Reading, cooking, friends, tango music, a winter storm…intersections that happen when life is allowed to meander. Things tumble in my mind and I wonder how I get from point A-to-point B, but I do and even though there doesn’t seem to be a purpose there usually is.
In August, a good friend had his 60th birthday, a man blessed with friends and lots of love, because let’s face it he is as genuine and as loyal as they get. I baked him a cake that didn’t turn out so great, thank goodness he had two other people that baked as well. The frosting was incredible, but it couldn’t save the dry, sad cake inside. It was my first time baking this cake and I decided to experiment with different flours, forgetting that some flours require more moisture than others and really, why not stick to the recipe. Well, he was so gracious about the whole thing of course, but the other gift I gave him was a novel by Amor Towles, “The Gentleman from Moscow.” He loved the book. Several people I know recommended it as well, so I put it on hold at the Houston Public Library. It was a long hold, because it was in high demand, but it finally became available at the end of December.
|Rosemary with icicles!|
Perfect timing, because right after picking up the book at the library, Houston was hit by a blast of cold air that sent chills to my bones. Hot baths were the only cure and I took several, sometimes with a cup of hot tea and sometimes with a glass of red, usually a cabernet. Then putting on my flannel jams I hopped into bed with "The Gentleman from Moscow." Snuggled under the covers with me were my two heating pads Izzy and Mouse, Italian Greyhounds who tolerant the cold even less than me. I offered them hot baths, but they declined.
“The Gentleman from Moscow” - the Count - kept me entertained, regaling me with stories of the Tsar and the Russian revolution. Filling my head with grand balls, snowy carriage rides and even a dual. His curiosity and intelligence enthralled me. I was smitten. But what he also did was hit me in my weak spot. My love of food, wine and the celebration of it. Sitting at the Piazza Café in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow he overhears a young couple on what is their first date ordering the Latvian Stew. The waiter, The Bishop who is a bit of thorn in the Count’s side, is flummoxed about which wine to serve. The Bishop offers a very expensive one that would bankrupt this pour young man’s savings. So, the Count steps in and recommends a lovely Russian wine that pairs well with the stew at a much reduced cost. The Bishop is not pleased and a smirk replaces his “ecclesiastical grin.” (The Count’s description)
Now to the stew. It is a pork stew with apricots, prunes and caramelized onions. A mild sweetness that pulls in the savory, nicely. Delicate in a way, but it really holds its own for heartiness and comfort.
Lord, I was there in the Piazza with spoon in hand, ready to be served. Dark rye bread slathered with butter and of course the Russian wine with a side of boiled potatoes sprinkled with fresh parsley. What could be more hearty to fortify one on such a cold winter’s day. As I turned the page, I was brought back to my bed and the wind blowing outside and the sound of sleet hitting the windows. Obviously, I needed to bring the stew to a more three-dimensional view. My kitchen, of course.
The plan was hatched. I studied the recipe along with a couple of others. Finally deciding to borrow from one and add my own bits. It was an experiment and like the cake I was taking a risk, but stews I have a better handle on than I do flours, so I risked it. Friends were invited, the table was set and the weather remained chilly. I could feel the Count looking over my shoulder encouraging me. I decided to leave the Bishop out in the cold. My birthday friend Taavi, his partner Stephen and my dear neighbors Bob and Flora were the guests. They all have a tolerant palette and generous spirits and I wanted to share this meal with people I adore. Also, as a thank you for all the meals they shared in their homes while I was working seven days a week, on a contract gig. When cooking was just too exhausting and going out to eat was tedious.
Here is the original recipe for Latvian Stew as taken from bookclubcookbook.com (http://bookclubcookbook.com/gentleman-moscow-latvian-stew-recipe-author-amor-towles/)
· 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
· Salt and freshly ground black pepper
· 6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
· 6 carrots, peeled, trimmed, and sliced crosswise
· 4 tablespoons tomato paste
· 5 cups water
· 1 cup dried apricots
· 1 pound white boiling onions, peeled, each cut into 6 wedges
· 1 cup pitted prunes
1. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat releases its juices and is no longer pink all over, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and cook until slightly tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and water, then add apricots. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and gently simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes.
3. Add onions and prunes to stew and continue to simmer over medium-low heat until pork is tender and sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes more. Adjust seasonings.
Modifications included, sautéing the pork and onions with olive oil and butter. I used chicken stock and a white wine reduction to replace the water. Garlic, coriander, red pepper and turmeric were added. I did serve with boiled potatoes, skin on with butter and sour cream. Wines generously provided by guests - a Zinfandel and a Cabernet. A salad to start with greens, roasted beets and carrots topped off with a balsamic tarragon vinaigrette with a pumpernickel bread.
Okay, now for the tango music. Last year, I decided to take tango classes. I loved it, even though, it is not an easy dance to get the hang of, I did keep going. The teacher is a gifted dancer and instructor. Alas, I had to stop taking classes due to my inability to get to dances to practice. My work schedule also made it hard. What has come from that is a true love of the music. I play tango music when I cook. It adds energy to the process. I swear it makes me a better cook. I also manage to get a few steps in now and again while tapping my wooden spoon on the side of the pot. Perhaps one day I will continue my tango classes. I hope so. That is perhaps where the cake went wrong, no tango music.
The dinner was a success. The stew, friends, conversation. It was all so lovely.
Quote of the day: "“if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”― Amor Towles,