Thursday, January 31, 2013


What do Eastern Europeans eat, I'm asked sometimes. Middle Eastern and Greek food are far more popular in the States, and while everybody knows what is a gyro or a shish kabob, few know what is a sarma. In the Balkans, we have a special liking for smelly cheeses, pickles and sauerkraut. But one thing that we really, really love, whether you live in Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia, is zacusca. This, at least, is something that we can all agree upon.

Balkanic people are frugal. They've had to be, because of centuries of foreign rule and imposed austerity. In the States we can have romaine lettuce in the middle of winter for $2.99 a bunch, peppers and tomatoes galore from Mexico, papaya from Belize and more tasty things. But in Romania, there are no such luxuries. Fruits and vegetables are scarce during the cold months, and whatever supermarkets offer comes from far away and is neither fresh, nor affordable. Meal staples during this time are root vegetables (beets, celery roots, parsnips) and legumes (beans, lentils). The only way to remember summer is to have it trapped, with all its marvelous flavors, in a jar. So traditionally, Balkanic families (specifically grandmas) do a lot of canning in the fall. 

In my family, zacusca was a very long and arduous project which grandma would perform stoically throughout an entire day of standing, roasting and mixing in the kitchen. I knew when the zacusca time had come because of the terrific smell of roasting eggplant, which permeated every corner of the house and made us all flock to the kitchen to catch a glimpse of the process. Grandma had enormous pots (or at least they were enormous compared to me, a little child) and she would energetically stir in them for a long time, until zacusca had precisely the right consistency. Then she would can 30 to 40 jars of the stuff and keep it in the pantry for the winter. And boy, was that zacusca a great joy for us in the cold winter months, when there was snow outside and we could sit by the window and pop open a jar of the red deliciousness and spread it on warm slices of freshly baked bread...

Zacusca (Lyutenitsa)
~ makes about 6 cups

2 medium eggplants
2 red bell peppers
1 sweet onion, minced
2 cups (16 oz) chopped tomatoes (I use Pomi, you can also use canned)
1 bay leaf
olive oil
salt, pepper, to taste (if using chile, skip the pepper)
1/4 cup hot green chile or 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, optional

First, we're going to roast the eggplant and peppers. So find yourself a good audio book or podcast, because you're going to be in the kitchen awhile. You can do this in a cast iron skillet or a tortilla pan (or even directly over the fire if you have a gas stove). 

Set the pan on medium-high heat and place the eggplant and peppers inside. Turn them with tongs every few minutes to make sure they're equally roasted on all sides. If the heat is high enough, you'll have to do this every 3 minutes or so.

Note: you can also just bake the vegetables, but they won't have the same delicious roasted flavor and honestly, that's what makes zacusca. So don't be lazy!

When the peppers are done, set them immediately in a pot and cover them quickly. They need to "sweat" in there so you can peel them easily.

In the meantime, peel the eggplants as soon as they're cool enough to touch. Don't use metal utensils at any time to manipulate the eggplant meat, because it will turn dark. Use only wood or ceramic. Peel the eggplant and then chop it horizontally and then vertically lots of times, until you get a mash. I use a large wooden spoon to do this, but maybe you can find an even better tool (not metal!).

Then peel the peppers and chop them very very small. Keep the juice too, it's very tasty!

Heat up some olive oil on low heat and add the onions with 1 tsp of salt. Cover and cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring some. You want to smother, not caramelize it. Then add the peppers and bring to a boil.

Add the eggplant, then the chopped tomatoes, black pepper, bay leaf and chile if using. Mix well, reduce the heat to low and partially cover (it will splatter, so be careful).

Boil for 1 hour stirring frequently, every 5 minutes or so. Season with more salt if you need it.

Eat by itself, on bread, as a snack, with pasta, with potatoes or with eggs, or however else! Zacusca is just awesome!

