To my readers and those who reached out to me after last week’s post, thank you. Thank you for making me feel heard. When I write a blog post (and I don’t mean to sound self-deprecating), my expectations for anyone to actually read it is quite low. Who has time these days, I think, to do more than scroll through the pretty pictures of food? Putting my feelings and thoughts to paper is catharsis enough, but to realize I have an actual audience for them is truly…moving and heartening. Many were quick to point out that bravery isn’t simply weathering the bad things in life, but more how we choose to respond to them. Whether I feel brave on a day-to-day basis or not, I’m glad I’ve chosen to write about this phase of my life— if only because you all know how to make a girl feel loved and cared for. Again, thank you!!
Earlier this week, we celebrated (twice!) my mother's birthday. She turned 35. Of course, everyone thinks their mother is the best, and I am no different (and in this case, right). Each day, the woman astounds me with her selflessness, patience, and thoughtfulness. She only had one child, yours truly, but with so much love, she could have easily nurtured ten more—which explains why my best friends have adopted her as their “Mamachka” too. My mother is my rock and without her, I wouldn't be who I am today. One of the many good things she instilled in me was the importance in taking care of others and she did this through cooking.
Eating out was a rare occurrence in our household (going to Olive Garden was like a holiday). Lucky for me and my dad, my mom knows her way around a kitchen. As a child, I of course took her effort for granted—home-cooked meals were the norm after all—but now as an adult I realize the labor of love it truly was. No matter how long her work day or the number of chores, she always made sure there was food on the table. One of my earliest memories of her cooking, an image that would be repeated hundreds of times, is of her standing by the stove, pan-frying little kotleti, the noise and smell of hot, sizzling oil filling the apartment. Stay away, she’d say, you’ll get burned if you come too close! These spicy, herbed meat patties, breaded and then fried, would travel with us to the beach and on road trips. Packed between two slices of white bread with lots of ketchup (can you tell I was raised in America?), a kotlet sandwich was also a favorite school lunch of mine.
My mother cooked out of necessity and duty, yes, but also, out of love. For her, and the rest of my family, food symbolized healing and comfort, the power to foster unity and joy. No wonder holidays and special occasions centered around the table, why family meals were so important. It is also no surprise that cooking eventually became the way I too express my affection and care for others. My hand surgeries force me to often take a backseat in the kitchen, but, if there’s one silver-lining to it all, it’s more of my mother’s cooking. Whether it's Russian, Georgian, or a dish she learned here in the States, her food, mixed with an ounce of nostalgia and a few pinches of love, always makes for the most nourishing, in all senses of the word, meals.
Mama's Kotleti (Russian "Hamburgers")
A classic Russian dish, kotleti can be made with beef, with pork, chicken, turkey, or a combination thereof. Every ex-Soviet cook has their own recipe and special method of making the patties juicy and flavorful. My mother's trick is a slice or two of white bread soaked in milk or heavy cream. She processes fresh parsley, cilantro and crushed red pepper into the mix (a nod to her Georgian upbringing), and finishes each patty with a breading in panko crumbs. Pan-fry them in hot oil and what results is a savory, crunchy exterior that gives way to a meat flavored by a medley of herbs and heat and delectable in its tenderness. My favorite way to eat a hot, still crunchy kotlet is with buckwheat kasha, a classic Russian accompaniment, and a good crunchy cucumber. These little "hamburgers" make for great leftovers and travel food, and as I mentioned earlier, nothing beats a cold kotlet sandwich. These days I substitute yesteryear's Wonder bread with my favorite sourdough or something dark and dense, and smother it in tkemali (Georgian plum sauce) or the herbed tomato sauce I've included here.
1 pound ground pork*
1 pound ground turkey
1 large onion
1 garlic clove
1 cup cilantro
½ cup parsley
2 stale slices of white bread, crust removed, soaked in ½ cup milk or half-and-half and squeezed, liquid reserve
½ cup water
1 teaspoon hot crushed red peppers*
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
2 to 3 cups panko or your favorite breadcrumbs (or flour)
olive oil and unsalted butter, for frying
In a large food processor, process onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley and bread until puree-like in consistency. Alternatively, grate onion, finely chop herbs, and crush garlic in a press.
In a large bowl, combine pork, turkey, onion and herb mixture, water, reserved milk, red peppers, salt and pepper. Blend well with hands until everything is fully incorporated. Season to taste. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld.
With wet hands, shape meat into 3 ½-inch oval patties. Spread breadcrumbs or flour on a large plate. Dip patties in crumbs on both sides, flattening them out slightly to make sure crumbs adhere. It helps if you bread all the patties before you begin to saute.
In a large frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter on medium heat. Working in batches, fry the patties until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to paper-towel lined plate and repeat with the rest of the patties.
*: Other alternatives are freshly ground beef chuck, a combination of beef and pork, or even ground chicken. Whatever you prefer or have on hand. Just make sure there is some fat to insure juicy and tender patties.
**: Not to be confused with red pepper flakes, this crushed pepper preparation is sold in tall glass containers, usually in the aisle where other Italian jarred pickles and condiments are sold.
Herbed Tomato Sauce
2 medium onion, chopped
1 Anaheim pepper, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
sugar, to taste
salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
½ cup fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro or basil
olive oil and unsalted butter for frying
In a large pan, heat a few tablespoons oil and pat of butter on medium heat. Saute onions and peppers until onions golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add fresh tomato and cook for another 20 minutes. Taste and add sugar if sauce is not sweet enough. Stir in herbs, season to taste, and remove from heat. Sauce will last for 1 week.