Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Moving Target: My "Russian" Meat Pie Recipe

One of the top favorites in my family is the "Russian Meat Pie" that I developed some years ago based on impressons of "pirog" (plural = "pirogi"), the large, savory, stuffed pastry made in Russia and nearby countries. (The smaller pies in that lineage are better known under the cool-sounding Russian name, "piroshki".) My meat pie was originally a crescent-shaped turnover with a cream-cheese or butter crust, and I also made the mushroom- and even the cabbage-filled versions. But over the years the pastry has evolved into the two-crust American pie shape, and it remained a frequent request of several of my kids for birthday and home-from-college meals or now on their visits home.

There's a problem, however, in this happy story. I do not have a written recipe. Or rather, I actually have a number of varying recipes I've recorded as I had to recreate the dish ad hoc from memory and imagination, and on occasion thought to record it as I made it. There is a core principle to the pie filling, and always a familiar flavor, but the ingredients and the seasonings have fluctuated considerably.

But... Lisa to the rescue! "Russian meat pie" is her most common guest dish, and her version of the recipe, now including a couple of her tweeks to my original, is what I sketched out to her over the phone some time ago when she asked how to make it. It is her and her guests' -- if you can believe them -- favorite. So I got the recipe back for "my" pie, like a recovered fossil. And this time I am standardizing and recording it.

Before getting to the recipe, a quick story. Shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union and as the Czech Republic became independent of it, a young government physician from Prague who had work there similar to my own spent several months training with me in Atlanta. "Jaro" enjoyed cooking too and hanging out, and one time I made the pie for him, figuring that a Slavic meat dish smothered in sour cream would feel like home. He did indeed like it. But when I told him, innocently, that it was Russian, he stopped eating and said he couldn't stand anyone or anything Russian. At that point I claimed that actually my pirog was the Polish rather than the Russian version, and he was OK with that, since the Poles, like the Czechs, were western Slavs with similar bad Soviet experiences.

One final note: As mentioned, I used to make a fairly tedious crust with cream cheese and butter. But more recently for simplicity I've cheated (sometimes) with a commercial rather than a from-scratch crust. One brand in particular, Pillsbury, available refrigerated at the supermarket in packs of two, seems superior. It has a nice texture and taste, but it does contain lard (as did my mother's best homemade pie crusts). Warm the crusts up to room temperature before taking them out of their plastic sleeves. On a floured surface gently roll them before lining or topping the pan, so as to smooth them out.

One final, final note: A dry medium-bodied red wine, such as a Spanish red, or Chianti, or pinot noir goes well with this. As does a nice hoppy beer, like Pilsner Urquell. A simple salad is warranted, too.

"Russian" Meat Pie Tim/Lisa

For two 9-inch pies:
4 pie crusts, commercial (e.g., Pillsbury) or homemade
2 pounds lean ground meat (1 pound each pork and turkey, or all pork or beef)
1 quite large onion, peeled and cut in chunks
4 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
1 stick celery, cut in chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, rinsed
2 cloves garlic
2-1/4 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Large pinch of thyme or marjoram
3 tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 medium-large potato
2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dry dill weed
Milk for glaze
Sour cream for serving

Fry the meat in its own juices until just beginning to brown. In a food processor, finely grind the onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and garlic, part at a time. (Do not wash the food processor yet.) Add the vegetables to the meat and continue to fry, adding a little olive oil if too dry. When the vegetables are softened, add the salt, spices, herbs, and sauces (but not the dill), and simmer, covered but occasionally stirring, for 20 to 30 minutes.

Peel and cut up the potato and puree it in the food processor with a little water to make a thick slurry. Add this to the meat-vegetable mixture, and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring often, until well thickened. Taste and add salt to taste. Remove mixture from the heat, and stir in the dill. Let the filling cool. (It can be refrigerated for several days -- use a zip-lock bag -- or frozen, if desired.)

Line each of the two 9-inch pie pans with a crust, letting the excess hang over. Fill the pies with the cooled meat mixture, then lay a second crust on top. Seal the edge by pressing down with a fork dipped in flour then cutting off the excess crust, or by doing a twist and pinch edge. Brush the top of the crust with milk, then sprinkle with a little dill weed or paprika. Make several decorative cuts in the top crust as vents.

Bake at 375 degrees (360 if convection) for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 (340, convection) and finish baking for about 30 minutes.

Serve warm accompanied by sour cream.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Easy: Lemon-Dill Roasted Salmon

A young friend who also blogs called me from the supermarket the other day to ask how to fix salmon. He had a cooking date that evening (he led me to believe) and wanted to prepare salmon to go with lemon-infused rice he was making as a variant of my most recently posted recipe (the pilaf). The obvious, to me, seemed the simple yet elegant Mediterranean-style roasted lemon-dill salmon I have been teaching at Evening at Emory and which we also serve at Donderos’ Kitchen, my family’s delicatessen in Athens.

I learned this way of fixing salmon from a Greek Cypriot friend whose mother prepared her fish (though not salmon in those days) this way. Pani, as he was called, was one of the founders of Decatur’s Café Istanbul, along with another friend of mine, a Turkish guy named Kazim. They were at the time both married to women I worked with. The idea of a Greek and a Turk starting a joint venture seemed, well, unlikely. They did part company after a while, but it was over very different views on how to run a restaurant rather than politics or religion. But the establishment they founded has gone on to considerable popularity, though under subsequent – and primarily Turkish – ownership.

Salmon is not traditional in the Mediterranean, but is increasingly popular there as local fish have become more expensive and difficult to find. Lemon and dill are both used extensively in eastern Mediterranean cooking, including with fish as a natural partner. But lemon and dill are also used with fish in Scandinavia, where salmon is common.

