Monday, March 17, 2014

Lasagna

First things first: I am now on Instagram! I know, I know, I've been slow to join, but I really did not dig the square format limitations and the FILTERS! Now that I've figured out that things do not have to be square, here I come. I hope to see you there!

Oh yeah, I am @alina_who on Instagram.

Now, about today's dish. There isn't really much to say about it. It is lasagna. Few people will turn down a nice piece of hot, savory, cheesy lasagna. Am I right?? Not particularly healthy, this is the dish that you eat against your better judgment, simply because it is so darn tasty.


Below is the recipe for the traditional kind of lasagna, the one where you have to boil your noodles separately. Although I did use the whole grain kind this time.


Lasagna

Serves 8

1 lb (500 gr) ground beef or turkey
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 teaspoon sugar
32 oz (1000 ml) canned diced tomatoes or ready made pasta sauce
12 lasagna noodles
1 15 oz (500 gr) package ricotta
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 tablespoon fresh or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 cups (8 oz, 250 gr) shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup grated parmesan

In a deep skillet or heavy pot brown ground beef. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add garlic and saute 2 more minutes. Add 2 tablespoons parsley, basil, sugar and tomatoes and cook on medium low 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Cook the noodles according to the package directions.

Mix ricotta, 1/4 cup Parmesan, 1 tablespoon parsley and oregano.

Spread 1 cup of the sauce mixture on the bottom of the 13X9 in (33X23 cm) baking dish. Cover with 4 noodles, overlapping. Spread 1 cup ricotta mixture over the noodles, then spread 1 cup tomato sauce on top. Sprinkle with 2/3 cup mozzarella. Repeat with 4 noodles, remaining ricotta mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce and 2/3 cup mozzarella. Cover with remaining 4 noodles, remaining sauce and mozzarella. Sprinkle 1/4 cup Parmesan on top. 

Cover tightly with foil and bake 30 min. Remove foil and bake another 15 min. Let stand 15 min at room temperature before cutting and serving.


Friday, March 7, 2014

International Women's Day

Tomorrow is March 8, a huge holiday in Russia. To think that I almost forgot if not for a friend who reminded me! Clearly, I've been living in the US too long :).

On March 8 the Russians celebrate "The International Women's Day." Like so many aspects of life in the Soviet Union, this was a politicized holiday, to celebrate the liberation of the Soviet woman from discrimination, domestic work, and whatever else she needed liberating from. Over the years, naturally, all political rhetoric ceased to have any meaning to normal people and this day turned into simply celebrating women for being women.

If it sounds odd to you, please know that I find it a little odd too. Unlike Mother's Day, you don't need to be a mom to be celebrated. Unlike Valentine's, you do not have to have a romantic partner to celebrate. All you need is to simply be a woman, no matter the age (and that's the best thing about this holiday: it is a great equalizer!).

The holiday is so big that it is actually an official day off for everyone in Russia. On that day, men give flowers to women in their lives: their wives, mothers, daughters, co-workers. Boys "congratulate" their female classmates and teachers. This is the day when people actually get together around festive tables with food and drinks; school parties are held; and even at the office it will not be strange to have some zakuski (hors d'oeuvres) and champagne.

Cakes and flowers are prominently featured, as befits a holiday in honor of women. Honey Cake is one of the favorites, as is the Zebra.

So here's to the International Women's Day!


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Honey Lavender Cookies with Pistachios


I am sure I am not unique in finding baking therapeutic. When things are not going the way I'd like, it is very comforting to go to the kitchen and bake something. I know it sounds funny, but it's a great activity that keeps my hands busy and puts pleasant thoughts in my head. I love the magic of combining a bunch of dry ingredients with a bunch of wet ingredients, subjecting them to some heat and poof! You have a completely new product with a completely different texture. Besides, it is not just any product, it is something sweet and delightful. A treat. So here's to the magic of baking!


These cookies came about when I was flipping through the Oprah magazine and saw a bunch of recipes that use such natural sweeteners as maple syrup, honey and agave syrup. Now, I am not a fan of healthy baking. I think that trying to make desserts healthy by taking away fat and sugar defeats the purpose. The taste almost always suffers, and what's the point in eating desserts of not for their wonderful taste? Surely not to keep yourself healthy!


