

April 13, 2014

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I brought this book home. Anya von Bremzen is a Russian émigré and this is her memoir of food and eating weaved together with her family history and the history of the Soviet Union, each chapter representing a decade of their collective past. Just by the topic alone, I knew I was going to really, really like it. Then I read it. And bozhe moi (my god), I loved it.

Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen

Anya and her mom Larisa salivate over Chekhov short stories and Gogol’s Dead Souls. They aren’t the only Russian authors to make them smack their lips; Pushkin and Tolstoy have the power, too. I majored in Russian language and literature and I was, and still am, absolutely, completely unaware of the delicious treasures in these stories. Maybe when I was reading these authors in university I was more into chicken wings, beer and nachos (still am – for the record) and I just didn’t get it. I’m a bit more cultured now. Or I hope I’m a bit more cultured. Maybe it’s time to reread Dead Souls just for the food.

That’s not my only revelation from this book. In the chapter on the 1930’s, Stalin’s commissar of Soviet food production went to the United States to research American food. He returned with the ways and means to give the Soviet citizenry the hamburger; American hamburger grills were purchased and installed in major Soviet cities, enough to turn out 2 million orders a day. But when WWII happened, the bun got lost in the shuffle. The hamburger patty – no longer sandwiched between bread – became a kotleta. My mom used to make these when I was growing up! This failed Soviet attempt at the American hamburger had even made its way to the far western reaches of the Soviet empire. I remember wondering why we ate them with a knife and fork when it was so clearly a bizarre kind of burger. I would get two slices of bread out of the pantry, splash the kotleta with some ketchup and eat it like that. Deep down inside, I always knew its heritage was hamburger.

In the chapter “1970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland,”  we find out that mayonnaise is literally the glue that holds the Soviet Union together and its infinitely repurposed jar an invaluable vessel for anything a Soviet citizen might need to carry or contain – from spring flowers to booze (obviously) to pregnancy samples. Anya writes about the mayonnaise jar:

“Specifications of a totem: short, 250-gram, pot-bellied and made of glass, with a tight-fitting lid. If, as Dostoyevsky supposedly said, all Russian literature comes out of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, then what Gogol’s garment was to nineteenth-century Russian culture, the Provansal mayonnaise jar was to the domestics practices of Mature Socialism.”

She just equated a mayonnaise jar to the importance of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” to Russian culture, and name dropped Dostoevsky. I’m dead.

This book has so much to give – an embarrassment of food riches – that I was overwhelmed with choice on what to make for Food Anthology. The rightful star of the mayonnaise chapter is the famous Salad Olivier – the king of potato salads. But we’ve already covered that dish here. The first chapter, “1910s: The Last Days of the Czars,” gives us kulebiaka,  the over-the-top bejeweled Fabergé egg of all fish pies, with its layers of sturgeon, blini, mushrooms, and dilled rice enveloped in a rich and buttery yeasted dough. I loathe fish pies but I was so under the spell of this book that I almost agreed to spend three grueling days cooking some Russian imperial era dish that I would never eat. The kotleta from the 1930’s chapter is a dish not worth eating. I’d rather have McDonald’s.

In the 1980’s, Anya and her mom return to Moscow, having emigrated to America the previous decade. They receive an invite to have dinner with Anya’s dad, someone who has a lot to apologize for. The care with which he created each dish and the monthly budget he spent to buy a whole chicken is meant to show how sorry he is. For dinner – a masterfully robust and savoury borscht and Georgian walnut-sauced chicken; to drink –  homemade walnut-infused samagon and a lingonberry sprit. But to start – a canapé of gratinéed cheese toasts made with Friendship Cheese, cilantro and adzhika. Anya forgives him. It’s not clear if her heartbroken mom did, though.


Adzhika, a spicy Georgian condiment, made with hot red peppers, walnuts, garlic and cilantro

There are different styles of adzhika, a spicy Georgian type of pesto, but it always includes hot peppers, garlic, spices and herbs. Friendship Cheese, a Soviet invention from the 1960’s, is a processed soft cheese spread.

This zakuska (Russian for little bite) is great with drinks, from cocktails to, if you’re brave enough, something as luridly strong as the home crafted lingonberry infused 100 proof ethyl alcohol Anya’s dad served for the forgiveness dinner.

Adzhika topped cheese toasts as part of a zakusky platter with pickled mushrooms and summer pickles


Adjilka Toasts

Toasted dark rye rounds with cheese and a walnut, cilantro and hot pepper adzhika

Forgiveness Canapés with Walnut, Cilantro and Hot Pepper Adzhika

For the walnut, cilantro and hot red pepper adzhika:
Original recipe here. I made a quarter of this recipe.
The quantities below yield about 1 1/2 cups.

10-12 red hot peppers
20 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4 to 1 cup walnuts
a good handful of cilantro, leaves and stems
1 tablespoon dried coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons dried summer savoury
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
4 good pinches of kosher salt

Remove the seeds from the peppers.

