Sunday, March 27, 2011

Italian Squid Ink Pasta with Sea Bass

It had been nearly six months since my last tomato.

Of course there'd been the tinned, jarred, and dried varieties. But nought a single fresh juicy tomato has passed through my lips - until today. I try to stick as best I can to a locavore philosophy year round. This challenge is made easier by Brno's main vegetable market, where most of the vendors label all their products according to country of origin. I don't know if this is mandated or not, but I tend to think not, as some of the stands are a bit more obscure in their labeling.

Most late-winter weeks I wander around the market scanning the cardboard signs for that elusive ČR label. Generally the veg comes from Italy, Spain or Greece. I try to ignore the tomatoes, as the mere sight of a seriously good looking bunch still on the vine makes me ache inside. I long. I lust. All winter long.

This last week was different. This last week I wanted to take part in the third Forever Nigella challenge by embracing Italian food. So I went to the market purposely looking for IT on the little cardboard signs. I decided to justify a brief detour from a commitment to local products in ode to Italy. For one meal only. So I have tomatoes now. And fresh basil.

During our last venture to the country shaped like a boot, hubs and I picked up some black squid ink pasta (Spaghetti Di Nero), which I've been saving for some worthwhile occasion. Well, I figure ushering in the end of winter eating makes for as good a reason as any.

The next step was to procure some fresh fish. A challenge in the Czech Republic (excluding Praha, of course) any time of year, at least for me, and at least as far as saltwater fish are concerned. Double the difficulty by adding in the translation from English to Czech. After spending a good chunk of my morning on the computer trying to find the Czech word for mullet, bream, or bass (the varieties suggested by Nigella) and the other part of the morning consulting with the hubs on the accuracy of such a translation, I finally sent him off to the fishmonger. He came home with a beautiful European Sea Bass (Mořský vlk.)

I marvelled, then I gulped. 'A WHOLE fish?' I asked. 'Well, yes, what did you expect?' Um, I don't know, skin-on fillets I suppose. I never actually handled a whole fish before. I always eyed up those impressive pics of whole-baked trout and so on, but never wandered into that territory myself.

Life goal #132 - make a meal starting with a whole fish. Check. 

I watched this video a few times and asked the hubs for some advice, and it all went pretty smoothly (and de-scaling that sucker was pretty cool!)

It was worth it. The flavours came together perfectly. The fresh basil was key. I kept adding more and more on my heaping plate as I was eating, as I usually do with parmesan. The black pasta had a very subtle flavour (owing to the dried and not fresh noodles) that added a bit of earthiness. The tomatoes are added in just at the end so they are perfectly firm. 

This will definitely tide me over until the Czech Republic heads into tomato season.

Edit: For a similar version using squid ink pasta, see the Pasta with Green-Lipped Mussels.

Continue to Recipe

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sick Day Soup {Hoisin Pork and Mushroom}

I have a vague memory of buying the mushrooms. 

The hubs and I went to the doctor after a week or more of fighting off nasty colds. Next to her office was a small grocery store. I wanted to make soup. We wandered in. I had a hankering for a Chinese inspired pork soup. I grabbed a head of napa cabbage and some mushrooms. Pork we still had in abundance. I went home and sat on the bed. No soup came about that afternoon.

Days later, when I finally started feeling a wee better, I was up to the soup making.

Multiple meals of instant ramen noodles and oranges will inspire that kind of motivation I suppose. 

The recipe is based on some old ones I'd written up and simply tweaked to fit what was available in the cupboards.

 I should also note that the recipe includes Chinese five-spice powder, which you may not have on hand. But if you're sick in that putzing around the house kinda way, I bet you could easily whip up your own blend in a spice grinder. I usually do an online search for it and play around with a few recipes. There's a rather detailed description of it here on Serious Eats. Happy spice blending!

Continue to Recipe

Monday, March 21, 2011

Czech Pig Butchering {Zabijačka} - Part II

I've been stalling. I wanted to write all about the pig-sticking days weeks ago. And I had started by going through the pictures. And then I stopped.

Days after the event they just seemed, well, a touch graphic. During the actual pig affair, when I was learning all about the different steps, and behind my lens happily snapping away, the resulting images spoke to me in an aesthetic way -  as normal images of landscapes or food would typically do. I judged the lighting, composition, and so on. Then I got busy with life for a few days. After which I looked again. Away from the sunny Saturday afternoon surrounded by a family all pitching in together to ensure they eat quite well over the coming months, the images just seemed shocking. I needed some distance.

