Thursday, March 27, 2014

I never said I knew how to make pierogies

About once a month, a group of brave individuals gathers in my kitchen for what I loosely call "Cooking Class."  We are very informal about everything, with folks jumping in to dice onions, cook rice, wash dishes or assemble a salad, sitting, standing, visiting and taking breaks when ever they want.  We proceed at a very relaxed pace, stopping in between courses to enjoy eating, talking and sipping wine before jumping into the next project.  There is plenty of gaiety (I'm thinking of last summer's pickling class, where everything that could get cut up and pickled, did) and frolic (the Thai cooking class in which our only male guest took to a whole coconut with a hammer, a cleaver and great gusto).

This past fall, we attempted Polish cuisine.  That decision was made for two reasons: I'm Polish (the only cultural heritage I proudly claim and identify with) and I have a friend who has Polish friends, a mother and son pair whom she contacted.  They both attended and turned our little gathering into a charming little Polish restaurant for the afternoon.  R and G, as I'll call them, brought expertise that I could not have hoped to have produced on my own.

And they also brought with them their big personalities.  R & G transformed a somewhat sedate and studious atmosphere into gales of laughter with their sense of humor and wisecracks.  And I hope they will be frequent guests at The Voluptuous Table from now on.

It all started innocently enough: with a Polish Apple Pie Cocktail (recipe here; take care to buy the very best Polish vodka you can, it makes a difference) and Polish fresh mushroom soup (made from this recipe).  R & G arrived a bit late; they had another obligation to attend to.  But once they arrived, they immediately got a cocktail in hand and things began to rock and roll.

ZU Vodka
G, who had suggested beef tartare because "all the best restaurants in Poland will have Befszytk Tartarski on their menus," waxed eloquent about the charms of Polish-style tartare, using grand arm gestures and a booming narrative.  He very competently overtook trimming and breaking down a piece of tenderloin, mincing it finely and expertly in the food processor, then preparing all the accompanying condiments with care and precision.  A surprising ingredient that G requested was Maggi seasoning, instead of the traditional Worcestershire sauce.  Because I'm that kind of food hoarder, I have both (and more!) in my pantry.  Another interesting accompaniment to Polish beef tartare that G introduced was minced dill pickle.  It's delightfully different and, along with the capers, onion, fresh parsley and egg yolk, a lovely addition.  I wish I had a picture of the beautiful individual presentations G made for us, but I think we were all so hungry by this point (and pretty fuzzy from the Polish Apple Pie Cocktails) that we just dug in.

Meanwhile, R blessedly took over the pierogi-making operation, while two other participants tackled two different kinds of fillings.  R was a literal pierogi machine, cranking out about 6 dozen in very little time.  She asked for two tea towels, extra flour, a rolling pin and a small glass.  These things I could easily produce.  Then came the litmus test of my Polish heritage: did I have a noodle board?  

"A noodle board?  Uh, no...but I have these wooden cutting boards," I pointed to my (I think) rather impressive display.

R snorted at me and said in her throaty, heavily-accented voice, "And you call yourself a Polish girl?  What kind of Polish girl doesn't have a noodle board?"  

I laughed and said, "Looks like your cocktail is running low...can I get you another?"  Apparently, mixing cocktails was my chief talent this afternoon.  R declined my offer, stating that she wanted to keep her wits sharp.  Apparently, she declined another mostly because I think she was really enjoying checking me in to The Smack-Down Motel of Warsaw.  "We'll keep the noodle boards ready for ya."

There was definitely more Polish heritage-vetting to come because R's next question was about making the pierogi dough.  I replied that I had already pre-mixed the dough that morning and that it was in the fridge.  

"Let's see it."  She demanded.  I produced my dough.  She poked it around, moaned, then looked at me.

"What's dis?" she asked.  I stammered, replying that the dough was made from a recipe from an authentic Polish cookbook of my mother's.  I showed her the cookbook and pointed to the recipe.

"Oh my god. You put all of that in here?" she asked, incredulous.  "What, you try to make lazy pierogi?"

I giggled nervously. First I'm not Polish enough and now she's calling me lazy?  I later found out that there is a version of pierogi called Lazy Pierogies that are made like large dumplings rather than filled ravioli.  We laughed about that later (after a lot of wine), but for now, I was quickly losing my Polish heritage cred. I wasn't sure that I could tolerate being stripped of my cultural identity and have my culinary skills challenged, all in one afternoon.

"Well, I couldn't tell from the recipe what to add when.  It's very badly written and I haven't seen my mother or grandmother make pierogi dough in years," I tried to defend myself, but I could tell by the look of pity in R's eyes that I had disappointed her.  In truth (and in my feeble defense), the recipes in many of these kinds of regional cookbooks are very confusing and difficult to follow.  R was having none of it.