Put the first four ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is a rough paste. Add the dried herbs and pulse a few more times. Pour the adzhika into a bowl and stir in the olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt. I found the paste needed four good pinches of salt. You might find you need less or more.

To assemble the canapés you’ll need:
Sliced dark rye bread
Processed, spreadable cheese product (or Friendship Cheese if you can find it!)
Fresh herbs to garnish (cilantro, chives or dill are good)

Depending on how many canapés you’d like to make,  that’s how much bread you’ll need. You’ll have about 1 1/2 cups of adzhika, so that can be your guide on the maximum quantity of canapés you’ll be able to make.

I cut rounds of the dark rye bread using a cookie cutter. If you don’t want to be that elaborate – and you don’t want want to have unusable bread scraps – you can always cut the bread into squares or rectangles.

I couldn’t find Friendship Cheese in Toronto but what I did end up getting is La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) brand cheese spread made with goat’s cheese. I have no idea what Friendship Cheese tastes like so I was kind of in the dark in finding something that was similar in flavour. I do know that Eastern European groceries and delis sell processed cheese spreads from a bunch of different manufacturers. It would be fun to experiment with different processed cheese! (Never thought I would say that on this blog.)

Spread some of the cheese onto the dark rye pieces and toast/broil until the the bread has toasted on the edges and the cheese is bubbling and bronzed. Top the gratinéed cheese toasts with a dollop of the adzhika. Garnish the toasts with a bit of the fresh herbs.

Serve with drinks.







Cleveland’s a Plum Cake

October 17, 2013


This statement makes no sense at first glance. It’s because I stitched two not so related stories together by a not so obvious thread: seasonal stone fruit.

In the 1970s and 80’s, Cleveland’s reputation was in the pits. We’re not talking plum pits. We’re talking a bottomless, dark, scary pit where crawling out seemed impossible. When all anyone talked about was the river catching fire, city officials tried to turn its reputation around by coming up with a tourism campaign that would make people like Cleveland and want to visit. They came up with this:

New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.

To help sell this, the mayor pitched a plum at a Cleveland Indians New York Yankees game.  That didn’t help.

This slogan is so woefully naïve. And goofy and hopeless. But looking at it now, it’s charming because of those reasons. Cleveland isn’t as obviously great as New York. But it has tons of gems, great food, real grit, great neighbourhoods and one of the best markets in the country. Cleveland’s a plum of a city for sure.  (Sorry, had to go there).


With plums in season right now, in piles outside of my neighbourhood’s greengrocers, I’ve been dying to make my mom’s plum cake. I got on the phone to Cleveland to get her recipe.  You should know by now that all plum stories lead back to Cleveland.  Looking at the list of humble ingredients, you’d think that this cake isn’t anything special. Don’t be fooled. This cake doesn’t look obviously great, but it’s beautiful and delicious and a plum would be hard pressed to find a better exit.  And don’t be tempted to add any nutmeg or cinnamon or fancy brown sugar. This cake has enough charms already.


This type of cake is called a plyatsok in Ukrainian. I hesitate to call it a sheet cake because that just makes it sound like it’s chocolate or vanilla and it gets icing on top. It’s not that at all. It is a cake baked in a wide shallow baking sheet (more on the size later) but it’s definitely not a fluffy cake that has candles plopped in it. It’s on the thinner side but its crumb is tender and soft. As the cake bakes, each piece of fruit creates its own little nook, where it becomes soft and snuggles into its own syrupy sweetness. Plyatsok is a homey, comforting thing perfect with a cup of coffee or tea.

Ukrainian Plum Cake (from Cleveland)
A recipe from my mom.

A few things about this recipe before we start.

My mom stressed the importance of using a wide shallow pan at least three times as she dictated the recipe to me over the phone. She said that this is where people screw it up by not using the right sized pan.  She didn’t provide an actual pan measurement, just that it must be wide, shallow and that 13 x 9 is definitely the wrong size.  I pulled out all of my wide shallow pans that weren’t 13 x 9 and then guessed which one would work best. I picked the 15½ x 10½ and crossed my fingers. That size baking pan totally worked and the plum cake turned out perfect.

This cake is not sponsored by Dr. Oetker. But there are certain little kitchen helpers that my mom likes to use and in this recipe it’s Dr. Oetker baking ingredients.  Since I wanted this cake to be exactly how she makes it, I didn’t change a thing. I listed the measurements on the packets if you wanted to substitute another baking powder or your own vanilla sugar.

I love this cake using plums but blueberries are perfect, too. Sour cherries or peaches or nectarines would definitely work. And why not rhubarb? I could keep going but I think you get the picture.


For the cake:
1 cup butter, softened
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 9-gram packet Dr. Oetker vanilla sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 14-gram packet Dr. Oetker baking powder
About 16 Italian prune plums, sliced in half and pitted

For the streusel topping:
about ½ cup all-purpose flour
about ½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, cold and cut into small cubes

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place rack in the middle of the oven. Butter a 15½ x 10½ baking sheet.

