Signature Sauce Base: Tomato Jus

When it comes to food photography, one thing you hear over and over is “natural light, natural light, natural light”. This is certainly true, but it doesn’t help me with shooting dinner in a Manhattan apartment. Maybe if I only cooked in July…

Anyway, I’m not alone, and I’ve found some useful, practical, and affordable tips from some bloggers like Pinch of Yum. So I recently acquired a Lowel Ego Digital Imaging Fluorescent Light and a piece of wood modestly called “Naturally Distressed Recycled Rustic Weathered Boards” on Etsy. To celebrate, I decided to do what a certain category of food blogs (usually the ones that swear only by natural light) seems to revel in ad nauseum: a pedestrian recipe with totally superfluous pretty pictures.

Well, not quite pedestrian. Even though you’ll find a few recipes elsewhere, tomato jus isn’t as hackneyed as cupcakes or cinnamon rolls yet. I’ve actually already blogged about it in my Russian pork shashlyk post, and I plan to use it some more. This version is extremely simple — no herbs, no garlic — but it tastes really good, partly because the jus isn’t mixed with stock or any other liquid.

Tomato Jus

Does the world need another picture of tomatoes on wooden planks? Of course it does!

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Grilling with Peat, Russian Pork Shashlyks and Potato Lyulya-Kebabs

I’ve been using natural wood for grilling shashlyks and other kebabs for quite a while now (I explained the process in my lyulya-kebab recipe post). The wood smoke certainly imparts some flavor, but the relatively short cooking time of a kebab means that the exposure, especially on an open grill, isn’t sufficient to achieve the same results as, say, traditional American barbecue. While I don’t want to turn my meat into something that only smells like smoke, I’ve been searching for some middle ground.

Looking at other smoked products, there’s one prominent example where tradition turned to a different combustible, more for reasons of availability than flavor in the beginning: Scotch whisky. You might not think of Scotch as a smoked product, and yet… Historically, peat was used in places where it was the only consistent source of fuel, such as Islay. The peat smoke would permeate the malted barley drying in the kilns, and the flavor of the whiskies produced owed so much to that smoke that distilleries retained the practice even after technology rendered it no longer necessary. The aroma of burning peat is so intense in fact that it’s called peat-reek. You can read more about the influence of peat on whisky here.

This is all well and good, but this is a Russian food blog, not a Scottish food blog. But wait — aren’t there other parts of the world that have peat?

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Dolma Shurpa, Uzbek Stuffed Vegetable Broth

I’ve previously posted a pepper dolma recipe from Azerbaijan, but today’s dish hails from Uzbekistan and is prepared fairly differently. Shurpa means soup or broth in Uzbek, and the stuffed vegetables here are served in a flavorful broth. My recipe is loosely adapted from Hakim Ganiev‘s Oriental Feast, but I’ve made many changes, such as the use of my beloved pressure cooker.

Uzbek Cuisine - Dolma Shurpa

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Summer Vegetable Terrine I

Summer Vegetable Terrine - Peppers and Tomatoes

While working on a few kebab recipes over the summer, I’ve been facing a dilemma with my side dishes. On the one hand: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and zucchinis are the best things you can buy at farmers markets at the moment. On the other: I can’t serve all my shashlyks with grilled vegetables. This terrine manages to still use the summer vegetables we love, and add some variety. I originally wanted to have all the quintessential ingredients in a single dish, but I felt like that prevented the flavors of each individual component from expressing themselves fully. So I’m planning to make two terrines.

This first terrine contains only tomatoes and peppers — never mind that neither of them is a vegetable, technically speaking! Thanks to the magic of agar agar (which can be purchased here), you can either serve it cold, or warm it in a 200 F oven. It goes great with my lyulya-kebabs or shashlyk Five Fingers!

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Whitefish Cakes, Onion and Tomato Salad

This recipe closes my trilogy of “Lake Sevan’s Gifts” (see here and here for the first two parts). Common whitefish, locally called sig, was introduced into Lake Sevan from Lake Ladoga, and has since become the prominent species as far as food goes. Goldfish were also introduced, which is a rather curious choice. Fish are typically introduced for human consumption and / or recreational purposes, and goldfish don’t seem to fit either of those criteria!

Although I don’t remember seeing fishcakes in Armenia (kebabs often being our only option during the whole trip), Armenian cookbooks do mention somewhat similar dishes, such as fish balls. If that’s more to your liking, you can certainly prepare the whitefish mixture as below and shape it into balls; coat the balls with either Wondra flour or breadcrumbs, and deep-fry them until golden-brown.

The tomato and onion salad provides a simple accompaniment, the kind that’s often served everywhere in the Caucasus. I encourage you to get the best heirloom tomatoes you can find.

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Grilled Watermelon, Cherry Tomato and Brynza Salad

This dish is inspired by a recipe from John Besh’s My New Orleans, a book that mysteriously arrived on my doorstep without me even ordering it. I was immediately seduced because it combined typical Caucasian ingredients — watermelon, tomatoes, cheese and herbs — in an unusual fashion. Indeed I must say I’d never tried or thought of grilling watermelon before! My main contribution was to focus on slightly fewer flavors and reinforce the presence of products from the region: goat cheese was replaced with brynza, pepper jelly vinaigrette and balsamic vinegar with honey. This is a great summertime dish, and if you happen to make your own white wine, this would be great to eat with it!

Grilled watermelon
Yields 4 servings

1/8 of a seedless watermelon
1 1/2 oz olive oil
3/4 oz light, liquid honey

  • Remove the rind of the watermelon, and cut into 12 triangles, about 3/4″ thick. Mix the olive oil and honey, and brush on both sides of the triangles. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  • Season the watermelon with a little bit of salt, and cook on a hot grill just until you see hatch-mark patterns on both sides. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Yields 4 servings

24 cherry tomatoes of various colors
black pepper, ground
top-quality olive oil
grilled watermelon
3/4 oz rocket leaves
3/4 oz purple basil leaves
4 oz brynza (or Bulgarian feta)

  • Lightly char the cherry tomatoes with a blowtorch, then toss in a bowl with salt, pepper, and a little bit of olive oil.
  • On each plate, place 3 triangles of watermelon, surrounded by 6 cherry tomatoes. Toss the rocket and purple basil with salt and a little bit of olive oil and arrange on the plates, then crumble the brynza on top. Serve immediately.