Hopefully the time has helped my judgement and the pictures in the album reflect the choice to show the zabijačka in it's full light, guts and all. I think it more useful to describe the day on this post and leave the gamut of visuals on a separate page (with a warning that some may appear graphic, but it is for the sole purpose of being illustrative of the home butchering process). Note that three of the pictures are from a previous year, as this year I was in the kitchen when they sliced pig open, but I really wanted to show how that stage looks.

Okay, done with the warnings. On to the day.

The entire event took place in the backyard using an open shed next to a wine cellar as the home base. The wine cellar conveniently has two rooms, one outer room for processing the offal and the forthcoming products, and an inner cellar, which is cool enough to house the meat cuts during the day. A large metal vat over a flame is also in non-stop usage. The tools are otherwise pretty basic - assorted knives and hatchets and barrels of different sizes. The specialty tools come in for making the head cheese and puddings.

We started at 5:45 (and cold! -8°C/ 17°F.) We met my father-in-law at the pig farm to purchase a 160 kilo (350 lb) pig. There were two other families buying a pig that morning. One family killed it there at the farm, which is not common. We brought it back to the house using a cage borrowed from the village, which specifically offers it's residents use of such cages for zabijačka.

7:00 Pig was home and being put down. There is a strange and unique moment right before the actual death of the animal. The method used is simple and extremely humane. It was over very quickly using a type of gun which shoots a large metal spike into the brain. Despite this fairly mild process, many women typically still stay in the house for this (and during the hair removal) and prepare food for the day.

9:00 The body hair has been removed by covering the pig in a powdered resin and pouring hot water over it, which makes the hair stick together and ball up. Various scraping tools are then used to remove it from the root.

The head has been removed and organs are being taken out and brought to the cellar. The blood was kept and is placed on the seat of the tractor, which was frozen overnight and seems like the best place to keep it cool for later use.

{2 rounds of slivovice (plum brandy), 1 of grog and a plate of sweets so far}

10:00 Liver has finished boiling, and brains have been scrambled with eggs. Time for brekkie. The eggs/brains are spread on toast and eaten with coffee and more slivovice (there were also muffins there for those not feeling up to pig products so early in the day.)

The stomach was brought into the kitchen to be repeatedly boiled/emptied for cleaning, and the diaphragm was being divided up between my mother-in-law and her sister. It's good for making meatloaf (sekaná), used as a netting to wrap around the meatloaf and hold everything in place.
It's 3°C / 37°F and the guys are in the cellar working on sorting, cleaning and other processing of the offal, preparing things for various meat delicacies. The meat is also being portioned up into various cuts.

11:00 I'd been spending time in the kitchen chatting with an auntie to avoid the fresh offal smell in the cellar. She is rendering some fat in the oven to bring forth some cracklings/pork rind.

12:00 Various offal have finished boiling in the big metal vat, and they're jumbled on the cellar table while we pick through the best of them for a light lunch. Liver, kidney, neck meat, snout, and tongue are all sliced up and eaten with bread, horseradish, apples, and mustard. Barley is soaking in preparation for the puddings. Soup and broth are being prepared with a few vegetables.
14:30 The meat has been cut up and laid out in the wine cellar. The head cheese (tlačenka, pictured on the left) has been made with the best organs and skin. The lesser pieces are for the black and white puddings (pictured below to the right.) The guts have been cleaned and are waiting for the filling to be ground up to make puddings. The fat is being melted down over a fire to make lard.

For more details on the making of these famed pork products - head cheese and black and white pudding - check out the last post here.

15:30 The puddings have both been made. White got a selection of offal, and black got a similar offal selection, as well as barley, blood, and a glass of red wine. The cracklings/pork rinds are just about finished. Time to clean up.

It was an early day. The hubs recalls zabijačkas  where there were even more people helping out, and still they were finishing well past dusk. However, he also recalls that a lot more slivovice was had during these days. I smell a slight correlation...

I hope this information might be as interesting to some as it is to me. I sincerely think it's amazing that this traditional pig-sticking is still able to go on as a small-scale family event. In times of (over) regulation due to food safety scares, it is refreshing that we are still able to go from pig to plate in our own backyards.

More info:
For the first half of the pig-sticking affair, see this post.
For more on the village, Němčičky, where it was held, see this post.
And for the pictures of the pig-sticking, check out the online album.
To see Anthony Bourdain's zabijačka experience, watch his No Reservations Prague episode:

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy
-- Jo

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Green Gnocchi for St. Patrick's Day

Looking forward to St. Patrick's day? 

Those of us without kiddies can throw back a few green pints in the local Immigrant pub (is it just me, or is every Irish-themed pub named either the Immigrant or the Emigrant?) while providing strangers a fairly convincing reason for kissing them via a simple slogan on a button or t-shirt.

