Sunday, March 18, 2012

Refried Beans

Our American friends can go to the store to buy a variety of canned refried beans, and the Rosarita brand even has vegetarian variant suitable for fasting that is pretty hard to distinguish from the regular, non-vegetarian kind. Here in Russia, however, there are no such easy solutions. It is easier to find the dried pinto beans from which frijoles refritos are made, however, as most supermarkets now carry them.

Traditional recipes use bacon fat or lard but substituting olive oil is quite simple and by increasing the amount of aromatic flavors like onion, garlic and cumin can achieve a very satisfying result. Cumin provides a smokey flavor to the beans as can adding chipotle powder or chipotle sauce. The latter might be too hot for the basic beans and can be added as desired after the beans have already been prepared.

This recipe has been scaled to provide enough food for 5-6 people as a main dish.

2 cups of dry pinto beans (about 450gm)
4 quarts of water
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 cup water
2-3 tsp cumin
Kosher salt to taste

For this recipe you will need a blender or a wooden pestle or potato masher.

Rinse the beans in water and remove any small stones, dirt, or bad beans and hulls.
Place the beans in the salted water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Make sure the water covers the beans by at least 8 cm. Allow to boil for a few minutes and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the beans, covered, for about 2 1/2 hours. The cooking time will vary depending on the batch of beans you have. The beans are done when they are soft and the skin is just beginning to break open. You can check by taking a single bean out with a spoon and blowing on it to cool it - if the skin peels off when you blow on it, its ready.

Drain the beans and discard the water. Keep the beans in another container and wash the pot to use it to cook the beans again if this is convenient. I usually use a large cast iron skillet. There is often a temptation to save the water to use when braising the beans but this will affect the color and taste of the beans especially if you are not using lard.

Chop the onion very fine and crush the garlic and saute gently in 2 Tbsp of the olive oil over medium heat in the same large pot or in a large frying pan. You can use regular cooking oil or margarine. Add the cumin to the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent and the cumin fragrant. Add the cooked beans and about a 1/4 cup of fresh water to the pan and bring to a simmer. Using a wooden potato masher, mash the beans in the pan while you are cooking them, until they are a rough purée. Cook the beans very slowly for about 20 to 30 minutes, adding more water to keep the fried beans from drying out. Add more salt to taste.

Alternatively, the drained beans and the sauteed onion and garlic can be put in a blender (in batches, if necessary)and reduced to a rough paste using the pulse function and adding fresh water to help the mixture blend. This liquefied bean paste should then be scraped back into the pot or pan where the onions were cooked and reduced for 20 - 30 with additional water as needed.

If you add too much water, this is ok, just increase the cooking time to reduce the mixture to a less watery consistency. Heat slowly and stir often to prevent burning.

The beans are ready to serve. They go well in flour tortillas with a fresh salsa made from chopped tomato, cilantro and green onion with a bit of olive oil and salt.

Rice and beans together make a complete protein.

I often refrigerate the cooked whole beans and make stove top refried beans in smaller amounts as needed. The beans are also good for making lobbio and fuol medames, recipes that are also on this blog.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Easy Noodles I: The Basics for a Quick Lunch

Growing up and later in college, ramen noodles were a staple for me. Much has been written about how instant ramen noodles are going to kill you because of their utter lack of nutrition or their Franken-chemical origins. While the nutritional value of ramen noodles is easily contested, I don't think they are all that bad for you, especially if you don't eat them everyday. I would argue that if you are poor and need an inexpensive and fast lunch, instant ramen noodles can be used creatively as a base in healthier dishes that satisfy. The main strategy for preparing dishes with instant noodles is having a vegetable, a protein and sauce to complete the transition of ramen from a snack food to a nominal lunch.

This post will be the first in a series of 'Easy Noodles' recipes that will take you from basic white trash cooking with instant ramen to more develop noodle recipes that are only slightly more labor intensive.

The basic formula for Easy Noodles is something like this:

2 packages instant ramen noodles
1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
100 g of firm Chinese style tofu or chicken
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 Tbsp of dark sesame oil
furikake to taste (optional)

Prepare the noodles either whole or broken in half or quarters. Discard oil packet. Use broth mix at your discretion - I normally use it. Pour boiling water over the noodles in a large bowl or in a small pot with a lid and cover. Use less water than when making noodles for soup and let stand longer than the instructions advise for noodles that are more heftier from absorbing more of the broth but still have some liquid at the bottom. Depending on the brand of instant noodles you use, the noodles will reach optimal readiness in 8 to 10 minutes. Do not heat noodles in boiling water on the stove.