A crisp Sauvignon Blanc (especially one from New Zealand) or a not-too-heavy chardonnay go well with this. Oh yes, and a lemon rice pilaf will be in the spirit of the eastern Mediterranean. (See my pilaf recipe, on the previous blog posting -- January 5th -- and do only the rice part, eliminating the added fried onions fruits and nuts, and simply add to the rice cooking water 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest, 4 whole cloves, and a bay leaf, broken in half. Do not, unlike my friend, open the rice cooking pan during the steaming or the 10 minute resting period.) The salmon recipe serves six generously.

Lemon-Dill Salmon Paniotis

2 pounds salmon filet in one piece*, as fresh as possible, and preferably without skin
1-1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper,
1/4 cup freshly chopped dill (a weak substitute is 1-1/2 tablespoons dry dill weed)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 lemons
Extra lemon and sprigs of dill for garnish

Preheat oven to 525 degrees (very hot), and temporarily turn off the smoke alarm!

Rinse the salmon and dry it with a paper towel. Liberally sprinkle sea salt and pepper on both sides and dust both sides generously with dill. Cut the lemons in half crosswise. Slice a very thin slice off each of the halves and reserve the slices.

On a large shallow-edged glass or metal pan, such as a cookie sheet with sides, spread 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over an area of the size of the fish, then squeeze two of the lemon halves over this area. Place the seasoned fish on the prepared pan. Drench the surface of the fish with the juice squeezed from the remaining lemon halves. Lay the slices of lemon up the middle of the fish, placed so that when the fish is cut into six pieces, each will have a lemon slice. Drizzle the whole surface with the remaining olive oil and lightly dust a few bits of dill on top of the lemon slices. Let the fish season for 10 to 20 minutes.

When oven is very hot, place the pan on the shelf highest in the oven. Roast the salmon for 11-12 minutes or just until the surface and edges of the fish are beginning to turn crispy and when a knife inserted into the thickest part of the fish and twisted slightly shows a pale opaque pink color. Do not overcook.

Serve hot, accompanied by lemon wedges and sprigs of dill. Alternately, this can be cooked ahead and served cold as a buffet dish.

The fish can be cut into six serving-sized pieces before seasoning and roasting rather than treated as an entire piece.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Middle Eastern Rice Pilaf

Rice is one of those things that many cook poorly. As I was reminded last evening while ploughing through soft rice grains with egg shell-like centers in a not-so-good jambalaya at a generally decent Decatur restaurant. Another diner had equally crunchy yet mushy rice in his "pilaf" which accompanied quite good crab cakes in wine and shrimp sauce. A number of Tex-Mex restaurants also cannot seem to cook their rice well, despite serving it and refried beans as a plate filler with almost every dish.

Rice is easy to cook, if a few rules are followed, even in a pan on top of the stove. (It's easier still with a rice cooker, as long as you get the water quantity correct). How to cook rice is one of the first things I teach in the Asian evening of my international cuisine course for Evening at Emory.

As an example, here is a straightforward yet elegant rice pilaf typical of Turkish and Persian cuisines (but made more simply and less elegantly than in Persian cooking). I learned the additives and general combining method from a Turkish restauranteur friend. The dish, which is intended as an accompaniment, is delightfully fragrant and is highlighted with bits of vegetable, fruits, and nuts. It includes, more appropriately than you would surmise, dried cranberries, a very North-American and very nouveau ingredient. There is a small, slightly bitter dried red barberry used in Persian rice cooking which because of strained relations between the US and Iran is difficult to import currently, and Iranian-American cooks often substitute dried cranberries ("Craisins"). The rice serves well with grilled or stewed meat or chicken dishes, and is the soul-mate to kabobs. But it is also fine as a snack when topped with a large dollop of yogurt -- whole milk type preferred. The recipe serves six generously, unless they are male students joining you for a free meal. (You guys know who you are.)

Rice Pilaf with Dried Fruits and Nuts Tim

2 cups basmati or long grain rice
1-1/2 teaspoons salt for rice plus 1/4 teaspoon for later
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3/4 cups water
1 medium-small onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sweet red pepper, minced
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/3 cup slivered almonds, shelled pistachios, or broken walnuts
1/3 cup yellow raisins
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup dried apricots (soft ‘Turkish’ type work well), coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or mint
Additional dill or mint for garnish

Rinse the rice well in cold water and drain. Put rinsed rice, water, salt, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed uncovered pot and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, lower the heat to very low, and cook (without opening the lid) for 20 minutes. Do not open the pot, but let the rice sit 10 minutes more with the heat off. (Alternatively, the rice can be cooked with the same ingredients in an electric rice cooker, not opening the lid until at least 10 minutes after the light goes off.)

Meanwhile, heat the butter or olive oil and fry the onion until translucent and just beginning to turn golden. Add the minced red pepper and garlic and stir and fry for about 20 seconds then add the nuts. As soon as the mixture is hot, add the raisins, dried cranberries, and chopped apricots and let heat briefly. Remove from heat and stir in the black pepper, cinnamon, salt, lemon juice, and dill or mint.

Gently fluff the rice in the pot with a two-pronged fork. In a very large bowl toss the rice and the fruit-nut mixture together gently. Taste, and add salt if necessary. Return the rice to the cooking pot (or rice cooker) for storage.

The rice can be served soon, or stored and later re-warmed in a microwave. Serve stacked up in a cone shape on a platter or low-edged dish rather than in a bowl. (For serving with kababs, spread the rice out as a flat bed on a large platter and lay the kabobs, on or off the skewers, on top.) Garnish with a little fresh dill or mint, whichever was used in the rice.