This is the ultimate Russian winter comfort food, and it’s very easy to make. The only secret is, the potatoes and the mushrooms have to be cooked separately, then combined just before serving. Why can’t we make it a one-skillet meal? Because the mushrooms need salt early, to help them release their water and become crisp; the potatoes, on the other hand, cook best without salt, that will make them break down and lose their shape, if added too early.
Here I made this dish with store-bought crimini mushrooms. Back in Russia we used any type of foraged forest mushrooms, with even more delicious results, or, in the middle of the winter, when no fresh mushrooms were available, we would rinse pickled mushrooms to remove the brine, and then proceed with the recipe.
I like to season my mushrooms with a little thyme, garlic, and fresh ground pepper. Most Russian cooks go for sautéed onions, and leave out the pepper. Try it both ways. Both are good.
Sautéed potatoes with mushrooms
For the potatoes:
2 Tbsp olive oil
5 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes, cook, stirring occasionally, until almost tender. Season with sea salt, continue cooking until cooked through.
For the mushrooms:
2 Tbsp olive oil
8 oz crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/8 inch thin
Fresh ground black pepper
2 large garlic cloves, minced
5-6 thyme sprigs, leaves picked, stems discarded
Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, season generously with salt and pepper. Cook until the mushrooms release the liquid and it evaporates. Add garlic and thyme. Continue cooking until mushrooms and garlic are browned.
Combine potatoes with mushrooms, serve as a side to braised meat, or on their own.
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People often tell me: we love what you do; such a wonderful service, we wish we could afford it. In most cases they don’t realize that they actually can afford the service.
When I cook a week’s or two week’s worth of meals for my client, I work all day in their kitchen, so they have to pay me for a whole day of work; and I buy tons of groceries to put all these meals together. The total price looks big. But when you consider the amounts of food that you get as a result, the price per meal is actually lower than when you dine in a mid-range restaurant.
Today’s package was a “4×6″: 4 main dishes, with sides, 6 servings each, and a pot of soup. 24 complete dinners.
Wild mushroom and barley soup
Steelhead trout fillet, dill sauce
Roasted duck legs with rosemary and orange
Fillet mignon, creamy mushroom sauce
Caribbean pulled pork
Roasted potato “fries”
Garlic and lemon green beans
Mixed root vegetables, honey-orange glaze
My fee for this service is $325. The cost of the groceries today was $149.24. The total bill was $474.24, or $19.76 per dinner. Less then for a decent burger and fries in a restaurant.
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Location:Mill Valley, CA
Short days, cold rains, the flu season… This is when we need more vitamins in our diet, to fight off this cold, and more colors on our plates, to add cheer to the long nights in front of the fire. Luckily, here in California, the winter farmers market supplies both.
Winter vegetables come in a palette of soft whites, muted purples, deep greens, and warm yellows; they go well with the gold of roasted chicken and duck, deep browns of braised meats, and the neutral tones of earthy grains. They prefer slow, thoughtful cooking techniques; they are complimented with sturdy winter herbs – thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, parsley. Winter vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and micro-nutrients that help us survive the cold and boost our energy when we need it most.
Beets come in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, golden, white. Slice very young, tender raw beets for salads, both roots and tops. Roast larger beets for salads, soups, or to serve as a side dish: trim the greens, leaving 1 inch attached (save the greens to add to soups or braised greens), wash the beets, place them in an oven-proof dish, add 2-3 Tbsp water, cover with aluminum foil, roast at 400 degrees until tender (pierce with a wooden pick through the foil to check), 30-60 minutes, depending on the size; let cool, peel. The beets are complimented with balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic, truffle oil, thyme.
Broccoli adds emerald green color and a wealth of minerals to the plate. Separate the florets, peel and slice the stems, steam in a steamer or in a microwave until tender, refresh in ice water to stop cooking and to preserve the color. My favorite way to serve the broccoli is as a cold salad with dried cranberries and sliced almonds, with a dressing of almond butter, Tamari soy sauce, and olive oil.
Brussels sprouts like to steam, sauté, or roast. They are complimented by garlic, lemon (grate the rind over them, squeeze the juice), and mild olive oil.
