September 11th, 2015
It’s been a month since we came home from our stay in Russia. School is back in session (second grade for Paloma), and the vacation seems like a long gone dream. Now that we are all situated, I’m finally finding the time to talk about Sochi – the last stop of our trip, where we had a chance to fully relax.
I’ve been visiting Sochi every summer, with small breaks here and there, ever since I can first remember myself. My aunt and cousins have an old, wooden house there, built on the slope of a hill, dating all the way back to the 1940s. The narrow street, on which it stands, is shaded by dense growths of cypresses, palm and fruit trees, which are abundant all over the city. To me, Sochi is a magical place. There is something special about the mix of sweet mountain air and salty Black Sea breeze, tropical vegetation, clear and refreshing seawater, pebbled beaches and busy ethnic markets that surround one at all times. I can never can get enough.
Last year’s winter Olympics brought about major updates to Sochi. The old house on the hill, however, remains the same. The city has been threatening to demolish that whole street for decades, as the houses there have seen their better days, but to our delight, the family house is still there, as welcoming as ever.
Traditionally, generations of cats guard the house. They are tough and self-sufficient like street cats, but also social and friendly like house pets. Each one has a big personality, and all are treated with much respect. Paloma was in heaven, playing in the charming courtyard at the footsteps of the old garden surrounded by cats of all sizes, just like I had done as a kid. And although we live on the beach in Florida, Paloma can’t stop talking about Black Sea beaches, where she would not leave the water for longer than two minutes at a time, turning into quite the little mermaid.
I’ve talked about food from the Caucasus region last year here and here. The markets there supply a wealth of colorful pickles (pictured above on the yellow table), endless fermented dairy and pretty treats like churchkhela. Local cuisine is rich in herbs and spices, and the vegetables are commonly cooked and served whole, or in large chunks, as opposed to Russian cooking, which favors mincing and shredding everything very finely. In the summer, eggplant is present at any table, and there are hundreds of ways to prepare it. The most common and simple eggplant dish is a mixture of vegetables charred over open fire or hot coals, dressed with tons of fresh herbs and garlic. The dish is smoky and fresh at the same time. In the absence of open fire, the recipe below is an alternative way of showcasing eggplant and other summer vegetables in a vegetable dish to complete any table.
Summer Vegetable Saute
3-4 small eggplants – sliced lengthwise, 1/4-inch thickness
2-3 bell peppers – seeded and sliced lengthwise
1-2 onions – sliced lengthwise
about 7 small tomatoes or 2 cups cherry tomatoes
coconut oil or other vegetable oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper – to taste
3-4 cloves garlic – minced
good amount of fresh herbs – parsley, dill, basil, mint
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat and fry eggplant slices in batches, on both sides, until golden brown. Add oil as needed and sprinkle with salt and pepper as you go. Remove eggplant slices from the pan onto paper towels to absorb excess oil, set aside.
2. Saute peppers until soft, add salt to taste, set aside.
3. Saute onions until golden, add salt to taste, set aside.
4. Increase the heat to high. Add whole tomatoes to the pan. Let them sit for about 2 minutes, until they begin to blister, stir and leave to sit for another 2 minutes or longer, until cooked through, but with a bite remaining. Add salt and pepper.
5. Arrange vegetables on a large platter. Top eggplant slices with onion and pepper, finish with tomatoes. Sprinkle with garlic and herbs, more salt and pepper, if desired. Alternatively, you can mix them in a bowl.
August 9th, 2015
Paloma and I made it back home after our nearly two month stay Russia. We spent some quality time with family and friends in my home town, where Paloma took a few classes and got a chance to polish up her swimming, gymnastics and piano skills. The teaching style in Russia is quite different than back home – a lot is asked from the children, and the teachers are quite serious. Paloma didn’t seem to mind and actually had a few important breakthroughs. After all that hard work we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Sochi, swimming in the beautiful waters of the Black Sea (more on Sochi in the next post), hiking in the Caucasus Mountains and wandering around the Moscow center.
Back home in Florida, we still have a bit of time before school begins, to look at the hundreds of pictures we took and share the adventures with our friends over here. I keep a little dish of multicolored glass, polished by the sea, speckled pebbles and shells close by on the counter, to keep reminding myself of the most magical moments of this summer.
Below are a few favorite photos from our travels, starting with the said pebbles.
Caucasus Mountains in the summer.
One of the dozens of the ornate subway stations in Moscow.
Perlov Tea House, a beautiful tea shop and a historic building in Moscow.
One of Stalin’s high rises captured from the Moscow River.
It always takes me some time to adjust to the food here when coming back from the other side of the Atlantic. After eating all the juicy berries, wild mushrooms and my mother’s delicious Russian cooking, it’s hard to find things to be flavorful here, at least for the first couple of weeks. I do crave lots of vegetables and big salads.