First, make the streusel topping. Put the cubed butter into a medium bowl and then add a bit less than ½ cup each of the flour and sugar. The measurements in making this always differ slightly for me. So, start with a bit less and then add as you need. Using your hands, rub the flour, sugar and butter together until you get little clumps forming. You don’t want the clumps to feel too buttery or sticky. They should feel dry to your hands. You’ll be sprinkling these on top of your cake so keep in mind the size of the clumps. You want them to be smaller than a smallish pebble. Set aside when done.

Using a stand mixer, whisk eggs using a medium to medium -low speed. Add the softened butter and keep whisking until incorporated as best as possible. The butter will still be a bit clumpy. Add the sugar until the mixture is almost smooth.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, vanilla sugar and baking powder. Then whisk the flour mixture into the eggs, sugar and butter. You’ll need to stop mixing occasionally and using a spatula, push the batter down into the bowl so it can all be mixed well. When the batter is smooth, it’s done. It will be thick.


Scoop/pour the batter into your baking sheet. Using an offset spatula, smooth and even out the batter. Top the cake batter with your plums, cut side up. As you place them, press the plums down gently into the batter. You don’t want them pressed down all the way until they hit the pan. Just press them down a wee bit. Sprinkle a nice layer of the streusel over the cake. You’ll want good coverage.

Bake the cake for about 45 minutes or until puffed up and golden brown.


Chicken Wings and Marriage

July 7, 2013


Food is one of the main ingredients when trying to partner up with someone. When the dating becomes something a bit more serious, those let’s-go-out-for-dinner-dates become come-over-my-place-I’ll-cook-for-you-dates.  You cook for someone, or even better, you cook together, chatting together in the kitchen, having wine, feeling really excited because it’s all going so well. And then it gets even better: you discover that this guy has pretty decent knife skills and knows it’s best to clean as you go. When in the throes of serious but still kind of early dating, there’s cooking but not the type of cooking just to get by. The dishes have to have some fuss about them:  there’s fancy stuff, ethnic stuff, fun stuff, exotic stuff, there’s dessert and multiple courses and themed dinners and menus copied out of cookbooks of famous chefs. This curried chicken wing recipe was discovered when I started dating Orest.  That was about 11 or 12 years ago. Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem that this recipe had enough fuss about it for me to want to make this for us. But back then this dish counted as exotic because it had curry powder in it (I’ve come a long way) and I had to figure out who this Major Grey is and why he makes chutney.  And obviously, chicken wings are always a winner.

Orest and I got married a few weeks ago.  A wedding where we tried to keep it simple still ended up being so all consuming in the final month leading up to the event. But now that the party planning and organizational acrobatics are done, we’re back to the heart of it all – a happy relationship that endures. This recipe, like the relationship, has made it over a decade. Its original splotched print out is still in my recipe binder. To celebrate our marriage and to get back into the swing of writing on Food Anthology, I thought to write a wedding-ish post about cake or champagne or something else that obviously shouts celebration. But that didn’t feel right. I made this dish a few nights ago when it hit me that this dish is “it,” that celebratory wedding recipe I thought to write about. Here we are, sitting down at the table more than decade later with a dish we thought was a keeper way back at the beginning.


Crisped Curry Chicken Wings with Coriander Cucumber Yogurt
That’s alliteration if I ever saw it.
Adapted a bit from

20-25 split chicken wings
4 tablespoons curry powder
6 tablespoons Major Grey’s chutney, any large mango chunks minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice for the marinade plus 1 teaspoon for the yogurt sauce
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¾ cup plain yogurt
about ½ cup of seeded and grated cucumber
a small bunch of cilantro, minced, plus some cilantro springs for garnish
chopped green onion

In a bowl stir together the curry powder, 2 tablespoons of the chutney, 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, cayenne, and salt. Add the wings and toss to coat them well. Let the wings marinate, covered and chilled for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 475°F.

In a small bowl stir together the remaining 4 tablespoons chutney and the soy sauce. Arrange the wings, marinade discarded, on the oiled rack of a broiler pan*. Bake them for about 25 minutes. Brush the wings with the soy-sauce mixture and broil them under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they are crispy and dark caramel coloured and a bit burnt in places.


To make the yogurt sauce, stir together the yogurt, cucumber, minced coriander, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, and salt to taste.

Transfer the wings to a platter, garnish them with the coriander sprigs and chopped green onion, and serve them warm or at room temperature with the yogurt sauce.

This a great party appetizer but it can also be a main dish if you love chicken wings (like I do).

Makes enough for 2 as a main dish (with maybe a couple leftover).


*broiling the wings with the chutney glaze can make for extremely tough cleaning of the rack, that chutney glaze becoming a shellac. If you’re not keen on soaking and scrubbing, you can line the rack with aluminum foil for easy clean up. However, during the baking time, you’ll need to flip the wings over so the underside can have contact with the hot air to crisp up the skin all around.

