Sunday, April 3, 2011

From Russia, With Love

In between sightseeing, doing laundry, and going to work for an Open House, I also did some cooking this weekend. As is typical, I met with mixed success, but this time I have no one to blame but myself for the failed recipe. For the successful one, I blame myself and Russia.

I decided to skip ahead in the gigantic slow cooker cookbook that my parents bought me for Christmas two years ago, because I spend most of my time reading the chicken section. I like chicken, and I could just keep cooking out of that part, but there's a whole other book waiting and I've been wanting to figure out how to make myself like pork. I don't hate pork, but other than pulled pork I don't really ever prepare it or know how to, so I decided to flip through the pork section and see if anything jumped out at me, and that's how I stumbled across the recipe for Verenike Casserole.

According to the book, this was an updated take on the traditional Russian Mennonite dish.

"I've never heard of the traditional Russian Mennonite dish," I mused. "But it looks like I'll like it, and the Russian Mennonites and I have a lot in common, like... um... well..."

I realized that I don't know anything about Russian Mennonites or their traditional dishes. The bulk of my knowledge of Russia comes from television and movies, so I thought I would ask some Russians for a quick rundown of things that the Russian Mennonites and I might have in common. Fortunately for me the Black Widow, former ballerina turned KGB superspy, and Colossus, the steel-plated Soviet strongman with the heart of an artist, were nearby and willing to help:


As they say in Russia, "Spasiba, Piotr and Natasha!"

Confident that I wasn't preparing anything to which I was idealogically opposed, I prepared the cheese mixture that comprises the bulk of the recipe:

cheese mixture

That's cottage cheese, sour cream, evaporated milk, salt, pepper, three eggs, and two cups of diced ham. I poured half of it into the slow cooker, and then was supposed to make a layer of dried lasagna noodles on top of it, but I ran into some trouble:

adding noodles

The noodles kept sinking, so I couldn't tell if I had fully covered the lower layer or not. I eventually gave up, poured the rest over the top, and set it on low for five hours. When I came back, it was all puffed up like a souffle:

verenike casserole (1)

I scooped some out and let it cool a bit:

verenike casserole (2)

I don't know what real verenike is like, but this is cheesy, salty, and good. The only drawback, which I guess could be solved by serving it with a slotted spoon, is that there's a lot of liquid in the cooker. Just looking at that plate, you can see a little pool around the bottom of the noodles. I guess you could let it cook with the lid off for a while, but it might dry out. I find it odd that the recipe didn't mention how wet it would be, but either way it was still good.

I can't say the same for the beets, a favorite of the Russian people, that I made yesterday. They taste fine, but there's a texture issue, which I'll illustrate in a minute. The recipe for Cranberry Orange Beets was also in the slow cooker cookbook, and I was excited because I actually like beets. Usually I just make them from a can, like mom always did, but I'm not afraid of raw beets:

organic beets

I was a little afraid of the price, and kept circling the produce department in Kroger to see if there were other, cheaper beets. Organic is great and all, but for a dollar less per pound I'd be totally ok with ingesting a little pesticide. I mean, I'm already drinking diet soda, so what's a little more unnatural chemistry?

There were no other beets, though, so I took my organic beets home and peeled and quartered them. The aftermath in my kitchen looked like something out of a horror movie:

after the peeling and quartering (1)

Not used to working with raw beets (the only other time I've done so was for this beet and goat cheese salad, and golden beets don't seem to stain like red ones do), I didn't realize that you probably should wear rubber gloves unless you want to scrub your fingers until they are almost raw in order to get the color off of them.

The peeled, quartered raw beets were gorgeous, though:

after the peeling and quartering (2)

All of the colors and shading and rings made them look like a bowl of jewels, or fancy polished sedimentary stones. I dumped them into the slow cooker, dusted them with nutmeg, dotted them with butter, zested an orange over them, and then poured in a couple of cups of cranberry juice and left them alone for the afternoon. When I got back from Rugby I measured out the sugar and the cornstarch, and prepared to stir it into some of the cooking liquid:


Right there is where things went horribly awry.

I mixed in the cornstarch and sugar, stirred it all back into the crockpot, and left it alone for a half hour. When I went back and opened the lid, I saw beautiful beets in a glistening red sauce. Readying a plate, I reached for a serving spoon, plunged it into the pot...

...and nothing moved.

The sauce was completely solid, and my beets were frozen in it.

I gave it a couple of experimental pokes, then plunged the spoon in and finally scooped some up. It was like a jello mold with beets inside:

cranberry orange beets

I started eating it, and it tasted good, but the texture of the firm warm beets and the incredibly slimy rubbery sauce was disgusting. Not only that, but it looked like an autopsy. Wondering why any cookbook would ruin perfectly good beets like this, I went back to the recipe and saw my error:

The recipe calls for 4 TEASPOONS of corn starch, to thicken the sauce.

I used four TABLESPOONS, which is three times the proper amount.

I figure that it happened because the sugar was listed right above the corn starch, and the sugar was measured in tablespoons, so when I went back to measure the corn starch I just accidentally skipped to the line above, but still, I ruined perfectly good beets.

The only excuse I have is that Colossus distracted me. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


Liz said...

Tau looked at the photo of the beets and said "Great idea for Halloween!"

stanford said...

This is the only blog I know where plastic superheros can opine about menonites in a cooking post and I am unphased. This is only one of the reasons I enjoy this blog.

Rod said...

I agree with Stanford.

The autopsy comment about the beets made me laugh out loud. I thought, "Well, at least he'll know how to make some awesomely horrific Halloween props..."