"I need to fix.  Give me flour."  And away she went, flouring down the countertop after making sure it was clean enough to work on, throwing my inferior pierogi dough down on the counter with a THWACK, flouring the dough and the rolling pin, and working the dough until it met her approval.  But just barely.  

Not our pierogies, but ours looked just like this.  Photo credit:
We had prepared two fillings: potato and cheese and sauteed mushrooms with sauerkraut.  The potato and cheese pierogies were gently sauteed in plenty of butter and onion; the mushroom/sauerkraut pierogies were served with melted butter and sour cream.  I had lekvar and extra sour cream on the side, two accompaniments that were always on our table when my mother and grandmother served pierogies.  We also enjoyed Polish creamed spinach and finished our very long, very enjoyable meal with a Polish apple cake, which is dense, rich and clove-scented.  That apple cake seemed to be the one thing that met with R's approval, even though she told me she put cinnamon in hers.  OK, I can take it now.

But we continued to laugh and talk, and this small group of unlikely-to-come-together people stayed well past dark, sitting on the outdoor patio in front of a crackling fire set against the chilly fall evening, sipping coffee, eating dessert and then enjoying more wine and after dinner drinks.  It was a lovely evening.  And the best part?  I still feel Polish.

You can find links to the recipes below:

A better pierogi dough recipe than I had access to originally:

For savory fillings:  AND (this recipe also has a decent dough procedure)

For a berry filling (delicious for dessert):

Make your own lekvar if you can't find it at Fiesta Market:

For the Polish spinach:  (we topped ours with Panko and broiled briefly to toast)

For the Polish apple cake:


Thursday, March 20, 2014

A little late-night "research" in mixology with my Wine Guy

When my friend and personal wine guy Bill and I get together to do "research," we inevitably end up making up new cocktails.  Perhaps this is as a result of our late-evening blood alcohol content, when we are more likely to fancy ourselves capable mixologists.  But perhaps it's because, between the two of us, Bill and I have some pretty impressive cocktail making skills and knowledge about booze.  I'd like to give option #2 full credence for our results, but option #1 does assist in the creativity department.  Both options are fully responsible for hangovers.

Take our most recent progeny: The Coho Martini.  An alchemy of house-infused pomegranate vodka, Damiana liqueur, Aperol and fresh lime juice, this drink is perfectly balanced and beautiful in the glass. 

Although you could use another commercially-produced pomegranate vodka, infusing your own is easy (but you will need to start about 3 weeks out) and contributes a glow to this cocktail.  To make your own pomegranate vodka, remove the arils from the pomegranate and place in a large, clean container along with 750 ml of mid-price vodka.  Cover and let things take their course.  Your vodka is ready when the arils are bleached of their color and the vodka is a deep blush in color.  This process takes about 3 to 4 weeks, so you need a little patience.  Then strain the infusion into a clean container (use a coffee filter if you want it to be exceptionally clear), discard the arils and cover your new baby tightly until ready to use.  It lasts for several months if stored away from heat and light and will eventually darken if not consumed.  You can also add a few ounces of store-bought organic pomegranate juice to plain vodka and get similar results in about 3 minutes.  For some of us, patience is just not a virtue and believe me, I do understand that.

Now, let's talk a little bit about Aperol.  Aperol is like the friend you only see once in a while, but when you do, you wonder why you don't see more of each other.  And if you don't have a bottle of this incredibly versatile, lightly bitter, orange-scented aperitif, now made by the folks who make Campari, you should run right out and get one (since I hear you can buy your friends nowadays).  This lovely stuff is a gorgeous color and also makes a great cocktail when mixed with grapefruit juice.  I was hooked when I tasted my first Pamplemousse (find Orangette's version here).  Truthfully, Aperol makes a lot of great-tasting cocktails, period, and I tend to reach for it when I want a more complex flavor profile.  But a little goes a long way in something like a martini.


So now let's talk a bit about my shy friend in the middle there, Damiana.  Maybe she's in the middle background because she's not wearing any clothes and she's an old-fashioned girl.  I first bought Damiana for the bottle she came in, modeled after an Incan fertility goddess.  Lord only knows why I would have brought that kind of energy into my house, since I've prayed fervently from the age of 8 to not EVER be pregnant or, worse still, a mother. Managing pets, gardens and husbands for the past 30 odd years has been quite enough responsibility, thank you.

Nonetheless, Dami sits in my collection of mixers and oddballs, and often gets neglected.  Maybe that's really because Dami and I both have body image issues.  But when Bill comes over and we've been doing a little "research," he usually ends up rooting around in my liquor cabinet, looking for something fun to experiment with.  Being a very persuasive and congenial guy, Bill managed to coax Dami out of hiding.  She shyly acquiesced.

