Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Healthy Diplomat brings tzatziki to a party – do you dare to Feta?

As the Super Bowl fast approaches with its slew of entertaining commercials, a dazzling halftime show, and, most importantly, the year’s biggest excuse to eat junk food.  Fried chips, a variety of salsas or dips, and the obligatory chicken wings are certain to pop in to so many gatherings.  The airwaves buzz as morning television shows and the Food Network or Cooking Channel capitalize on America’s need to constantly outdo itself in the snack department.

While some of you may not care about the Super Bowl, and some of you might watch the American football spectacle (because clearly, it’s all about the game, right?) with amusement from another country, most of us will attend some sort of party over the next year.  Perhaps it’s for the big football-football (soccer) match or simply a dinner party.  Regardless, if you’ve ever wondered how you can bring a delicious, yet healthy, alternative to the junk, I’ve got a simple but flavor-packed, Greek-inspired recipe to make one – or both – of two ways.  Elevate your game this party season!

Tzatziki, tchotchky

Tzatziki in its simplest form is a yogurt sauce with cucumber.  It is cooling, creamy, and it pairs well as an accompaniment to grilled meat or vegetables, condiment for a wrap, or with pita bread, chips, or crackers as an appetizer.  I became hooked on the sauce (yes, I just said that) back in my picky childhood days, when I discovered the grilled tang of chicken souvlaki at a local Greek festival and how tzatziki heightened the flavor.  I’ve found a few prepared versions available in grocery stores that I can palate (some are bland or add – gasp – mayonnaise), but those tend to be very expensive.   I did find a cheap, really delicious version sold in supermarkets in Germany, which my friend Amber jokingly referred to as “tchotchky” sauce, but alas, it’s in Germany.  Why spend the money when you can make it yourself?

This recipe – adapted from a recipe by Food Network personality Jeff Mauro, incorporates a bit of garlic, citrus, and, for a unique twist, the addition of feta, which adds richness and texture.  It is thicker than a Greek tzatziki but light enough to scoop up with a chip.  I recently whipped up this version of tzatziki (sans feta), which was fortunate to have ready when an unexpected party presented itself.  I served the tzatziki with sweet potato chips (a slightly more nutritious alternative to potato or corn chips) as a unique snack or appetizer.  For a zestier punch, add a bit of cayenne, but if your party features a tomato and chili based salsa, this dip is a great alternative to the heat.

Not all Greek yogurt is equal…to Total

Fage Total - the best,  all-purpose yogurt for all of your culinary adventures.

Fage Total – the best, all-purpose yogurt for all of your culinary adventures.

If you read Thursday’s guest post by the mEAT Baron, you might have oticed that his tandoori chicken recipe calls for Fage Total 0% Greek yogurt.  I was glad to see that recommendation, because Fage Greek yogurt is a constant presence in my refrigerator. It tends to be readily available, and it is the real deal; before America joined the Greek yogurt hype, Fage Total had perfected the strained Greek yogurt.  I find that other brands are slightly grainy in texture and still aren’t as thick as Fage Total.  And while I don’t shy away from a bit of fat content if it makes a real difference, Total 0% is so thick, creamy, and protein-packed, I suspect that even my palate wouldn’t guess it was fat free in a blind test.  Why add fat when it doesn’t help the recipe?  Additionally, I find this yogurt to be highly versatile.  I dislike purchasing ingredients simply for one recipe – spending extra money and often wasting ingredients.  I enjoy eating the plain yogurt with honey, or serving it as a garnish for soups, replacing sour cream or cream cheese in some recipes, and even using in sauces (delicately so it doesn’t curdle or clump).

The below proportions yield about 1 1/2 cups of dip, so you may want to double the recipe for a larger crowd; if you prefer a milder flavor and less cucumber, simply add another cup of the yogurt.

Tip:  If you don’t like the bite or odor of fresh garlic, try roasting a head of garlic (use twice as many cloves if roasted, as the flavor mellows substantially):  without pre-peeling, slice the top of the head through and drizzle olive oil over the exposed cloves, wrap in aluminum foil, and bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes or until cloves are soft and slightly caramelized.