In the Kitchen with Anne, Nigel, and a Chicken and Leek Pie

April 1, 2013


When winter arrives, I think the snow is so pretty and making a fire, having a scotch, snuggling under blankets is perfect cozy comfort. When winter just won’t quit after five months, cozy becomes claustrophobic and all that comfort just becomes sad slothfulness.  I sink into the depths of despair.  When this happens, I look to Anne Shirley’s wholesome optimism to buoy my spirit. And I ignore Marilla Cuthbert’s fire and brimstone quip that “to despair is to turn my back on God.” Sometimes Marilla just doesn’t understand. Anne-girl reminds me how gorgeous spring looks, feels and smells: orchards bedecked with boughs and boughs of wee pink and white flowers, babbling clear and cool brooks, flowers fragrant enough to drink in their scents, undulating grassy fields that roll to the sandy shore, warm breezes, and lush woodlands dotted with ferns. Anne rhapsodies better than I do but you get the picture.

anne and diane


Side note: I love you Gilbert.


This winter seemed to have been worse than anything I remember in the past. I read all of the L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books this winter (except for Anne of Windy Poplars because it’s boring) and watched the whole mini series. It felt like a lifeline that pulled me out of the winter dregs. It helped me feel that spark of the old me – the one that loves to cook. Finally having the urge to cook again for the first time in months, I reached for a book from my favourite cookery writer, Nigel Slater. He’s a friend in the kitchen and I wouldn’t want to celebrate my return with anyone else.  I plucked his latest, The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, 2012), off the shelf and read through the recipes like a brand new, and starving, woman.

My eyes landed on a chicken and leek pie recipe with gentle and wholesome flavours.  It’s a recipe that reads like it’s from a simple and homespun era; it looks like something Anne would make. But not in the first book, Anne of Green Gables, because she had no idea what she was doing in the kitchen – like when she baked a cake and forgot the flour. We have to wait until the second book, Anne of Avonlea, before Anne becomes quite the domestic doyenne under Marilla’s tutelage. The flavours in this recipe are old-fashioned and the cooking methods are simple and straightforward. You just need some patience and steadfastness to see you through the multiple steps. The chicken is poached in whole milk with simple aromatics straight from a kitchen garden – onions, bay, and thyme. The chicken is then diced and folded into a creamy sauce with sautéed bacon and tender leeks and everything is then wrapped up in a flakey buttery pastry. Even using whole milk for the poaching seemed more Anne-like and well…wholesome. 2% or 1% wouldn’t have cut it in this recipe.

As I’m cooking, I wonder if Nigel and Anne would have a good time in the kitchen together. I think they would. They both love the domesticity of the kitchen. Neither of them begrudges the time it takes to prepare a dish; there’s no rushing to get through a task. They both madly love to garden and they find the beautiful in the earthly everyday. Nigel seems kind of quiet, though. And Anne sure does like to talk. I’m not sure if he’s the quiet type, like Matthew Cuthbert, that likes it when someone shares every thought. If he’s not, Anne might drive him bonkers.

I’m just going to believe that they would be fast friends.
Who would have known there was so much scope for the imagination in a pie recipe?



A Hearty Chicken and Leek Pie
From The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, 2012)
By Nigel Slater

My only addition to the original recipe is that I added some thyme sprigs to the poaching liquid.

350g chicken thighs on the bone (about 3)
350g chicken breasts on the bone (1 large)
half an onion
8 peppercorns
a bay leaf
a few thyme sprigs
whole milk, enough to cover
30g butter
6 rashers smoked streaky bacon
2 medium leeks, only white and light green parts
3 tablespoons plain flour
3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
two sheets of puff pastry (purchased is perfectly fine)
a little beaten egg and milk
grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Put the chicken pieces into a large saucepan, together with the half onion, peppercorns and herbs and pour enough milk just to cover the chicken.

Bring to the boil, then, just when it starts to bubble, lower the heat and leave to simmer, partially covered by a lid for about twenty minutes.  Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid, reserving the milk. The poaching milk will smell savory and rich. Once the chicken isn’t too hot, pull off the skin and cut the meat off the bone into small, plump pieces.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.


Slice the bacon into small pieces and the leeks into thin half moons.  Oh and make sure you wash those leeks really well so there’s no grit between layers. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the bacon. The bacon should soften without colouring over a moderate to low heat. Add the leeks to the bacon and continue cooking for about fifteen minutes more, until the leeks are totally soft.


Stir the flour into the leek and bacon, continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Gradually strain in enough of the warm milk to make a thick sauce. You don’t want this to be a paste, you want it to be a sauce, albeit a thick sauce. There should be enough ‘give’ in the sauce so that the chicken can be mixed in well and coated properly by the sauce. Season generously with salt and pepper and stir in the Dijon mustard.

Unroll your first sheet of puff pastry onto a lightly floured surface.  Roll it out to about 10.5 x 14.5 inches. You might need to put a little flour on your rolling pin to keep it from sticking. Place it on a baking sheet. Spoon the filling onto the pastry, leaving a wide rim all the way around. Brush the rim with the beaten egg and milk. Roll out the second piece of pastry to the same size as the one before and lower it over the filling. Press and crimp the edges together firmly to seal them. You don’t want the filling to leak so make sure the edges are sealed tightly.

