Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Czech Republic

With a belly full of Doro Wat from the start of my culinary journey, I turned my focus to my next destination.  I gave it a lot of thought and decided upon a country that has a lot of importance to me personally.  The country is the Czech Republic.  The importance stems from two things.  First, my relatives on my Dad's side come from Moravia, which is the southern part of the country.  Second, I spent a semester during college studying abroad in the capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague. 

I have a lot of fond memories of the time I spent wandering the streets of the various neighborhoods of a city that is basically one big art museum.  From Hradcany to Mala Strana, from Nove Mesto to Vysehrad, I spent a lot of time taking in the city, stepping into restaurants to get a bite to eat or a pint of very good beer.  Admittedly, I ate at Americanized places (like McDonalds and Little Caesars), but I treasured the times that I was able to eat true Czech food, they way it was supposed to be.  And, of course, I also loved being able to eat that food with good Czech beer, whether it was Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Budvar, Staropramen, or Velke Popovicky.

If there were "pillars" of Czech cuisine, there would be three.  The first "pillar" is meat.  Czech food is not very vegetarian friendly, because most Czech dishes feature a type of meat, whether it is pork, beef, venison or game. The second "pillar" is the dumpling.  Meals often include dumplings, either bread or potato.  The dumplings are actually a very good side, because they are perfect for absorbing the sauces or gravies that are served with the meat.  The third "pillar" is beer.  All dishes come with  -- and some are made with -- Czech beer and Czech brewers make perhaps the best pilsners in the world.

THE MAIN DISH

For my culinary challenge, I decided to make what many call the quintessential Czech dish, Veprove Pecene s Houskove Knedlicky, or Roast Pork with Bread Dumplings.  I reviewed several recipes for this dish and worked off a couple when I made it.  The recipes universally low balled cooking times, which made this dish a little hard to make.  The cooking times for the roast pork, which was roasted at 325 degrees, was really off, short by about a half hour.  The cooking time for the dumplings was also off, as the dumplings could have cooked for a little longer than called for in the recipe.

I also added a little twist of my own to this recipe.  I added a cup of water to the pan after the pork cooked in order to create more of the sauce.  I also added chanterelle mushrooms.  Mushrooms are popular in Czech cuisine and I thought it would be a good addition to the dish.  Overall, despite the difficulties in managing the cooking times, I would say that this dish was a success. 



VEPROVA PECENE (Roast Pork)
Serves 2-3

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of prepared mustard
2 tablespoons of caraway seeds
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon of ground black pepper
1 pound of pork roast
1 medium onion chopped
1/2 cup of beer (I used Pilsner Urquell)
1 tablespoon of corn starch
2 tablespoons of butter
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
8 ounces of chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup of water

Directions

1.  Marinate the pork.  Mix the vegetable oil, mustard, caraway seeds, garlic powder, salt and ground pepper together.  Rub the paste over all of the pork loin roast.  Let the roast sit for 30 to 45 minutes.

2.  Cook the pork.  Heat the oven to 325 F.  Lay onions on the bottom of the roasting pan, pour in the beer and place the roast at the center.  Add the garlic cloves.  The recipes I looked at said that, for a pork loin of one pound, it should take 30-35 minutes.  However, 325 degrees is fairly low and their estimates low balled the timing.  Expect it to be more like an hour.  Baste occasionally.  Also add more beer or water to increase the basting liquid if needed.  Remove the roast and let it rest. 

3.  Prepare the sauce.  Add the water, butter and corn starch.  Stir these ingredients and then add the chanterelle mushrooms,  Stir and simmer until it thickens.

For Service:

For this dish, it is customary to serve it with bread dumplings and sauerkraut.  I was never a big fan of sauerkraut, so I decided to forgo that side.  However, I was intrigued with making bread dumplings and, quite frankly, a little nervous.  I was afraid that I would not be able to make the dish correctly.  My dumplings turned out a little heavy, probably from the use of too much bread.  The recipe called for 4 to 5 slices diced.  I did 5 slices, but 4 slices would probably have been better.  

THE SIDE DISH


HOUSKOVE KNEDLICKY (Bread Dumplings)
Serves 2-3

Ingredients:

1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
4 slices of white bread, remove crusts and cube

Directions:
1.  Combine the ingredients.  Combine beaten egg, milk, flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl.  Add bread cubes and mix very well until it is incorporated into the batter.

2.  Make the dumplings.  Wet your hands and form 2 small balls from the dough.

3.  Boil the dumplings.  Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Cook the balls for ten minutes, rolling them occasionally to ensure that all sides are being cooked. Cook for an additional ten minutes (or more).

4.  Plate the dumplings. Remove immediately from the water and cut in half.  Then slice into 1/2 inch slices.  To slice the dumplings, you should use a piece of string rather than a knife, which tends to compress the dumpling when being sliced.  Because the timing was off, my dumplings came out a little thicker than intended and a knife worked okay.  That is no endorsement of using knives to slice dumplings.


In the end, my "trip" through Czech cuisine was a great one. I still need to work on these recipes and I definitely intend to try them again, along with other Czech dishes.  The Czech Republic was definitely an ideal stop after Ethiopia because it provided a great contrast in cuisines.  I always thought I was a "spice" cook, someone who loved to add a wide array of spices to achieve new and interesting flavors.  However, Czech cuisine does not rely upon a lot of spice, and, yet, cooks can still produce very delicious dishes.  I have definitely learned something from this cooking experience.

Till next time...

ENJOY!

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