Before I had ever heard of green beer, I knew green food. A famed snapshot stands out in my photo album of my mum's attempt at green dinner. A green and white checked table cloth covered the large table, and all us kids were wearing green. Salad, of course, is a gimme. Spinach pasta, steamed broccoli, and lime jello with kiwis rounded out the dinner that evening. It was certainly a hodgepodge of flavours, but we didn't care  - it was green.

This year we'll being sticking to green food (and maybe an Irish soda bread if time allows) since both the hubs and I have been hit with a nasty cold - no green beer this year. I decided to do a test run on a vegetarian green gnocchi dish. The tofu really soaked up the chili and citrus flavours, which were fantastic for our congested heads. I imagine it could go down equally well as a family dinner with a bit fewer chilies, although, I've really got no idea if kids like tofu.

Recipe: Spinach Gnocchi and Peas + Lemon Cream Sauce
Serves 4
Eat with Guinness

3 cloves garlic
4 small crushed red chilies
1 onion
1 firm block tofu
olive oil
2 cups peas

215ml heavy cream
zest and juice of 1 lemon

400g fresh spinach gnocchi
fresh parmesan shavings

Start the water boiling for the gnocchi. In a deep frying pan on low heat get the garlic, red chilies, onion and tofu cooking in a bit of oil. After 3 minutes, add the peas, cream and zest. Simmer for 5 minutes and toss the gnocchi in the boiling water (fresh ones should take 5 minutes or less to cook.) When the cream sauce gets a bit thick, add the lemon juice and simmer for another 2 minutes. Finally, drain and add the gnocchi to the sauce. Serve with parmesan shaved into thick curls and parsley.

To enhance flavour for carnivores, substitute the tofu for bacon! I would normally eat it this way, but with the zabijačka last weekend and a fridge stuffed with pork products (sans bacon) I couldn't bring myself to buy bacon.

Dobrou Chut' / Enjoy.
-- Jo

Monday, March 14, 2011

Czech Pig Butchering {Zabijačka} - Part I

Well, it happened, and I made it.

I made it through the long day required to completely butcher one pig. As I wrote here last week, I was really looking forward to learning about the process - start to finish. Not to spoil the story, but I think I'll start with the ending and give you the best of the finished products.

Zabijačka Product #1: Head Cheese {Tlačenka}

It is so very unfortunate that we have this word "head cheese" in English. It sounds terrible. And does anyone even know what it actually is? I never did. Maybe it was chopped up pig head mixed with cheese. Who knows. When I moved here, the hubs introduced me to one of his favourite foods - tlačenka. Little did I know this was head cheese. And I tried it. And I liked it. Until I found out what it was. Head cheese.

In order to get over this little glitch in my relationship with Czech beer food, I thought learning exactly how it's made would help. I greatly appreciate the concept of using the entire pig. Nothing goes to waste save for the feet. Head cheese is one of the better-quality products to come out of a pig-sticking (as compared to the lard and cracklings/pork rind, which I didn't find appealing enough to photograph.)

Tlačenka is made by combining the best pieces of the organs (pre-cooked during a long boil) and the skin so that it gels together nicely. It's stuffed into a long plastic tubular bag and kept cold. It's ready to slice and eat almost immediately. Best enjoyed on rye bread with mustard, onion and a wee splash of vinegar. And with beer, of course.

Zabijačka Product #2: Blood Pudding {Jelito and Jitrnice}

The puddings are another zabijačka specialty. Many Americans eventually learn that pudding is not just something sweet in a little plastic cup, but something to be wary of when travelling in the UK. Travel books urge us not to make the mistake of ordering white or black pudding and expecting whipped cream on the side. I'd had this while in Ireland, and on various English breakfast platters, so I was fairly prepared to encounter it here. 
The difference between the puddings and the head cheese is the quality of the fillings. I was told that the puddings are made with lesser quality organ pieces. This doesn't necessarily mean it's considered a lesser quality product. Actually, it seems more enjoyed than the tlačenka. But because the puddings are made with pre-cooked meat and then afterwords baked, fried, or roasted, the flavour is so enhanced that the highest quality organ pieces are not absolutely necessary. Whereas they are necessary in tlačenka, which is not cooked after it's made. It's like the difference between sushi-grade fish and some other really fantastically cooked fish. Different strokes for different folks.

White pudding primarily contains a selection of organs, and garlic (really though, all these products contain heaps of garlic.) Black pudding contains less organs, but also the blood, barley, and - the family secret - a glass of red wine. To eat, it's cooked, sliced, and topped on rye bread with onion and possibly vinegar. And, or course, beer.
After seeing every step of the zabijačka (details here!) was I more inclined to rekindle my physical taste for such things? To be honest, not really. 