However, I HAVE baked with honey (my very popular and much pinned Winnie the Pooh cake, for example), and I do like how it behaves in baked goods. So I decided to give a shot to using it in cookies. I needed to find something to flavor the cookies with so as not to have them taste too plain. My first thought was black sesame seeds (like in one of my favorite coffee cakes which I now realize I have not written here about :)). But then I remembered lavender. Lovely flavor, if you ask me. The key here is not to overdo it lest your cookies will remind you of lavender soap :).


So here I present to you honey lavender cookies. Their sunny complexion comes from cornmeal, which also gives them a slight bite.


Honey Lavender Cookies

Makes 32

2 sticks (226 gr) butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cups honey (spray the inside of the measuring cup with baking spray to avoid sticking)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
2 cups flour
2/3 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dry culinary lavender, rubbed between fingers
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

In medium bowl combine butter, honey, vanilla and egg yolks. In separate bowl combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and lavender. Combine the two mixtures. Refrigerate the batter for about 30 minutes, until stiff enough to shape into balls.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350F (180C).

Shape dough into 32 balls, dip the top of each ball into chopped pistachios. Place on baking sheets 2 inches apart to allow for spreading. Bake 13-15 min, cool on rack. The cookies taste best on the same day they are baked.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stuffed Bell Peppers


Right now I am in the middle of the 5 minutes in my life where I feel completely caught up. A magical moment. The kids' school and extra curricular activities are up to date, all the demands of teachers and coaches met (I think?). Clients lined up to keep me busy at work - which is an amazing thing for a freelancer as you never feel you can relax and not worry about your next gig. I even exercised this morning with a clear conscience and painted my nails a lovely candy color (blueish lilac, if you must know). Life is good. I want to remember this moment.


And what about the food? Ah, of course, food. How about we talk about stuffed peppers? Those are extremely popular in Russia, especially in the summer months, when bell peppers are abundant. It is the smell of my childhood summer weekends: bell peppers being cooked by my mom, then served with sour cream. Bell peppers are different in Russia from what we see here in regular supermarkets: they are longer, more delicate and have thinner skin. They are usually referred to as "sweet peppers" or "Bulgarian peppers."


This is not my mom's recipe. My mom cooked a very simple version: ground meat (beef or pork) and rice stuffed inside peppers and stewed with tomatoes. This version has added cheese to bind the filling together and instead of stewing them we will bake them. Because American bell peppers are so thick-skinned we will have to pre-cook them in water - a trick I learned from a cookbook.


Stuffed Bell Peppers

1 tablespoon salt
4 bell peppers, cored
1/2 cup white rice
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, pressed through garlic press
~3/4 lb ground beef
 1 can (14.5 oz, 450 gr) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 1/4 cups (140 gr) grated cheese, such as Cheddar and Monterey Jack
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped dill
freshly ground black pepper

In a pot, bring to boil enough water to cover the peppers. Add salt and peppers and cook about 3 minutes, until soft. Remove with slotted spoon and let cool. In the meantime, cook rice in the same water the peppers were cooked in, for about 13 minutes. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Saute onions in oil until translucent, add garlic and cook another minute. Add ground beef and cook until brown, breaking up lumps. Mix this mixture with rice, tomatoes, cheese, parsley, dill and pepper. Divide this filling between the 4 peppers. Sprinkle more cheese on top if desired. Bake about 25-30 minutes. Serve with sour cream if you desire authentically Russian experience :).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fudgy Chocolate Chip Cookies


I've really been struggling with photographing these cookies. Chocolate is generally tricky to photograph, but it is especially the case with these cookies. How do you convey their dark, intense chocolate-ness (bumped up by adding coffee into the mix) and their soft, almost fudge-y texture? Well, anyway, here it is. I can wait no longer. I must share, good photos or not. For a few years now I have been baking these cookies several times a year, getting *rave reviews* (pardon the cliche). They also freeze well. I found the recipe in my go-to book Baking Illustrated from America's Test Kitchen and modified/simplified it over the years (those guys are way too meticulous when writing their recipes!).


