Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Heart Heart Food!

Last Saturday I turned 24 and I hosted a dinner for 12 of my precious girlfriends. It was the long Labor Day weekend which ended the summer (the school calendar that is), and with a new job and free time running out I couldn't’t possibly do this without offering my gals the comfort foods I’m most comfortable and happy to create. Being me I characteristically left everything (and I mean EVERYTHING from cleaning + grocery shopping + birthday dress picking + cooking) to literally minutes before this dinner, and I could not have EVER done this without my wonderful mom who jumps at any opportunity to cook a few of her indistinguishable meals! Here are a few of our Czech dishes that, to me and my loved ones, taste like home and are fast and easy and perfect for the arrival of fall and winter:

At the party, this one was my mom’s fabrication…for this you could use your favorite white fish as long as it is flaky enough…Boil water with salt, chop pieces of fish (cod, halibut, or tilapia but she used cod), “leave them to boil”
Meanwhile, in a separate frying pan, over some butter fry some finely chopped onions (white) and add (finely) chopped carrots, celery root and parsley root. Now you’re probably all wondering about the measurements and quantities…and I guess getting it to taste perfect every time is mastered over years of feeling these things out. Whether it’s an omelet or spaghetti, mothers especially are amazing at recognizing with their eyes and hands the absolute perfect proportions and priorities of the ingredients. Trust yourself and have fun! (sabrina's favorite way)

Claire: How long does this mixture in the pan heat for?
Mommy: “until it’s foamy”, simply. (lots of stirring required)
Next, add this mixture to the boiling water.
Claire: “and how long should it boil for?”
Mommy: “a while”
Clearly there’s something to be said about practice and intuition and everyone’s got it so add that as an ingredient!
Ok, anything left? YES! THE KEY ingredient! Ground Nutmeg….add as much as you think is important. Pepper is welcome and dried Marjoram too but Nutmeg is essential
Right before serving, remove soup from heat so that it is no longer boiling, grab a bowl and mix together one egg (full) and 35% cream. WHISK into soup.
Claire: “How much cream?”
Mommy: “Hard to say”
Claire: “so it can’t be boiling when you add the egg mix? What would happen?”
Mommy: “the egg will turn into chunks, the appearance has to be smooth and creamy. You can decorate it with fresh chopped parsley and serve. I forgot to do that”
It was perfect mummy, thank you

Now for the infamous potato salad that has appeared at every single Ponka dinner (ever), including every Christmas my whole entire life, and, as Kristina’s tastebuds joyfully recalled, at every one of my birthdays as I turned 5-6-7-8 […] years old! Not only does it have a very rich flavor, the exact taste is also magically always reproduced. This type of salad is found wherever there are potatoes, but check out the Czech way:

photo by Laura-Alexandra Vrabie

Boil “some” potatoes in their peels until they are cooked, and peel them. Leave them to cool.
In a pan on the side, fry an entire very finely chopped white onion (to my mom this would be for about 10 potatoes and to me for about 5 or 6...I LOOOVE ONIONS!) in some olive oil until it is “cooked” (the vagueness comes with practice). Add a good three tablespoons of white vinegar (and lemon if you like) so that the onions are transparent; this becomes the “dressing” that has to be cooled down.
Back to the COOLED potatoes: cut them into tiny cubes (1x1 cm) and put them in a bowl. The rest is your imagination! From my experience I have seen and made potato salads with anything from chopped ham, apples, and green peas!

Saturday’s additions were:

-5 chopped hard boiled eggs
-One peeled and grated apple
-Boiled carrots, celery root, parsley root (remember to always finely cut!)
-chopped pickles
-salt and pepper

When you’ve added and combined all these ingredients to your liking, stir-in the cooled onion dressing (which by the way also works nicely if you replace the vinegar with pickle juice) and then finish with however much mayonnaise you can handle! Of course, at this point everything is supposed to be cold and that also goes for the cutting of boiled ingredients as they would crumble if still warm!

Chicken Kiev

This is a very simple dish and if, throughout all its stages of preparation and cooking could be kept neat, it could actually be very cute and esthetically pleasing at a dinner party (as it is comes in a wrap-like form to reveal its ingredients in a swirly shape).

Take a chicken breast and wash it. Yes, I have always washed my chicken and from what I’ve noticed it seems that only Eastern Europeans do this. Or maybe it’s just me and Renata. Then manipulate it to try to get it as spread out and thin as you can, using a chicken beater hammer thingy (mine has vicious spikes) and a knife. The thinness is key as it will become a thick roll, so you have to let as much heat from the pan through to the center as possible!
Add salt to both sides of the flattened chicken and a bit of pepper if you like.
Spread Dijon on the surface and top first with swiss cheese and then ham keeping these ingredients flat. ((Sweet) pickle wedges are an idea too!)

Then you’ll need three bowls: 1) flour 2) egg 3) bread crumbs (keeping this order in mind)
Then just grab one end of the chicken and tightly roll it onto itself. You’re going to need some fastening instruments, I either use toothpicks (which is what I used Saturday) but honestly I prefer string because it does a better job and nothing protrudes. Fasten roll tightly.
Dunk the entire roll first into the flour, then the egg and finally into the breadcrumbs (prefer using hardened baguette that is grated into a bowl), coating it completely with each. Last weekend I tried Kikkoman’s Panko crumbs and didn’t like it as much, it’s a little too flaky.
AND THEN it’s ready to be fried!! The surface should be golden and most of all it should be cooked to its center. Cut into little swirly circles and serve this wholesome hearty and super easy chicken recipe!

I think the trick to mastering any dish is practicing it often and, like with any craft, using mistakes to your advantage so that next time you can squash (no pun intended) and laugh at them before they may come up! Indulging in your imagination is fundamental but so is being responsible with it (considering taste combos and proportions); that’s where any dish is known to be your own. When it comes to cooking I personally think it’s important to focus on the preparation part (cutting and manipulating carefully, separating ingredients, considering needed textures, and the order and timing of effectuation)…is really just another way to be throwing in a little taste of love (sorry for the cheese) :) Thanks to my mom and wonderful friends for making my birthday the perfect night and inauguration of Fall! Love you!!



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