Cabbage comes in green and red, and in plain and crinkled Savoy varieties. The large outer leaves, blanched, make wrappers for cabbage rolls, with rice, vegetables, meats, or anything. The tender center leaves go into soups and sautés. Green cabbages have an affinity with apples, pears, caraway seed, white wine, and onions. All cabbages go beautifully with bacon and smoked meats.
Carrot adds sunny color, sweetness and vitamins to everything it touches. There are white, gold, and purple varieties too. Love it raw!
Cauliflower is not just a white flower. It’s also gold, green, and purple flower! All colors do well steamed until almost tender, then sautéed, or prepared ou gratin. Cream of cauliflower soup is a life-saver for people who can’t tolerate milk products: the pureed cauliflower supplies the creamy texture, no cream needed.
Celery: the crunchy stalks are a perfect snack, great for dipping; the classic combination of chopped onions, celery, and carrot, sautéed in a mixture of olive oil and butter, can enhance any soup or transform a grain dish. Celery also makes a great soup on it’s own. Did I mention Bloody Mary?
Chard is a close relative of beets, and the leaves come in the same palette of jewel colors, and can be used the same ways as the beet tops. Steam, sauté, braise.
Fennel, thinly sliced, adds subtle anise flavor to salads, soups and stews. It’s also great prepared au gratin.
Garlic is love, and an indispensable ingredient in almost every savory, and some sweet dishes. Every time I heat up an oven to roast anything, I also toss in a head of garlic, wrapped in aluminum foil. Serve roasted garlic with a cheese and fruit plate, add it to mashed potatoes, spread it on top of steaks, mix it into sauces for roasted meats and vegetables. Large garlic cloves, sliced thin and fried in olive oil, make garlic chips, a nice garnish to meat dishes.
Grapefruit – juice it! This time of the year, we need tons of vitamin C, and the grapefruit delivers it, together with the tangy and pleasantly bitter flavor, and a wonderful aroma. Like most citrus fruits, it’s a natural antidepressant.
Kale is a leafy cabbage, and it works well in the same types of preparations. I love to use kale leaves to wrap rice, vegetables, and meats, to make kale rolls. I also like it braised with onion, bacon, and white wine. Black Tuscan kale, aka Dino kale, aka “the favorite”, is the darkest of them all, and has the deepest flavor and the highest vitamin content. It is friends with white beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Leek, a mild, subtle green onion, works well in delicate soups. Also, try browning it in butter, than braising it with white wine and shallots, low and slow, until it’s melting tender. Addictive. The white part is to eat; I use the green part to flavor stocks.
Lemon, my second main staple after garlic, is indispensable with fish and shellfish; it takes any green vegetable dish to the next level (think garlic and lemon green beans, or Meyer lemon roasted Brussels sprouts), and it’s one of the best flavorings for a roasted chicken.
Mandarin: eat it out of hand, or add it to a green salad.
Onion, you already know… I like to marinate thin slices of red onion in 1 part sherry vinegar, 3 parts boiling water, with salt, sugar, and spices (whatever I’m in a mood for; say, allspice, cloves and cinnamon), to top burgers
Parsley root adds deeper, earthier flavor than parsley leaves to soups and stocks. My grandma always used the whole parsley plant, tops and roots, to make a soup. I like it her way. The root also roasts well, and is a nice, flavorful addition to roasted root vegetables.
Parsnip used to be a European staple food, before the potatoes arrived. It still mashes well, and a combination of mashed parsnips and potatoes is even better.
Potato. They say that the classic chefs toque has 101 pleats that represent 101 potato dishes that the chef knows how to make. I’m not there yet: I routinely make about 40 potato dishes. But my toque only has 17 pleats! I need a new toque. My latest favorite potato dish is smashed potatoes with garlic and herbs: boil gold, red, and purple potatoes until tender; let cool; mince garlic, thyme, rosemary, and parsley with some sea salt; spread the herb mixture on the cutting board; with the palm of your hand, smash the potatoes into the herb mixture; heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a large pan over medium heat; transfer smashed potatoes to the pan, cook until fragrant and golden, turning once.
