Rachael at Fresh Approach Cooking is currently running a showcase of really horrible food photographs from bloggers. She has used one I sent in (and it is truly horrible); please drop by and have a look. See the things I eat to keep you entertained?
Eggy from Greedy Goose has tagged me with another meme; this time, it’s the You are what you eat meme: My top ten favourite foods. This is something I’m quite experienced at; top ten foods was a favourite game of my Dad’s when I was little (but in our case we used to pretend we were selecting our last meal. Nothing concentrates the tastebuds like imminent death). So without further ado:
1. Siu Yuk – Chinese crispy roast pork belly. This is the stuff I used to save my pocket money up to eat in Chinatown restaurants when I was at school, all on my own with a book. Paradise. I swear my A-levels were 90% fat-fuelled.
2. Unagi sushi – fatty freshwater eel, grilled in a teriyaki sauce until crisp and melting, on sushi rice. The best I’ve ever had was, ludicrously enough, 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada at Samurai Restaurant in South Lake Tahoe. (I’ll be back in February; watch out for a review. Their oyster shooters, in a little shot glass with a raw quail egg, a little rice vinegar and some spring onion, are fresh and magnificent. They will also deep-fry the head of the delicate, sweet raw prawn that’s nestling on your sushi rice until the whole thing, eyes, antennae and all, is crispy and delicious. The likelihood is that the other people at your table will be too squeamish to eat theirs; this is all to your advantage. Dig in.)
3. Sauteed potatoes. Sauteed potatoes made by me, that is. They’ve got to be a floury King Edward, chopped into pieces the size of the top of your thumb, parboiled, then sauteed in very hot goose or duck fat. Once golden and crisp all over, stir in grated garlic and salt and keep stirring gently for two minutes until the garlic is cooked and aromatic, then throw in a handful of chopped herbs and eat immediately. Here are some nestling up with some boeuf en daube. Try not to dribble.
4. Oysters. Sweet, sweet little oysters, tasting of the sea and sucked straight from their shells. I discovered this year that when adding your squirt of lemon, your oyster will be further enhanced by the addition of a little wasabi, which somehow underlines the oyster’s natural sweetness.
5. Roast garlic, popped out of its skin and daubed on a crusty, warm bread.
6. Brioche, spread with a sweet butter and a tiny drizzle of strawberry jam. The brioche must be a good, plain one, full of rich egg yolks and without any vanilla flavouring.
7. Chicken choke – a Chinese chicken rice porridge. This is my favourite breakfast, sprinkled with cripsy fried shallots, slivers of fresh ginger, spring onions, a little sesame oil, some fish in black beans and soya sauce. Unfortunately I very seldom have it at home – but I eat it every day when we’re in Malaysia. The best I’ve ever had was at the Renaissance Hotel in Malacca (a hotel whose rooms could be in any commercial travellers’ hotel in the world, but where the breakfasts are unsurpassed). One bowl will set you up for the day; you won’t need to eat again until the evening.
8. Foie gras. The best I’ve ever had was a cold terrine with fig compote at La Truffiere, a Paris restaurant specialising in truffles. When Mr Weasel and I used to live in Paris, there was usually a mi-cuit foie gras in our fridge; it is astonishing how the ready availability of gloriously fattened liver sublimates the urge to cook for yourself. We lived on foie gras, onion marmalade, brioche and Sauternes. We became very fat and spotty.
9. Peking duck. Proper Peking duck, with a crisp skin served first, the meat kept in the kitchen. The skin is wrapped in egg crepes so thin you can see your hand through them, with a hoi-sin type sauce, cucumber and spring onions, like the crispy duck in Chinese restaurants in the UK. The meat is then served as part of your next course, in whatever style you ask for. The best Peking duck I’ve ever had has been at Lai Ching Yuen, the restaurant at the Regent Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Whenever in KL, we try to go to Lai Ching Yuen as often as possible; this became slightly embarrassing in the last week we spent in the city, where we found ourself in there twice in one day on the Tuesday, then twice again on the Thursday. I don’t have a picture of the duck, but here is their very superlative dim sum.
I read recently that Frankie Woo, Lai Ching Yuen’s chef, has left since I last visited to set up a restaurant on his own. It’s on the list for the next time I’m in Malaysia.
10. Fiori di zucca fritti – zucchini flower fritters. I’m growing squashes next year not for the fleshy little courgettes, but for their flowers. They’re fantastic served with the quince jelly I made a couple of months ago. There is all the difference in the world in a zucchini flower you’ve picked seconds ago, and one you’ve bought in a shop, put in the fridge and taken out, damply, later in the evening.