Tzatziki Two Ways

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Fage Total 0% plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 large cucumber – preferably seedless English, peeled
  • 1-2 cloves crushed fresh garlic (to taste) or 2-4 roasted (see above)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • Optional:  1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
  • Optional:  pinch cayenne pepper or paprika
  • Salt to taste

Equipment:

  • cheese/vegetable grater or food processor
  • whisk or fork
  • small to medium mixing bowl

Directions:

Grate or julienne the peeled cucumber using a manual grater or food processor.  Drain excess liquid from the cucumber. If you plan to use the tzatziki as a condiment, you may wish to retain some of the cucumber juice for a thinner consistency.  Next, combine cucumber with citrus juice and whisk in the yogurt.  Mix in the feta if desired.   Season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste – I typically find I need no added salt if I use feta.  Serve with whole wheat pita, pita chips, crackers, or vegetables (sugar snap peas combine well with this dip). Elevate your game with a touch of Greek fusion!

CD Ambassador/Guest blog: The mEAT Baron’s Tandoori Chicken, Curried Veggies, and Balsamic Grilled Romaine Hearts

A word from The CD:  Today we welcome our first guest post by a Culinary Diplomat ambassador! I have harassed Doug (AKA the mEAT Baron), the author of this post, for several months to persuade him to serve as a (regular?) ambassador posting on this site.  Doug is quite the authority on cooking global cuisine at home, particularly when it involves meat or Indian food. I will embarrass him slightly in calling out his recent curry awakening.  I’ve known Doug well before he could explain the difference between a vindaloo or biryani; between a chicken tikka or chicken makhani.  A trip to India and visit to the family home of a graduate school classmate ignited the spark that led him to perfect his proprietary tandoori spice rub (you’ll notice no proportions in the below recipes, and it will remain a trade secret) and a host of healthy Indian dishes.  That’s right, Doug also happens to be a #healthydiplomat.  A devotee to cooking light, he eliminates ghee, paneer, or other heavier elements of many Indian dishes, but he packs in the flavor so that nobody will miss the fat. So sit back and enjoy as Doug leads us on an exotic excursion.  I know I can’t wait to try these recipes in my own kitchen!

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My good friend Tracey, aka the “Culinary Diplomat,” asked me to guest blog today when she found out that I was making homemade tandoori chicken for dinner.  Albeit unplanned, tonight’s menu, which paired this entrée with curried Indian veggies, happened to coincide with India’s “Republic Day” national holiday celebrations.  This event must have been fortuitous, as I had been wanting to guest blog but wasn’t sure what my first (hopefully I’m invited to blog again!) blog would be about.  Naturally, it only seems fitting that it’s about Indian food, which, hands down, is my favorite cuisine.  The spices and flavors are truly what make the food an experience, and more than just a meal.

The full menu for tonight consisted of tandoori chicken, cooked under a gas broiler since I don’t have a tandoor oven in my house, sadly (one day…).  I decided to compliment this entree with curried vegetables and char-grilled balsamic romaine hearts.  I paired this menu with a 2010 Freemark Abbey Petite Sirah from California’s Sonoma County.  Some of you may be asking yourselves, “Why on earth would he pair spicy Indian food, or chicken for that matter, with Petite Sirah?!”  Well let me assure you, it received rave reviews from everyone at dinner, who specifically raved that the wine truly complimented the chicken and the charred flavor of the romaine hearts.  Also, I’m of the belief that you drink what you enjoy, and I really wanted a red wine, so there you have it – bottom line: it worked…deliciously!
Here are the menu breakdown and details:

Tandoori Chicken

  • Six (6) trimmed boneless skinless chicken breasts (I used organic chicken from The Fresh Market, which eliminates added salt and other nasty additives that are injected into “regular” store-bought chicken)
  • 1 cup Fage Total 0% fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • Dry spice blend/rub (Garam Masala, Paprika, Cayenne, Cumin, Turmeric, Garlic, & Onion Powder)
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh cracked pepper
Directions:
  1. Cut multiple slits (not all the way through) cross-wise on both sides of each trimmed chicken breast; this action allows the seasoning to better infuse and tenderize the meat.
  2. Place chicken in a sealable plastic container or a Zip-lock bag, add lemon juice and toss.
  3. Add spice mix and yogurt, using your hands to massage into the slits cut into the chicken, ensuring that the yogurt/spice seasoning evenly coats the entire chicken breast.
  4. Seal the container/bag and let marinate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
  5. Remove the chicken from refrigerator about 30-45 min prior to cooking, to warm to room temperature.
  6. Set broiler on HIGH, and place chicken on a griddle on the top rack (I used a Williams Sonoma nonstick grilling griddle pan, which is oven-safe).
  7. Depending on the thickness of your chicken, cooking times will vary; however, I remove from the broiler and turn/rotate chicken about every 5-7 minutes.  You’ll know it’s finished when you have a nice char on the seasoning, and also by cutting the thickest portion of the breast/using a meat thermometer to ensure it is cooked through.
  8. Be careful not to overcook though, because no one likes anything less than a piece of overcooked chicken!

Curried Vegetables

  • Chopped vegetables (Broccoli, Zucchini, Mushrooms, Okra, Onion)
  • Dry spices (Curry Powder, Garam Masala, Tumeric, Paprika, Garlic, Pepper, Sea Salt)
  • 1 cup chicken or mushroom stock
Directions:
  1. Add ingredients to a covered pot and place on HIGH heat, stirring frequently.
  2. Let vegetables simmer (turn heat down if it begins to boil).
  3. After 10 minutes, uncover and reduce to MEDIUM-LOW.  This step will help evaporate some of the moisture, and the liquid will thicken to a better consistency.
  4. Serve when ready.

Balsamic Grilled Romaine Hearts

  • 3 Whole hearts of romaine, sliced lengthwise (making 6 halves)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil
Directions:
  1. Mix balsamic vinegar and olive oil together, whisking gently.
  2. Coat romaine hearts lightly with oil mixture, placing them face-up on a baking sheet.
  3. Lightly drizzle a little more balsamic on the face of the romaine (you can also add salt/pepper if desired).
  4. Place under broiler on HIGH on the lower rack for approximately 8 minutes, then transfer to the top rack for another 4-5 minutes, or until charred.
  5. Remove from oven and serve.
*Optional:  You can also drizzle some lemon juice on these as well if you like.

2nd image of the meal

Little conversation took place during dinner, as my guests were busy chewing and cleaning their plates.  I hoped that this silence was an indication that everyone was enjoying the meal, and much to my pleasure, the after-dinner conversation offered positive feedback on every aspect. It was truly a memorable and fun menu to prepare.  While this isn’t something that you can just “whip up,” but instead must plan and prepare in advance, I assure you, it is worth the wait, and the effort.  So sit back, take a bite and a sip, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
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If you would like to try your hand at a guest post, please click on the “Become a CD Ambassador” page link at the top of your screen.  We would love to have you join us!

This winter, try nature’s cure-alls: Sea Buckthorn and Chaga from our northern neighbors

What do the fruit of a shrub that grows in frozen desert (tundra) and a hard, ugly black fungus that thrives on birch trees have in common?

Aside from growing in northern latitudes, altitude, and their cold climates, both sea buckthorn and chaga are natural, homeopathic remedies well known throughout Russia and eastern Europe, and, increasingly, in Canada but are little known in the U.S. Read just a bit about the purported health benefits and symptoms these two plants are used to treat, and you will be as intrigued as I was when I discovered them.

