Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ is Risen!! But my Paskha did not ...

Christ is risen, fair reader, and helloooo to you too -- gosh, it's been a ... gosh, has it really been 7 months? This Belle Dame is fail indeed, and it will seriously HORRIFY you, reader, as it does me, that I have been living off frozen dinners for a while now.

A brief explanation: in the last 7 months I have taught two classes, taken a Ph D exam, come up with the vaguest contours of a dissertation project, organized a conference, presented at my first ever big girl conference and, oh, yes, broken my back. That was in January. Vertebral compression fracture. You know, I don't even want to talk about it. It was every bit as bad as you may imagine. But all that's in the past (I hope) because yesterday!! I danced in my kitchen for the FIRST. TIME. IN. THREE AND A HALF. MONTHS AND cooked for the first time in three and a half months, so in honor of both these momentous occasions, I return to my poor forgotten food blog baby!

Yesterday the Belle Dame attempted to make paskha, a delicious traditional Easter dish not unlike cheesecake, but without the crust. However ... I didn't quite do it right ... so I ended up with what I *imagine* to be lemon custard? I don't actually really know what custard is. Custard and pudding belong to that category of English words that I have never understood. Like, why is the stuff that comes in those little plastic Jell-O cups and the stuff made out of the blood and entrails of pigs both called pudding? No, seriously. And what the bejesus *is* custard? And if custard is a creamy thick smooth concoction of dairy products ... then why is the stuff in Jell-O cups the exact same thing yet NOT? You know what, I'm just going to tell you what I did.

(I considered combining "pudding" and "custard" into a single word but neither "puddard" nor "custing" sound erm, at all appealing)
two pounds of farmer's cheese
1 cup of heavy cream
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 stick of butter (room temp)
4 softboiled egg yolks
approx 2 tsps fresh lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
several pinches of nutmeg

Riiiight, I perhaps should have mentioned that this is a heart attack in *divinely* edible form ... seriously, if you had to go, this is the way, my friend. This is the way. Also, before you decide I'm trying to kill you, consider that the reason my paskha turned into custard is that I reduced -- REDUCED -- the amount of sugar, butter and eggs from the recipe I got off the internet. So! Get out thy electric mixer and let's do some damage to those arteries.

Softboil your eggs and carefully remove the yolks -- carefully so they don't ooze all over you. Combine your sugar and your butter in a medium mixing bowl. Mix on medium until it's all crumbly. Add in, slowly, your farmer's cheese, and your heavy cream, and your yolks, your freshly grated lemon zest and your nutmeg. Mix away till it's all blended. Stick in fridge overnight -- enjoy your heart attack the next day!

Seriously, I'm not kidding -- it is so goddamn delicious. Just don't think about what you're eating!! :) It's Easter, after all ... right?

Oh, and the reason why it came out as "custard" is that I didn't drain the farmer's cheese overnight through a fine-meshed sieve. Presumably, that will give you proper farmer's cheesecake. So claimeth the Interwobs.

Music: Kanye West, "All of the Lights"

Friday, August 13, 2010

Apparently, I got the cooking bug today, hmm.

Got exceptionally hungry while reading. Realized that post-running and yoga hypoglycemic body was operating exclusively on a soft-boiled egg and a pot of coffee and that the caffeine crash had hit. Usual go-to mid-afternoon sandwich option eliminated for lack of bread. Only solution was to make dinner ingredients as lunch, namely chicken breast and, you guessed it, the cabbage. So let me tell you quickly what you do when you're reading, about to throw a party, have dangerously low blood sugar and endless cabbage.


I'm going to forego an ingredients list since it's really just chicken, cabbage and some spices. I always hear people complaining about chicken breast being too dry, too tough and generally boring and unappetizing. Then people eat my chicken and experience a change of heart. Chicken is one of my fortes, for some odd reason, and the secret, fair reader, is patience. So, the next time you find chicken breast in your local supermarket aisle (or farmer's market) at a tantalizingly low price, purchase and follow these simple steps.

