Finally made it!

Tonight’s dinner was a partial success.

When I was putting together my latest grocery order, to arrive a couple of days ago, I decided to make a chile con carne as my main meal for the weekend (by which I mean that I would cook enough for several days, eat some both today and tomorrow and probably freeze the rest, not that I’d only have one proper meal over the weekend). Unlike the last several times this has been my plan, I actually remembered to add some chilli peppers to my order, so I’d count that as the first successful bit of the endeavour 🙂

When it came to making the meal, things looked promising. As well as the usual minced beef, chillis, onion and suchlike, I put in a bit of finely diced carrot and courgette, as I had some of each vegetable that were in need of using up. I also added a dash of vermouth, and I had high hopes for this being a good one.

Unfortunately I got slightly distracted doing other things while I left it to simmer and got back to the kitchen just in time to find it starting to burn as the liquid, which had seemed ample when I left it, had by now all boiled off or been absorbed. I was able to rescue it from being a complete inedible disaster (or worse, setting fire to my kitchen) but suffice it to say that this chile con carbon was not quite the sumptuous delight I had been anticipating. It will be interesting to see how it is tomorrow, as such dishes are often better on the second day when the flavours have had time to develop but in this case the flavours may be a little on the smoky side!

More successful was the side dish, as I’ve finally got round to having a go at making guacamole almost 30 years after first being shown how to make it.

Back then I was still at school, and it was a different, more innocent era in which teachers could invite their pupils over to their homes for things like extra-curricular computer programming lessons, which I very much doubt any sensible and well-intentioned teacher would dare to do these days (even ignoring the minor issue of a global pandemic). One of my teachers had lent me a computer and was teaching me how to program it, which entailed fairly frequent bike journeys (usually on Saturday afternoons) from my village to his in order to take some lessons. As well as getting a good foundation in programming (I was learning Pascal, not a language I’ve ever seriously used since then, but the basic principles of how to program a computer have largely stuck with me), I was introduced to some seriously good music (the highlight being the Penguin Café Orchestra, whose music I continue to enjoy to this day) and, on one occasion, was shown how to make guacamole. This was because my teacher, who had spent some time working in Mexico before joining our school, was preparing for a party that evening and was busy making some using an authentic Mexican recipe when I arrived.

Sadly I didn’t write down that recipe and don’t remember a huge amount from it, except that it involved mashing avocados with salt, pepper and a few other things in a bowl (with a fork, IIRC). Fast forward to this evening and I had an avocado that I’d bought pretty much on a whim in my grocery order the other day; rather than do my usual thing of cutting it in half and eating it out of the skin garnished with a bit of black pepper and perhaps some mayonnaise, I decided the time had come to try out making guacamole for myself. Fortunately there are plenty of recipes online, so I was able to get a general idea of how to do it (to supplement my memories from the last millenium) and then improvised from there. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Basically, I finely chopped an onion and a chilli pepper (carefully saved from cooking my main dish) and stuck them in a pestle and mortar (well, technically just in the mortar) with the flesh of an avocado, a bit of salt and pepper and a couple of teaspoons of lime juice. I then mashed the whole lot down (with the pestle, of course) and enjoyed eating it with a bit of tortilla. It may be worth noting that I had previously used the pestle and mortar to grind up some cumin, salt and pepper for the chile and had only given it a brief wipe out in between, so there was almost certainly a little bit of cumin in the guacamole too.

The other components of the meal also worked pretty well (namely, a bottle of well-chilled Mexican lager – not generally the sort of beer I go for, but ideal in the right context – a lovely bit of brie and then a couple of Mr Kipling’s trifle bakewells, which happened to be on special offer this week, for dessert). So if you count each of the individual components more or less equally, I’d say the whole meal rated about 4.5 out of 5.

And hopefully it will be less than 30 years before I next get round to making guacamole!

Notes from the Russian Kitchen

I mentioned yesterday that culinary-related activities have been a feature of my latest resurgence of interest in things Russian.  I wasn’t solely alluding to the kvass that I brewed a week or two back.

I recently decided to add a Russian cookery book to my library and, after browsing the available options at my local online book emporium, decided to get the aptly named Russian Cookbook by Kira Petrovskaya (or possibly Kyra – both spellings of her first name appear on the back cover and inside the book; I guess in Cyrillic it would be Кира – nicely unambiguous), published by Dover (1992; ISBN: 978-0-486-27329-7).

This turns out to be a relatively slender volume, with just over 200 pages in A5 format, but it is stuffed full of exciting (and, apparently, authentic) recipes and a certain amount of discussion about Russian food.  It is sadly lacking any pictures or Cyrillic script versions of recipe names (or even transliterated Russian names for quite a few, which are only given English names) but nonetheless it promises to be a handy book.

So far I have only tried cooking three things from the book but they have all worked quite well and I look forward to trying more soon.

On Monday night, I made “Baked Ground Beef and Potatoes”, aka “Zapekanka with Meat”.  In a way, this is a bit like an inverted shepherd’s (or rather cottage, since it uses beef rather than lamb) pie, as it starts with a layer of potatoes (sliced and lightly fried, rather than mashed), on top of which is placed minced (or ground) beef cooked up with onion and seasonings.  A mixture of eggs and milk is poured over the top of the whole thing and it is then baked in the oven for a while.  The book doesn’t say anything about what Zapekanka (or Запеканка in the Cyrillic script) is, but a brief bit of research with Google (as Wikipedia, my usual first stop for random knowledge, doesn’t have a lot to say on this subject) indicates that it is a kind of cheesecake.  Apparently there are lots of Zapekanka recipes, some sweet and others (such as this one) savoury.

This evening, I made a fresh mushroom soup and new potatoes in sour cream (no Russian name given for either).  This was a bit of a menu-planning fail as I hadn’t realised the extent to which potatoes and sour cream are both key ingredients of the soup (which actually contains more potato than mushroom, even though I used more mushrooms than the recipe called for) and so I was slightly potatoed-out by the end of the meal.  Still, both dishes were very tasty and either would work very well alongside something slightly less similar.

In addition to these bits of cookery, I have recently had a go at preparing a traditional Russian drink called Перцовка (Pertsovka).  This is simply pepper-infused vodka.  It’s not mentioned in my new cookery book but I’ve come across references to it in several other places.  There are apparently some commercially-produced versions available (though possibly not easily in this country) but it’s pretty easy to prepare for yourself as there’s nothing more to it than sticking some pepper in vodka for a bit.  Several recipes I looked at called for peppercorns (i.e. black pepper, aka piper nigrum) and others for chilli peppers (various species in the genus capsicum).  I suspect that both may be authentic, but I decided for my first experiments to try chilli peppers (mainly because I’d bought some for the purpose before I discovered alternative recipes using peppercorns).  These particular chillies were not especially hot ones, and I just put one whole red chilli (minus the stalk) in a smallish beaker and covered it with vodka overnight before decanting the vodka into a bottle (and using the chilli in a pasta sauce I was cooking up – the vodka was not noticeable in the end result).  The pepper-infused vodka has quite a pleasant taste and is supposed to be a good remedy for colds and other ailments (though I suspect that’s probably just the Russian equivalent to the Scottish use of whisky as a panacea).