Sea buckthorn in your dessert keeps the doctor away

During my trip to the Baltics, my group and I frequently noticed sea buckthorn was an ingredient in dishes, particularly desserts.  We finally Googled in our curiosity and were instantly hooked. The Interwebs are full of sites touting the amazing medicinal uses of sea buckthorn.  Sea buckthorn even has its own WebMD page.  Sea buckthorn grows in high-altitude, arid and cold climates, such as Russia, central Asia, and eastern Europe, historically, but in the past century, it was successfully transplanted to Saskatchewan, Canada. The woody plants have been planted to help control soil erosion, but it is the uses of bright yellow-orange fruit and seeds of the sea buckthorn fruit that excited me.  I found that it resembled somewhat persimmons or kumquats, but its skin is comparable to that of a tomato.  It is exceedingly tart – not the sort of fruit easily eaten without the addition of sugar or other complementary flavors.

Why the hype?

Sea buckthorn has a high concentration of flavonoids, vitamins (such as C and E), minerals and other nutrients.  It is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.  Its fruit pulp, oils, and seed oils have been used to treat a wide range of gastrointestinal issues, ulcers, and acid reflux, as well as high blood pressure and cholesterol, countering the side effects of chemotherapy, and various skin rashes and disorders (ingested or applied topically as an ointment).  While in Estonia, one of my fellow travelers had a chronic case of acid reflux for six months; he had tried a number of medications and doctors’ visits in the U.S., but nothing seemed to work. He began taking a supplement of sea buckthorn daily, and within a week, he had a noticeable reduction in his symptoms.  Was it the placebo effect, or the sea buckthorn?  Long-term studies of the impact of sea buckthorn are scant, but short-term studies showed positive results.  Read a few summaries to get you started here.

Chaga – the fungus among us that cures

Chaga-rose hip cough syrup from The Farmer's Daughter in central Maine

Chaga-rose hip cough syrup from The Farmer’s Daughter in central Maine

During a trip to central Maine, I recently had my first encounter with chaga, a tough, dense, charcoal-colored fungus found on birch trees, throughout Russia, eastern Europe, Canada, and New England. After an unexpected coughing fit (hey, it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit/-18 Celsius – apparently entirely too cold for my already cold blood!),  a good friend suggested I try a locally made chaga cough syrup that also is used to boost immunity during the harsh winter months.  Within 30 minutes, I had stopped coughing.  I was so impressed I had to order it from The Farmer’s Daughter, the local business responsible for this great concoction – even better because it is homemade from whole ingredients, rather than manufactured commercially.  When I returned home, I did a little chaga research.  Like sea buckthorn, chaga is considered to possess anti-inflammatory properties has been a homeopathic remedy for a number of ailments, such as psoriasis; it allegedly inhibits cancer cell growth, and it can be used to treat allergies.  This article is an easy read that summarizes the immune-boosting properties of chaga.  Watch out; you may be hooked.

Where to buy them

If you live in Europe (yes, you probably wouldn’t need to read this post), then you can find sea buckthorn oil as a supplement at a standard pharmacy or Bio (natural/organic products store) or even as a featured ingredient on a restaurant menu.  If you’re in the USA, check out your local natural foods store, vitamin shop, or online supplier.  Chaga is a bit of an easier find than sea buckthorn, as several teas and supplement pills contain chaga or extractives of chaga, or Betulin, a key active ingredient in chaga.

Various  forms of chaga as an immune-boosting supplement in a standard American natural foods grocery.

Various forms of chaga as an immune-boosting supplement in a standard American natural foods grocery.

 

*Disclaimer: please consult with your qualified health professional before introducing these or any other supplement into your health regimen. Learn about potential side effects, including sea buckthorn’s anti-clotting properties (not unlike aspirin).

Going vegetarian, vegan, or raw in the Baltic States (Yes, you can!)

This post is the final post in The Culinary Diplomat’s Baltic series.  For more posts, please search using The Baltic States category.

