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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mama Masha's Kitchen - Of all things slimy, revolting and … delicious

Our food likes and dislikes are not necessarily determined by taste. Smell, texture and appearance of various foods can be just as important in deciding whether or not we are prepared to actually eat whatever it is. Sometimes different factors are at odds with each other.

For example, the exotic fruit durian is known to taste like heaven and smell like hell, which begs the question – how are we to discover what it tastes like, if we can’t get close enough without gagging due to the smell? Or, in the more practical realm, how many people are there who love certain foods but can’t have them due to allergies? In that sense, I consider myself fortunate: I am allergic to peanuts and I can’t stand peanut butter, so just as well.

My grandmother-in-law has a couple of odd food phobias, and she herself admits that they are, indeed, odd. For instance, she cannot bring herself to eat kidney beans for no other reason than their name. Somehow, something associated with kidneys just doesn’t work for her.

My great-uncle refused to eat rabbit because in his mind it was the same as eating cats. His explanation was that during the hard times, many ladies could not afford genuine Russian rabbit coats and furriers started offering cat coats. Ever since then, rabbits and cats became inseparable in my great-uncle’s mind. I am sure everyone could come up with a long list of odd food aversions.

Sadly, in many cases, by getting too tied to disliking certain foods we often rob ourselves of some fantastic culinary experiences. So, in this month of November, on the heels of the creepy holiday of Halloween, I’d like to talk about some creepy foods that, in my humble opinion, more than deserve a closer look.

Childhood fears

The first thing to remember is that our taste buds change with age. So, if you turn down certain foods because you hated them as a kid, you may wish to reconsider. Once upon a time, I couldn’t stand stuffed bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant. I disliked the taste and absolutely hated their look and texture when cooked: they looked like slimy bits of something that would live in a swamp. It didn’t help that my family was very fond of a Russian appetizer called “little toads”: eggplant sautéed with onions and served chilled with spicy marinated tomatoes. Once grown, I encouraged myself to try them again – and what a difference!

Zucchini is fun coarsely chopped, sprinkled with large-granule salt (like whiskey salt or Himalayan pink salt), and tossed with shallots and shrimp in olive oil, served over a bed of pasta.

Stuffed peppers can be stuffed with anything: rice, orzo, carrots, peas, ground beef, crabmeat, onions, ham – whatever strikes your fancy. Serve them either with a cream or tomato sauce for a yummy, healthful and colorful dinner.

Challenge yourself to remember and prepare one kind of food you remember disliking as a child, and see where it takes you. You might be surprised.

The looks are not everything

When it comes to strange-looking foods, water-dwelling creatures definitely take the cake. Octopi… Calamari… Soft crab sandwich with the crab in question still in possession of its eyes… Frog legs… Escargot… Eel… Shrimp… And fish – lots of fish of all kinds… Slimy, squiggly, with tentacles, fins and claws, in all shapes and sizes – more than enough to send a squeamish person running.

Interestingly, my personal dislike of fish was not due to taste, but due to the fact that we could not get deboned fish in the former Soviet Union. In kindergarten, we read this terrifying story of a little girl who choked on a fish bone because she was talking while eating, and nearly died. The moral of the story was to keep us from eating with our mouths open. The result was an enormous and profound fish phobia.

Having arrived to the United States and discovered the joys of boneless fish filets, I dove into the world of seafood with abandon and never looked back, trying not only the different kinds of fish I never tasted before but also everything water-dwelling I could find.

I learned to sautee shrimp in browned butter with just the right amount of garlic. I learned to poach salmon. I learned to toss smoked oysters with olive oil and herbs to serve atop rice. I ate escargot at a street-side café in Paris with a cheese spread and a bottle of burgundy and begged for more. I made it a priority to locate good sushi restaurants whenever I moved to a new area.