Don't ask me to recall the exact science behind this particular mixology experiment (because there is none) am I'm still a bit fuzzy about how the components were picked, except that I wanted to brag to Bill about my latest vodka infusion.  As a sidenote, I'd like my readers to know that I do a lot of infusions in my kitchen (just in case you'd like to drop by and try your hand at late-night mixology experiments).  Most of them are brilliant (in my humble opinion), like the Kashmir Mogra saffron and vodka infusion I did one year for an Indian dinner party.  It made a fabulously gorgeous infusion and an infamously lethal cocktail, along with some allspice dram, lime juice and Vietnamese cinnamon.  I called it The Bollywood Bhindi and after most of the cocktails had gotten inside everyone, there were some interesting interpretive dance moves in response to the sitar music later that evening, as I recall.  If it's one thing we're not short on at The Voluptuous Table, it's hilarity.

But the chocolate mint-cocoa nibs-vodka infusion I did last summer and that I thought was going to be wonderful, not so much.  I think that will have to be relegated to adult hot chocolate drinkers.

Sometimes Bill and I disagree on methods and ingredients in our cocktail experiments (and that's OK).  But one thing Bill and I did agree on were the proportions in The Coho Martini and the addition of enough lime juice to tweak all the other components into making you think that you were going to want to have at least 3 more cocktails.  Why did we name it The Coho Martini?  Well, I thought it looked rather like the color of salmon in the glass, and the name "Sockeye Martini" and "Alaskan King Martini" didn't seem to have that special, inviting ring.  So there you are.

Find the recipe below.  Have plenty of ingredients on hand (even if you're alone), because these little beauties are really tasty.  If you use a pretty glass, like I did, just know that I am not responsible if you drink too many and tag yourself in your pictures on Facebook.

The Coho Martini                          

1 oz. pomegranate vodka
1 oz. Damiana
1/4 oz. Aperol
lime wedge

In a cocktail shaker with the ice, combine pomegranate vodka, Damiana and Aperol.  Stir well, then strain into chilled martini glass.  Squeeze lime wedge into cocktail, rim the glass with the wedge, then discard lime.  Makes one cocktail.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The world does not need another "best ever" lasagna recipe

As my friend Sandra says, "What the focaccia?!"

How in the internet realm of tens of thousands of recipes--a realm largely devoid of standard qualitative measures for rating recipes--do you offer accurate descriptors for your recipes?  Ideally, you would want to induce your readers to try your recipes in their own kitchens and at the same time, deliver results that live up to your claims.  But if you make a statement that your recipe is the "best ever," then you've made a claim that is impossible to verify and is a landmine of subjectivity.

And that's exactly what prompts this post.  I suppose I'm rather weary of "best ever" recipes.  Not because my palate is better than your palate, but because my palate often looks for a different flavor profile than most people.  My "best ever" recipe might include anchovies, while you might hate anchovies.  I tend to like deeper, richer flavor profiles while you might want something simple and uncomplicated.  I look for umami.  Maybe you don't.

Recently, I was looking for a lasagna recipe that would be both tasty (i.e., have a good amount of umami), economical, not terribly complicated and good for feeding a crowd.  Maybe my criteria are too unrealistic (and you are welcome to let me know if you think they are).  I searched the internet for a made-from-scratch version that would please me and my guests.  Being a sucker for hyperbole, I was drawn in by several recipes that claimed to be the "best ever," in addition to being easy and economical.

I'll admit that whenever I see something labeled the "best ever," I immediately want to find all the ways in which it's not the best ever.  The statement that something is the "best ever" is tantamount to claiming that my dad can beat the S#%* out of your dad.  Anybody who knew my dad would know he was a lover, not a fighter.  But not his daughter.

I didn't feel like I could take a swing at the recipes posted on sites like or, since there are so many badly-written and sometimes disastrous recipes on those sites.  And there's a mighty big contingent of home cooks who are mighty proud of their lasagna.

But then I spied The Pioneer Woman's "The Best Lasagna. Ever."  Perfect.  I figured if anyone could take a whoopin' on her claim of "best ever" lasagna, The Pioneer Woman could.  The original recipe, at first glance, seemed to be the working mother's answer to prayer; Ree Drummond claims that "part of its appeal is that the ingredients used are totally basic; you don’t have to hunt down fresh basil or buffalo mozzarella or Parmigiano-Reggiano or handmade sausage from an Italian mama in old Napoli. Anyone can make this, anywhere, anytime. And it’s the easiest thing in the world." 

You are correct; that is NOT shredded mozzarella.

About these things, The Pioneer Woman is mostly right.  I was able to find all of the ingredients in my local HEB (which, as I've written before, is in a county that is demographically challenged where discriminating palates are concerned).  Yeah, I hear you callin' me a food snob.

