Saturday, May 28, 2011

Grilled Chicken and Mango Salad

If I were to make a top-ten list of things I miss about the living in the States, the availability of cilantro would most certainly be on it. This much-adored herb has yet to break into the Czech foodscape, and is relegated to Vietnamese shops and sometimes sold in pots in herb sections of the grocery stores. So last year I started growing my own. Sometimes from little potted plants, sometimes from seed, but always with fairly good results.

As long as the pot is deep enough for the long 'tap root' it is said to have, one shouldn't have any problems. I keep popping in a few more seeds every few weeks to keep up the rotation in a few pots to give me a constant supply all summer long. Which means, for this months' Forever Nigella challenge Salad Days, hosted by Belleau Kitchen,  I could easily throw together her Chicken, Mango and Chilli Salad

This salad is so quick and easy to assemble, and is satisfyingly healthy to boot.

Both groundnut (peanut) and sesame oils are called for, but I omitted the peanut oil and used just a wee bit of sesame oil, and it was just the right touch. Also, the recipe states that it serves 2-3, but I easily gobbled it all up on my own for a nice big filling dinner after a long day. I didn't have leftover chicken to make it with (as the recipe calls for), but rather threw a piece on a little grill machine for 20 minutes while prepping (and photographing) the salad bits. The result: crisp, bright and tangy, with a bit of spice. Lovely.

Can't wait to be inspired by the other salads in this month's round!

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chickpea-Quinoa Stuffed Round Zucchini

A hidden surprise is always appreciated in the face of disappointment. This was the case during the last trip to the farmers market, where I anxiously hoped for more ramps. It had already become too hot for them during the last week, so no ramps were to be found. What was there, however, were these cute little Italian round zucchinis! I took one look at them and knew they were meant to be used as little bowls, stuffed with some savoury mix.

Many, many, many years ago, when I was devouring a lot of vegetarian books at the library when I was a teenager, I made these things called 'zucchini boats' at the family grill-out. It was with traditionally shaped ones, but they were stuffed with cumin-y chickpeas. It may have been the first time I had eaten chickpeas. Who knows. But I do know that zucchini and chickpeas left quite the impression. So this recipe easily came together. We might even say it was decade(s) in the making.

At the market: the Czech local veg trinity: celery root, carrots, and parsnips.

I wanted to show a few images from Brno's market. There's of course a lot of flowers this time of year, and some Czech produce (Slovak as well.) A lot of things are still coming from down South around the Mediterranean. I tend to easily justify buying from Italy, as it's only 400 miles away from us, so it's basically like eating California veg while in Cali (which is twice that distance at 840 miles long.) Heck, with that math I might start considering Spanish and Greek produce 'local' too.
In all seriousness though, I do try to stick to Czech produce as much as possible, and am impressed with the vendors here, as most of them label each product with country of origin.

Okay, before we get to that recipe, though, how about one gratuitous cute puppy shot? I was so proud of her first market visit. At 4 months she is still a little skittish around people (although not people with dogs, only ones without them. It's almost like she wonders why they think they're allowed to roam free without a dog guiding them.)

Note: More zucchini fun in July over at BestyLife's Seasonal Potluck!

Continue to Recipe...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Battle of the Asparagus: Green vs. White

The Set-up:
Looking forward to asparagus season every year is something I look forward to. Is that circular reasoning to say I look forward to the looking forward? It's true, though. When it finally hits whatever locality I'm in that year, there is no greater release than that first bundle of asparagus, proudly being carried home, and lightly sauteed in olive oil for it's first performance.

In the Czech Republic green asparagus is hard to come by. I have rarely, if ever, seen green Czech asparagus, rather it comes from Slovakia. Being ex-country-mates, Slovakian products don't even need the slightest justification to be considered local. But even Slovakian green stalks only make a limited appearance.

I have therefor acquiesced to eating white asparagus. Yet, something always tugs at me, thinking it's inferior. It's too big, too woody, too muted, too...whatever. I am just not as satisfied eating the white as I am it's green better half. So I decided on a taste test. Some Slovakian greens finally showed up at the market this week, giving me the chance to compare it to our Czech whites.

