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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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mama Masha's kitchen - that little something

Spices and sauces scare people. They are associated with French and Italian chefs making complex dishes with a list of ingredients as long as one’s arm. It’s not that people, honestly, it isn’t. If you are familiar with things like, say, sour cream, cheese, and diced tomatoes and are capable of performing stirring motions with a spoon, you are well on your way to sauce mastery.

Why, you may ask, do I need to be familiar with such things? Because, my dears, there are only so many times you can eat bland pasta or bland rice or bland potatoes with nothing on them except maybe a dash of salt. Things can get boring in the kitchen, and knowing how to be saucy and spicy is a way to prepare the same basic things many more different ways.

Go sour

Oh dear, not literally! I am talking, of course, about your dairy products – many of which are essentially sour milk in various shapes and forms. Sour cream, half-and-half, kefir, whipping cream, cheese, yogurt – all of these things go well beyond cereal bowls and healthy snacks. The really cool part about them is that some of them are interchangeable and some can be combined to enhance each other.

One of the most basic sauces I use on a regular basis requires butter, onions or shallots, sour cream or yogurt, cheese to taste and whatever else you want to throw in with it. My favorite version is either with shrimp or with diced prosciutto. It goes equally well on pasta or rice.

In a small pan, melt about a tablespoon of butter, throw in chopped onions (I prefer Vidalia onions or shallots – you would need a quarter of a large onion, or one whole large shallot for this recipe). If you are using shrimp or ham or prosciutto or frozen veggies, this is the time to add them too. Reduce heat to medium, add two-three large serving spoons of sour cream and a small handful of chopped or shredded cheese. For a milder creamier taste use mozzarella. For a “cheesier” more saturated flavor, use something like sharp cheddar. Start stirring like crazy. Do not let the mix get scorched or stuck to the sides of the pan. Keep stirring until all of the cheese melts and mixes uniformly with sour cream. Voila!

Another prominent member of the dairy family, whipping cream, is exactly what it says it is – whipping cream. Why do I prefer it to the whipped cream from a spray can or a plastic tub? Because I don’t want all the sugar and additives. Remember folks, a good dessert (which whipping cream is a frequent part of) is not necessarily a super-sweet dessert. It doesn’t have to be sugary to be delicious. With a good whisk and some elbow grease (ok, ok, you can cheat and use the whisk attachment on an electrical mixer if you have one), you suddenly have a light fluffy topping that adds a touch of sophistication to just about anything. The list includes (but is not limited to):

• Canned peaches or pears (find the ones that come in their own juice) topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with espresso sugar (yes, there is such a thing – look it up, it’s worth it).

• Fresh sliced strawberries with whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings.

• Apples or pears baked with figs, served with whipped cream and a touch of cinnamon on top.

• Dark chocolate pudding with whipped cream and mint.

Give it a shot and see which one brings on more requests for additional helpings from your friends and family.

In the red

In general being “in the red” is considered not good, unless, of course we are talking about your next meal. Color red in natural foods signifies vitamins and ant-acids that are good for you. No, a red Twizzler is not, in fact, a natural food – terribly sorry about that. The most common red fruit for everyday cooking is, of course, a tomato. If at all possible, peeps, grow your own. There are smaller varieties that only need a sunny bit of window sill or kitchen counter. That way, they are always on hand and you know there are no scary chemicals in them.

The next best option is to buy organic either at the grocery store or from the local organic farmers. Some of the farmers offer cooperative programs, where for a fee you get a bushel of fresh produce every month. Yes, I know, organic costs more. Drop cable TV if you have to – don’t you think eating what’s better for you is more important than staring at the idiot box?

Fresh tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato soup, canned tomatoes can all be used to make very basic tomato sauces. It all depends on how liquid or how chunky you prefer it. You can make it meaty or meatless. Here is how:

• In a small pan, melt some butter and gently sauté some onions or garlic.

• If you are making the meat version of the sauce, add ground beef and work on browning it as you stir it around with onions or garlic.

• Turn the heat down to medium and add whatever is the tomato ingredient you have chosen, let’s say, some chunky canned tomatoes – juice and all.

• Stir everything together for a few minutes – the point is to get all the juices involved in the cooking process to mingle. Add a dash of red wine if you’d like and cook for a couple more minutes after that.

• Serve with some spaghetti, shredded mozzarella, a big salad and good crusty bread.