Surprisingly to an outsider, I found in the Baltic States an abundance of vegetarian and vegan products, as well as dishes, and restaurants dedicated to or catering to alternative dining preferences (vegetarian, vegan, raw, paleo, low-carbohydrate, etc.). All three capital cities had dedicated vegetarian restaurants, and most nicer restaurants, as is customary in the U.S., offered substantial vegetarian entrees – and I’m not talking pasta con marinara in an Italian restaurant.

In Tallinn, Kohvik Komeet (Cafe Comet in English) with its casual tea-room ambiance and pastry and dessert cases that would put to shame any American Cheesecake Factory counterpart, is the perfect spot for gourmet, yet casual, vegetarian food. Its menu features a variety of creative and flavorful meat-based and meatless dishes – soups, salads, pastas, and more traditional entrees. Quinoa, edamame, beets, and lentils are as much at home on its menu as are veal, duck, meat-based croquettes, and chicken soup. My post about beets highlighted one of these amazing vegetarian entrees from Komeet.

Riga, Latvia-based LIDO, a charming, cafeteria-style restaurant chain with several locations in Riga and one in Tallinn, Estonia, caters to the average Baltic family with a wide range of hearty, traditional eastern European staples at its many locations throughout the Baltic States. While the eye is drawn to numerous carved meats, sausages, and kabob/shashlik skewers, a vegetarian can graze happily with soups, hearty potato dishes (though I can’t rule out that they may use bacon/animal fat…) including delicious potato pancakes served with berry coulis and sour cream, and organic vegetable dishes, including the obligatory eastern European sour cream-based carrot and beet salads (definitely not vegan), pastas, juices, and more.

If you read my profile of Riga’s Stockpot, you would have noticed that the global eatery takes seriously its commitment to serving a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan soups and entrees. More than half of their typical menu is vegetarian or vegan, and with their total staple of over 200 rotating dishes, a vegan certainly will never get tired of his or her options, which evoke much warmer, spicier destinations around the world.

I doubt that anyone would guess that hilly, inland Vilnius, Lithuania is a destination for raw and vegan food, but Raw42 was outstanding, even for a mixitarian like myself. I was impressed at the variety of its offerings and more surprised at their consistent execution of flavor and texture, using fresh, high quality ingredients. Named for the temperature limit for their dishes (42 degrees Celsius, or about 108 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to preserve ingredients’ nutrient and enzyme viability, they reinvent classic European and Asian dishes like spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, sushi, and Thai rolls with plant-based substitutes. Sunflower, almond, and cashew “cheese” compliment menu staples, such as ribbons of zucchini pasta warmed just enough to a perfect al dente, sushi made with nut “rice” and vegetables, salads or beet borscht, and others. The resulting flavors are subtle and yet complex. Their hot Italian tomato soup was surprisingly warm and comforting. The sushi was a creative (and yes, nutty) substitute for a typical starchy maki roll. I tried their Italian salad as a starter, as well, and I really enjoyed a rare sighting of avocado in northeastern Europe and the sunflower seed ‘cheese’ (more like a brittle, but tasty and crunchy). The nutritious and oddly refined meal was a welcome detox after perhaps too much wine at the best and friendliest Italian wine bar (yes! Italian wines only), Burbulio Vyninine after a heavy steak dinner.

Though many of you may never venture to the Baltic States, I certainly hope you add it to your Bucket List – if nothing else, make it a post-cruise tour or take an organized tour. The costs and time involved for the journey – whether you’re from western Europe or the Western Hemisphere – are far less than you might expect. And the cultural and culinary rewards are many.

Olde Hansa – Medieval times in Tallinn, Estonia

Every now and then, one finds a tourist spot that more than lives up to the hype.

In this case, I was pleasantly surprised by the cuisine and ambience of Olde Hansa, perhaps Tallinn’s most well-known restaurant catering to tourists. I expected a heavy hand of kitsch and cheesiness, but my experience was more understated than I ever expected. Yes, your servers will greet you in costume, you will be serenaded by a minstrel-like trio or quartet, dine in candlelight dim enough to cause a major accident if you don’t watch your footing (!), and have the option of choosing medieval-sounding options such as wild boar, elk, or bear – but everything was surprisingly delicious. Unlike a Medieval Times in the USA, the experience felt much less contrived and campy. It seemed to be the sort of place a local might take foreign guests – and actually enjoy the experience him or herself, time after time.