As I said, I was a in a low blood sugar danger zone hurry, so I took chicken tenders (which are even better, as they cook faster) and sprinkled some ginger-garlic-pimento spice on them (which, presumably, you may replicate far more deliciously with some real sauteed garlic and some properly real shaved ginger, something I keep meaning to do myself) and some all-purpose seasoning. Heat up frying pan, glug some olive oil (or vegetable, whatever). Turn heat down to medium-low. Add chicken, spiced side down: first, you're going to sprinkle the other half of your chicken with the spices; then, when you see the piece of chicken getting white and semi-cooked about half-way, you're going to turn your chicken over. About seven minutes later, you're going to turn your chicken over again. About seven minutes after that, you're going to turn your chicken over again. By the end of 25 minutes, you will have delicious chicken. It seems painstaking, and maybe the constant turning is not actually the secret to keeping the chicken moist, but rather it's simply the low-flame -- but, like my father who rearranges the living-room furniture during a Detroit Red Wings game at halftime if they're losing because he believes the change in energy resulting from the moving of his personal furniture will favourably affect the outcome of the hockey game occurring hundreds of miles away, I have a faith in my system, and it works, dammit, :). Do this for all chicken, whatever spices, dry-rubs, marinades, etc. you choose, and you might change your mind about chicken breast!

While I was obsessively-compulsively fussing with the chicken, I had some roughly chopped cabbage simmering away in a deep pan with about half a cup of chicken broth and a few splashes of soy sauce. Takes about a similar amount of time, or maybe 20 minutes, also on medium-low. You won't recognize your cabbage afterwards: gone the toughness, gone the bitterness, to be replaced with a melt in your mouth juicy savory goodness. And now, back to work!

Reading: Alain de Lille, De planctu naturae

La Belle Dame Sans Merci Indeed Part I

Today La Belle Dame channels Betty Draper as she prepares a small spread for a Mad Men-themed pre-housewarming get-together at her as yet bookshelf-less new apartment. Pre-housewarming in the sense that a big proper party, once bookshelves are acquired and pictures are hanged on walls, will certainly follow, but friends are leaving town soon, a friend is coming into town tonight, and I'm taking off soon for a last Russian-food-themed hurrah before the dreaded school year begins again, so a bringing together of our small summer gang of misfits seemed to be in order. Also, where else am I ever going to wear a raw silk floral cocktail dress too low-cut for weddings?? And what is the point in owning a cabinet filled with vintage cocktail glassware unless you use it, I ask you? There was clearly only one thing to be done: Mad Men, Mad Men, must have Mad Men! (to the tune of the credits music)

I've been devising a finger foods menu in-between a slow crawling out of bed, a potentially even slower (?!) run and exhausted shower followed by "breakfast" of an egg and a massive pot of coffee at lunchtime (fail, Belle Dame, fail). I have settled on: lettuce wraps with the massive remainders of "Crunchy Summerness Salad" culinary experiment of a day and a half ago, which still tastes delicious; Strawberry-Goat Cheese Crostini and a beloved Epicurious steal and old stand-by, Parmesan Walnut Salad in Endive Leaves. I was introduced to this amazing recipe by the Cunning Linguist, one of my best friends and legendary party-thrower in NY. Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about: when this girl and her husband throw a party, people travel from Boston, Princeton, Philadelphia and DC, I am not kidding. I may but dream ... I will also be honest: not only is the Parmesan-Walnut business stolen from Epicurious, but the goat cheese and strawberry recipe is also the result of a Google search, but hey, some credit points for deciding that the two were a match made in heaven? I shamelessly reproduce for you Web recipes yummy enough to need no altering.


1 garlic clove 
dash of salt
1 tbsp mayonnaise (delicious, delicious mayonnaise ...)
2 tbsp fresh (or whatever) lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 stalk of celery 
1 cup cubed (1/8") Parmesan cheese (or you can cheat and buy Parmesan flakes -- not the crumbs that you put over pasta, but the Bel Gioioso brand flakes, which are higher quality; if using flakes, my oh, so exact measurement is 1 handful)
1 cup of walnuts
3 Belgian endives (both the yellow and red varieties for prettiness factor)
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaved parsley

Chop a cup of walnuts into smaller bits and pour onto a small baking tray (like a cookie tray). Toast at 250 degrees in the oven until you can smell them. Remove and set aside to cool. Mince and mash a clove of garlic with a dash of salt at the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add your mayonnaise, the lemon juice and the olive oil. Chop your celery finely into cubes, cube your Parmesan (or cheat with the flakes) and toss in the walnuts and add chopped parsley. Stir. Taste. Congratulate yourself on deliciousness. 

Then! peel away the outer layer of your Belgian endives (those small adorable looking red and yellow vegetables that look like little nesting birds?) and carefully start peeling away the leaves. Spoon your parmesan-walnut-celery mixture onto the leaves and arrange prettily on platter. This is, I suppose, mildly painstaking, but kind of fun because your salad has weight owing to the celery and the walnut pieces and the dressing is just enough to coat without making it runny, so it actually takes very little time, but your guests think you slaved and slaved and are like, totally blown away, and you get to turn up your eyes, pat your hair into place, sigh, and assure them that it was no trouble at all.
Stay tuned for strawberry-goat cheese crostini once I have made them later on today and wish me luck and the survival of my beloved vintage champagne cocktail glasses, :).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Experimentation reaps rewards!

