An Easy Borscht

Beets are a lovely addition to your winter diet. There is something about their bright hue that seems to add a touch of color to a dreary, grey day. And usually anything with color is a welcome addition to a child’s diet. My toddler daughter likes to call borscht “strawberry soup.” Beets are rich sources of potassium, iron, and vitamin-C. Their lovely red juice can be a blood purifier, may lower high blood pressure, and can aid in the breakdown of kidney stones. In fact, beet juice has been touted to counteract anemia and iron deficiency, and has even been credited to help defeat cancer in some patients.

There are numerous versions of borscht; some with meat and some completely vegetarian. But I think I could safely say I prefer a vegetarian borscht, that is, unless I have some leftover roast lingering in the fridge. If at all possible, buy organic beets, since they are root vegetables and readily soak up pesticides from the ground, as well as from above ground, exposing your body to more chemicals that I’m sure you would like to keep far, far away. This soup is fairly easy to make and extremely uncomplicated. Just be sure to wear an apron and a set of gloves while preparing the beets, or you may just become bright red from head to toe!

4 medium beets, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into small pieces
2 c. chicken stock
6 c. water
2 Tbl. fresh dill, finely chopped (plus more for garnish)
1 tsp. sugar
salt, pepper to taste
Greek yogurt, or sour cream
olive oil

Prepare the beets and other vegetables, separately; set aside. In a large saucepan or small stock pot, heat some olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables and then the grated beets. Sprinkle the sugar on top. Season with salt and pepper and stir. Allow the mixture to cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the 2 Tbl. of dill, chicken stock, and water. Stir everything together. Turn down the heat to low and cover. Be sure that your soup does not boil too rigorously, or else you will have little spouts of beet juice just about every where on your stove top and over your floor. Allow the soup to cook for about 45 minutes. Taste and season accordingly.

Serve warm with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt or sour cream, and a small handful of freshly chopped dill. (The cooked dill will become dull in color, and adding some fresh dill boosts the soup’s overall appearance.) Alternatively, you could serve this soup chilled for lunch.

Tzatziki- Greek Yogurt Dip

Tzatziki, pronounced, “tsah-ZEE-kee,” is a delectable accompaniment to practically every meal, well, except maybe breakfast. Although, I’m sure that someone might find a way to incorporate it into their morning meal routine. This thickened yogurt-cucumber dip originates from Greece, where it is served for lunch and dinner, much like an appetizer, and is eaten with chunks of bread, alone with a fork, and as a complementing addition to the main meal. Tzatziki recipes alter slightly from region to region in Greece. I have to admit that the most delicious version of tzatziki that ever passed through my lips was from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, located in the north of the country and famous for producing some of the very best cuisine in all of Greece. (Just don’t tell the Athenians I told you so.) The cucumbers seemed to be pickled so very slightly, giving the dip yet another irresistible dimension of flavor.

Tzatziki is relatively simple to make and is always a welcome addition to a dinner party’s menu. I tend to offer it to my guests before dinner is served, with crackers or bread, and then I leave it on the dinner table so my guests have the opportunity to sample it once again with their main meal. It is also delicious used as a dip for crudité. My 2-year-old daughter could finish off half a bowl of the stuff with literally three pieces of bell pepper. So as long as you don’t mind the “double dipping” that will ensue, freely offer it to your children. On second thought, maybe just give them a bowl of their own.

2 c. thickened yogurt
2 small Turkish cucumbers, peeled and grated
1 Tbl. red wine vinegar
2 Tbl. extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, put through a garlic press
1-2 Tbl. fresh dill, finely chopped
salt, pepper to taste

Grate the peeled cucumbers, either into a fine mesh sieve, or into a piece of cheesecloth. You want to remove as much water as possible from the cucumbers before you add it to the yogurt. Allow the cucumbers to drain while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Combine the yogurt, pressed garlic, and dill into a small mixing bowl. If you placed your cucumber into a fine sieve, push the grated cucumber down into the mesh with a paper towel, removing as much moisture as possible. If using the cheesecloth method, which does work more efficiently, gather up the ends of the cheesecloth around the cucumber, forming a ball. While holding the cloth ends with one hand, twist the ball tighter and tighter while squeezing. The excess moisture will drain out from the ball. Once you have removed as much moisture as possible, scrape the grated cucumber into the yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Add the vinegar, olive oil, and as much salt and pepper as your palate calls for. It’s best to make tzatziki in advance, allowing the flavors to meld together. So either prepare this dish in the morning and store it in the refrigerator until dinner, or better yet, prepare it the day before you plan on eating it.

TDB Homemade: Yogurt

I have, for the better part of my entire existence, loved eating yogurt. That love affair only grew deeper when I had my first taste of thick, Greek style yogurt. That stuff I had been eating seemed like a tasteless, watery goo by comparison. For quite a few years now, I have been satisfied with buying my yogurt at the grocery store. Of course there are a few different brands of Greek style yogurt on the market today, but I still the think the best offering in this country is the FAGE brand. Pouring some raw honey, or scooping a spoon of fruit preserves atop a bowl of yogurt is quite a divine breakfast or mid-afternoon snack.

A few weeks ago, the other TDB asked me if I had ever made yogurt at home. I sadly had to answer, “no, I hadn’t.” I was then inspired to begin my quest for a good homemade yogurt recipe. My first batch, in which I combined 1/3 goat milk with 2/3 cow milk, came out alright, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the consistency. It was a bit too runny, but after I allowed it to drain overnight in a cheesecloth, it did thicken up enough to my liking. I decided to try another method with a slightly different recipe I found in one of my Greek cookbooks. Instead of allowing the yogurt culture to do its work with the milk inside a pot, placed in a turned-off oven, this recipe called for the milk mixture to stand in a thermos for about 8-10 hours. I decided to give it a whirl, and I was much happier with the results the second time around.