The berry schnapps aperitif was a great start to the meal. Try the cinnamon or honey beer – lightly sweet but not overwhelmingly so. The herb bread with homemade herbed cream cheese was delicious; this cream cheese – which I found in other versions – is much less salty and lacked the tanginess Americans are used to tasting with the traditional bagel spread.

For my entree, I chose a food adventure of game sausages that supposedly contained elk, wild boar, and bear. I’m not much of a sausage or game fan, but these sausage links tasted like…sausage. I questioned whether they legitimately contained those exotic meats because the taste was so, well, normal! I really enjoyed them, along with the onion jam (if a bit cloyingly sweet, certainly it did not lack in flavor), horseradish cream, ginger turnips, and crushed, mixed berries. While quite full at the end of the meal, I felt much less disgusted with myself than after a typical overprocessed chain restaurant meal back home in the U.S.A. I’d definitely recommend Olde Hansa as a must-try in Tallinn.

This experience inspired me to create my own hearty sausage dinner when hosting friends for dinner soon after my return. Instead of game sausage, I used Trader Joe’s uncured, uncooked Turkey-Cranberry Sausage, which I paired with a cranberry relish. I made a wonderful, garlicky pureed cauliflower in lieu of potatoes or turnips, and roasted, truffled Brussels sprouts. While my meal had a slightly more American, food-trend heavy slant to it, my friends and I enjoyed the wintry, rustic flavors, inspired by Olde Hansa and the flavors of days gone by in Estonia.

Stockpot Riga: The Latvian spirit of The Culinary Diplomat

There are moments when I’m reminded why I started this blog. Moments that inspire me to share the joys of food – from the exotic to seemingly mundane Americana – with everyone. The first experience – well, ok, let’s be honest; all four visits – made me positively giddy with excitement to be able to share the joy of Riga’s Stockpot with the rest of the world. I originally wrote this post a few months ago, but re-reading and editing it even with the passage of time and hindsight, I am no less excited to share it with you

If one restaurant embodies my own goal of inspiring others to venture out of their culinary comfort zones to try new flavors from around the world, making them accessible to everyone, it absolutely is Stockpot. Owned and lovingly managed by a British expat, Richard, and his energetic Latvian wife, Linda and staffed by young Latvians eager to learn and create new flavor combinations, Stockpot serves up a wide range of dishes from around the world.

First of all, I take no credit for discovering Stockpot. Walk inside and you will see what Riga’s hipster scene has known for years. One of Stockpot’s many loyal, regular customers recommended it to a colleague, and I jumped at the chance to tag along. Nevertheless, the place had me at Facebook. Their simple menus change daily, but with the week’s menus posted on Facebook, one can plan ahead accordingly. Trying to label Stockpot is difficult, but a quick look at a typical menu announces its flare for international, exotic dishes – curries, soups, stews, and chilis cooked in stockpots for hours, and, most importantly, spice. Why is spice most important? If you’ve followed my blog posts thus far, you probably have picked up on the tendency of Baltic cuisine to be uncomplicated and relatively lightly seasoned (which does not equate to bland). Spicy curries and chilis appear to be exactly what the doctor would order to counter the dreary winters in dour Riga. To see an otherwise stoic Latvian happily sweating over a spicy Malaysian curry made me smile each time.

The restaurant itself is small and unassuming, brightly lit, small, with communal tables and window counter seating. It is the perfect place for trendy locals – including those on a tight budget – to drop in for a quick, easy, and reasonably priced exotic bite. The entire Stockpot team were friendly and approachable, but owners Richard and Linda reported that their customers often have difficulty with the concept of sharing their dining experience with their table-mates. Latvians tend to keep to themselves, minding their own business, so it was rare that our own table-mates were comfortable carrying on a conversation with us – with the exception of two expat medical students from Switzerland and Austria, who told us how much they enjoy their once weekly (sometimes more often) visits or take-out from Stockpot.