While noodles are soaking, defrost 3/4 to 1 cup of your favorite frozen vegetables in 1/4 cup of warm water on medium heat for about 5-6 minutes. I like a kind called 'Mexico Mix' that has green beans, carrots, red peppers, corn and green peas. You can experiment with other types of frozen vegetables or vegetable blends.

In a flat no-stick frying pan, heat 1-2 tablespoons of dark sesame oil over medium high heat and add garlic, stir-frying for 1 minute. Add cubed tofu and cook in oil for 3-4 minutes until all sides are browned. If you don't have a non-stick pan (I don't) you can saute garlic and tofu on lower heat for about twice the cooking time to prevent sticking. Use a wooden spoon to stir the tofu.

If you are going to use fresh chicken, 100 grams is equal to about 1/1 to 1/3 of a raw chicken breast. Cut the chicken into small cubes and prepare just as you would the tofu, cooking slightly longer on high heat - about 6-8 minutes.

When the noodles are ready, simply top with warm vegetables, tofu and any condiments that you like such as furikake, soy sauce, teriyaki or tamari sauce or another tablespoon of dark sesame oil.

Variations: if you have time and a steamer, you could also prepare small amounts of fresh vegetables for the dish. A handful of broccoli with the skin removed and cut down to smaller flowerets will be ready in about the same time - 5-6 minutes. Carrots, cauliflower take more time but other fresh vegetables like snap peas, onions, bell peppers and bean sprouts could be stir-fried.

In addition, other meats could be used - leftover chicken, turkey, pork,. beef or frozen shrimp could be reheated using the same basic technique as for preparing the tofu above with slightly less cooking time - 3-5 minutes.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Japanese Marinated Cucumbers

My brother in law actually introduced this dish to me and never disclosed where he got it. I later found that it was more of an adapted Californian version of a Japanese recipe for pickling daikon.

6-8 medium, firm cucumbers or 3 Japanese cucumbers
¼ cup white sugar dissolved in ½ cup hot water
¼ cup white vinegar
3-5 cups water
1 tsp white pepper

Peel the cucumbers and slice them extremely thin. Place them in a plastic container that holds 1 to 1 1/2 liters with a sealable lid.

Use a coffee cup to dissolve the sugar in the hot water. When the sugar is dissolved, add the vinegar to the sugar water. Fill the plastic container with the cucumbers with water about 3-4 cm from the rim of the container. The cucumbers should be floating in the water. Add the sugar and vinegar water to the cucumbers and mix gently. Taste it. The mixture should be pungent but balanced – add more sugar or vinegar a little bit at a time to get the right balance of tastes.

When a suitable blend has been reached, add the white pepper and gently mix. The cucumbers should float and not be packed too tightly together. Put the cucumbers in the refrigerator and let stand for at least an hour - 2 to 3 hours is best. Once they reach a certain strength, they will not become more intense and they will last in the fridge for several days.

Taste before serving. The thin cucumbers should be crispy and tangy. They go great as a side dish to fish or as a appetizer with sake or mixed drinks.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Hummus is a simple Mediterranean dish that can be eaten by itself with flat bread or as a side dish or even a topping to any number of dishes. It is great for Lent, but goes will will grilled meat and fish, too.

2 cans cooked chick peas / garbanzo beans
3 cloves garlic
Juice of one lemon - about 4-5 Tbspe
3 Tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
½ to 1 tsp cumin
½ tsp paprika
½ c olive oil
pinch of salt
water as needed

fresh parsley
black olives
flat bread


Super heroes cook their own chick peas and if you are determined, this can be done but for super fast preparation, canned chick peas / garbanzo beans (yes they are the same) are best. A friend of mine discovered that if you put the canned garbanzo beans in the refrigerator overnight, the cold beans produce a creamier texture when blended. I don't know how this works, but its true.

Drain and rinse the goopy brine from the chick peas and put them in the food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. Some are tempted to use the liquid from the cans in the hummus, but this stuff is full of nitrates and just ruins the taste of the hummus. Use the pulse mode to process at first as the mixture is dry and may need to be tamped down in between pulses at first. You may need to add water a Tablespoon at a time to get the mixture moist enough to blend freely. When the mixture is smooth enough to blend continuously, add tahini, cumin, paprika and a pinch of salt. If too thick, add more water. Taste it to see if it needs a little more lemon or tahini.