I tried something out today for the first time, and I think it's pretty tasty. I'm debuting it to a friend in a couple of hours, so fingers crossed she agrees with me! This one has a sort of complex genesis that requires some explaining. A few weeks or so back, fair reader, I came across some dandelion greens at the farmer's market and decided to eat this new delicious green leafy thing because I was a bunny in a past life. So I hunted around Epicurious and found a hot oil dressing recipe to play around with. I discovered two things: one, bunny or no bunny, I do NOT like dandelion greens. They're bitter and tough and clearly I'm not doing something right with them, so if you have any suggestions, shoot! The dressing, on the other hand, turned out delightfully, so today I decided to combine it with the fruits and veggie in my fridge, resulting in ...

3 stalks of celery 
2 apples (Fiji, Gala, something juicy and crunchy)
[optional: 2 cups of cabbage -- I'm trying to use up my cabbage]
2 tbsps or so lemon juice (fresh always best, but we all cheat sometimes)

1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup almonds
3 cloves garlic (or, alternatively, you can cheat and use garlic-baked Almond Accents :))
1 cup granola (preferably w/ raisins, cranberries, etc.)
if raisinless granola, 1/3 cup of raisins, dried cranberries, dried currants, etc. 
splash of Sherry table wine
generous dash of salt to be added at the very end

See, the original Epicurious recipe for this dandelion greens dressing called for garlic cloves, sliced almonds, brown sugar, salt and raisins ... I, again, owing to my hatred of the grocery store, thought about my lack of raisins and brown sugar and decided, granola has maple syrup, which is better than sugar, and raisins, BOOYAH. Solutions! (And this, children, is a prime example of how laziness can actually foster creativity.)

So, fair reader, start chopping: if going with cabbage, chop it first, finely, add some salt and scrunch it with your hands to get the juices going (it sounds, I realized today, almost exactly like the sound boots make over freshly fallen snow ....). Next we chop up our celery finely, and then our apples finely -- once you put in your apples, pour some lemon juice over them to keep them from oxidizing, so that they look pretty in your bowl. And pretty it will look: the pale pale green of the cabbage, the slightly darker shade of celery and those milky-golden apples with their red skins.

Now, to the dressing! Fair warning, reader: this literally takes maybe 2 minutes over LOW heat. I burnt my first batch to an utter crisp within 60 seconds flat because I had my flame on high. Take a frying pan, then, with some high-ish edges, heat up your oil: if going with the garlic and almonds separately, start with your garlic for a nice minute or so, then add the rest -- or, if no garlic, just dump in your almonds and your granola. Add a splash of sherry. Cook, stirring occasionally until your raisins/cranberries, etc plumpen in the oil -- this will take about 2-3 min tops because, remember, it's still going to cook a while when you turn off the flame. Allow to cool a teensy bit, stir into your salad and add salt (important: you want to make sure you bring out the savoury in this dish). Your end result, reader? A crunchy, fresh combination of flavors where the sweetness of the raisins and granola complements the lemony apples and balances nicely with the savoury flavors of the garlic almonds that lend depth to the cabbage and celery. And this is how my curiosity towards dandelion greens resulted in a culinary invention, :).

Music: Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta

UPDATE: Friend approved of salad and commented only that it could use some black pepper. I have a weird antipathy to black pepper, except, for some strange reason, in combination with anything tomato-y (tomato juice, sauce, tomatoes themselves). On every single other kind of food I think it tastes horrible. That is only to explain why you won't find any black pepper on this blog and why there is copious use of white pepper instead. I leave it up to your discretion, fair reader :).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Finally, La Belle Dame Sans Merci haz internet! (On a side-note, I just thought about how long the name "Belle Dame Sans Merci" is and thought, hmm, maybe abbreviate? Yeah, it comes out to BDSM, which, given that a Google search for "Land of Milk and Honey" already gives one about ten hits for porn sites, might not be the best thing ...)