Brush the pastry all over with the beaten egg wash and scatter a handful of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano over the surface. Bake for thirty-five minutes or until golden.

Enough for 6.

It is delicious.

Fancy Feast

December 28, 2012

Don’t be alarmed. This post is not about cat food.

King crab legs with drawn butter and lemon. The fishmonger took visa (thank god).

King crab legs with drawn butter and lemon. The fishmonger took visa (thank god).

My first job after graduating from college was in Washington, DC at an NGO. I won’t rehash what I did there since I’ve mentioned it before here.  For a place that I never would have thought to have any impact on how I think about food, I have some amazing food memories that are a direct result from working there and the people I met. The very first thought of what would become my most beloved annual food holiday sprouted when standing in the copy room/kitchen talking to Marty, who ran the finances for the NGO. Marty was Italian-American and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan.  I had never met anyone from the lower east side of Manhattan and even though I knew that the place really existed I felt that it only existed in movies and that Marty was a character from a Scorsese film. Marty was telling me about his plans for Christmas Eve, Italian-style. For the first time ever, he was the one responsible in his family for frying all the different seafood for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I didn’t know what that was so he told me all about it. And then I was jealous. I told him I celebrate Christmas January 7 and we eat herring on Christmas Eve. His seafood extravaganza sounded so much better than my herring non-extravaganza.

It wasn’t until years later, living with my boyfriend in Toronto, with both of us off work that whole Christmas week that I thought that we should do something celebratory even though we both don’t celebrate Christmas then. I remembered Marty’s story about the Italian Christmas Eve and all that seafood. So, on Christmas Eve we would do a seafood fest, using the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes as an inspiration rather than an exact blue print.  I made a seafood paella with large prawns and mussels and clams and calamari. I didn’t want to call our little holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes because it wasn’t a bona fide Italian Christmas Eve. We decided to call it Fancy Feast instead.

That inaugural Fancy Feast back in 2005 was a humble affair in retrospect.  Fancy Feast has now grown into a two-day (sometimes three-day) eating extravaganza. But no holiday just happens. There’s the planning and the list making and the shopping that is almost as much fun as the holiday itself. Oh the anticipation! All of my cookbooks are pulled off the shelves and all of my favourite recipe blogs are perused during the hunt for what will be our Fancy Feast Menu. I take this research very seriously, like it’s a job. Once the menu is drawn up, the shopping list is drafted, the who picks up what details are confirmed between me and my boyfriend, and then we set out to the stores to pick everything up. In between the food purchasing, we make sure to stock the shelves with wine and to get a big stack of DVDs from the Film Buff.  Everything on our lists is bought by the afternoon of December 24th. All that planning and prepping pays off;  we don’t have to leave the house for the next few days.


I kept track of which oysters were which using post-it notes (OCD behaviour does not go on holiday). The Kumomotos and Shigokus from Washington state were our favourites.


Clams steamed with Spanish chorizo, white wine, orange, bay leaf and garlic.

The 24th is always a big seafood dinner. Oysters have become the official kick off and king crab legs have become the traditional main attraction. We rotate through a number of other dishes with clams or scallops or prawns or lobster. December 25th feasting starts with breakfast, something more elaborate than eggs and toast. In previous years, it’s been freshly baked cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes or pound cakes, or potato pancakes with smoked salmon. This year it was sugary orange scented olive oil sticky buns.  This recipe might become breakfast tradition, it was that good.


Orange Olive Oil Sticky Buns with a Buttermilk Glaze


Allspice, thyme and bay leaf scented country terrine with cornichons, Dijon mustard, and my own pickled mushrooms.

A French rustic terrine with baguette, cornichons and Dijon mustard is now tradition for lunch on the 25th. Dinner is a carnivorous extravaganza (a yang to seafood’s ying). One year I made a beef wellington, a tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry! So much fanciness in that recipe. The following year I topped that by making an osso buco with porcini mushroom risotto. That dish was sobbing good.  Last year I roasted a whole veal shank and served it with wild mushrooms and duck fat roasted potatoes. I didn’t stop there. The next day I took that veal shank, shredded all the meat off and made a savoury veal ragu and served it with pappardelle. An awesome 1-2 punch. This year we got a large T-bone steak from Sanagan’s Meat Locker, seared it off in the hottest pan and then basted it with a garlic and thyme butter as it finished cooking. And the perfect side to this fancy steak? Onion rings.

I let myself buy this pile of Chantrelle mushrooms for Fancy Feast

I let myself splurge on this pile of chantrelle mushrooms for Fancy Feast


Yes, we are eating this fancy dinner at the coffee table in front of the TV.


Here’s a close up of that lovely whole roasted veal shank with a parsley and lemon gremolata.

