Alan spent some time in Plovdiv, Bulgaria during his gap year, which was the first time this city had impinged on my consciousness. Silvena Rowe, the author of this post’s cookbooks, was born and raised in Plovdiv. She is now a chef in London. Unlike some other cookbook authors with a restaurant background who have been considered in this blog, Silvena presents food that is interesting and tasty, and the recipes in the two books of this blog are quite vegetarian friendly. (Unfortunately, the recipes of her most recent book, Orient Express are much more meat-centic.) When looking through her cookbooks, I found myself marking recipe after tantalizing recipe; although there were some disappointments in the finished products, overall the results were good.
The Eastern and Central European Kitchen: Contemporary & Classic Recipes did not get a lot of attention in this country, despite winning the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award in England. (Do not be fooled by the different cover and different title of the British edition: Feasts is the same book as The Eastern and Central European Kitchen.) The book has rather arbitrary chapter heading: “Appetizers and Small Bites”, “Sweet and Sour”, “Dairy”, “The Boyar Table”, for example. It is as if Silvena and her publishers could not decide to organize the book by course, or taste, or ingredient, or historic influences. Usually I hate this sort of thing, but here I actually liked it. With each chapter I could start anew, searching for appealing recipes of almost any type. The worst feature of this book is its index, which takes up less than two pages. If I were making an index, I would give a recipe such as “Nalesniki Pancakes Filled with Sweet Cheese and Raisins” four, possible five, index entries; here, the recipe is listed only under “pancakes”. There are still some recipes in this book I would like to try, most notably some of the dumplings and an interesting baking powder version of khachapuri, the Georgian cheese-filled bread.
Most cold strawberry soups are a desert-like smoothie in a bowl; not so Silvena’s “Chilled Strawberry Soup” (page 57). There is no sugar at all in this recipe: merely strawberries, buttermilk, sour cream, and lemon juice. With sweeter strawberries, this soup would be sweeter, but the goal is tart, not sweet, as this soup is modeled on a wild strawberry soup. Silvena suggests adjusting with more lemon juice if the strawberries are not sour enough. One of our guests quite liked this soup, but I was less enthusiastic.
Despite the grapes and pistachios, “Bulgur Salad with Grapes and Pistachios” (page 109) is just another unexceptional tabouli recipe. Silvena has us cooking the bulgur for 15 minutes instead of just soaking it, so the bulgur turns out a bit mushy. The tabouli avatar that I prefer is a lot of parsley with a bit of fine grain bulgur, which is not this recipe.
“Baby Spinach and Asparagus Tart with Pomegranate Molasses Dressing” (page 66) was a particularly nice vegetable tart, and no doubt would have been even better if I had remembered to drizzle the pomegranate molasses dressing over top when I served it. What made this tart so good was the binding custard: minimal but concentrated: just two eggs and a half cup of heavy cream poured over asparagus and spinach in a ten inch tart pan. The recipe calls for a small amount of parmesan; I used junky cheese (Migdal parmesan), but the tart was still good. The pastry crust was a little tough; a standard American pie crust would have been more to my liking. This tart was easy enough that I could even see using a store-bought pie crust and having a quick weekday meal.
“Gyuvech” (page 86) is a Turkish ratatouille: a vegetable stew with eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, and tomatoes. The ingredients that take this dish out of France and move us to the east are okra and paprika. This was the first time that I had ever had okra. Ever since I overheard my mother saying that she did not like okra (over fifty years ago), I have tried to avoid okra, at least until I made this dish. I sliced the okra instead of leaving it whole: whole okra was scary, also too easy to eat around. It wasn’t bad! I also liked this dish as leftovers, covered with a fried egg and avocado cubes. [Go to the recipe.]
The recipe for “Baltic Stuffed Potatoes” (page 172) looked unexciting: just stuffed potatoes with mushrooms and sour cream, flavored with garlic, shallots, and tarragon. But there is a reason certain ingredient lists are ordinary and unexciting: humans have known for a long time that certain foods go really well together; so it is with mushrooms, sour cream, and potatoes. I really enjoyed these potatoes, and so did our guests, as there were essentially no leftovers.
Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume: Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean is a beautiful book. The pink and green colors on the cover are echoed in photos throughout the book: in pistachios and pomegranates, dill and rose petals, pottery and tiled roofs. The recipes are attractively laid out, one per page. This book is arranged somewhat more conventionally than The Eastern and Central European Kitchen, by course or type of food. The index is an improvement, but that is not saying much.
The cover photo of Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume is the “Chilled Sweet Pea and Watercress Soup with Rose Petal Cream” (page 96). The picture was so enticing that I had to try this recipe, especially when I saw that the recipe was vegetarian, so no adjustments were needed. But what a disappointment! My soup was a rich green color, but it just tasted like the sort of green health smoothie that one might make in their Vita-Mix blender. I did not have access to unsprayed rose petals, so for the garnish I mixed rose water with strained yogurt. This made things even worse, since at least two people at the table did not like rose water (but they probably would not have liked the rose petal cream either). This soup was not a success, and put me in a rather negative frame of mind when the considering the other food from this book.
“Mung Beans with Caramelized Onions and Nigella Seeds” (page 197) was actually quite tasty. My finished dish did not look as good as the one pictured in the book, but I am not sure how accurate the picture in the book is. The mung beans in the book’s picture do not look cooked enough, there are way more sun-dried tomatoes than used in the recipe, and the onions do not look as if they had been cooked for 20 to 25 minutes. I had a problem with the ingredient list, which called for three large onions. Now I do not know how large Silvena’s large onions are, but the ones that I buy in Whole Foods Market are really large. I used one and a half onions, and that was quite enough. Finally, there is no problem, taste-wise, in making this recipe ahead of time, but there is a real problem, appearance-wise. After sitting in the refrigerator, the color of the parsley faded, and all that was left was a gray-green blob with occasional bits of red from the sun-dried tomatoes. The only thing green that I had left was dill, so I added some to make this dish more visually appealing. But to reiterate: it did taste good.
