Has the pandemic made you adventurous with food out of necessity?
No, I always liked trying new foods. When I was growing up in Russia, the menu was relatively simple. In winter, there is typically a soup, followed by very traditional starch- protein-vegetable plate. In summer, instead of the soup, that same plate is accompanied by a salad.
Soups typically included borscht, which I hate, so please don’t ask for the recipe, harcho, because we are close to Caucuses Mountains, or lapsha, chicken noodle soup, or pelmeni, a Russian version of a wonton. In summer, sometimes there is green borscht or okroshka, the cold soups.
The entrée plate was usually rice or mashed potatoes – baked potatoes were unheard of in our regional cooking. The only time we had something similar was when we went camping and buried potatoes in coals of a campfire. The meat was usually fish lightly coated in flour and pan fried or chicken, typically baked or sautéed in a pan. I didn’t have fried chicken until I came to US. If it wasn’t chicken, then it was Russian hamburgers, which you can find in recipes section. A Russian version of schnitzel. Sometimes the meat would be abandoned in favor of vareniki, a kind of a oversized ravioli stuffed with cottage cheese or cherries. Sometimes we had pilaf or chebureki, an even larger meat-stuffed ravioli which was fried in a pan. Lots of green onion and herbs with everything. We grew spinach, dill, parsley, garlic, onion, etc.
The salad was a super simple affair: cut up some tomatoes into largish chunks, add cucumbers, bell peppers, and green onion, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of sunflower oil. In winter fresh vegetables were not available, so we switched to preserves: pickles, pickled tomatoes, pickled eggplant.
A great emphasis was placed on flour goods: blini, vareniki, pelmeni, bread, cake, torts, eclairs, etc. I learned baking before I learned cooking.
So with the menu was very middle of the road in terms of flavor profiles. Coming to US was like facing an explosion of foods. I distinctly remember the first time I tried sushi. I was encouraged to cook for an International Student Day by the college – when you are an international student, you get encouraged to do a lot of things – and the guy at the table across from me was Japanese and made sushi rolls. I was floored. So yummy.
When Gordon and I started living together – in sin, as his family put it, hehe – I realized he liked Japanese cuisine. He spent over a year in Japan as a high school exchange student. I couldn’t cook authentic Japanese food, but I found a book on Chinese cuisine in the library. Seriously, that was the only thing they had from the entire Asian region. So I tried my hand at Chinese cuisine. My first “Chinese” dish was Hunan beef and he really liked it. I still remember exactly what he said when he tried it. 🙂
Eventually I found a Japanese cookbook as well and became reasonably proficient with Americanized versions of Chinese and Japanese dishes. When he was in the military, I picked up some Korean-inspired recipes from Korean-born military wives. I already had staple Southern food down. My chicken fingers, which I don’t cook anymore because we need to lose weight, are to die for. Iced water – does wonders. Kid 1 liked Italian. Kid 2 likes steak in all forms. Everyone loves TexMex. Honestly, we’re in Texas. If we couldn’t make decent tacos and queso, we’d get kicked out.
So our menu is very varied. It might be my bastardized version of bulgogi one day, spaghetti the next, followed by roasted chicken mixed into salad, followed by pork tenderloin, then chicken fajitas, then take out of kimchi kimbap for me and a hamburger for Gordon. Who knows.
Favourite weird food/ national delicacy you’ve always wanted to try?
I am not sure. A good question. Umm… I don’t know. Pass!
Things you would never eat?
Oy. Anything with cooked slimy onion. Makes me gag. If we are talking about specific dishes, I would never try balut. Sorry, I just can’t. Just no.
List of foods or restaurants you can’t wait to go to after the pandemic is over?
Any quiet restaurant where Gordon and I can have a nice date. Gruene Door would be good. But honestly, any place where we can just quietly relax.
How do you choose food scenes for your books? Is it always something you’ve had or do you imagine food sometimes (Orro scenes)?
We try to match the food to the mood of the scene. It involves a lot of Googling. So much googling. And now I am hungry, but I have to work.