This simple daikon pasta was the first dish I cooked back home, satisfying my veggie cravings. In two months without many eastern flavors, I forgot how delicious ginger and coconut milk are. The corn is also sweeter here in my opinion. This was my first attempt at cooking vegetable noodles like pasta – boiled in a pot of salted water – a method I’ve been curious about for a while. I loved the resulting neutral flavor and the noodle texture did resemble very delicate angel hair.
Daikon Radish Pasta with Corn and Tomatoes in Creamy Coconut Sauce
1 medium to large daikon radish
2 ears of corn
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons sriracha
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
2 tablespoons tamari
1 tablespoon smooth almond butter
1-2 handfulls heirloom cherry tomatoes – quartered
handful of basil leaves – torn
microgreens to garnish – optional
1. Cut kernels off the corn ears and set aside.
1. Set a medium pot with salted water over high heat. Peel and cut daikon into noodles, using a juliene peeler, veggie peeler or mandoline. When the water begins to boil, add daikon noodles and cook for 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Warm coconut and sesame oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add ginger, sriracha, lime juice, pinch of salt and corn, saute for 3-5 minutes.
3. Add coconut milk, tamari and almond butter, stirring to incorporate until creamy and hot. Add daikon pasta, cook for another 3 minutes, letting all the flavors combine.
4. Turn the heat off, add tomatoes and basil. Serve immediately.
July 20th, 2015
Cooking with edible flowers has been one of my greatest pleasures in the kitchen. Floral infusions provide amazing flavor and can add beneficial, healing properties to any dish or drink. My favorite was the Rose Ice Cream and Rose Petal Mille Feuille I made a few years ago with organic rose petals and the purest essential rose oil from my perfume maker friend. The oil was so concentrated that a tiny drop turned a portion of ice cream into a magical bowl of aromatherapy.
Here are two refreshing drinks we’ve been enjoying this summer, featuring some of the most loved, calming culinary flowers – lavender and chamomile.
Chamomile is an amazing little flower, and its oils are anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal and antiallergenic. It has long been used as a sleep aid all over the world. Having a cup of chamomile tea before bed has become one of my daily rituals – it really does the job of getting me ready for some wholesome rest.
Lately, I’ve been loving this creamy chamomile latte. My favorite way to enjoy it this summer is cold, but it also makes for a comforting warm drink for the cooler parts of the year.
Lavender, with its own share of antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, is king of the aromatherapy world – even the smallest whiff sends a relaxation signal to the mind. This milkshake combines lavender and blueberries, as the two are a match made in heaven. Drink it as a refreshing mid-afternoon snack after some time in the sun or even as dessert after dinner.
The most important variable when cooking with dried edible flowers is their freshness. If a flower is freshly dried, a little of it will go a long way, while older dried flowers have likely lost their potency. It’s also important to remember that the best way to extract the beneficial oils from herbs such as chamomile and lavender is gently heating them in a double boiler for longer periods of time. Directly pouring boiling water over the herbs is a harsher method, which kills off many of their benefits.
We are off to Sochi for the last stretch of our Russian vacation. Black Sea, here we come.
1 1/2 cups water
4 tablespoons dried German chamomile flowers – make sure to get them from a store with a good rotation
1/2 cup almond milk (I like homemade unsweetened)
honey to taste – optional
Combine water with chamomile in a small, heatproof bowl. Place the bowl into a heavy bottomed pot or pan. Add water to the pan, making sure that water level in the pan is lower than the bowl. Bring water in the pan to a simmer and simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool enough for safe handling. Strain chamomile tea, mix with almond milk and honey, if using. For an extra creamy and foamy consistency, blend the tea and almond milk in a blender. Drink warm or chilled in the fridge. I like it best cold and unsweetened.
1 1/2 cups almond milk or other plant milk (I like homemade unsweetened almond milk)
1 tablespoon edible dried lavender flowers (make sure to get them from a store with a good rotation – flowers should be lavender, rather then grey in color, with a fresh, strong aroma)
6-8 scoops of your favorite vanilla, blueberry or lavender ice-cream
handful of fresh or frozen blueberries – optional, for color
handful of ice cubes – optional, for smoother texture
splash of maple syrup – optional, to taste
seeds of 1 vanilla bean or splash of vanilla extract – optional
Combine almond milk and lavender flowers in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let cool. Strain and chill in the refrigerator. Combine lavender milk and the rest of ingredients in a blender and blend to a smooth and thick milkshake consistency. If your lavender flowers are very fresh and aromatic, you can skip the infusion step and simply blend almond milk, 1/2 tablespoon (or to taste) lavender and blueberries, in a high speed blender until completely smooth. Then add the rest of ingredients and blend to a smooth and thick milkshake consistency.