Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Czech Republic

Prague (Day 2)
Photo courtesy of --Tico-- on Flick
History: After much expanding and collapsing, underwent the "velvet divorce" in 1993, splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Location: Central Europe
Area: Almost 80,000 sq km; 116th largest in the world.  Slightly smaller than South Carolina
BordersAustria, Germany, Poland, Slovakia
Geography: Landlocked
Nationality: Czech
Population: Over 10 million; 84th largest in the world
Capital: Prague
Source: CIA Factbook

And you thought CY would end the C countries.

The Czech Republic is exciting in that the country as it exists today was formed in my lifetime.  Also, because I have heard some interesting stories from Prague.  For the sake of those involved, I won't go into them here.  Just learn from their lesson: don't go onstage in a foreign country.

I found a recipe that I was pretty excited about, because it was "the dish" to make almost everywhere I read about Czech food.  Mmm, Czech Roast Pork with Dumplings and Sauerkraut.  Except the sauerkraut part.  That I would skip.  I bought all of the ingredients.  And then I waited for a good day.  And waited.  And waited.  After about three weeks I realized I was not going to get a day where I could devote 5-6 hours to cooking anytime soon.  Just not happening.  I had to come up with a new plan.

Enter this Goulash recipe (about halfway down the page).  Typically, I think of goulash as a Hungarian food, but I was assured it could be Czech as well.  I remembered really liking the goulash they served us in my grade school cafeteria.  Yeah, I was a little weird for a 2nd grader.  But this was a recipe I could make on a weeknight!

Step one: chop everything except the tomatoes and pepper.  I halved the recipe, because I am tired of wasting food when the recipe doesn't quite turn out correctly.
When I can, I keep pre-chopped onions in my freezer.  Awesome, especially if you remember to defrost them first...
I did add the optional caraway seeds, because seasoning and spices are always good, right?  Plus, this was very similar to the start of the delicious Austrian potato recipe.

Notice the "optional" beer in the recipe.  Is beer ever optional?  Kevin's homebrewing hobby has expanded recently, so we now have this:
That, if you can't tell from the not-so-great picture, is a kegerator.  Two taps!  At this time we had one commercial keg (Longboard Lager from the Kona Brewing Company) and a hoppy Red that Kevin made.  I went with the Red for the recipe because it would allow it to be more flavorful.
See what you are missing by not visiting us?
Stir this all together with some tomato paste and you end up with a kinda soupy mix that simmers for about 45 minutes.
Kevin took this time to read about installing the car seats.  This was good, because it meant we could take the extra base off of counter, because Tesla had tried to take up permanent residence there despite not being allowed.

After his perch was taken away, Tesla went to watch Mythbusters with Kevin.
I decided to be proactive and get everything else ready for the recipe.  I even measured out the flour and had it all ready to go.  Maybe I am actually learning a thing or two.
We didn't have a green pepper, so I went with red.
Done simmering...let's add everything else in!  I thought it was a little odd that the pepper and tomato didn't get cooked at all, but went with it.

The flour thickened up the mixture much more than I had expected.  It became more like a paste than a soup.
Growing up, the goulash I remembered was served with noodles, but I don't know how authentic that was.  When I have had it at restaurants since then, it is much more soupy.  I'm not sure if these are regional differences, or just different ways to interpret the same dish.
I promise our place isn't always this messy.
Personally, I think this dish was a moderate success.  Not bad, but not my favorite.  To my taste, though, one easy change would have been to cook the tomatoes for even five minutes.  I have never been a fan of raw tomatoes, but I love them in almost every other form (sauce, ketchup, soup, etc).  Just that little change would have taken this to the next level.

Kevin said that he liked it, and that the leftovers were even better.  He did say, though, that this may have been because reheating it cooked the veggies just enough to make a difference.  So take this as you will.  It may not be authentic, but I would recommend leaving it on the heat just a bit longer if you are going to try this one on your own.

And with this, we come to the end of the C's.  Most excitingly, there are fewer D countries than any of the other letters we have done so far, so maybe I'll get through them in a reasonable time.  Maybe.

Next time: Denmark

Thursday, May 10, 2012


History: Gained independence from Britain in 1960.  Continued division between the Greek Cypriot areas and the Turkish Cypriot areas.
Capital: Nicosia
Location: Island in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Turkey
Area: Little over 9250 sq km; 171st largest in the world (Note: these rankings go up to 251 because they include autonomous regions like Bermuda)
         About 60% the size of Connecticut
Highest point: Mount Olympus
Geography: Third-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea
Nationality: Cypriot
Ethnic Groups: 77% Greek, 18% Turkish, 5% Other
Population: Over 1.1 million; 160th largest in the world
Government: Greek Cypriots control the only internationally recognized government; There is a Turkish Cypriot president and a "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" that is only recognized by Turkey
Source: CIA Factbook

As another note, Cyprus is considered to be in Asia, not Europe.  I had always assumed it the other way, probably because of the heavy Greek influence.