Let the Battle of the Asparagus begin!

The Preparation:
The bottom bits were snapped off at their natural breaking point. The whites, because they are naturally wider and and therefor a bit woodier, snapped further up on the stalk, giving a little less bang for the buck. I then peeled the whites with a vegetable peeler. I know that they tend to be rather stringy, so this is my usual tactic. Together they were tossed together in a pan, drizzled with a generous amount of olive oil, salt/peppered, and roasted for about 10 minutes.

The Verdict:
While the white variety definitely struggles with its much thicker nature, it still retains that delicate asparagus taste - especially at the tips. The biggest surprise though, and it wasn't until I was almost finished that I finally identified this, was that the white asparagus has a more buttery flavour. Really. Even though I used only olive oil, I could of sworn there was a few knobs of butter snuck in there. Not found with the green though.

The hefty girth of the white variety really plays with its texture. I've seen some at the farmers market this year which are so thick that only about ten of them are needed to make up a 500g bundle - peeling before cooking helps considerably. However, as it is said that white asparagus is more tender than its green counterpart, I found this to be true. At the middle of it's slightly stringy outside, it is meltingly soft and tender. At least, it is on the top half of the stalk. The bottom is definitely crispy. If you're not afraid (or too cheap) to break off a big part of the ends before cooking, you shouldn't have a problem with overt woodiness.

All in all, the taste test has buoyed my outlook a bit. As I normally buy the white variety due to it's Czech home-grown nature, I tend to still yearn for the green. I am by nature a person who is rarely satisfied with what's on her plate right in front of her. I struggle with this greatly. So the next time I am picking at my side of white asparagus and tempted to think "it's just not asparagus-y enough. I with I had the green..." I'll remember this experience and know that both white and green are truly even matched in their asparagusness, and truth be told, I really do prefer the texture of the white (so long as they are not bigger than my thumb.)

I wish everything were as simple as setting up a Battle of... test to realize the value of what one has.

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo.

Asparagus & Eggs

Local asparagus has finally arrived in Czech Republic. After eyeing up so many lovely blog posts featuring the brilliant green vegetable all crispy and tangy, I needn't lust any longer.

Later this week today we will have a taste test of green and white asparagus varieties. (You can check that out here.) But for now, let me tempt any of those still patiently waiting for their local season to arrive with my breakfast - asparagus and eggs with parmesan. The classic. I can't resist this flavour punch - nor the cute as all heck little quail eggs that I picked up recently.

Continue to Recipe... 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nigella's Crispy Duck

Just in case any readers are the type who bore easily, let me share a fantastic way to spice up that ol' weekend roast chicken - a crispy Chinese flavoured duck, à la Nigella Lawson.

Now, it does call for Chinese pancakes, which I would love to try to make during a week with slightly less craze, however we subbed in the old tortilla standby.

(If you'd like to try your hand at them, though, I liked this run through of the Chinese pancake process on the BBC Good Food page.)

We also spiced up the duck itself a bit before roasting it with some soy sauce and Chinese 5-spice powder. With the freshest, localist cuke and spring onions atop, along with a good dollop of hoisin sauce - duckilicious.

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mushroom Spinach Tortellini

Mushroom picking is often touted as the Czech national pastime (this is of course after hockey, which we don't exactly want to talk about after their devestating loss against Sweden this afternoon.)

While it is true that most Czechs I know have, at one time or another, picked mushrooms, the activity is somewhat falling out of favour. Few young adults have the drive to rise at 6 AM on the weekend to get out there and compete with the scads of retirees who seem to keep breathing only for the purpose of those mushrooms. Does that sound cruel? It wouldn't if you were a member of the 'young adult' group heading to the farmers market at 9 AM on the tram surrounded by little old ladies clutching full baskets of fungi eyeing up everyone who looks as if they've just crawled out of bed with a barely contained smirk.