Recipe adapted from Laura @ Retete ca la mama.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Amazing glutenless almond-based chocolate chip cookies

I love cookies. I do. Unfortunately, I now know that sugar is far too ubiquitous and far too deceitfully camouflaged in so many food items, for it to be harmless. There is sugar in soda, we know that. But if you try to get around it with diet soda, you open a whole can of worms with artificial sweeteners, most of which are far worse for you than sugar. If you're wondering why, read Kimberly's short article.

And yes, there's sugar in cakes, cookies and other sweets. We know this too. When I was young, these things were to be enjoyed occasionally, at someone's birthday or some special event. We certainly didn't have cookies every day. Now, it seems there isn't a day when there aren't cookies, donuts, cakes or some such seductive treat around the office. I thought to myself that if I have good self restraint and limit my portions, that there was nothing wrong with it. But as I became more aware of the range of sugar-containing food items out there, I became alarmed. I now cringe at how challenging it is to avoid sugar, and how miserable my life would be if I chose to avoid sugar completely. Not only would it turn me into a social outcast, but it would also make me a frustrated grocery shopper, because - are you reading those labels carefully? - pretty much everything contains sugar. Even things that make you scratch your head, like tomato soup!

How did we get to this? I was at Starbucks the other day and wanted to buy a snack to go with my coffee, as I've done so many times before. But this time, I had my sugar radar on. So I scanned the pastry window in search of a sugarless treat, perhaps even (is this wishful thinking?) some salty pastry of sorts. Tough luck. The only sugar-free snack at our Starbucks were the bagels (and even some of those might be sweetened, for all I know). Their bagels are quite good and I'm sold for the Multigrain kind in particular, but I would appreciate more choices nonetheless. Do we really have to add sugar to everything?

To limit my sugar intake, as well as to make a point that I think deserves to be made, I now use less processed and milder sweeteners, and in smaller amounts. One of these is Stevia, of which my favorite variety is the Vitamin Shoppe liquid form. It had the least amount of bitterness  from all I've tasted. Another sweeteners I use are coconut nectar and coconut crystals. These are unrefined sweeteners that are just as sweet as brown sugar. They don't have a coconutty taste at all. But they are quite expensive. The 'Coconut Secret' brand I buy from Whole Foods is about $8 for 14 oz. So you end up using less, because it's precious, and in the end that is a good thing - you know what I mean? We need to re-educate our palates, which are so ridiculously poisoned by sugar, salt and fat in excess, and remind them how to taste subtle flavors. So, to illustrate, these cookies are killer, and not a drop of sugar in them!

Amazing glutenless almond-based chocolate chip cookies
~ makes 16 cookies

1 1/2 cups almond meal (or almond flour)
1/2 cups coconut flour
3/4 cup coconut crystals (or brown sugar, if you must)
1 4-oz 100% cacao unsweetened chocolate baking bar (Ghirardelli works)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder (aluminum free!)
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup raw creamy almond butter (Trader Joe's works)
2/3 cup coconut oil, melted
1/4 cup coconut milk (or almond milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a heavy mortar, start to smash the chocolate bar with the pestle into small chunks, square by square. In the end, you'll end up with about a cup of chunks (you can just buy chocolate chunks if you like, instead of going through this). Whatever you do, do not buy any chocolate with sugar in it - kind of defeats the purpose.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, including the chocolate chunks.

Take another bowl and add the almond butter, coconut oil, coconut or almond milk and vanilla extract in there. Use a fork to whip everything together so the oil and butter combine well.

Add this to the dry ingredients and mix everything into a dough. It's going to be an oily dough, but if you find that it's disgustingly oily you can correct that with a few sprinkles of coconut flour.

Now take a large tray and grease it with coconut oil or line it with parchment paper. Take the dough and mold it into approximately 16 delicate cookies, trying to push the chocolate chunks inside as much as possible, because otherwise they "bleed" chocolate everywhere during the baking process.

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes. You know they're ready when they are lightly amber around the bottom. Let them cool completely before removing from the sheet. They'll be very fragile when you first pull them out. 