Reading about the history and government of Cyprus was like "A Tale of Two Islands."  It is interesting how such a relatively small island can cause so much pain and strife.  In fact, in the 1960's, violence broke out between the two sides that required UN peacekeeping troops to come in and try to keep it in check.  In the 1970's, the Greek government sponsored an attempt to seize control of the whole island.  This was met with intervention from Turkey.  That would be one, two, three countries involved.  Talks of reunification between the leaders of the two communities did not begin until 2008. (CIA Factbook)

Luckily, this turmoil did not come out in my search for a recipe.  There seemed to be little question on the types of food I should be making.

Souvla is definitively from Cyprus.  Similar to "souvlaki" from Greece, it is grilled, seasoned pork.  However, it is distinctively its own dish.  Many of the recipes required equipment I didn't have (like a spit), but I finally found one that was workable.  And, to top it off, I found a recipe for a cheese pastry called Flaounes.  I was planning on cooking Cyprus the week before Easter, and these are supposed to be an Easter treat, so I thought it was fitting.

The ingredients for the souvla were easy to find, except getting Greek oregano specifically.  Most spice packages didn't differentiate.  None of them ever said "Greek" or "rigani," so I went with the closest I could find.
In terms of prep, the hardest part was cutting up the meat into appropriately-sized pieces.  It was a little bit tough to work with.
For the marinade I used red wine, not red wine vinegar.  It didn't quite get to sit for two hours, but it still had plenty of time to soak up the flavors.
Oregano, red wine, sea salt, pepper, and olive oil.
That was really all that was needed for the souvla until cooking, so then I got a chance to work with the flaounes.  I knew they wouldn't be ready in time (Kevin had a soccer game), so I decided that would have to do for an after-dinner snack.

The work to create this dough wasn't very difficult either.  Very similar to pizza dough.  I decided to halve the recipe, but I know that doing it with yeast doesn't always work out cleanly.  Therefore, I still made all of the dough but only used half of it.  Maybe I can use the other half for some garlic bread or something.

Set down on the oven to rise.
Cyprus involved a lot of letting things sit.  Luckily, we were able to be productive in some of that time.
Not having to do dishes = wonderful.
Unfortunately, the ingredients for the flaounes were not as easy to come by as for the souvla.  I could not find either of the cheese it recommended: flaouna and halloumi.  The recipe says you can use cheddar for the first, and the internet told me to use feta for the second.  I realize this makes it a lot less fun, new, and authentic.  Believe me, I searched that cheese fridge multiple times for the right things.

In order to have the souvla done in time, at this point we took a break from other endeavors and skewered the meat.  We couldn't find the recommended size, so we ended up with a large number of smaller skewers. The meat was fatty enough that some of them were quite tricky.
I sent Kevin out to do the manly grilling while I staying in and worked on the flaounes.  He had to use the apartment's charcoal grill because we can't have one on our balcony.  Luckily, the meat smelled pretty good so we were hoping it was worth the trip.

My next step was to mix all of the fillings together into a "stiffish paste."  I wasn't worried about it being too runny like the recipe warns.  I'm guessing the other cheeses would have made that more likely.

And...ta-da!  The dough has risen.  That is ALWAYS a good sign.  At least, when the dough is supposed to rise.
Kevin was back with the meat, though, so first it was time to take a break to eat that.  I forgot to get pictures of the actual "meal" part.

When that was done, I continued to work on the flaounes.  The dough was relatively easy to work with.  I also decided to go with three-pointed pastries since that makes more sense for Easter.  I wasn't sure how closed-up the pastries were supposed to be, so you'll see some variety.

Kevin's response to the souvla: "Once we get a grill, we should make this a part of our regular rotation."  Yeah, it was really good.  The meat was rich and flavorful.  It was fairly easy to make and also easy to eat.  A great combination over all.  If I had one complaint it would be that it was a bit salty.  Easily fixed and not the worst thing in the world.  My piece of advice: go out and make this.  Right now.

When I went to try a cheese pastry I couldn't eat more than a bite because I was already overloaded on salt.  I sent one with Kevin for lunch and he said it was good.  I thought they were decent, but I although think they would have been better fresh from the oven.  And with the right kind of cheese.  I'm not sure I can truly make a judgement call because of all of the substitutions.  They were really pretty though, if I do say so myself.

I think the general idea would be fun to use, though.  Could you make pizza pockets like this?  Could you fill it with a bit of cream cheese and make them cinnamon flavored?  Other than the waiting, they weren't really that difficult.

Go!  Make the souvla!  Or, I suppose, if you're lucky, just go visit Cyprus.

Next time: Czech Republic