“Haydari—Yogurt and Feta Dip” (page 25) was a very nice dip made with feta, strained yogurt, and walnuts. I mixed in the paprika instead of sprinkling it on top, which made the dip a rather weird pink color, but probably improved the taste. Another dip I made was the “Eggplant, Aleppo Pepper and Pomegranate Spread” (page 28). I find all these sorts of eggplant dip tasty, and this one was no exception. Pomegranate molasses are a great ingredient, and I used more than the measly one teaspoon (for one large eggplant) in the ingredient list.
Silvena has a falafel making technique that I have never seen before. She uses chickpea flour to make a cream puff-like base, and then stirs in other ingredients, making what I consider to be designer falafel. I have not experimented that much with falafel. Many recipes just use cooked chickpeas, but I have been told that the best method is to soak and grind up dried chickpeas. This may not be that far from Silvena’s method.
I made two of Silvena’s falafel recipes: “Crunchy Red Swiss Chard Falafel” (page 41) and “Crimson Beet Falafel” (page 44). They are quite similar: to the chickpea paste you add onions, cumin and allspice, then either Swiss chard or beets, and finally, a few chickpeas for texture and then some lemon juice. You next form little balls and fry them, which is easier said than done. I intensely dislike frying foods. Simply using large amounts of grease is somewhat distressing, then having lots of grease left over is also distressing. Frying can also make a big mess, and it has to be done at just the right temperature. This rant is a preamble to my confession that I completely messed up my first batch of Swiss chard falafel.
The first thing that I did wrong, which led to all the other mistakes, was to try to do too many things at one time, and so not concentrate on a single task. The second mistake was to try to use one large frying pan instead of the usual mini-wok type pan that I usually use for frying. The third, definitive mistake (but which would not have happened without the previous two) was to let the oil temperature drop too much as I added the falafel balls. What I ended up with were disintegrating grease balls. I threw them out, started over, and ended up with what I wanted. The beet falafel balls turned out fine the first time around, and I would have liked them a lot if only I liked beets more. [Go to the recipe.]
If you want to do something a little fancy with rice, then a dish like “Pilaf with Vermicelli, Chickpeas, Apricots and Pistachios” (page 108) will work. You brown shallots, rice, and broken up vermicelli in butter, Rice-a-Roni style, then finish cooking in broth with added chickpeas and dried apricots. This is not a dish that I just can’t stop eating, but it is more interesting than plain rice if you feel the need for some grainy side dish.
Alan was the one who discovered the recipe for “Syrian Jewels—Crunchy Sesame and Pistachio Cookies” (page 241) during one of his cooking binges. The cookie dough itself is perfect: it is a yeast dough, not too sweet, not too fatty, and with the texture of Play Doh. I am planning to try this dough for hamantaschen next Purim. Discs of dough are then coated with corn syrup (I use a minimally noxious Whole Foods Market organic corn syrup), sesame seeds, and pistachios. In the middle of baking, I turned the cookies over so that both sides would brown, although the printed recipe did not suggest this.
Silvena uses the same dough for “Pistachio, Rose Water and Honey Ma’amoul Cookies” (page 238). Ma’amoul are stuffed cookies; dates, pistachios, or walnuts are common fillings. This dough was just perfect for enclosing a filling: it did not tear but stretched over the ball of filling and then stuck together nicely. I just left my cookies as little balls topped with pistachios (which kept falling off), but sometimes the filled balls are pressed into molds for decorative shapes. The aforementioned rose water haters obviously did not care for the filling.
Adapted from Silvena Rowe, The Eastern and Central European Kitchen
1 eggplant, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon salt
¼ cup olive oil
3 zucchinis, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, chopped
10-12 okra, sliced
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 red bell pepper, sliced
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 bunch parsley, chopped (without thick stems)
Toss the eggplant cubes with the salt. After an hour or so, rinse, squeeze, and drain the eggplant.
Preheat the oven to 375º.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the eggplant and zucchini, and cook for about five minutes. Then mix everything together, adding more oil if you are in such a mind, and transfer to a large baking dish. Cook in the oven for about one hour.
Swiss Chard Falafel
Adapted from Silvena Rowe, Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume
¼ cup olive oil, and more for frying
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
¼ teaspoon allspice
1 bunch Swiss chard (preferably red)
1 cup milk
1 cup chickpea flour
¼ cup cooked chickpeas, slightly crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet; add the onion, cumin, and allspice, and cook until limp and fragrant. Remove the thick stems from the chard, roll up the leaves, and slice them into thin strips. Add the chard to the skillet, and cook until wilted.
Bring the milk to a boil. Stir in the chickpea flour gradually, stirring all the time. Stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. You should end up with a ball of chickpea dough.
Let the dough ball and the onion chard mixture cool slightly, then mix then together, along with the chickpeas and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Form into balls and refrigerate for several hours. I had no problems getting my balls to stick together, but if you end up with a mixture either too wet or too dry, try adding more chickpea flour, or a little water.
When you are ready to fry the balls, heat an inch or two of oil to 350º. I do not use a thermometer (which helped lead to my downfall with first batch), but just heat the oil for a while on high heat. To test if the oil is hot enough, I might flick some water in, which should bounce and evaporate, or try a test falafel ball, which should immediately start to sizzle. Using my mini-wok, pictured above, I have to cook the balls in several batches.
You may like to serve these with a tahini lemon sauce: just tahini mixed with lemon juice and possible flavorings of cumin, garlic, or sumac. One of my guests was disappointed that I had not prepared such a sauce.