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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Okroshka, or the weirdest soup you ever ate

This is my go-to cold summer soup—tangy, tasty, healthy, crunchy, and delicious. I made it last weekend and have been eating it all week. I may have posted this last summer ((last time I made it). If so, bear with me. I posted a picture on the NYT Cooking Community page and got over seventy-five reactions and a few comments, so I thought it worth sharing again.

Okroshka is Russian, originally made with kefir, a fermented milk drink. You can make it with any combination of buttermilk, nonfat yogurt, or sour cream. Basically, it’s diced meat and vegetables in a broth of buttermilk or whatever combination you choose. There are many recipes online, some with ingredients that I can’t quite imagine. I’ve seen suggestions of sugar, mustard, hot dogs, bologna. More reasonable suggestions, to me, might be ham and green peas.

Most recipes call for diluting the dairy with water. Some says two parts dairy to one part water; others call for equal parts. I followed the recipe, used equal parts water and buttermilk, and thought the broth was too thin. So I recommend 2:1. I chose to stick with buttermilk, just because I really like it. I think yogurt would be good too, but I am not so sure about sour cream. I think you need the tanginess of buttermilk or yogurt.

Here’s the version I made:


2 small Yukon gold potatoes, cooked, cooled, peeled, and diced

4 hard-boiled eggs, diced

6-8 small radishes, sliced (the bigger the radish, the tougher it will be)

2-3 cups diced meat – chicken or ham

1 bunch fresh dill, minced

4 green onions, chopped

2 quarts buttermilk

1 quart water

3 lemons

½ tsp. salt

Dice and chop vegetables and meat and put in a large bowl--really large because this makes a whole lot. In a separate large container, mix dairy, water, lemon juice, and salt. Pour the dairy mixture over the meat and vegetables, and stir to mix.

Chill thoroughly to serve. Add more salt if needed.

This makes a satisfying one-dish meal—for several meals. You could halve it if you want.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

All about potato salad

Barbecue, hot dogs, pickles, cole slaw, potato salad—I hope you’ll have it all for the Fourth of July, but because of quarantine and social distancing, it’s going to be a different kind of a holiday this year. Maybe you’ll forego the usual big cookout and just do some hot dogs in the back yard for your family. But of course, you’ll have potato salad. It’s a must.

We are a family of devoted consumers of this ubiquitous dish—but we each have our own take on it. Jordan likes a yellow mustard version, made with salad mustard. When I was young, an Italian cook at the hospital where Dad worked taught Mom a trick with potato salad—peel the potatoes immediately after cooking (ouch for your fingers!), cube, and douse with vinaigrette. Let that soak in before you add eggs, celery, onion, pickle, mustard and mayo, and whatever you like. When I make that kind of old-fashioned potato salad, I used dijon in place of the bright yellow stuff.

Christian likes a hot potato salad that I make, modeled on German sweet/sour stuff though I tend to minimize the sweet. And me? Sometimes I like a French version, where the potatoes and onions are in vinaigrette, no mayo. Add capers if you like. My recipe this week is sort of a variation on that.

But potato salad comes in many versions. My files contain recipes for a salad made with fresh corn and basil, or one with bacon. Some people liked hard-boiled eggs, and others reject them. Some other things you might consider adding: radishes, artichoke hearts, cornichons, blue cheese, tuna, green beans—unlimited choices are yours to experiment with.

One of my favorite recipes comes from an Austin barbecue chain called County Line. One thing I learned from it is contrary to everything else I’ve ever heard—boil potatoes with skins on (use large baking potatoes) and chill. They are so much easier to peel and dice when cold. The original recipe calls for 5.5 lbs. Idaho potatoes—about four large ones—and makes enough to feed Coxey’s Army, but you can easily halve it. The distinctive feature is a whopping 16 oz. of dill pickle relish if you make the whole batch. Before you decide that’s too much, let me assure you it is not overwhelming but gives a great tang to the salad. (I’m getting hungry writing this!) You can find the recipe for County Line Potato Salad all over the internet.

Here’s a family favorite, a different take that I got from a friend. Please note you have to work fast with hot potatoes for this one.

Lemon Potato Salad (serves 8)

6 medium red potatoes

1 small onion, finely diced

½ c. celery diced

¼ to ½ c. chopped parsley

2 tsp. grated lemon peel (use your microplane)

3-4 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (do not use bottled)

3-4 Tbsp. salad oil

1 Tbsp. salt (do not skimp on this – it’s important)

¼ tsp. pepper

Make the sauce of the last five ingredients first and let it sit while you boil potatoes with skins on until tender. Drain. Peel and dice while still warm. Pour sauce over the warm potatoes and onion. Stir to coat everything well. Add celery and parsley. Chill before serving.

