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The Blogger Beat: Mango & Tomato

This week, we step into the kitchen with food blogger Olga Berman.

Blogger Olga Berman braves the snow for a quick photo shoot. Photograph by Chris Leaman
Olga Berman launched her blog, Mango & Tomato, in May 2008 to document her adventures in the kitchen. She’d been posting on another site for nearly a year, but after discovering a burgeoning food-blog scene in Washington, she decided she wanted to join in.

She posts recipes, recaps of food events, restaurant reviews, and some drool-worthy photos of her kitchen successes. Berman also participates in cooking challenges and contests with other bloggers and documents her creations at Mango & Tomato.

Berman, a Bureau of Labor Statistics employee, grew up in Moscow and moved to Seattle when she was 13. After graduating from the University of Washington, she got a job at the Department of Labor and moved to the DC area. She has lived in Arlington for seven years.

We caught up with Berman to get her best recipes and tips for succeeding in the kitchen. And because she’s a frequent traveler, we found her favorite food destination. Read on for her answers.

Rate your cooking skills from 1 to 10—where 1 is a bachelor with Ramen noodles and 10 is Julia Child:
“I’d give myself a 7. Although most of the recipes I invent are nowhere near the complexity of Julia Child’s, I make a variety of dishes with great results. Plus, after assisting at Sur la Table’s culinary program for the last four years, I’ve picked up great knife skills and learned a lot about different cuisines.”

Number of cookbooks you own:
“Some people might be shocked by this, but I have only about five cookbooks. I grew up watching my parents cook, and since they rarely used cookbooks, I rarely do either. Instead, I create recipes using ingredients on hand or find inspiration from what’s on sale at the store, my recent travels, or a successful meal out.”

Favorite cookbook in your collection:
“Although I haven’t made a single recipe from this cookbook, A16: Food + Wine is a gorgeous book with amazing photography and great stories. It’s definitely a good book to have on your coffee table.”

Best and worst recipes you’ve ever tried:

“The best recipe I’ve tried was one of the Daring Bakers’ challenges: flourless chocolate cake. Not only is the cake rich and chocolaty, but it’s quick and easy to put together, consists of just three ingredients (butter, eggs, and chocolate), and looks very impressive. In fact, I’ve made this recipe at least three times. The worst recipe came from a butcher at my grocery store. I asked him how to make a pork roast, and he recommended cooking it at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Not only did it take almost twice as long, but it had a horribly unpleasant texture and appearance; it ended up in my garbage can.”

Best recipe you’ve ever invented:
“Last year, I created a pizza with plums, Gorgonzola, red onions, and pine nuts, which won Cookthink’s Plum Root Source Challenge. It’s one of my favorite inventions because it uses ingredients you normally wouldn’t put together, but the results are remarkable. Plus, depending on the season, you can use peaches, pears, or even apples instead of plums.”

Biggest kitchen disaster:
“One night I was making dinner with a friend. She was in charge of making hummus using an immersion blender. For some reason, the blender kept getting stuck, so my friend lifted it, and in what seemed like slow motion to me, she proceeded to stick her finger in the rotating blades. Needless to say, blood splattered all over my white kitchen cabinets and floor. Luckily, I called my mom, who calmly told us how to stop the bleeding. There was no hummus for dinner that night.”

Advice for newbies in the kitchen:

“Don’t be afraid to try a new ingredient or cooking technique. But first make sure to develop solid knife skills. Knowing how to properly use a knife will make you safer and more efficient in the kitchen.”

Embarrassingly simple recipe that always impresses guests:
“I’m not a huge baker, so I often use brownie mix to make dessert. What I do is add a few ingredients to the mix to make it special. In the past I’ve made minty brownie bites with pomegranate glaze, added a lime frosting to a plain boxed brownie, and added orange zest and chocolate chips into the mix. My latest creation was to add dried cherries and walnuts to a boxed mix. Everyone is always impressed and can’t believe that the brownies aren’t made from scratch.”

Pantry item you can’t cook without:

“It’s hard for me to choose just one, so I’ll choose a few: olive oil, garlic, onions, kosher salt, and imagination. I know the last one isn’t technically a pantry item, but imagination is what drives most of my recipes.”

Pantry item you most frequently run out of:

“Olive oil. I use it for marinades and salad dressings and to sear meat or roast vegetables.”

Favorite no-power kitchen tool:

“Does a chef’s knife count as a tool? If not, then I’d have to say that I absolutely adore my microplane. I’ve had it for the last four years and use it to zest citrus, grate ginger and garlic, or make fine shavings of cheese and chocolate.”

Pain-in-the-ass dessert that’s worth the hassle:

“You know, I really don’t think there’s such a thing. In the past I’ve made rather elaborate desserts for Daring Bakers (éclairs, macarons, Milan cookies), but I never made them again, other than the flourless chocolate cake. I’d rather go and buy a dessert or make something simple than spend hours slaving in the kitchen.”

Holiday dish you look forward to all year:
“Growing up in Russia, we made salat oliv’e for every festive occasion: birthdays, anniversaries, New Year’s. This potato salad consists of potatoes, carrots, eggs, pickles, apples, peas, and mayonnaise. Although it takes quite a long time to cook and dice all the ingredients, the efforts are very much worth it. And the salad is even better after a day or two in the refrigerator—if you don’t eat the entire thing on the first day!”

Favorite country you’ve traveled to, food-wise:
“Another tough question. It’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. Since I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, I’ll choose that. The place had everything from fancy restaurants to street food that served up rich flavors and fresh seafood.”

What you’d eat for your last meal:
“That’s a rather somber thing to think about. Part of me wants to go with something like a burger and fries, but the other part would rather have sushi. Regardless, there’d be plenty of dark chocolate.”

Where you go when you want a night off from the kitchen:
“This depends on my mood: I love casual ethnic restaurants that serve Afghan kebabs, pho, Peruvian chicken, and anything Indian.”

Favorite local food blog besides your own:

“Since you’ve already featured some of the bloggers I read often, I’ll mention the others: Not Derby Pie, Dining in DC, and Adventures in Shaw.”

The Blogger Beat is on holiday break next week, but we’ll return in the new year with a roster of new bloggers to keep you entertained. Check back January 6 for our next interview!

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