Essential oils

No, we are not talking about your skin care regime or the latest beauty aids. This is a food page, people, not the latest Nitrogena site. Although, as a side note, some of the oldest and most effective beauty secrets can, in fact, be found in the kitchen. Let me know if you want to get together later for an oatmeal/almond/honey scrub.

“Fat” has become such a dirty word that anything associated with it is becoming steadily exiled from many kitchens. In the meantime, one must realize that there is, in fact, such a thing as good fat (as well as good cholesterol). Included in moderation, natural fats and oils can do wonders for your meals.

Courtesy of Paula Deen and her over-the-top butter applications, butter is increasingly frowned-upon as a kitchen staple. Which is sad, because it is a fantastic substance, easy to work with and delicious, when used right.

One of my favorite combinations is browned butter with orzo. For those who don’t know, orzo is a small sort of almond-shaped pasta – a kind of crossover between rice and regular pasta. It can be somewhat dull on its own, but it takes on flavor beautifully. Enter browned butter. Make some orzo, brown about a tablespoon of butter with maybe some black pepper or smoked salt, then mix the two. YUMM!

Olive oil is great, but why stop there? Indeed, all too often it is the only kind of oil people keep around. Oh, my dearest darlings, but you are missing out on a whole lot of fun! There are also walnut and almond oils – lighter than olive oil, gentler on fish and meat, and with a touch of sophisticated flavor. There is peanut oil – for all your stir-fry needs with the added bonus of an occasional fiery flare-up in the pan. There is truffle oil – not for cooking IN but for adding a tiny bit as a finishing touch. Too overbearing on its own, it is priceless to add a deeper earthier flavor to sautéed veggies and mushrooms. Chili oil for spice (use sparingly or else you’ll be running around with smoke coming out your nose and ears). Ginger oil for a burst of fresh flavor. Stock up and study your oils, folks, it’s worth it, and a little goes a long way.

It is not that I am dismissing my good friend olive oil – goodness, I would never! A brushing of olive oil with crushed garlic on crusty bread for Italian-style toast. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar bread dip. Olive oil and black pepper drizzle on a veggie plate: tomato, cucumber and heart-of-palm slices with some mozzarella thrown in for good measure. A drop of olive oil in pasta water before making pasta. Good stuff – that. But do be picky with it. Don’t buy crap. Cheap oil is no friend of yours – or that of your favorite foods.

Sugar and spice and everything nice

Based on the latest census figures we have ten kinds of salt in our kitchen. Yes, there are that many in existence. Each one has its own color, texture, flavor and purpose. Black lava salt, pink Himalayan salt, whiskey salt, smoked salt, sea salt… Some are better on meats, some go well with fish. Some punch up the vegetables, some work well to contrast sweeter flavors.

The other day we baked potatoes in the wood stove and then ate them – charred skins and all – with a touch of butter and smoked salt.

My other favorite is sweet potatoes baked with a smudge of olive oil on the outside, then cut open and topped with browned butter, sautéed onions, prosciutto and whiskey salt.

On the other end of the spectrum are sugars: regular white sugar, sugar-in-the-raw, brown sugar, powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, espresso sugar. Not only are they wonderful because of their flavor, they are also beautiful to look at (espresso sugar looks like a scattering of dark diamonds) and are great for effortless dessert decoration.

Sugar is an awesome substance to experiment with, because you can flavor it on your own. For example, you can stick some vanilla beans into a sugar container for a while and get vanilla sugar. Put some cinnamon sticks in there – you get cinnamon sugar. Heck, mix a packet of herbs, like rosemary, mint and lavender, wrap them in cheese cloth and put in a sugar jar, and you get your very own herbal sugar unlike anyone else’s. Put them into pretty old-fashioned bottles (you can get amber and cobalt glass at antique shops by the boatload), label them and have fun. Get your kids to play with the different flavors too – you never know what they might come up with.

One of the best, easiest non-dessert sugar applications is a home-made chicken dip. Pour some regular yellow mustard into a small cup, then add brown sugar and a little bit of vinegar. Start mixing and tasting and adding a little bit of each until you get the flavor you want. It’s wonderful on chicken fingers and also works well with pork. The point is, guys and dolls, spices, condiments, oils, sauces, etc. are not to be feared. Forget what they tell you on those fancy cooking shows – it’s really not that complicated. Once you get into the spirit of things, you’ll be spicing with the best of them!

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