Are you all ready for summer? It's almost here! Wishing you a great, sunny and bubbly week.


Fudgy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes about 3.5 dozen

16 oz (450 gr) dark baking chocolate, chopped, or semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-processed)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant coffee
10 tablespoons (150 gr) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups brown sugar (light or dark), packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Melt chocolate in microwave and let cool. Mix the next 4 ingredients in a separate bowl, set aside. In a small bowl or cup lightly whisk eggs with vanilla and coffee, set aside. Using electric mixer, cream butter with brown and granulated sugar until fluffy. With the mixer running, add the egg mixture, then chocolate. Beat until combined. Add four mixture, mix until just combined (do not overmix). Mix in chocolate chips.

Refrigerate batter for 30 min to let it thicken. In the meantime, heat oven to 350F (180C) and line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using 1 3/4 inch spring loaded ice cream scoop, shape cookies placing them at least an inch apart (to allow for spreading). Bake 12 minutes (the cookies will be very soft in the center). Allow to cool on sheet for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire racksto cool completely.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Grilled Chicken Salad


Well, what do you know - May 1 is National Salad Day. Not sure who decided that it is, in fact, a national "day," but hey, our nation could only benefit from supporting all things healthy. I learned about it from the great folks at Tastespotting who have joined forces with DOLE Salads to promote the event.


My love for salads comes and goes. Sometimes I think I cannot face another green leaf on my plate, and sometimes I crave the tart fresh crunch of green salad dressed in vinaigrette. With the warmth and the sun of springtime it is definitely time for salad.

This salad was heavily influenced by Nicoise - boiled eggs and potatoes, olives, vinaigrette - but instead of green beans I have a very Russian vegetable, radishes. And grilled chicken instead of the tuna.


Grilled Chicken Salad

Will probably serve 2 slender girls for lunch :)

1 grilled chicken breast, sliced
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
2 small thin-skinned potatoes, scrubbed, boiled and quartered
4 handfuls spring salad mix
12 Kalamata olives
4 radishes, sliced

For vinaigrette
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt
freshly ground black pepper

Divide salad mix between two plates, place the rest of the ingredients on top. Whisk vinaigrette components with a fork until emulsified, dress the salad.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Butter Cookies with Dried Cherries, Chocolate and Nuts

First things first: my recipe for the Tres Leches Cake has been featured on NoshOn.It - "a free daily cooking newsletter that helps bring new ideas to your kitchen." How exciting! NoshOn.It is a pretty cool website with an impressive cadre of contributors. Every time I visit it I linger, following the links to various fascinating food blogs.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. And what we had scheduled are these butter cookies covered with a layer of chocolate and sprinkled with nuts. I got the recipe for the cookie dough from Cook's Illustrated. The cookie is tasty and versatile: for example, it beautifully pairs with one of my favorites, dulce de leche, by sandwiching it between plain cookies.


While it is best to follow the recipe closely when baking the cookies, the topping is more forgiving. You can use any chocolate you fancy, as long as it melts nicely. Severe chocoholics among us can use more chocolate than the recipe calls for. You will be all the happier for it.


I had an assortment of nuts still in their shells sitting in a bowl on the counter top. While beautiful to look at, these nuts had to be eaten eventually. Food intended for purely decorative purposes is sad, I believe, like those fondant roses that look beautiful but taste gross. So that's where these nuts went - onto the cookies! The kids had a blast cracking these babies open with a rock on the back yard, just like I did as kid.

Like with the chocolate, you can use whatever nuts you prefer.


Shortbread Cookies with Dried Cherries, Chocolate and Nuts

2 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
1 cup dried cherries

9 oz chocolate, chopped, or 1 1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 375F. Line 12X18 inch baking sheet with parchment.

Using electric mixer, mix together flour, sugar and salt. Add butter 1 tablespoon at a time mixing until dough begins to form. Add vanilla and cream cheese, mix well. Mix in dried cherries.

Press dough evenly onto baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 20 min.

In the meantime, melt chocolate in microwave (stop and stir frequently to ensure even melting). Spread chocolate over warm cookie layer. Sprinkle with nuts. Let cool and cut into bars.

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