Yes, there have been many health and environmental concerns about seafood in the recent years. Do your homework, shop carefully, buy organic and steroid-free. Don’t eat shell fish before a physical – your cholesterol will fly off the charts. But that doesn’t mean you should deny yourself an occasional oyster or two or… a dozen. If you don’t like the way the little critters look, close your eyes. If you don’t like the straight fish taste, use dips and sauces and combine with milder-tasting foods. Seafood is good for you. Among primary advantages is the high phosphorus content, which is proven to be good for your brain. And oysters have also been rumored to have aphrodisiac qualities. What’s not to love?

Slimy, yet satisfying

Slimy is a big deal to many of us. Somehow, it invariably has negative connotations. Earthworms, while most certainly useful creatures, are not pleasant to look at and are slimy. Stingy jellyfish are slimy. Human entrails and scary monsters in horror movies are always shown with an extra serving of slimy. Is it any wonder that, when faced with slimy-looking foods (be it in raw or cooked form), we tend to shy away (not to say, run away screaming and valiantly suppressing the gag reflex).

The biggest thing to remember about such foods is that many of them change drastically in texture and density when cooked. Three prime examples that come to mind are: mussels, oysters (almost the same as mussels) and beef liver. The chemistry of it is not that complicated. In fact, if you have ever had a hard-boiled egg, you are familiar with the process. When exposed to heat, complex proteins break down to simpler ones, causing a change in texture. An egg firms up when cooked and, interestingly enough, so do oysters and beef liver.

In fairness, shucking raw oysters is a risky and involved undertaking, which I prefer to live to professionals. So, when I want my oysters (outside of a restaurant), I buy them smoked in a can. They retain their smooth texture, but they are very firm at this point and don’t look a bit like snot (an unfortunate association cited by oyster-haters the world over). They still take on other flavors very well and the oil they are canned in is yummy and contributes greatly to whatever dish you want to add them to.

When conducting a brief survey on beef liver, I discovered there are three distinct group of people. The first group hates any liver, period. The second group will eat chicken livers – preferably fried, but not beef liver. The third group (to which I belong), will eat any kind of liver, any day, any time, with anything. If your objection to beef liver lies with its taste, I am afraid you are lost forever to its delights. However, if it’s the texture that you have issues with, all you need is simply summon your courage and patience just until the stuff is fully cooked. Wear gloves while prepping it, if you want (if you are brave enough to handle liver bare-handed do make certain to wash your hands, cooking surfaces and utensils thoroughly).

To prepare for a beef liver dinner, get it out of the package in the morning, place it into a bowl and pour enough milk to cover up the meat. Add your seasoning of choice: Mrs. Dash, Tony Chachere, or any herbs you like. I prefer onion powder or onion salt. 45 minutes prior to dinner time, chop up some potatoes and onions. Heat a respectable quantity of olive oil in a deep pan and dump potatoes in to fry. Add salt, seasonings and herbs to potatoes to taste and remember to stir.

Get the liver out and drain the milk. To the best of your ability cut the liver into smaller pieces – about two inches or so. The reason I say “to the best of your ability” is because, uncooked, it tends to be a bit squirmy and uncooperative. Heat another large deep pan and toss in some butter to brown. Add the onions. As soon as they start getting golden in color, add the liver and stir, stir, stir. Add sour cream (I add three serving spoons per pound of meat) and lower the heat. Keep stirring. You will notice the liver becoming brown, firm and porous as it cooks. Unless experienced with multi-pan cooking , engage someone else to keep an eye on the potatoes for you, as you might find yourself a bit busy with the liver. Once all of the liver has that firm, brown, porous look about it, you can turn it off. You are ready to serve!

Liver takes on flavor beautifully, so what you will discover is a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth substance – almost like pate or liverwurst – infused with tangy flavors of milk, sour cream, butter and onions, plus whatever you added for soaking earlier. Served with fried potatoes and some fresh chunky veggies with a bit of salt and pepper, it’s positively yummy.

Bon appétit!

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