Yes, they are a proud group these early mushroom gatherers. And for that reason I feel just fine shelling out my hard-earned korun for a few hundred grams of gorgeous fungi from a little old man in a sweater vest.

Please note that while I do have the tendency to over-romanticize things (especially old men at the market) I am not in this case, as the guy who was selling the best mushrooms was really wearing a sweater vest atop an old plaid button down. Is it patronizing to say I wanted to fold him up and tuck him in my pocket?

At any rate, his charm certainly worked on me, as I also succumbed to some type of heritage garlic that had peelings of a dark fuchsia hue. I've always passed up heritage garlic before, wondering how garlic could actually be any better.

I was foolish.

I know this now.

Heritage garlic rocks my world. It's a bit of a pain to peel, to be honest. And when chopping, it seems crunchier and waterier, almost like a water chestnut. But my hubs described the flavours perfectly when he said it was like a young, pure garlic. Not as strong as traditional garlic, but more garlic flavour. If that makes any sense to you. It did to me while we were gobbling up a quick post-market dish I threw together with store-bought tortellini that needed eating.

We had also grabbed a few bunches of spinach. So looking at the mushrooms, spinach, and garlic, it seemed an easy pair with the fresh pasta. Now, it must be said that we used oyster mushrooms, which I know are usually paired with more Asian-esque flavours. However, since everything was so absolutely fresh it worked just lovely as an Italian-inspired dish.

Any mushrooms will do here, cremini, portebello, porcini, or a mix of those. We had some porcini oil waiting to be opened that added to the depth of flavour. I really do recommend a fantastic mushroom (truffle, porcini, or other) infused oil for drizzling over before serving. It may be a bit pricey, but a small bottle will last you quite awhile and imparts a good hit of flavour.

Continue to Recipe...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lavender Custard Tart

It all started during the Easter market a few weeks past. A stand with lavender-based products was also selling bunches of dried lavender.

I was feeling the spring in the air and had a strange desire to buy a bunch of flowers. Now, some may question why this desire is strange, so I must reveal that I consider myself to be an anti-cut-flower kind of girl. They die. They belong outside anyways, what are they doing in a vase on the table with a greatly reduced life-span than they would outside? I don't know, it's a practical thing I suppose.

On the other hand, flowering plants and herbs offer one's dwelling both a bit of living greenery AND their more practical nature. Most herbs surprisingly do just fine tended by my thumb, which, sadly, only has a hint of a green hue to it. More like a green desire really than any deeply saturated green-coloured knack.

Lavender is the one plant for which I deeply yearn for a garden. Fresh veg I can get a good variety of at the market, herbs are on the windowsill. Lavender I hear, however, has a deep-root growing requirement that would make me have to convert a big barrel of a garbage pail to grow one plant. And who wants lavender growing from a garbage pail?

A dried cluster of fragile lavender buds peeking over their brown paper wrapping, however, offers me both the fulfilled feeling of being a girl strolling around the central market holding a bunch of flowers AND that practical value. You see, I've been yearning to cook with lavender. I had a nice little chat in Czech with the man tending the stall who (I think) assured me that it was food safe, without nasty sprays and so on.

I thought a lot about what the first lavender infused dish will be and decided on following a recipe I found for a Lavender-Scented Custard Tart.

It was created by Marcus Wareing, the British chef who made this for the Queen's 80th Birthday. Yep, the Queen. He made dessert for the the Queen's birthday. One doesn't mess around with a recipe like that. I kept it exactly as is. And you know what? I can see it being absolutely adored by anyone, royalty or non-royalty.

The lavender steeps in the cream overnight (or in my case, two nights.) His recipe calls for fresh lavender, but I just doubled up on the dried lavender and it imparted a subtle but noticeable flavour. The custard was sooo smooth and the pastry crust was crispy, crumbly, and lemony. It's only a pity that I made this with significant doubt of my custard tart abilities and thus didn't plan on sharing with anyone. Or maybe that wasn't such a pity after all. Yum!