We plan a menu of delicious dishes that, at any other time of year, we would never attempt because it costs way too much or takes too much time to make or is not really the healthiest to eat or just feels too special to have at any other time of year. And it’s not just about being extravagant with the food. If we want to eat our fabulous dinner sitting on the floor watching TV in our pajamas – we can. And watch movies.  And drink. And crack open that bottle of wine that costs too much to drink with any other meal. But we have learned that getting drunk and still having things to cook that have multiple, elaborate steps and that have never been attempted before will result in failure.  There has to be some restraint before sitting down to the table. After that, not so much. Fancy Feast isn’t fancy because it’s just about being fancy. It’s fancy because we let ourselves be extravagant with whatever we want to do.  We created a holiday! How fancy is that?


40-day aged T-bone Steak. I made the little salad (in the background) for show just to make ourselves feel better about eating all that steak.

Onion Rings are totally fancy.

Onion rings are totally fancy.

Cassettes and Chicken Kiev

December 17, 2012


My mom would give me $2 a day to buy a hot lunch in high school. This was in the early nineties in suburban Cleveland to give you some context. She wasn’t being stingy – it was just how much (or how little) a full hot lunch cost back then and there. But instead of buying a full lunch, I’d only spend $1 and pocket the rest so I could buy cassettes. My $1 a day, Monday to Friday, savings plan would yield a cassette every two weeks.  For my lunch, I subsisted on a slice of pizza or a bowl of fake mashed potatoes with fake gravy (better than it sounds). At this rate, it would take me so long (too long!) to buy the whole Replacements back catalog let alone all the bands I read about in Sassy Magazine. I needed a job.

My best friend Natalie got me a job working with her as a waitress at a Ukrainian church hall on Saturdays doing weddings and other big dos. Every Saturday after Ukrainian school, we’d show up to the hall to begin the set up. Natalie and I were just two of the crew of teenage Ukrainian-American girls that worked these events. We draped the tables in coloured tablecloths, fold the colour coordinated napkins, and set the tables with plates, silverware and glassware. We’d then change into our sensible black skirts (to the knee!) and white blouses (blousey blouses!) and tie on our white dainty aprons (random ones from the kitchen). With no intention of looking good (or cool which is better than looking good), I just cobbled together a uniform, primarily made out of polyester, that was machine washable and didn’t rely on me actually spending money on it.

Ukrainian lady cooks ran the kitchen; they’ve been running things every Saturday since I think people first started having weddings. After suiting up for service, we headed into the kitchens to load up our carts with large platters and bowls of family style food to serve the guests. We’d roll out the carts into the big hall, a parade of sensibly dressed teenage waitresses pushing heavy carts, moving as fast as possible so that the food was hot, hot, hot when it hit the table.  As soon as the food was served, all the waitresses and cooks sat down to a long table in the kitchen to eat the same big meal as the guests.

It was pretty much the same menu every wedding – roast beef and gravy, boiled potatoes tossed with butter and dill, cabbage rolls, salad, vegetables ‘California-style’ (broccoli, cauliflower and carrots), rigatoni with meat sauce. Something Ukrainian, mid-western meat and potatoes, something Italian and of course something Californian. And then the fancy bit – there was either Chicken Cordon Bleu or Chicken Kiev. Mind you, neither of the fancy chickens were homemade; they came frozen out of box and were reheated in the oven. But it didn’t matter to me; fancy chicken (even out of a box) was something extra-ordinary. My mom didn’t make anything like this at home. I preferred the Chicken Kiev, just because of the name. Capital of Ukraine! Even though it’s the Russian spelling! Especially compared to that French imposter Chicken Cordon Bleu.

After our staff meal, we’d head back out into the hall to see if anyone wanted seconds. We hoped that they didn’t since the sooner everyone was done eating the faster we could clear the tables and get out of there. We’d do a first blitz around the dining room grabbing anything that we could clear off the table. Then we waited for the rest of it all. Leaning up against the wall in the back, watching like hawks for any piece of cutlery or glassware that was left unattended, we’d swoop in and clear.  Sometimes this took a while. We watched the crowd, chatted amongst ourselves, judged people on how they danced, and wished to be home already. Occasionally, a drunk guy, around the same age of a granddad, would come out of the bar and ask us to polka. The answer was always no, no matter how much we wanted to. We were professionals.  Once everything was off the tables, aside from the tablecloth and decorations, we’d head back into the kitchen to polish and put everything away for the next Saturday.

Oh and what about the cassettes? Each Saturday I earned about $30 cash – under the table, no tax, and all mine.  I can’t believe how much money that seemed to me when I was handed that envelope. That money, from just one shift, was enough for three tapes and I didn’t have to endure 6 weeks worth of weekday school lunch malnourishment to get them. And I got to have fancy chicken every Saturday night.

My mom never made Chicken Kiev and for all the Ukrainian women cooking and the Ukrainian girls serving, I don’t think any of them ever had this dish made at home, either. It didn’t really seem Ukrainian. And I found out that it’s not; not organically Ukrainian, a dish made in the family home generation after generation that becomes part of a people’s collective food history. Its history is unconfirmed  – either it was created by a chef in the 1960’s for the grand opening of a four star hotel in Kiev named the Hotel Moscow or it was created by a French chef and served at the Russian imperial court when Tsars were still around. Either way, this is not a dish something families (like mine) would be making back on the farm in rural western Ukraine.