I realize that I’m a bit slow to get to the actual food. The food is the reason for frequent lines well outside of the front door. Though each day’s menu consists of only about 6 dishes, supplemented by a few consistent staples (Caesar salad and wrap, garden salad, smoothies, and hummus and tabouleh, choosing just one was incredibly difficult each time. Richard and Linda told us that they rotate about 200 dishes in their repertoire, and each day’s menu must include 50% vegetarian soups and two vegan dishes, while also accommodating a range of spice levels. Stockpot uses a scale of 1 to 10 to warn – I mean, advertise – the heat quotient to its patrons. They have found that they sell the most dishes with either high (8-10) or mild (1-3) spice contents, which I found pretty funny. The high spice levels draw the spice crazies out of the woodwork, while the mild levels may be more palatable to newbies to spicy food. British-Indian butter chicken is their most popular dish, served every Friday and requiring 40 kilograms (90 lbs.) of chicken to be marinated each Thursday. Endless variations on chili (Linda loves Mexican food) are part of the rotation, using varying types of meat or meat substitutes and beans, and, of course, spice levels rotate through their menus.

I felt so lucky to have the chance to eat at Stockpot on four separate occasions and to sample several dishes each time. On my first visit, the three of us in our dining party all ordered a half order of Thai red chicken curry after watching a local customer sweating. I decided a smoothie and side salad were in order to counteract this heat and fill my lunch-less stomach. Ultimately, the curry had a very nice, balanced heat and hint of coconut without being cloyingly sweet or oddly complex. Basmati rice was a nice accompaniment. The Chilean Carminere wine (3 EUR for a glass!) and complementary cheese plate – with a fitting assortment of English cheddar, Brie, and Lithuanian bleu cheese – were much more refined than the price point would suggest.
A nightcap of golden, French Chartreuse liqueur was a new adventure for the three of us. I still swear it tastes like Chamomile tea mixed with Sambuca – in the best way possible!

Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.

Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.

On my subsequent visits, I tried a lovely vegetarian yellow curry with cashews, a Malaysian chicken curry, spicy sun-dried tomato soup and their hummus and tabouleh platter (in the featured photo), and, of course, more rounds of the Carminere and cheese platter. I also sampled a chili con carne with a spice level of 8 or 9 (surprisingly slow-burning, the heat did not overpower other flavors) and Moroccan beef dish. I would recommend everything without hesitation.

We all admired Richard and Linda’s simplicity of vision for their restaurant. After years in the casino industry and with a love of good food (and spice!), Richard wanted to build a place to be able to cook what he wanted, without pretention and intervention. Richard noted that the absence of good food in Riga also motivated him. When asked for a chef’s restaurant recommendation in this city, he paused for a long while before recommending…an Uzbek restaurant (we tried it; it was delicious and had an otherworldly ambiance)! Richard, regaled us with stories of their trial-and-error journeys to find and procure the components for their exotic dishes in Latvia and with a limited budget – from the best values on basmati rice, to venturing to the Caribbean to find increasingly hotter chili peppers (chiles), to stumbling upon the wines they ultimately chose for their restaurant. These two are clearly driven by both a desire to innovate and introduce new and fresh flavors to Riga and keeping such dishes affordable to the average Latvian.

Unconcerned with the implication of a tax system that, strangely, penalizes businesses for charitable actions (donations are taxed to the donator) Richard and Linda, through a customer and the Red Cross, donate each night’s leftovers to seven local families in need, two of whom have handicapped children. In fact, neighboring restaurants and bakeries, afraid to flout the tax system on their own, join Richard and Linda’s donation pool. Strength in numbers is real.

