Friday, August 24, 2012


So finally, I did it. I changed the title of the blog. "East of Eden" had a special significance for me, both because I'm a John Steinbeck fan and also because I've always wanted to live in California and never quite got there. I drool at the thought of beachy expanses with beachcombers and hardcore surfers, of the wine country, of winding roads hugging grassy mountains, suspended precariously above the great blue. And a touring bike with saddlebags, carrying beef jerky, bananas and a blanket, the perfect companions to any outing on two wheels. My notion of this Eden conveniently omits such facts as infuriating traffic or the dismissive hubris of the locals. That is not the California I have in my mind, not the Eden I pine for. With most things we look forward to, they are so much more idyllic in memory than in reality.

One day I got a bit tired of this bittersweet crap. California is hardly the divine poetry I make it to be, a fact hard-learned earlier this year as, day after miserable day, I tried to make my way from one point of LA to another among an ocean of sluggish, furious Californian cars. Nor is Cannery Row Steinbeck's inspirational oasis anymore, its once quaint and peaceful streets having been replaced with gaudy shops, loud booths and bright lights. As the writer's name is advertised at each corner as some sort of haute couture brand, he is no doubt wincing at all of this and rolling in his grave. Salinas, too, where Steinbeck grew up, is a godforsaken ghost town of former farmers turned receptionists at Motel 6. Not a happy story.

So, with the betrayal of the "California dream" I became increasingly disenchanted with the title, East of Eden. "Hungryvore" came up one day as I was trying to describe my eating preferences in a conversation with friends. I'm no carnivore, or vegetarian, or vegan, or raw foodist. So what are you, they asked impatiently. Ah, people's need to peg you! What I am is not picky. I'll eat whatever there is, and having grown up in a part of the world where food was once scarce and choices lacking, I now consider myself lucky to have access to so many ingredients, to have so much information about nutrition and to benefit from such a wealth of options when it comes to preparing meals. I'm like a kid in a candy store - how could I not hurry to sample, taste, combine and experiment?

In some other countries, where it's a struggle to find quality ingredients, where food is not properly labeled, and where no one's heard of "antioxidants" or "omega-3 fatty acids," people eat because they're hungry. When you're hungry, you don't count carbs and protein. Finding out whether something is "ethically sourced" or "non-GMO" is decidedly a first world problem. When one is hungry, their main concern is to eat something that's satisfying, and if it happens to be healthy too, so much the better. On this side of the Globe, however, we are lucky. We have so much to choose from. Cuisines from around the world. Health food stores at every corner. So many rare, exotic grains and produce! The organic movement. There is no excuse, I think, for someone living in the States and making decent money, to not eat healthy things.

This past week's theme has been experimenting with the Vitamix. I can't get enough of this contraption. I made three spreads, and while I had high hopes for all of them, I was not exactly floored by any. My favorite, however, was Kim Snyder's Beauty Nut Pate. I can imagine making this again, albeit with small amendments. I had it for lunch three days in a row with some celery sticks and red pepper slices. It was very satisfying, even for a greedy stomach like mine. Just make sure you use unsalted pumpkin seeds. I made that mistake and it turned out a tad too salty for my taste - OK, a LOT saltier than my taste. I felt my head had turned into a ticking sodium bomb after a few bites. So - just make sure they're unsalted.

Beauty nut pate
~ serves 10

1 medium zucchini (organic please)
3 inches ginger root, chopped
garlic, 1 large clove
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds (pepitas) unsalted!
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup almonds
1/2 cup nama shoyu (unpasteurized soy sauce) or just plain old soy sauce
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp Cayenne pepper

Blend away in a Vitamix or high-speed blender until smooth. In the absence of such fancy equipment, grind your nuts in a coffee grinder or similar device and then use a regular blender to blend the whole thing together.

This will keep in the fridge for about a week. Try to trick your friends into tasting it, because they'll love it and then they'll have all kinds of admiration for you because you eat such healthy stuff.