So the problem with cooking at the moment is ... it's about 95 degrees on any given day in Philly, and I live on the third floor and my AC unit is only in the bedroom (where I am currently hiding). So, I've been living off of tomatoes and celery and bleu cheese dressing with the occasional plum for a good week or two until roughly four alcoholic drinks into a summer's night with friends, my body reminds me that I'm starving it with a strange combination of veggies and dairy and demands something fried and disgusting. The fact that my landlord runs a pizza shop downstairs ... is not helpful. So, my recipe for you today is designed for simplicity and disgusting, sweltering hot weather. (Sweltering is such a fine word, isn't it? It really truly encompasses how Philly has made me feel this summer: like a welter sweating in a sweater.)

cabbage! depending on how many people you wish to terrify with endless amounts of cabbage
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice 
2 tbsp mustard (spicy is good)
some sprinkles of dill weed
2 generous glugs of olive oil

optional: 1/3 of a package of goat cheese
optional: 1 bunch of red grapes

WARNING: a head of cabbage is a LOT of cabbage -- if you're making this for one or two people, use maybe a third of a head and reserve the rest, but not for too long because it will get a nasty grey film (stay tuned for further recipes in the next few days as I struggle to use up the monster that I just purchased). If you use the whole thing, pray you have like, 6 people to eat with you.

So the simplest thing to do is to chop the cabbage as finely as you can or grate it (personal texture preference, really: I like the chewiness of cabbage and I think it gets weird and slimy when you grate it, but my darling roommate of two years past who has since moved to SF and who, as she will be a presence on these pages, will be dubbed the Island Girl, is all about it). Next salt it pretty heavily as it sits in your bowl and scrunch it a few times with your hands: that gets its juices flowing and makes it softer (not unlike sugar on strawberries). Also, it is delightful to scrunch cabbage with your hands -- if you never have, you have missed on a vital delight in life.

The absolute simplest thing you can do is squirt some fresh lemon juice on your chopped cabage, add a tablespoon or two of mustard (the spicier the better), glug some olive oil in there and sprinkle with dill weed (or, chopped fresh dill if your local supermarket hasn't reduced it to a slimy wilted mess through their incessant and infuriating over-watering; NB: when purchasing dill -- which they always also insist on giving you in bunches that no human being can ever reasonably consume on one's own -- dry it out for half a day on your counter and blow some air into the bag you're storing it in so that the bag puffs up: that will help with the slimy wilting; same thing for cilantro). You may leave it at that, or you may start experimenting: for example, crumbled goat cheese and sliced red grapes are divine with cabbage! The bright juicy red grapes contrast nicely and the creaminess of the goat cheese brings out the cabbage flavor really well. Apples, I assume, would go wonderfully as well (stay tuned for tomorrow's post -- I have an interesting salad in the works). Strawberries?? Will report shortly.

Or ... erm, you can look into your fridge, remember that you're a strange combination of a foodie and supermarketphobe who thus always goes into a supermarket, panics from all the choices, skitters around in a frenzy and forgets the fact that she needs things like mustard (again! dammit!), look at the scorching 95 degrees of Philly summer (yes, it's so hot you can see those 95 degrees weighing down every leaf), decide you're too lazy to return to the site of your repeated trauma ... and just put mayonnaise on your cabbage, nothing else, being sure to remember with horror and instantly repress that you had mayonnaise with your soft-boiled eggs that morning and go on with your disgusting but delicious Slavic cholesterol-packed existence.

Music: Black Eyed Peas - "I Gotta Feeling" (on repeat, while dancing in kitchen like a crazy person, lulled into false sense of complacency by large and, we assume, impenetrable oak tree looming before kitchen window)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Let us begin, fair reader, with a simple and delicious thing: Russian beet salad, intriguingly known in Russian itself as “vinaigrette” for reasons unclear and naught to do with balsamic.


Ingredients (you’ll see why my recipes are “impressionistic” in a second):
6 or so small-medium beets or 3 or so large ones
4-5 new red potatoes (or any other waxy potato)
6-7 small dill pickles, 3-4 medium (you want hardcore garlicky pickles, none of that Vlasic shit: I recommend Klaussen from the regular supermarket and, of course, any proper artisanal ones)
half a white onion (NOT red, not yellow: white)
a few fronds of dill
1 generous glug of olive oil to taste

OK, here’s the deal with any beet recipes: you’re going to read almost everywhere that you want to soften the beets by boiling them in salted water, yadda yadda. You may certainly do that, but you will regret it because boiling beets leeches out their divine flavor. In fact, I hated beets my entire life because I’d always had them boiled, until I ended up with a bunch in a farm share earlier this summer and wondered if maybe baking them would make a difference in the flavor. A world of difference, reader! Baked they are divine, fragrant, juicy, perfect – take my advice and bake them for use in any beet recipe, be it borscht (we’ll get there), a simple side or a salad. So, take the beets, DO NOT PEEL, cut off their tails, cut the greens off leaving about an inch (and, if fresh, reserve those leafy babies, you’ll see why). Stick beets into a glass casserole with a lid (deep baking pan and tinfoil will do fine though) and shove them in the oven at 350 for 1 hr - 1hr 20 min.