I attempted two recipes to see which worked best. The Chicken Kiev recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book (Ten Speed Press, 2004) was anxiety inducing, unnecessarily difficult and failed. Hugh actually wants you to buy a whole chicken, break it down, and then debone and skin the breasts. Which is fine, I guess. I know how to breakdown the chicken but then wasn’t sure how to debone and skin the breasts with the first joint of the wing still attached (that wing detail he says “makes it ‘authentic’). I flip to the page in Hugh’s book where he is supposed to detail how to do all of that.  His instructions on how to debone and skin the breasts with that little f*@#ing wing joint attached are: “trim out the lean meat.” That’s not exactly helpful, Hugh.

Felicity Cloake’s recipe in the Guardian was the exact opposite of Hugh’s. She actually calls him out on his version. She’s done a bit of research on the dish and offers up a lot of helpful hints. The link is below.


Chicken Kiev
Mostly from Felicity Cloake’s recipe in the Guardian

I don’t usually mention kitchen tools and supplies with recipes, but please make sure you have enough cling film on hand. You’ll need it for three different steps.

4 tablespoons softened butter
2 garlic cloves, minced and then crushed to a paste with a little salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 chicken breasts, butterflied
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 cup breadcrumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for deep frying (peanut, sunflower, or vegetable)

Beat together the butter, garlic, parsley and lemon juice with a pinch of salt and plenty of pepper. Divide into two blobs, place each in the middle of a piece of cling film, fold one half of the cling film over the butter blob, shape the butter into a sausage, then roll it up. Twist the ends of the cling film to secure the butter and place the little packages in the fridge to chill. I did lick some of the garlic butter off the spoon. And then off my fingers.  It’s delicious.


If you can’t find butterflied breasts, here’s how you do it. Place each butterflied breast of chicken between two pieces of cling film. Using a meat mallet, pound the breasts until they thin out to about 1/4 of an inch. Be really careful that you don’t create any holes in the breast meat or the dish is ruined. If there are any holes, then when the butter melts it will leak out. That butter staying inside is the whole point of the dish. No pressure!

Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the chicken breasts horizontally in front of you. Place a piece of butter close to the edge of the breast (breast and butter both placed the long way), fold the bottom flap of chicken over the butter, fold in the sides, and roll up. Same method as if you’re rolling up a burrito. If the edges aren’t staying put or the end flap won’t stick, then use a little bit of beaten egg and flour like glue to seal the deal.


When I rolled up one of the breasts, the sides wouldn’t stay put even with the flour and egg so I used toothpicks to seal the seam. There is no shame in this.

Place the rolled up chicken breasts on a piece of cling film, and wrap them tightly, rolling them up (again) like a burrito. Place in the freezer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Lay out your flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs in shallow dishes. Take the Chicken Kievs out of the freezer and dredge them: flour first, then eggs, and then breadcrumbs. Repeat the eggs and breadcrumbs. Set them on a plate in the fridge and let them thaw out for an hour.  Your Chicken Kievs should have a nice oblong shape and they should be sealed like Fort Knox.



When ready to fry, heat the oil in a large frying pan (or even better – a dutch oven) to 325 F. The oil should come up and cover or almost cover the entire chicken bundle.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Fry the chicken in the oil for about 10 minutes. Turn them periodically so they colour evenly on all sides. They should be golden brown.  If you’re making multiple batches, you can keep the fried Chicken Kievs warm in the oven while you wait for all of them to fry up.  I also like to have a preheated oven on the ready if my chicken starts to brown to quickly and I feel I have to pull them out before I think they’re cooked all the way through. I can then finish off the little Kievs in the oven.  This ended up happening to me on the latest attempt. I pulled them out when I didn’t want them to get any more ‘golden brown.’ They then went into the oven for five additional minutes to make sure they were cooked all the way through.

When you cut open the Chicken Kiev, the herb and garlic butter should ooze out onto the plate. When I was making these, I thought this dish was way too fussy and troublesome. I knew why those Ukrainian church hall ladies bought these premade. But when I cut the Chicken Kiev open and that herby, garlicky butter oozed out, all that trouble was worth it.

Fall, Gourds, and Corn Chowder

October 4, 2012

I’ve been giggling all week since reading this post from McSweeney’s. There are a lot of swears in it but the f-bombs aren’t gratuitous; each one is needed to express the author’s love for fall and decorative gourds.  His profane enthusiasm worked on me – for someone who isn’t into fall or decorative gourds, this made me want to aggressively decorate my home with gourds and shout at everyone I came across while kicking through the first fallen leaves:  “It’s fall, $&*%ers!”