On a final note, these might be pretty expensive cookies to make, but they might just be the best I've ever had (and I've had a LOT). I think - and I'm not leading you astray here - everyone should make these at least once in their life.

Recipe adapted from Jenny @ the Clean Blog.

Any questions? Leave a comment!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"French potatoes" casserole

I don't really know how French people cook their potatoes. I think that we associate dainty, flavorful dishes with French cuisine. Some Romanian folks concocted this dish and, wanting to make it popular, called it "French potatoes." It could have been "Romanian potatoes," I suppose, but then it wouldn't have had the same appeal. The French, and everything they do, are so impossibly alluring after all.

I eat dairy very seldom. Partly it's because of my own digestive issues, partly because I use Kimberly Snyder's book as my dietary bible and in my own experience I was able to confirm most of her theses. A note on milk, then: we are the only species that consumes milk past the age of infancy. We are also the only species that consumes the milk of another species. Dairy products are hard to digest, allergenic, high in fat, acidic and, contrary to popular belief, not a good source of calcium. To learn more on how dairy = evil, read Kim Snyder's short and sweet article. It's really remarkable how ubiquitous dairy products are, despite the digestive problems and skin issues they cause us.

So I try to stay away from dairy. But I am only human and have my cravings too, and a bad one is cheese. I am crazy about cheese. If you share this addiction, you may want to opt for non-cow cheese (goat or sheep) or raw milk (unpasteurized) cow cheese. The former are easier to digest, while the latter has the benefit of containing precious enzymes that help with digestion (while the pasteurization process kills these enzymes). If you go this route, you'll find these alternatives more costly. That much is true. But on the good side, this way you'll eat less cheese. Plus, you'll notice a big improvement with your digestion.

On the rare occasions when I eat dairy, I make a big experience of it and mix it into an awesome meal like this. "French potatoes" is one of my favorite childhood meals. Romanians make this with salty sheep cheese (telemea) that you get at the market, from quirky peasants who scratch their head by their booths and haggle impishly for the price per kilo. In the US, I try to get the best deal at Whole Foods and end up with a neatly-cut slice of imported cheese safely sealed in plastic. 

But at least there are choices! This time I made an excellent deal with a goat Gouda from Holland with a lot of personality, which worked perfectly. For this dish you need a cheese with oomph. So stay away from cheddar, jack, mozzarella and other insipid varieties. Go with the smelliest cheese you can find. And don't worry, the potatoes will tone it down.

French potatoes
~ serves 4

7 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
7 eggs
2 cups shredded goat cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
another 1/4 cup shredded goat/sheep cheese
1/2 cup chopped green chile (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste

Boil the potatoes until done, but not too soft. Also boil 5 of the eggs in water with a little salt (so they don't crack), 8-10 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

In the meantime, mix 1/2 of the grated cheese in a bowl with the sour cream. I wish I could find goat sour cream, but no luck. Some things are inevitable. But at least I found this excellent (and steeply-priced too) variety at Whole Foods, which is really, really delicious. If you must have sour cream, at least have the best you can find.

Once cooled, go ahead and peel the eggs, then slice them.

Now we're going to assemble the piece. Take a 9x9 inch (or larger) Pyrex or oven-safe pan and layer potato slices on the bottom. Sprinkle some salt (only if your cheese is not very salty). The next layer is egg slices. Then, the sour cream + cheese mixture. Then potatoes, sprinkle some salt, then eggs, and finish with potatoes.

Take a bowl and beat the remaining 2 eggs. Add 1/4 cup grated cheese and the chopped green chile. Pour this marvelous mixture on top of the whole thing.

Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

Eat this with a natural probiotic like sauerkraut, kimchi or good old pickles. It's a heavy meal and your stomach needs all the help it can get to digest it. If nothing else, at least pair it with a leafy salad. Bon appetit! 

If you have any questions, leave a comment!