It's interesting, fascinating even, and honorably practical to still be making such products at home. But I just don't like the taste. Childish? Girly? Maybe. I wish I did like it, and maybe in the future I will. At the moment, I am content to promote such endeavors by allowing a good part of my refrigerator to house packages upon packages of zabijačka products for my hubs to slowly savour over the coming weeks. Yes, I am content with that. 

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Recipe: Czech Carnival Cookies {Boží Milosti na Masopust}

Spending the weekend in the village has resulted in a slew of photos to sort through. Pig-sticking images and stories will be up in the next few days! In the meantime, I'd like to share with you a treat my mother-in-law made the following morning.

We, or at least I, woke up late after enjoying a masquerade ball the previous evening. On the table lay a stack of fresh pastries. I asked the name of these delights which I've never seen in any bakery, and my brother-in-law giggled and replied 'God's Amnesties.' They'd never really thought about the unusual name until I asked for the translation. After some googling, I've also seen them called 'God's Grace', but in Czech, it's Boží Milosti.
They are not found in bakeries because they are a special treat only during Masopust, the time of year before Lent. The term Masopust literally translates to 'Meat Fasting', which seems a bit odd to me. I mean, why not call it Předmasopust (Before Meat Fasting) since it more accurately describes the prevalence of pig-sticking (zabijačka), and therefor pork-eating, events found during these few pre-Lenten weeks. More on the Czech carnival season here at the Czechmate Diary blog.

Both Boží Milosti and Koblihy (doughnuts) are typical treats during this pre-Lenten season. Another recipe was posted on a Czech blog (although, only in Czech language) and she's got the doughnuts up as well.

Unlike many other fried dough treats, these are so light that I couldn't believe they had ever been swimming in oil. That was the first thought that flew out of my mouth post-swallow. My mother-in-law chalked this up to the absence of fat within the dough. The dough just absorbed the oil it was fried in and so none stuck on the outside. I like the logic.

They look like they'd be crispy little critters, but in fact they are more like soft and pie-crustesque pillows with a muted sweetness to them. I easily gobbled them up over my late morning tea like nothing, which always pleases a Czech (or really any other) mother-in-law.

Continue for Recipe...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Village (& the Good News)


Today has been a good day.

It's been a typically busy week with work, add in the usual pile of end-of-the-month administration, an unexpected visit to the doctor, and an unpleasant altercation with someone near and dear, and it could have been one crappy week. The first rescue, however, was my dad's Christmas fudge brought out from the freezer. That came out a few days ago, and has been thoroughly polished off by now.

The second rescue comes with my weekend plans, which I'm really looking forward to. The hubs and I are heading off to participate in one heck of a relic from the past - the zabijačka, a good ol' DIY pig sticking. To get you in the mood for what awaits me at my in-laws this Saturday, check out this video I found. It neutralizes the gory stuff with some seriously peppy music.

Saturday morning we'll be getting up bright and early to catch the beginnings of the pig affair (I don't know why, but I've never really taken to that 'sticking' phrase, so affair it is.) One of the joys of living in the Czech Republic is getting to know the culture of village life. There are so many great stories from hubs' childhood in Němčičky, as well as stories we've created together during weekend visits.

Like the time one of the main streets collapsed in the middle of the night and made a big hole which beckoned a good part of the 600-odd residents to gather round it for most of the daylight hours. Or the early morning wake-up calls, when the loudspeakers on the street corners crackle to life with a nice polka and details the village news, including whether the truck selling chicken will be by today, and if so, how much korun you might need to part with to get some of it's fresh offerings. Or just the myriad of village celebrations which compel most of the girls, and a surprising number of the men-folk, to put on their finest traditional garb and ceremoniously dance the afternoon away.

The village is actually quite well-known. It has one of the few ski hills in the south of the country - traditionally a hilly winemaking region. As well as boasting one of the finest swimming pools and sporting areas around, it recently set up a bobsled run (which basically is used as a roller coaster.) Not bad at all for a place so small some maps don't even recognize it. So I'm not sure how the van-fulls of Germans (and/or Austrians) found it one summer to attend an international qualifying match for a downhill inline skating race. The village ended up hosting it due to it's one really long and steep road, along which the entire village is built.

To give you a small slice of village life, and the last zabijačka I attended, I put up a few more photos in the online web album here (caution, there are a few pictures of the butchering process.)

Last but certainly not least, the final rescue this week came this morning in the form of a bit of a blog-ego boost. I found out a photo from my chili post won the Originality category for last month's DMBLGIT photography event. I was pretty shocked, and am quite honoured, since I've been trying my hand at this for only a couple of months. Check out some of the photos from this event, some of them absolutely ooze eatability!

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy!

And 'pig affair' pictures will be up soon!

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