Having grown to a team of nine, Richard’s criteria for hiring new staff was that prospective employees needed to love food but they should not be educated. What the what? Culinary students need not apply; purists do. This philosophy shows in their food. The team knows they are good and take pride in their contributions. One female staffer couldn’t withhold a rare Latvian smile when Richard informed her that she would be making two of Wednesday night’s soups herself. Why wouldn’t she? I’d be excited to cook here too!

It’s all about beets in the Baltics – and beyond

Beets are by far my favorite root vegetable – and that’s even with stiff competition from sweet potatoes. It is one food trend in recent years that I will stand behind, yet I am one of those weirdos that has loved beets long before the beet salad became a given (next to Brussels sprouts and kale) in farm to table restaurants. Beets, along with broccoli and canned peas, were probably the only ‘vegetables’ I would touch as a very picky child. I’m pretty sure I inherited my odd affinity for beets from my father, though my maternal grandmother often served them at Sunday dinners. As a kid, I clamored for canned beets, and especially for Ukrop’s (a now sadly defunct local supermarket chain that few, if any of you, will know) marinated beet salad. Molly’s beet salad, a Whole Foods salad bar staple, can’t touch that!

Beets, beetroot, or “peet” in Estonian – is omnipresent in Estonia and, to a slightly lesser extent, throughout the Baltic region. So you can imagine my delight to find beets on almost every menu in Estonia: Pickled beets at my breakfast buffet! Beets in my Vapiano fast casual salad. Roasted beets in my vegetable side dish at more dinners than I can count.

I even found paleo-friendly, vegan “peeditoorleib” (raw beetroot bread/crisps) in a local grocery store – a bit stale/chewier than I might prefer and slightly bland, but with the unmistakeable earthy sweetness of beets (below).

Estonian paleo-friendly "peet leib" - beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

Estonian paleo-friendly “peet leib” – beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

So, for the beet-shy, what’s in it for you? Acquiring a taste for beets might enhance more than your palate; the nutritional benefits are many. A 2012 study found that consuming beet juice 75 minutes before a 5K run increased runners’ performance, particularly their pace the last kilometer.

Beets – especially their bitter salad greens – contain naturally occurring nitrates (yes, the same compound found in fertilizer, not the processed preservative nitrite), but, more importantly, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds called betalains, which give beets their characteristic red-purple color and may inhibit growth of some types of cancer cells, including colon cancer. So detox away with beets – but make sure not to overcook them, as the betalains break down quickly with heat.

My favorite way to enjoy beets is pickled; the vinegar balances the beets’ sweetness and breaks down their tough flesh. Many of you have probably seen the typical fad beet salad – red and often yellow beets, thinly sliced, served with goat cheese and a light salad green, such as watercress or arugula. I will never turn down a beet salad, but they often seem a bit tired or unoriginal. I did recently try a wonderful ginger-marinated beet salad with scallion creme fraiche at, of all places, a ski resort in Maine (Sugarloaf’s 45 North) that made me a bit less of a beet snob.

Sugarloaf Mountain's 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Sugarloaf Mountain’s 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Of course, one can always go traditional Russian with some borscht. The most authentic versions are full of meat, creating a dish substantial enough for a full meal, such as the one served at Riga, Latvia’s Uncle Vanya.

Perhaps the most innovative — and unexpectedly delicious — use of beets was a cousin of the veggie burger composed of pureed beets, chickpeas, and carrots at Estonia’s Kohvik Komeet – think a slightly less over-the-top Cheesecake Factory, served over a warm lentil and sun-dried tomato salad and topped with hummus (photo at the top of the post). I attempted to recreate this dish for this blog, but attempt #1 fell far short of Komeet’s and is not ready for a recipe posting yet. How did I fail?  I attempted to puree the ingredients with an immersion blender, which did not leave it smooth and light enough in texture; I was trying to keep it vegan but believe egg would make a good binder; and pomegranate vinegar was a horrible touch.  It wasn’t terrible, but not ready for prime time.  I know, I know, you were really looking forward to a recipe for a bright red-purple,vegan veggie patty, right?

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet's beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet’s beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!