Note: the original recipe called for a small jar of diced pimiento. It would give the salad a nice touch of color, but I’m not wild about the flavor and prefer to omit it.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Comfort food with a bad reputation

I am frequently teased about some of the things I eat that no one else will touch. For instance, I grew up eating corned beef tongue, and few things are better to me than tongue sandwich on good deli rye bread. When I was a kid my mom served kidneys and bacon, and I’d like to try kidneys again, but you can no longer find a couple lamb kidneys in the meat counter. I’m told you have to order a case. No, thank you. Escargot? Raw oysters? Bring ‘em on. (You can see why Christian and Jordan sometimes despair of my culinary habits).

So here’s another thing that lots of people turn their noses up at, but I think is pretty good: chipped beef. Basically it is beef that has been pressed, salted, and air-dried. It is sliced into thin pieces and sold packed in jars. A 2.5 oz. jar of chipped beef will  feed four.

Unfortunately, creamed chipped beef on toast became a staple MRE (military ready=to-eat meal) and gained a bad reputation as “shit on a shingle.” You can even search the internet for that phrase and come up with the same recipes you get on a search for creamed chipped beef. It’s a quick, easy meal, one that carries me back to my childhood, and I’m making soon on a night I dine alone.

Creamed chipped beef

3 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. flour

2 c. milk

Pinch of ground nutmeg

¼ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. onion powder

½ tsp. pepper

3 dashes Worcestershire

½ tsp. Dijon mustard (optional)

1 2.5 oz. jar chipped beef


Chopped parsley or chives for garnish

You’ll notice there is no salt in the recipe—chipped beef is already salted, and you may want to rinse it in cold water.

Chop the beef and set aside. Melt butter in a skillet and stir in flour. Gradually add milk, stirring until smooth with each addition. When the roux is the consistency you want, season with nutmeg, onion and garlic powders, Worcestershire, pepper, and mustard if using. Cook until it thickens a bit and stir in beef.

Serve on toast and garnish with parsley or chives if you wish.

You can halve this recipe, serving two, which leaves you with half a jar of chipped beef. Don’t let it go to waste—make a dip.

Chipped beef dip

Half jar of chipped beef, rinsed and salted

2 oz. cream cheese

2 oz. sour cream

2 or 3 green onions, chopped fine

About ¼ of an envelope of dry ranch dressing mix

Mix ingredients and chill. Especially nice served on with cocktail rye or pumpernickel.

Just don’t say SOS to anyone when you serve these two dishes.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Learning something new—and enjoying Mongolian beef

Christian, the chef de cuisine at our small family compound, has taught me another lesson. I don’t like flank steak. Yes, I know that Asian cooking does wonderful, flavorful things with that cut, but I always find it tough and chewy. And I hate to have to work that hard for my dinner.

One night recently Christian made Mongolian beef. I’d had it at Pei Wei, that Asian fast-food chain, and thought it was okay. Christian’s was much better than just okay—and it was as tender as the finest cut of meat. The secret, he told me, was in a technique called velveting.

Velveting is apparently specific to Chinese cuisine, though I would think you could use it for other types of food. It involves coating the meat before cooking with cornstarch (sometimes a combination of egg white, corn starch, and sherry or rice vinegar is used). This helps the meat retain moisture and prevents muscle fibers from “seizing up” during cooking. The result is tender meat with a velvety texture.

Here’s the recipe Christian used:

Mongolian beef

1 lb. flank teak

¼ c. cornstarch

¼ c. canola oil

2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced

1 tsp. minced garlic

1/3 c. light soy sauce

1/3 c. water

½ c. dark brown sugar

4 scallions, green part only, chopped into ½ pieces


Slice the beef against the grain (the grain goes the length of the piece of meat) into thin slices, about a quarter inch. Coat with cornstarch, put in a plastic bag.  Shake it to make sure each piece of meat is thoroughly coated. Let sit briefly.

On medium high, heat canola oil in skillet. Shake any excess cornstarch off the meat and cook in a single layer, about a minute on each side. To avoid crowding the skillet, cook the meat in batches so you get a good sear. A crowded skillet steams meat rather than searing it, and you want that sear for flavor.

Remove meat from skillet and add ginger and garlic. Sauté briefly until aroma rises from the pan. Do not scorch. Add soy sauce, water, and brown sugar. Sir and bring to a boil.

Return the meat to the skillet and cook about half a minute while the sauce thickens. If the sauce doesn’t thicken to your taste, mix 1 Tbsp. cornstarch thoroughly into 1 tbsp. cold water and add to skillet.

Cook for another half minutes, scatter green onion pieces over the dish. and serve immediately. Rice makes a good accompaniment.

Another meat I don’t like: dry chicken. I often avoid chicken breast unless served with a plentiful sauce, because I find it dry and chewy. Now I’m wondering if you couldn’t velvet chicken pieces before gentle poaching, for instance. And I remember Pei Wei used to serve scallops in a sauce similar to the Mongolian beef sauce. That, too, would be worth a try.