Potato salad for a crowd

May 13th, 2009

This one is the ultimate crowd-pleaser no matter whether you are serving it for dinner, during a grill party or from a plastic container at a picnic. I love potatoes in almost any form and several takes on potato salad are on my regular to-do list. The one here is my family’s favorite and I learned to make a lot of it as domestic disturbances often start over the leftovers.

It’s hard to go wrong with this salad, but still there are few rules to be followed to get the best from even this simple combination of ingredients. Rule number one – always choose the smallest potatoes and make sure they are of a uniform size. It’ll cut the cooking time and will let them cook evenly. Rule number two – always cook them with the skin on. This helps preserve the vitamins which are right beneath the skin, and prevents the potatoes from soaking up too much water during cooking and getting mushy. Rule number three – be generous when salting the boiling water – there’s very little to be done to save an under-salted boiled potato. The water should taste like the sea to get it right. And rule number four – use real mayonnaise! With a salad of only a few ingredients, every one of them matters for the final result. So forget for a moment about the upcoming bikini season and go for the real thing – egg yolks, fat and all.

I sometimes add crispy Granny Smith apples for an extra crunch and play with fresh herbs like flat Italian parsley, dill or cilantro (coriander) to add some color.

There is no picture of the salad, because it was devoured too quickly during last Sunday’s end-of-the-academic-year grill party my husband threw for his fellow architecture grad students. It never met with the chicken and hamburgers it was supposed to accompany – I should have kept it in the kitchen until the last moment.

Potato salad

  • 4 pounds (2 kg) Russet red potatoes, small to medium, but uniform in size
  • 1 big red onion, peeled, cut crosswise and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup real mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup Dijon mustard
  • juice from ½ lemon
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 bunch flat Italian parsley or dill (optional)

Bring half a large pot of water to a boil. Add enough salt for it to taste like sea water, add the potatoes, skins on, and cook for 10-15 minutes or until a fork goes easily in when pierced. Drain and let cool enough to be able to hold when peeling. The salad will be tastier if made when the potatoes are still warm.

In a small bowl place the onion, sprinkle it with salt and cover with cold water. Let stand 10 minutes, squish and drain – it will take some of the sharpness from the onion. In another bowl mix the mayo, mustard and lemon juice.

Peel the potatoes and cut into big chunks, or thick rounds if using small ones. Taste for salt and add some if needed, but remember that the dressing will be pretty salty from the mustard. Grind the black pepper, add the mayo, onion and optional parsley, and carefully mix the salad to avoid crushing the potatoes too much. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Two Easters and Bulgarian brioche

April 29th, 2009

Easter is quite an event in my family and when it happens in April it becomes really complicated. As an Orthodox Christian, I usually celebrate Easter a week later than most. My “name day” falls on Palm Sunday and when you add my daughter’s name day, my birthday and my wedding anniversary, it gets really messy. All those holidays require a lot of planning, cooking and my favorite – baking. I usually go through several pounds of flour, huge amounts of butter and eggs – and I love it.

This year we had two full-blown Easters, including two rounds of egg coloring, a traditional Polish Easter breakfast, an American egg hunt and – a week later, as the Bulgarian tradition requires – roast leg of lamb, stuffed with rice and fresh herbs. I was in charge of the kozunak – the Bulgarian cousin of Jewish challah bread and French brioche. Though in Bulgaria you can buy it all year round, the Easter one is special and no celebration is complete without this sweet bread, heavy on the eggs and butter, and stuffed with dried fruits and nuts. The butter-vanilla-lemon zest aroma of the kozunak is one that defines this holiday for me, as are the blanched almonds that decorate its top and the eggs done up in psychedelic colors by my kids.

The recipe I have used for more than ten years now is from a cookbook first published in the thirties, which belonged to my grandmother. At first I was quite afraid, as the description and ingredients were very vague, but I was stubborn and wanted to feel that Easter aroma even if there were no almond trees blooming outside our Warsaw apartment. The first year the breads were flat and a little dry, but we ate them anyway. Besides, nobody knew the real thing except me and that was an advantage in my favor.

I was expecting to engage in serious combat with the dough, as I’d heard legends about how hard it is to knead and how long it has to be worked on. To my surprise it was actually easy, and as good a stress reliever as any bread dough. The recipe is for one kilo of flour and this may put some people off, but it’s worth making the whole amount. You can use different stuffings, make one plain and toast it for breakfast like brioche or freeze the extra dough for croissant-shaped rolls for weekend brunches to come.

Ingredients for the basic bread:

  • 10 cups (1.3 kg) all-purpose unbleached flour + extra for adding when kneading the dough
  • 30-40g (1-1.5 oz fresh yeast or 2 packages of instant yeast
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 sticks butter (200gr) butter melted + extra for rolling surface
  • 1 ¼ cups milk (250ml), warm
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar (dark brown and white mixed)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp rum or brandy
  • 1 egg for egg wash + 1 tbsp of milk
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds
  • sugar for sprinkling

Preparation:

Sift the flour in a big mixing bowl and make a well in the middle.