Recipe adapted from Kimberly Snyder.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Apple pie, from start to finish

The smell of coffee and pastries in the morning is so chic. So French. But they've got to be flaky, delicate pastries. Bulky, doughy things that fill your mouth like cotton balls don't count. A donut is not a pastry, but a boorish bread whose texture baffles your tongue so as not to object to its objectionable sweetness. Americans can't get desserts right. They are either too sweet, too colorful, too large, too something. There's always something bothersome about them, something excessive and gratuitous that makes you feel both guilty and empty in the aftermath.

Even though I'm sold for pastries and coffee every now and then, lately I've found this sort of treat very infrequent. One reason is that it's a struggle to find decent pastries in the States. The other reason is, this type of food is not exactly encouraged by the Beauty Detox Solution. And it's too bad. But a treat that I allow myself every now and then, because I can make it myself and I make it well, is apple pie. I have a slice for brunch with some nicely spiced Rooibos tea. They go so well together. And the pie, of course, I make myself from start to finish.

Apple pie
~ serves 8

10-12 medium organic apples, peeled and cut into slices
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp organic flour (or verified non-GMO)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

1 cup (2  8-oz sticks) unsalted butter, very cold
2 1/2 cups organic flour (or verified non-GMO)
1 tsp salt
6-10 Tbsp ice-cold water

In a large bowl, mix the apples well with the lemon juice, sugar, flour and spices. This is your filling. Cover and set aside.

In another bowl, mix the flour and salt with a fork. Add the butter stick, cut into 8 chunks or so. We are going to cut the butter into the flour, as it were. The goal is to get pea-sized pieces of butter distributed throughout the mixture. This will make the crust flaky like it's supposed to be. If you have a pastry tool, lucky you. For the rest of us, take a butter knife in each hand and begin to cut into the butter with the knives going in opposite directions, so that they are crossing each other side by side. 

Once you got the butter into pea-sized pieces and evenly distributed, it's time to get the cold water into the mix. It's important that the water be as cold as possible, so add an ice cube in for good measure. For the next part you will use a fork. Add the cold water, one tablespoon at a time, incorporating it with the fork in a whipping motion. We just want to moisten the dough, but we don't want to mash the butter pieces. Add water until you feel the dough could be easily gathered into a ball without crumbling. 

At this point, divide the dough into a larger ball and a smaller one. Prepare a clean, dry surface and spread flour on it. Generously. Press the ball on the flat surface and with a rolling pin begin to roll it into a circle. The dough will break at the edges, so you will have to pamper it and mend it all the time, until it spreads into a circle large enough to fill your pie plate. Do this with patience and don't start to cry. We are almost there. 

Now you're going to move the dough into the pie plate. If it breaks in the process, don't panic. You can stitch it back together, I promise. With the rolling pin, start to roll the dough off the surface, wrapping it around the rolling pin. If you notice it's sticking to the flat surface, take a wide knife or spatula and help it a little. You will wish you had five hands for this, I know. Once you've rolled 3/4 of the dough onto the rolling pin, you're golden. Lift the rolling pin gently and move the dough (in one piece, hopefully) onto the pie plate, unwrapping it off the rolling pin at the same time. 

If you are a ninja, the dough will lay perfectly into the pie plate. For the rest of us, we'll have to pull onto the dough a little to set it in evenly. Set the filling into the pie plate. And now it's also time to preheat your oven to 400.

Repeat the above process with the smaller ball of dough, which will be the lid of your pie. Spread it to the right size, and slide it onto the pie plate to cover the filling. If you'd like to make a nice pattern on the edge, press the bottom and top together on the sides and then make a wavy design with your fingers, like I did:

With a knife, make a few slits on top but very carefully so as not to break the dough and make the whole thing ugly. Shove it in the 400 degree oven, wipe the sweat off your forehead and go read a magazine for 15 minutes. Then, lower the temperature to 375 and fold some aluminum foil over the outer edges of the pie. This prevents the edges from burning. Now kick it back into the oven and go take a nap. The pie will sit in there for 30 more minutes or until golden-brown. Let it cool for at least 1 hour before serving. And be proud of yourself! Making pastry is no piece of cake.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Letcho with eggs

Every now and then I get a pressing appetite for something "from home." I imagine Eva and I at the small table in grandma's kitchen, our small feet dangling down without touching the floor, our faces plastered to the mosquito net that separates us from the world. The kitchen was very small but it had a large, glorious window that always stayed open, summers and winters, rain or hail. There was always cooking being done, so the stove was always on, keeping the small quarters warm and cozy. Winters, as we sat by the open window chewing on our toast with zacusca or apricot jam, there was a thrilling mixture of heat and cold, and with the draft from the occasionally opening door the air danced around us playfully as we sat there, without a care in the world.