Once the hummus is blended, it can be stored in a container until ready for use. Serve hummus in a shallow bowl or plate drizzled with olive oil and garnish with lemon slices, minced parsley and a pinch of paprika for color. Serve chilled, with warm pita bread and/or fresh vegetables.

Cranberry Spinach Vinaigrette

We had something very similar to this when we visited friends in the US in the summer of 2006. We had it with feta, so I added feta.

1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup almonds, blanched and slivered
500 g fresh spinach, rinsed and torn into bite-size pieces
1 cup dried cranberries
1 pkg (250 g) firm feta cheese

For the dressing:
1/2 cup powdered or confectioners sugar
1 Tbsp finely minced onion / one shallot finely minced
1/4 teaspoon paprika or sweet red pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil


Prepare the almonds. You can buy blanched, slivered almonds in most stores but if you can't find them, just use regular almonds with the skins still on and cut them in half. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook and stir almonds in butter until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool on a plate with a paper towel.

Clean the spinach well in the sink, removing dirt and any bits you don't want to eat. Drain the spinach well and pat dry lightly with a paper towel. In a large bowl, combine the spinach with the toasted almonds and cranberries. We like to chop the cranberries into smaller bits.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar, onion, paprika, white wine vinegar, cider vinegar, and olive oil. Its important to have decent vinegar as it will make a difference in the taste. Toss about 1/4 to 1/2 of the dressing with spinach salad just before serving, then add cubes of feta.

Makes 4-5 adult dinner salad portions.


This basic recipe works very well with the packaged salad that you can get in many supermarkets. Add the dressing, some roasted nuts like cashews, sunflower seeds or walnuts and other dried fruit like raisins, banana chips, dates, chopped apricots or apples and other kinds of cheese cut in small cubes. The combination of salad, dried fruit and cheese in the above proportions or even less is very flexible.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fuol Medames

Fuol, spelled variously as 'ful' or 'fool' is very popular Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dish of made with mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic, and lemon juice. It is usually a staple meal, not a side dish, served for breakfast. I first had it at the home of my friends Paul and Olga, the latter who probably learned the recipe from an Egyptian friend. Pinto or kidney beans make a good substitute and there are no rules against using canned beans for even faster preparation. The beans and onions provide the substance while the fresh greens, tomatoes and lemon juice add a light freshness.

4 cups of cooked beans, 2x16 oz cans or 3x 340 gram cans of Egyptian fava, pinto, great northern or cannellini beans
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 large cloves minced garlic
1 tsp cumin
2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped
Juice of one lemon (1/4 cup)
1 large handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

dash of turmeric
dash of cinnamon
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp chili powder
handful of chopped fresh cilantro / coriander

Garnish with
fresh cucumbers
triangles of pita bread or lavash


In a large frying pan, sauté the onions and cumin in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until limp. Add garlic and cook a little. Add 1/3 to 1/2 of the chopped tomato and cook until it just starts breaking apart. Add any other spices and lemon juice and stir. Add beans (drained and rinsed), one or more tablespoons of olive oil and salt pepper to taste. Leave on low heat for about 15-20 minutes. Using a fork, or wooden dowel, mash some of the beans directly in the pan to give more texture.

Top with olive oil, the fresh parsley and tomatoes before serving. Like many Middle Eastern dishes, it is served with tahini and flat bread such as pita or lavash.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Gagra Hotel

Every hash joint in Moscow is now sporting an array of non alcoholic Mojitos to lure the soft drink at dinner crowd into the fancy drink price category while actually giving them less bang (no booze) for their buck. It goes without saying that the spiritless Mojitos are comparable in price to the more spirited, although its anyones guess how much alcohol they actually put in them when they are supposed to be 'loaded'.

My inspiration comes from the variety of slushy concoctions that have arrived, many that taste pretty good. I especially appreciate the more tolerant attitude many Russian establishments are taking towards the use of ice. Yes, many places actually now put ice in their drinks and this is, more than the exotic nature of the drinks, what draws normal people to Mojitos when it is 34 outside. I was truly inspired by one establishments combination of pomegranate juice and orange juice. This reminded me of Abkhazia and . . . voila, my original Gagra Hotel was born.


1 liter pomegranate juice
1 liter orange juice
juice of one lemon
1-2 cups sparkling mineral water (or 7 up)
tons of crushed ice


Mix the liquids in a pitcher and pour into tall glasses filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a slice of orange, lime or lemon as desired.

It may seem like a lot, but you will find that on a warm day two people can take down a pitcher of Gargra Hotel in just a few minutes.