In the (ample) mean time, boil your potatoes in salted water until you can easily stick a knife through them, dice them finely when they’re done; chop the pickles, onion and dill. Remove your finished fragrant beets and run them under cold water – the skins should pop off easily under your fingers. I ought to warn you that this will get delightfully messy: do not wear anything you value, do not attempt to answer the phone and pray to God you don’t need to answer the door because you will (a) look to the world like a serial killer with red up to your elbows and (b) leave red handprints everywhere à la Tobias when he auditioned for the Blue Man Group. (FYI, beet juice does wash out easily; it just looks messy.) But once the skins are off, dice away like the beet killer you are, add to the bowl, glug in your olive oil and you, fair reader, will have delicious. You’ve got the baked sweetness of the beet, the soft mildness of the red potato, the bite of the white onion and the kick of the pickle. Not one mouthful will taste like the other because all the elements are intense, yet complementary, and each bite will be more pickle, or more beet, or more onion, and will taste differently every time.

Beet greens! If you’re lucky and your beet greens are still fresh (an important consideration when buying beets by the bunch: they don’t keep well either, so if you get fresh ones, try to use them the same day), treat them like you would any kind of green leafy thing. Salt and steam (preferably) or boil them in some salted water. Fry some diced onions and garlic in olive oil in a pan about 2-3 min until the onion is translucent and then dump in your steamed or boiled leafy goodness. When the leaves are wilted and take up about half their original space – you will have an extra side dish that tastes delicious and everyone will be like, oooh, two side dishes, and you’ll be all like, dude, one veggie = 2 sides, economy in these drastic times, bitches!

Music: Chris Garneau, Music for Tourists

By Way of Introduction

What better way to start life in a new apartment living alone for the first time ever than by starting a food blog, I ask you? Now you’d think I started a food blog because I moved into an apartment with some phenomenally equipped kitchen. Um, no, I’m starting a food blog in despite of my kitchen: that sorry excuse furnished by a landlord with a strangely overdeveloped sense of aesthetics and remarkably underdeveloped sense of how kitchens actually … work. Something tells me his wife does all the cooking in his own house. I ought to explain that I first saw the apartment while it was being renovated, and the sheer enormity of the space, the height of the ceilings and the quality of the light completely enchanted me. One month later, on my move-in day, I found … a stove, a sink with a counter built around it leaving only exactly enough space for a drying rack and a fridge. Mind, between the sink and the fridge, where you would reasonably expect a continuation of the counter, there was simply nothing. But here’s the kicker: the walls were tiled with gorgeous shiny brand-new white tiles painted in an attractive red and white pattern. All the walls.  Because my landlord decided not to put in any kitchen cabinets. Any cabinets at all. And the cherry on top had to be, without a doubt, the false drawers in the only counter space available. 

But I couldn’t very well move out of a huge airy apartment ten minutes away from the University with heat included in the rent because of a lack of counter space and cabinets, now could I? So being the resourceful girl that I am, I paid a visit to the friendly and amazing Second Mile down the street and purchased a hulking kitchen cupboard with drawers. And this is what I mean when I say that I am starting a food blog in despite of my kitchen. Perhaps even to spite my kitchen, I don’t know. 

I suppose at this point some indication as to what kind of food blog you’re getting yourself into, fair reader, might be in order. If you are one of those people who reads Epicurious and feels their heart sink at the incredible array of expensive sounding ingredients (arctic char??) and bizarre “special equipment” indications … don’t worry, I’m with you. I love to cook, but I love to cook for fun, and fun for me means simplicity and deliciousness. I’m a graduate student, after all, and I need just enough cooking to unwind – it’s my stress relief, not its source. Also, I am a graduate student, so I won’t be getting all fancy-schmancy on you either. I gather recipes from friends, family, the Internet, cookbooks and my own imagination and find ways to alter, simplify and generally adapt to my erm, creative?? impulses. (I have been helpfully informed that my recipe writing is “… impressionistic” and that watching me cook is like observing a knife-wielding tornado in action. While neither of these assessments is particularly prepossessing, people do seem to enjoy the results, the two snarky commentators included). 

So be prepared for a whole lot of veggie (green leafy things seemingly fit for bunnies, seitan, tempeh -- yep, the whole shebang), an attempt at baking once Philthadelphia stops being disgusting, and an array of my interpretive takes on my parents’ interpretive takes on traditional Russian cuisine. :)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Greetings, fair stranger!

Welcome to the Land of Milk and Honey! Unfortunately, as I have recently discovered, the title "Land of Milk and Honey" has been taken up by a vast amount of porn sites on the Internet, but I promise you this is just a food blog, :).