Yogurt can be refrigerated for about three weeks once it’s been made. Thicken it to make tzatziki, a yogurt cucumber salad, or combine with fruit and honey for a frozen pop your children will love (check back soon — recipes will follow). Yogurt is extremely healthy and makes a wonderful dairy alternative for those who don’t enjoy consuming milk.

(This recipe was adapted from The Periyali Cookbook¹)

Yield: about 2 scant cups

2 c.  whole milk
3 Tbl. dry milk (can use non-fat if you prefer)
2 Tbl. whole-milk yogurt, preferably FAGE brand

Rinse a 2-quart saucepan with water, which will prevent the milk from sticking to the bottom and side of the pan. Add the milk to the pan and whisk in the dry milk.  Over medium-low heat, cook just until milk begins to slightly boil. When a thermometer is inserted, it should read about 215°F. (There’s no need, unless you already own one, to use a candy thermometer. Simply use a meat thermometer to check the temperature.) Remove the milk from the heat and allow it to cool to about 110°F. Meanwhile, fill a wide-mouth thermos, which can accommodate 2 cups worth of liquid, with hot water, cap, and set aside.

Once your milk has cooled to 110-115°F, spoon about 1/2 cup of the milk into a liquid measuring cup and add the yogurt starter. Combine well and pour into the pot of milk. Stir the milk and yogurt starter together, being careful not to scrape up any of the brown crust that may have formed on the bottom of the pan while you heated the milk. Pour out the hot water from the thermos and add the milk mixture. Cap the thermos, set aside in a warm place, such as on your stove top if you have a gas stove. Do not disturb the milk mixture for about 8-10 hours. Just allow the yogurt culture to work its magic. After about 8 hours, uncap the thermos and check it to make sure the milk has turned into yogurt. If it’s ready, pour it into a container and place in the refrigerator. If you would like it to be thicker, place the yogurt into a sieve lined with a cheesecloth and allow it to drain into a bowl overnight, or for about 10 hours.

**Alternatively, you can omit the thermos altogether, and simply pour the milk and yogurt culture into a glass or plastic bowl with a lid, cover it, and wrap it with a towel. Allow the culture to work for about 20 hours. It is perfectly fine to make the yogurt in the morning, allowing it to sit all day, and then placing it in the fridge late that night or the following morning.

¹ Garrison, Holly, Nicola Kotsoni, and Steve Tzolis. The Periyali Cookbook. New York: Villard Books, 1992. p 10

Cinnamon Yogurt Coffee Cake

It’s always a good idea to have 4-5 dessert recipes floating around in your head, and the ingredients available in your pantry, just in case you need to pull something together quickly for last-minute guests. What I love about the following recipe is that it is easy and fairly quick to make, plus it looks and tastes impressive. One of my favorite seasonings is cinnamon. I add it to cookies, sauces, and even the occasional meatball. I immediately think of yummy-ness when I smell cinnamon, and I even admit to having taken whiffs from a jar of the ground stuff when I need a quick pick-me-up!

This recipe originally calls for sour cream, but since I regularly have thick Greek yogurt on hand in the fridge, I always substitute the sour cream with it. Not only is yogurt nutritionally superior to sour cream, I find it provides the finished product with a better taste and moistness, as well. I highly recommend purchasing the FAGE brand of Greek yogurt if it is available to you. Be aware of certain brands, like Trader Joe’s, which claims their product is Greek yogurt. It isn’t. And it certainly does not taste the way it’s supposed to……trust me.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (keep the wrapper and use it to butter the pan before baking)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Topping:
1/2 c. chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cinnamon

1 springform tube pan, greased (if you don’t have a springform pan, you could use a regular tube pan, however the springform pan makes the cake’s removal much easier after it’s finished baking).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the topping first, placing the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon into a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into fairly small pieces and incorporated with the cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In a small bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and stir together with a whisk. Set aside. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Alternating between the yogurt and dry ingredients, add to the wet mixture until all the ingredients are incorporated together.

Take your buttered pan and sprinkle the bottom with the nut mixture, adding about 1/4″ evenly around the tube pan. Add half the cake batter. (Don’t worry if it’s not completely even. It will even out while baking. I drop spoonfuls around the tube pan, attempting to cover the circle evenly, but it is ok if there are some small spaces.) Add another layer of nut mixture, using the remaining portion. The finished cake looks nice with a substantial line of cinnamon and nuts throughout the middle, so don’t feel like you’re adding “too much.” Add the remaining portion of cake batter around the tube pan.

Place the pan into the oven and bake anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Set your timer for 30 minutes and keep an eye on it. You don’t want it to dry out too much. Test with a cake tester, or a good old-fashioned tooth pick, into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, your cake is ready.  Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before attempting to remove it from the pan. If you are not using a springform pan, do not be tempted to remove the cake from the pan for a good 20-30 minutes, or else the cake could come out in pieces.

I like to place this cake on a nice display cake dome, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. I do recommend covering it, which allows it to retain more moisture. This cake lends itself to a nice vanilla ice cream pairing, or perhaps even some fresh berries during the summer months. Honestly, I think this cake is better the following day, and it certainly lasts a good four days before it’s too dry. But if your house is anything like mine, I don’t think this cake will last four days…….