Radish: winter radishes have thick skins and strong flavors. I like to peel them and cook them. Black Spanish and Watermelon radishes are great roasted.
Rutabaga: the big gentle “Swede” is sweet, and is at it’s best roasted, or as a puree.
Turnip is sweet and crunchy. Peel it and roast it, boil it, or sauté it, then glaze it with honey and apple juice, balsamic vinegar, or soy sauce.
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Location:San Carlos, CA
It’s always hard to come back from a vacation, especially one so perfect and food-centered as this one. Here are a few pictures from our South Pacific island feast.
Our destination was Tonga, an island kingdom located between Fiji, Samoa, and Cooks Islands, a short three-hour flight from New Zealand. From Auckland we took an Air New Zealand flight to the Tonga capital Nuku’alofa, then a charter flight in an antique 1944 DC3 airplane to the Vava’u island group, where we chartered a sailing catamaran to sail between the islands.
Picture a perfect tropical island, with a coral reef, a sandy beach, and coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, surrounded by deep blue waters, full of fish, dolphins, and whales. Now picture sixty of these islands, a few of them with little native villages or fishing resorts, most of them uninhibited, within one-hour sail from each other. This is Vava’u island group.
Tongans love their food, and are very proud of it. The local diet is based on tropical vegetables (taro, sweet potato) and fruits (coconut, pineapple, bananas), with a lot of fresh fish and shellfish, and some pork, with some potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lettuce thrown in. At the farmers market in the main town Neiafu you get a large basket of coconuts for $7 paangas ($1 paanga roughly equals 60 US cents), and a bunch of bananas or a pile of pineapples for $3 paangas.
Farmers market in Neiafu:
This is what we were using for snacks while sailing. Our regular afternoon after diving and snorkeling snack consisted of New Zealand cheese, salami, and crackers with bananas and pineapple slices, and a drink of an unripe coconut with a shot of rum poured in.
For breakfasts, I made simple omelets with bacon and cheese for those who were hungry in the morning; those who were not subsided on instant porridge, bananas, Turkish coffee and green tea.
Our divers and fishing lines proved to be useless in the South seas: the fish shied away from the divers, and it never got the lure. I had to go fishing at the farmers market. Fortunately, the local fishermen they sell them (cheap) at the farmers market: spiny lobsters, barracuda, Pacific snapper, grouper, parrot fish, jacks, etc., come in fresh every morning. We grilled the snapper and trevally on board on our gas grill, and I pan-fried parrot fish fillets with fresh coconut flakes – all delicious, accompanied with a rice and vegetable pilaf, green salad, or boiled potatoes.
Cutting up a trevally:
The highlight of the island cuisine is ota ika – raw fish – bite-size pieces of firm white fish, marinated with lemon juice, coconut cream, and vegetables, served with potato fries. This is addictive! Their fish soup is also coconut-based and delicious.
Fish coconut soup:
Back to New Zealand, it was a completely different food experience. The country’s main feature is rolling green hills, where they raise sheep, cows, and deer. New Zealand lamb feeds the world, but it tastes the best in New Zealand in spring. Beef and venison are fresh and tender. Even in the most touristy places you get a tender cut of meat, cooked to perfection and plated beautifully.
Rack of lamb:
Venison cooked on a hot stone:
Fish and seafood:
In Auckland, fish and seafood are great, and they do mind the presentation.
Street sushi is a Southrn Hermispere exotic, and, surprisingly, they are edible, and tasty.
Breakfasts and snacks:
Our captain’s birthday falls on December, 1st. The International Date Line is set up all crooked and twisted in the South Pacific, to make sure that all the island nations are on the same time and date. So, after celebrating our captain’s first ever summer birthday in Auckland by bar-hopping, we got on the plane to San Francisco on December, 2nd, and we flew into December, 1st and back into December 2nd, three more times. The turbulences didn’t allow for a proper celebration on the plane, but we held tight to our wine glasses, and we toasted every one of our captains birthdays in and out!
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Location:Kingdom of Tonga; New Zealand