Potato and Cheese Pierogi and Book Review

Since being asked by Rachel of The Crispy Cook to read and review this fictionalized biography of the author's grandmother, Anna Anisovich Olchick, in Anna, Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis, I've come to think I may have the heart of a peasant as well.  Certainly if cultivating herbs, fruits and the odd vegetable, making wine, sauerkraut, bread, jams, etc. are a criteria.  Peasants rule!

I love reading books like this one, evocative of a life and time so removed from my own, yet which reveal the relatedness of our human experience, across the generations and borders.

Though a trip through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway is only a dream, I do have one Russian travel story, with food involved, which this book brought to mind.  Years ago, on one of those dual purpose cargo vessels with passenger accommodation, Bob and I journeyed from Japan to Hong Kong.  The ship was Russian and so were the meals, which I remember as being excellent.  Our table mates were an Italian B grade movie producer and his Japanese girlfriend, but that's another story.  I will say she was not all that thrilled with the food, and he kept asking for more bread, which was actually quite good.  Baked on board.  That being another era, the entertainment consisted of propaganda movies, which we considered moderately interesting.  Ah, memories.

But back to the book; short, but descriptive and well-written, it is the tale of a hard life, adventure, and of a brave and indomitable spirit.  I especially enjoyed the story of Anna's escape from servitude to traveling with gypsies, eventually making her own way to America.   Davis has done her research and is able to clearly evoke the culture and landscape of peasant life in Byelorussia just before and after the turn of the century, as well as immigrant times in depression era New York.  She has also provided us food lovers with some of her grandmother's favorite traditional Russian recipes at the end.


Lasagna Cacciatora for Cook the Books Club

John and Matt Thorne's Outlaw Cook was our Cook the Books Club selection for this month, chosen and hosted by Rachel, The Crispy Cook.  It is a delightful, thought provoking read about food, and continues to be as I poke back and forth among the chapters.  The book is a collection of essays and book reviews, some of which have appeared in magazines or in the authors' own food letter, Simple Cooking, gathered about the general premise that recipes and so-called laws about preparing food are meant to be questioned, tested, played with, broken and re-arranged to suit ourselves.  We can all be outlaw cooks in other words.

There is so much here to inspire, encourage and challenge all of us who love to cook and to eat good food.  I was hard-pressed to narrow down any one thing as my inspired food offering.  Just for example, his chapters on bread, the leavens, the ovens and baking caused me to re-think our failure with an outdoor masonry oven.  Perhaps it was not the fault of the oven's construction??    If he can say:
The bread oven, however, proved to be a teacher out of my worst nightmares.  It made immediate, huge demands on my small understanding.  It not only refused to tolerate mistakes but cruelly punished them with burns and ruined bread.  It expected me to know everything and explained nothing.
Who am I to give up so easily?  Moss is growing in there now.

We will be re-firing that pile of stones, of money, perhaps not wasted, once more.  After all, I have my 200+ year old French sourdough starter, still going after all these years. An appointment needs to be made, since this is a project requiring good weather, dough started the night before, the oven fired properly this time, and so on and on.  Today would have been perfect, however as a storm was predicted, I put the leaven in the fridge, and am now looking out at a beautiful day. 

For days like this, a Bread Cloche has been ordered, which Thorne discusses as an alternative, second-best to baking in a masonry wood-fired oven.  I am looking forward to that.  As we have a wood-fired sauna,  I am familiar with getting fires going.  Not always a piece of cake, but out in an exposed situation with wind, a challenge.. My grandson was in charge of the last oven firing.  I know, but he likes to set fires, and we decided to put that energy to constructive use.


Spicy Carnitas and Black Bean Tamales

I have long harbored a secret desire to make authentic tamales.  Not exactly sure what has stopped me before now, but given an assignment, I was more than happy to rise to the occasion.  Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess!  Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!

The initial thing is to soak your corn husks covered with water, 3 hours or overnight.  Luckily our Natural Foods Market carries them, so no problems there.  Lard however was another issue.  I'm not into buying pork or pig by-products that come from inhumane animal factories.  Since no decent lard (almost sounds like an oxymoron doesn't it?) was locally available, I decided to use duck plus bacon fat, both of which were on hand, and thinking that a bit of duck flavor wouldn't hurt.  Actually, the only thing I wasn't that totally happy with.  It goes into the tamale dough along with some broth or water and masa harina (or corn flour - which is what I had, and they turned out super).


White Bean and Tuscan Kale Soup with Chestnuts

When I've just stashed batches of newly minted chicken stock, we're ready and running in the soup department.  They're burning holes in my pockets, so to speak.  So, I riffle through a cookbook or two to see what will appeal.  This one had cannellini beans, kale, pancetta and chestnuts, a winter comfort meal if I ever heard one.  Especially since there was a package of roasted peeled chestnuts lurking from Thanksgiving.  Besides, having  read Amateur Gourmet's kale salad recipe, and wanting to try that, kale was on my shopping list.  Two things to do with a largeish bunch of kale.

Simona with macadamia nuts from our tree
Yes folks, even in Hawaii we do have winter, albeit wtih sun, blue skies and a bright orange flowering African Tulip outside.  It can be chilly, especially in the mornings.  Fellow blogger, Simona came to visit and can attest to that.  We don't get many food bloggers stopping by here on The Big Island, so it was lovely to meet her and her husband.

The soup does call for pancetta, but you can certainly use bacon, as I did, or go without and use a mushroom stock to make this totally vegetarian.  It was so yummy, we almost polished off the whole thing at one sitting. And nicely warming on a cool evening.  The Gourmet Today Cookbook was my reference for this, and unusually for me, I pretty much stuck to the recipe.  Aside that is from the bacon switcharoo.  As per Ms. Reichl, the Tuscan kale, or cavolo nero, with its vibrant green ruffled leaves and delicately rich, sweet flavor, does pair beautifully with chestnuts and white beans.