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I were a couple of hours north of Toronto at a friend’s cottage on Georgian Bay. Instead of taking the highway back to the city, we took a scenic side road. It’s fall, we’re in Ontario driving through rolling, picturesque farmlands, and we come across a farm stand where fall’s harvest is for sale.  The bounty of pumpkins and squash set out in large bins and flatbed trailers and a table groaning under the weight of potatoes, onions, corn, cabbages, peppers, cauliflower and straggler tomatoes convinced us to pull over.  Yes, of course I was interested in getting some (edible) farm produce but what I could barely admit to myself and not admit at all to my boyfriend was that I was hoping that they’d have some decorative gourds, too.

I looked at the pumpkins, there were ones for pie and ones for jack-o-lanterns.  There was a time not too long ago when I didn’t know the difference. I thought jack-o-lanterns were perfectly fine for pies. I learned the hard way that this isn’t true. There were bins of spaghetti squash, acorn squash, all sorts of other squash varieties I had never seen before including carnival squash.  These were too pretty to pass up and I bought two.

And then jack pot, there was the gourd bin. As I was oohing and aahing, my boyfriend comes up to me and says, “I’m surprised you want these.” He doesn’t know that a profane, overly enthusiastic piece of writing on decorative gourd season had done its job: “I think we can put them out around the house.”  We both peer into the large bin and start rifling through all the gourds, trying to find the ugliest ones.

The proprietress comes round, sees us looking at the gourds and says, “Those are five for $2.” My excitement spikes at the sound of such a deal on these non-edible produce cum autumnal decorations. She then points to the pretty squashes cradled in my arms and adds, “you can eat those, y’know.”  Yes, I know. Thank you.

Our attention goes back to the bin. We want the weirdest ones. We notice one looks like a crooked penis and decide we have to have that one. Another one looks like a mod space ship. We’ll take that one, too. After some deliberation, we finally have our motley assortment of five gourds. I head to the check out and notice the rest of the (edible) bounty: corn, onions, potatoes, peppers. I want corn chowder. The idea hits me like a sucker punch. Corn chowder is a perfect dish to transition from summer to fall. The last of the summer corn and fall’s hardy potatoes, together in a warm and comforting bowl.

Once home, I realized that I was missing a few things that most typical corn chowder recipes call for. But sometimes following a recipe to the letter is nonsense. Do you think the woman on the frontier who wanted to make chowder decided not to feed her family that night because she didn’t have a rib of celery? I didn’t have any celery and my carrots were covered in weird white stringy things and I didn’t have any bacon either. No matter. I just used peppers as my aromatics along with my onion and garlic.  Smoky kovbasa is a flavourful substitute for the bacon.  It’s leaner than bacon so I had to use extra butter and oil when frying but having bites of that delicious sausage in the chowder worked perfectly for me.

Fresh Corn Chowder
adapted from Elizabeth Germain’s recipe in Cooks Illustrated American Classics 2008

5 ears of corn
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (I used grapeseed but you could use any type – it’s just to keep the butter from burning)
1 cup diced smoky kovbasa
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 cup diced red bell pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups chicken broth
4 small to medium red potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup milk (I used 2% even though the original recipe called for whole)
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup heavy cream

I didn’t have any aromatic vegetables around to use. If you want to add to or substitute the red bell pepper with a rib of celery and a carrot (both diced) then please do. I just used the whole red bell pepper because I didn’t have anything else to add to the onion. That’s not the only reason, it’s also a great pop of colour in the chowder.

First thing to do is tend to the corn. Take two of the ears and grate all of the kernels and pulp into a bowl. Then take the back of a knife and scrape it down the ears, taking off any remnants of pulp. You’ll have a milky and pulpy corn mess. Set aside. With the remaining 3 ears of corn, take the knife – this time using the sharp side – and cut off all of the kernels and set aside. This, too, is best done in a bowl so you don’t get any errant kernels flying here or there.

Over medium heat, in a medium sized heavy pot, heat the butter and oil until the butter is foaming. Add the diced kovbasa and let it brown well before stirring it and letting it brown some more. To get the most flavour, let the meat develop a nice crusty, caramelized exterior. Once the kovbasa has that nice seared brown exterior, remove it from the pan using a slotted spoon (to leave the fat behind) and set aside.

Add the diced onion to the pan and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes until the onion has softened. Add the diced jalapeno and red bell pepper. Cook for a few minutes more. Add the minced garlic and cook for about one minute more.

Sprinkle the flour into the pan and for the next two minutes stir constantly while you cook the flour with the vegetables.  Next add the broth and then the milk, grated corn pulp, potatoes, bay leaf and thyme to the pot and bring to boil. Season with salt and pepper. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Add the corn kernels, kovbasa and the heavy cream and continue simmering over low for no more than 10 minutes. You still want the corn to be a bit crunchy and fresh. The texture of the corn kernels is lovely in the chowder against the tender potatoes and creamy broth.  Check for seasoning again and add any salt and pepper if needed.

When serving, and this isn’t necessary, you can garnish with chopped chives or parsley to give it a fresh pop of herby green flavour.