But then, here's where The Pioneer Woman goes too far: "Aside from the simplicity and availability of ingredients, however, this lasagna is just dadgum good."  Because after testing Ree's sauce, I can honestly say that it lacks character, balance among the acid, sugar and salt components, and is missing some essential flavors that I consider necessary to good lasagna.  In other words, it lacks umami. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, if anyone can make this lasagna, anywhere, anytime, then this lasagna is going to taste fairly pedestrian and would certainly not impress nor offend anyone.  People, that is just not my way with food.  And I don't need specialty ingredients to get a better result, just some that are different than what's called for in the original recipe.

For instance, the Parmesan cheese The Pioneer Woman calls for is the kind in the green can that, to me at least, tastes like sawdust.  And the meat sauce?  Made with part ground beef (too much fat) and part "hot breakfast sausage."  Um, no.  Ground chuck and Italian sausage are, to me, the best way to get a good, rich flavor in your meat sauce.  The cheese filling?  Lowfat cottage cheese and sliced mozzarella.  Again, fail.

Sliced mozzarella in lasagna makes a rubbery layer that I find unpleasant. I found that out trying to make lasagna the Pioneer Woman Way.  Next time, I'll go back to using shredded mozzarella.  And while my mother used cottage cheese frequently in her lasagna when I was a child (mostly because cottage cheese was cheaper than ricotta and more often available in our refrigerator), I don't like the texture of lowfat anything in most recipes.  I would concede to mixing whole milk ricotta and whole milk cottage cheese in equal portions if you must, but I prefer the moist, creamy texture of ricotta that only milk fat brings, especially when it's enhanced with egg, freshly grated or shredded Parmesan cheese and other seasonings.

I also found the herbs and spices in the original meat sauce to be lacking in character, so I added more seasoning, a little sugar and a little dry red wine.  The addition of fresh parsley to both the meat sauce and the cheese mixture is, I think, worth the time and effort.  The resulting sauce was tasty and nicely cohesive without cooking any longer than the original recipe stated.

Since the world does not need another "best ever" lasagna recipe, I'll offer the rendition below as "pretty good" for a basic, straightforward lasagna.  What's more, I'll even say that it passes the husband test with flying colors. And that, modern women of America, is what's most important.

Sheesh.  I'm kidding.

Pretty Good, Basic, Straightforward Lasagna

I found all of the ingredients (except for the Italian herb seasoning) at my local HEB.

Meat Sauce:

1-1/2 lbs ground chuck

1 lb. Italian sausage (hot or mild) 

2 cloves garlic, minced

2  14.5 oz. cans whole tomatoes

2 6 oz. cans tomato paste

2 Tbs. Italian herb seasoning (such as Penzey's or Savory Spice; yes, you can use McCormick's)

1 tsp. fennel seed

1 tsp. salt

1 1/2 Tbs. sugar

1/4 cup dry red wine

1/2 cup water

freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, divided

Cheese Mixture:

3 cups whole milk ricotta cheese (you can substitute up to 1 1/2 cups whole milk cottage cheese for the ricotta if you like)

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (you can use grated if you promise not to use the stuff in the green can; use only 3/4 cup if you do), plus extra for the topping

1 tsp. salt

For assembling:

1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese (reserve approx. 1/2 cup for the topping)

1 10 oz. pkg. lasagna noodles

1.)  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it well (I use about 1 Tbs. salt) and add a little oil if you wish to prevent the noodles from sticking.
2.)  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or saucepan, combine ground chuck and Italian sausage (remove casings first). 
3.)  Cook over medium-high heat until browned; stir in minced garlic cook for 1 more minute.
4.)  Drain the fat if you wish and return pan to heat.
5.)  Add tomatoes, breaking up with your fingers, tomato paste, Italian herb seasoning, fennel seed, salt, sugar, dry red wine and water.  
6.)  Simmer the sauce for about 45 minutes while you prepare the cheese mixture and cook the noodles.
7.)  In a medium bowl, mix ricotta cheese, Parmesan, 2 Tbs. minced parsley and salt. 
8.)  Stir together well and set aside. 
9.)  Cook lasagna until al dente; drain and set aside.
10.)  Remove meat sauce from heat and stir in remaining minced parsley.  Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
11.)  Oil a large baking dish and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
12.)  Arrange 4 cooked lasagna noodles in the bottom of a baking pan, overlapping if necessary. 
13.)  Spoon half the cheese mixture over the noodles and spread evenly. 
14.)  Cover cheese mixture with half the shredded mozzarella cheese. 
15.)  Spoon half the meat sauce mixture over the top.
16.)  Repeat, ending with meat sauce mixture. 
17.)  Sprinkle top with remaining Parmesan and shredded mozzarella.
18.)  You can freeze or refrigerate the lasagna at this point and finish cooking later, or bake it immediately for 30-40 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.  Serves 8 generously.