Crumble the fresh yeast, or pour in the dry, into a small bowl with 1/2 cup warm milk, add 1 tbsp sugar and enough flour to make a thin batter. Cover and leave in a warm place until it starts bubbling – about 10-15 minutes depending of the air conditions. Keep an eye on it, as it tends to explode!

Whisk the eggs with the sugar and add the rest of the warm milk, zest, vanilla and rum.

When the yeast is ready, add it to the flour, than the egg mixture and 1/2 tsp salt. Start making the dough adding the melted butter little by little or dipping your hands in it (that’s how I do it) and working the dough until all the butter is incorporated. When kneading the dough instead of pushing, pull and stretch it on the side of the bowl and then roll it into a ball and stretch again until it’s smooth, doesn’t stick to the walls of the bowl and little bubbles appear on the surface. Add some extra flour while kneading if the dough is too sticky. Form a ball, place it in a buttered bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and put in a warm, draft free place to rise – until double its size (around 1 hour). Or place it on a floured wooden board and cover with a big glass bowl like for the pizza dough.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (200°C).

The amount is enough for several loaves depending on the sheets and pans you are going to use. Pull three equal dough balls, roll them into logs on a buttered surface and make a braid, place on a baking sheet or cake pan lined with parchment. Leave it to rise again covered with a clean moistened towel. When it doubles in size, brush with the egg wash, push some almonds into the top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean – 20-30 minutes. Take out before it has cooled completely.

Kozunak can be stored in an airtight container, but is best eaten fast.

You can also make a roll with the dough. Roll 1/3 of the dough into a square around 1cm (half inch) thick. Mix one jar of jam of your liking (mine is fig) with handful of chopped walnuts and the same amount of raisins, dried cranberries or cherries, and spread over the dough, leaving 1cm free on the edges. Roll it and place into a cake form to rise. Brush with the egg wash, place almonds and sprinkle with sugar, then bake as before.

You can make little croissants, either plane or with sweet stuffing like for the roll. After shaping them, place on a baking sheet, leave to rise and do as before (skip the almonds). Or you can stuff them with a mix of ½ pound crumbled feta and one big egg for about ¼ of the dough. Those are the ones my kids fight for – often with me.

Spring on the plate – Lebanese tabbouleh

April 10th, 2009

According to some sources, spring has appeared in some parts of the Northern hemisphere. Apparently it missed Chicago, but as it’s April, a little illusion on the plate wouldn’t hurt, so I thought of tabbouleh. This Lebanese fresh herb salad is my cheering-up-the-gray-days staple and a good excuse to chop away my winter sorrows. The very sight of bunches of mint, parsley, dill and cilantro (coriander) on the kitchen counter makes me smile. The green color and fresh aroma help me forget the snow, the cold and the wind and the bite of the bulgur wheat shakes off the lethargy as does the lemon juice that it has soaked in.

The combination of the fresh greens with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and crunchy bulgur wheat is addictive. I use fine cracked bulgur from my favorite Middle Eastern store, Alkhyam Bakery at 4744-46 N. Kedzie Ave, corner of Lawrence. Before using always go through the wheat and throw out any dark grains. For the tabbouleh, you never soak it in hot water, but in a mix of lemon juice and cold water – it should keep a crunchy bite – and besides, it will soak up the juices of the salad.

You can make tabbouleh for two or twenty two, but it has to be eaten the very same day. If you leave it to soak for too long you’ll lose the crunchiness of the wheat and freshness of the herbs. The best way to serve it is spooned on Romaine lettuce leaves – you roll it and eat with your hands.

Another rule is to keep the proportions right – forget the versions with cous-cous or so much bulgur that the dominant color is yellow. It has to be green, with little specks of wheat and red tomatoes and a strong lemony taste.

Use the smallest and crunchiest cucumbers you can lay your hands on. Surprisingly for me this was the hardest ingredient to find here. Usually it was the fresh mint, but in Chicago cucumbers smaller than a baseball bat are the really tough to find. The best so far are the ones called Persian or mini. They cost a fortune, so sometimes I give up and go for the smallest and hardest monster I can get.

Once you work out proportions that really work for you you’ll be hooked. Here are mine:

Lebanese tabbouleh

(enough for 4)

  • 1 cup coarse bulgur wheat
  • 2 bunches flat leaf parsley, chopped (about 2-3 handfuls)
  • 1 bunch dill, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1 handful)
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 medium size plum tomatoes, chopped

or

  • 2 handfuls cherry tomatoes – quartered
  • 2 small cucumbers, chopped
  • juice of one lemon (lime)
  • cold water
  • salt, black pepper
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil (optional)

Place the bulgur in a bowl, pour half of the lemon juice and enough cold water over it to moisten it thoroughly and let soak for 15 minutes.

In a big bowl combine all the greens and vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, add the rest of the lemon juice and mix well. Squeeze all the water from the bulgur and add to the bowl. Mix once more and adjust the seasoning. The Lebanese will stop right there and serve the salad, but I like to add olive oil. Combine the salad ingredients no longer than 30 minutes before serving to avoid the bulgur getting too soft – it will keep absorbing the juices in the bowl.

Tabbouleh is great as part of a mezze plater or with roasted meat and fish. It’s my party pleaser and back yard grill staple. Some warm pita will go well with it too.


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