When life gives you apples…

Over the last few years I’ve been greatly blessed to have a more or less regular annual bulk supply of apples.

At first, it was because I lived in a house with two apple trees in the garden.  The landlords were very happy for my housemates and I to avail ourselves of the crops and since I seemed to be the only one to do so I had more than enough apples for my culinary needs each autumn.

I moved out of that house quite a few years ago now (about 8, I think) but since then I’ve had a couple of friends with apple trees and each year one or both of them give me a nice lot of apples to use.

Originally I mostly used these apples for cider but in more recent years I’ve tended to use more of them for cooking than brewing.  In the past this has usually amounted to lots of apple crumbles supplemented by occasional batches of stewed apple (and in one case when I was feeling adventurous, apple butter) or zapped apples (a microwaved treat that is both deliciously simple and simply delicious), with one or two apples lobbed into stews now and then.

A few days ago I received this year’s (or technically last year’s) batch of apples from one of my friends and I’ve decided to expand my repertoire a bit.  Doubtless there will be a few apple crumbles and zapped apples to come (not to mention apples in stews, and perhaps a batch of cider) but I want to do a few other things as well.

As it happens, I’ve just been getting into another bout of slavophilia, prompted by finally getting round to listening to the CD of Eugene Onegin that I bought several months ago and aided by the fact that the Russian lessons on Duolingo have finally gone live, which gives me a good chance to revive my rather rusty Russian language skills. One result of this is that I’ve had my Russian cookery books out (the one by Kira Petrovskaya that I blogged about shortly after getting it several years ago and one called The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain that I got shortly afterwards. Both of these contain several recipes involving apples quite prominently.

This evening I have been trying my first couple of Russian apple recipes, one from each book.

Chamberlain supplied an intriguing recipe for Carrot and apple vzvar. She didn’t seem to explain what a vzvar (or взвар as it would appear in Cyrillic) is, but this one amounted to gently simmering carrots and apple in a minimal amount of water (after lightly sautéeing them in butter). Interestingly, all the Google hits I’ve been able to find for vzvar seem to indicate a kind of beverage, which is certainly not how this recipe turned out or, as far as I can see, how it was intended. Perhaps because of the limited amount of water used, I accidentally burned the carrots a bit but it actually gave quite a nice caramelised effect; there was no mention of this in the recipe, so I assume it’s not how it’s supposed to turn out but it certainly wasn’t the major culinary disaster I first feared.

Petrovskaya’s book furnished a recipe for an apple soup. The idea of cold fruit soups is not new to me, as I came across them on a visit to Hungary and I’m sure I’ve previously seen this recipe (and an equally delicious looking one for cherry soup – all I need now is a friend with a cherry tree) on reading this book, but I’ve never tried to make one. Again, it’s a pretty simple recipe. Basically you chop up a load of apples, simmer them with a bit of sugar and a few cloves in plenty of water until they are nice and soft, then mix in a bit of vanilla extract, leave to go cold and serve. At the moment I’m still waiting for it to go cold, but the taste I’ve had of the still-warm soup is promising.

I’ll probably be returning to Chamberlain’s book this weekend to try a dish of stewed cabbage and apples and there are plenty more apple-based recipes in both books to check out.

Of course, I’m not restricting my Russian cookery explorations to things involving apples (any more than I’m intending to restrict my apple cookery to recipes from Russia). Indeed, one of the other things I’ve been doing in the kitchen this evening is to get another batch of перцовка (pertsovka – (chilli) pepper vodka) going. In case you’re wondering what that’s all about, I wrote about pertsovka in my previous post about Petrovskaya’s book (linked above), although she doesn’t mention it (Chamberlain does, but I didn’t get her book until after that). I wrote that post shortly after my first and, up to now, only previous – and rather successful, if I say so myself – attempt to make pertsovka and I look forward in a few days time to finding out whether my second batch is as good as the first.

Perhaps I should next have a go at making apple vodka!

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).

A Grate Idea?

Most of the blogs I follow are somewhat more specialised (or, you might say, rather less eclectic — or perhaps just less random) than my own.  Amongst them are a couple of food blogs which I keep an eye on largely for the occasional handy cooking tip I can glean from them.

In the last few months one of these blogs, theKitchn, has yielded a couple of useful tips relating to one of my favourite spices – ginger.  More specifically, they are about the preparation and storage of the fresh root.

The first tip, which I picked up some time last year, is a method for peeling ginger.  Rather than use a knife or a vegetable peeler, which are both (especially the knife) prone to removing (and thus wasting) quite a bit of good ginger flesh in addition to the skin, the blog suggested using the edge of a teaspoon.  This gently scrapes the skin off, leaving the useable part of the ginger ready for action.  Unfortunately I have lost the link to the post that suggested this, but I have found it to work pretty well.  I haven’t tried using a teaspoon to peel other vegetables, but I find a knife or peeler to be perfectly satisfactory for most of them in any case.

The second tip, from LA-based food writer Emily Ho, turned up a couple of months ago in this post.  In it, she tackles the problem of saving fresh ginger in good condition for long enough to use it all (assuming you buy it in fairly large chunks and don’t use it that quickly), as well as ensuring that you can always have fresh ginger to hand.  The idea is simply to freeze it in suitable-sized portions for subsequent use.  I know that technically makes it frozen, rather than fresh, ginger but it seems to work just as well.

Emily suggests peeling the ginger first (she doesn’t say whether or not she uses a teaspoon — it’s possible that the other tip was hers too) and then grating it before freezing.  When I tried that, I found that the grated ginger seemed to come out a bit mushy so I did an experiment by grating half of the ginger and finely chopping the other half, much as I would usually prepare it directly for cooking.  I put individual portions of chopped/grated ginger (roughly a teaspoon’s worth, though I didn’t measure them carefully) in an ice-cube tray that I’d rescued from an old freezer a few years ago and then shoved the tray in the freezer.

That was a few weeks ago and I’ve been fairly steadily working my way through the frozen ginger ever since.  I’ve used some in stir fries and some for spicing up the honey and lemon concoction I brewed up last week when I had a cold.  For both of those purposes it has worked fine to lob the frozen ginger in directly to the pan.  I can’t think of anything I would normally cook with ginger that would need it to be defrosted first.  There doesn’t seem to be any practical difference between the ginger that was chopped and that which was grated, although I definitely prefer the preparation by chopping so I’ll probably continue to use that method in future.

Having looked back at the original article (which I didn’t consult immediately before trying the idea for myself), I noticed that Emily Ho actually suggested putting the individual dollops of grated ginger onto a parchment-lined baking tray, sticking that in the freezer until frozen and then transferring the ginger to an airtight box and putting it back in the freezer.  I’m sure that way would work very well in the absence of a handy ice-cube tray, and would certainly be better than trying to individually bag up each portion, but I’ve found my approach to work quite well for me, so I think I’ll stick to it.

Now that summer is approaching I may get an opportunity to try out using some lumps of frozen ginger in lieu of ice cubes.  They might work especially well in a Moscow mule, in the unlikely event that I get round to making any of those this year.