So food "from home" reminds me of those careless times. The time when I didn't have to think about bills and jobs and money and filling out forms, and calling customer service ten times a day. My heart races every time I find labels in Cyrillic on food containers or see names like "Halva" or "Ljutenica." I take it as a personal accomplishment, like I'm a member of an exclusive club, and among the endless aisles of bottles of dressing and smoothie packets I've found the coat of arms of my coterie. It's hard to be alone in this, though. I'd love to have someone around who knows what "zacusca" is and how sublime it is. Also, someone who knows the proper way to eat crepes and who doesn't make remarks like "this would go great with ketchup."

And yet. There are still opportunities to appreciate ethnic foods properly. I found a jar of Hungarian letcho at the international market and this completely made my day. I couldn't wait to get home and taste it! I ran some orange lights and cut pedestrians off, I was in such a hurry. I never get this excited about sales at Victoria's Secret. Is this normal?

Letcho is a stew made of gogosari, a variety of red peppers that's exceptionally sweet and that looks a lot like a bubble skirt. So much so that in Romania the bubble skirt is called "gogosar skirt." Letcho goes really well with eggs, of course, and it makes a great breakfast. If you ever see it in an ethnic food store or an international market type place, don't pass it up.

As always, don't forget your greens!

Letcho with eggs
~ serves 2

1 cup letcho
4 eggs
fresh tomatoes
fresh kale leaves

Heat up the letcho in a non-stick pan. When it starts to bubble, break the eggs and throw them in. Cook, stirring frequently for a few minutes until the eggs are cooked. Serve hot with fresh vegetables.

Good luck!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Barley with a side of green

A hammock. That’s what I would like. A shaded place to pass Sunday afternoons, remembering college and breathlessly turning page after page of a John Banville novel. Wouldn’t that be spectacular? A few days ago people at work were going bananas over this geek test online, a mile-long list of questions that no doubt had been put together by somebody in some inspiration-spurring place, such as the john. If you read Russian novels for pleasure, you got extra points as a geek. Lucky me, I suppose.

Whatever happened to simple things? Everywhere I look there's a plethora of something. A plethora of cars - just the other day an asshole decided to cut me off and turn left right in my face, and as I squeezed both brakes to avoid slamming my poor mountainbike into his overwaxed truck, I waved the middle finger at the driver without any compunction. A plethora of choices - how many brands of nut butters can there be, really? I know we're trying to be healthy, but come on. A plethora of recipes, too. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed between the things I want to try to make and the perpetually receding time, that I feel like just giving up. The hell with the blog! But it can't just be that easy, can it?

A few years ago I discovered what is now my favorite quick recipe: couscous with peas and mint. I love everything about it: the simplicity, the taste (buttery couscous with crunchy sweet peas go so. well. together.), the color. It's a sexy meal, really. So this time I didn't have couscous at the residence but I had barley, so I gave it a shot for a nice little adaptation. Not as good as the original, but a nice simple meal, in the good ole' Beauty Detox tradition.

Barley with peas and green beans
~ serves 4

1 cup pearl barley (quick cooking)
8 oz frozen peas (half a package)
8 oz frozen green beans (half a package)
4-5 mint leaves, minced
a sliver of butter
salt and pepper, to taste

Put the barley, 2 cups of water and salt in a pot . Boil for 20 minutes or until softened.
In the meantime, set the peas and green beans to boil and if using frozen vegetables boil them for about 8 minutes (you want them to be al dente, not soft). 
Serve the barley with a sliver of butter on top and a side of peas and green beans. Sprinkle mint on the side.

Good luck!