For the recipe, please see the write-up in The Times

(Edited Note: I tried to make it again, and to my dismay, one now needs to be a subscriber of the The Times to access the recipe. A little googling resulted in a repost of it on Nigella's site)

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fennel Orange Salad and Smoked Paprika Pork {Spanish Řízek}

Living in the Czech Republic continuously influences my food choices - even when I'm not looking to eat typical Czech cuisine. In the past, when a big beautiful bulb of fennel was spotted at the market, I would think about an equally big, beautiful fennel and orange salad. Maybe with walnuts. Or with grapefruit segments. But definitely I thought in terms of salads.

Now, I see fennel and it screams: PORK! Fennel and pork, fennel and pork, oh boy, oh boy.

I gasped. I composed myself. 'How about a compromise?' said one little part of the mind to the other little part of the mind.

It didn't turn into a terribly innovative dinner, rather classic really, but it does fit the eating styles of one healthy-leaning lady and one full-on Czech bloke.

The reigning popularity of Czech cuisine in the Czech Republic continues to amaze me. Young and old alike seek the classics developed decades upon decades ago. One of these is řizek (wiener schnitzel.) Think chicken fried steak, or a giant chicken nugget if you like, but instead of chicken stick in the middle a piece a beaten, flattened pork. You can eat it alone with mashed potatoes, or between two slices of dark semi-rye bread as a sandie (it's the most popular snack to bring in the car for long-distance travel. Maybe I'll tell you about that Czech bus trip to Italy some time. Here's a hint: nearly 100 řízek sandwiches in a bus for 15 hours. Awesome.)
I mention řízek to explain why I tell the hubs this dish is a Spanish řízek. Basically, it's your average breaded and fried piece of pork found in Central Europe, except with a good dose of smoked paprika (pimentón) and baked, not fried. The pork fennel relationship is satisfied by the addition of the salad, which really balances out the meal on it's own. This duo is satisfies multiple locales on the tongue extremely well.

Continue to Recipe...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grilled Eggplant & Minty Feta Roll-Ups


Who doesn't work too much, raise their hand.

If your hand is up, I'm looking at you with googly-jealous eyes. If not, let's not start that ol' who works more and harder routine. No one ever wins.

I'm a teacher. Not a school teacher, but an English-as-a-second-language teacher. As such, I still follow those school-year rhythms. This time of year I'm frazzled and longing for summer. Aren't we all?

Sometimes I pretend I have the luxury of scads of time on my hands. I wander around the farmer's market two times. First, to see which veg are looking sweet that morning, to get a feel for the prices, and to see who looks like a friendly farmer. Second, to seal the deal on some fennel, assorted lettuces, a new potted herb (and maybe some strawberries from god-knows-where if I'm feeling like a naughty locavore.) I've done this many a recent Saturday, all the while pretending my weekend clock isn't loudly ticking away.

Since eggplant isn't really a Czech veg, the guy holding down the stall revealed they were from Italy. Well, buying from Italy when in Czech Republic is like buying from Florida when in South Carolina. In other non-geographical words, it's not so far. 

Fits in perfectly (and in my usual time-crunch style) with the Fourth Forever Nigella blogging challenge: Street Party. This month it's being hosted by Mardi at I'm looking forward to scouting out some new finger food recipes when the posts are all up. For this one, I chose a recipe from Nigella's website, so not sure which book it's from: Griddled Aubergines with Feta, Mint, and Chili. I had to tweak it a bit to accommodate my skinny eggplants/aubergines, which wouldn't roll up very nicely.

The biggest change made was adding strips of tortillas to the line-up (also added in kalamata olives.) The tortillas helped stabilize the form quite well, and hubs (who is partial to carbs as a general rule) said he wouldn't have liked it as much without the tortilla - too much flavour. I then reminded him they are meant to be an appetizer, not a dinner as we made them into. As an appetizer they would be great as originally written. As a light meal, the tortilla rounds them out a bit.

Continue to Recipe...
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