And with that, I think it’s time for dinner. I have to tag five people with this, so the Great She Elephant (not a food blogger, but I have observed her eating), Santos at The Scent of Green Bananas, Umami (whose front page seems to be displaying a very enticing picture of chicken porridge at the moment), The Wine Maker’s Wife and Johanna at The Passionate Cook can expect an email soon.
Witches are good news in Czech kitchens. A witch doll hanging up in your kitchen will, apparently, bring luck to your house, scaring away evil spirits. The life-size witch with the glowing LED eyes outside U Carodejek (Praha 1, Ramova 4, tel 222 314 957) nearly scared the Weaselarium away, but we are at heart a brave people, and went in to see what their dumplings might be like.
Themed restaurants. They’re usually a total turn-off, but my Mum was craving something authentically Czech, and the menu was full of the dumplings, roast and boiled meats and cabbages that are typical of Prague, so we sidled past the witch and found a table, right next to the broomstick and the empty shoes. The menu was the sort of thing which is precisely built to please my very carnivorous father; he was delighted to see something called Piggish Knee represented, alongside whole turkeys, ducks sliced in two along the spinal column and all manner of sausage and dumpling.
I think of you lot while ordering, you know. I was aware that very few people reading this blog would be inclined to wander into a Czech restaurant with a life-sized witch on the door (yes, I am kicking myself for having run out of batteries before leaving the restaurant and not photographing the thing) and order a pickled frankfurter, so I did it for you.
Here is my frankfurter, really a Mortadella-type garlicky sausage. It was not completely inedible. The vinegar was a sharp, white one, and the jar it lived in had been packed with hot peppers. The sausage was presented with a slit along it, one of the chilis stuffed inside. It was served with some vinegar-dressed onions, and caused all sorts of howling in revulsion from my Mum when I ate it at her. For heaven’s sake. Going into the restaurant was her choice. She enjoyed a very good potato soup, but given the keening noises she made every time I waved the sausage at her, might have enjoyed it more if I’d not been there. Oops.
Piggish knee arrived. This picture really doesn’t do justice to the sheer size of the thing. I am still trying to work out which part of the pig this might be; clearly it is a joint, but my careful study of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s precise diagrams reveals the unwelcome fact that pigs don’t have knees that bend like ours do, and this object really did look an awful lot like my own knee, but rather more tanned. (I seem to remember from reading the Beano as a kid that the only creature that does have human-type knees is the elephant, but I don’t think the Beano is butchers’ canon.) Perhaps this was a pig-knee-equivalent. Despite it being the size of his head – a large head; we’d been trying to find him a hat earlier – Dad gobbled the whole thing making happy gurgling noises.
Mr Weasel fought valiantly with this half-duck, which he described as ‘primitive but pleasant’. With prose like that he should start his own blog. The bread dumplings were not as good as those we had on our first evening here, but this dish was also accompanied by a potato dumpling made with flour and a very waxy potato, which he enjoyed. My mother, recovered from her sausage dismay, ate the duck’s other half.
I ordered very badly; I asked for the sirloin (ha!) in cream sauce. What arrived were two thin, thin slices of pre-roast beef (I think from a gristly topside – and what an insult, this, when the rest of my family was wrestling with chunks of protein large enough to brain a reindeer with) swimming in a sweetish, fruity, watery sauce thickened with flour. A spoonful of cranberry jam was dolloped on top of the meat, and the whole thing was topped with the abortion in a can that is pre-sweetened, squirty cream. I have now spent several days wondering why, but I’m still no closer to guessing.
I ate my husband’s food while he wasn’t looking.
No deserts this time; three of us were too full, and one of us had too recently eaten squirty cream to stomach pudding. Thank God for late-opening Christmas markets overflowing with marzipan snacks and chunks of gingerbread.
I spent most of this morning thinking of you, dear reader, and doing my very best to take photographs of market stalls while not being noticed. Prague’s Christmas markets are the lure for many tourists (including Family Weasel), and tourists, being hungry for culture and local colour, also need feeding.
The main Christmas markets are spread out in the square in the old town, beneath the astronomical clock, and in Wenceslas square. You’ll find other, more local marketplaces scattered around the city; these sell the more ordinary fruit and vegetables and were actually where we found the best seasonal food and drink; they move around, so keep an eye out. At this time of year, there’s a lot of gingerbread and mulled wine, and lots of sweetmeats made with almonds and other nuts. The picture at the top is of a stall selling gingerbread and wrapped cakes made from hazelnuts (red wrappers) and almonds (blue).
The local almonds also emerged in yesterday’s endive salad, whole and blanched. Although indisutibly almonds in flavour (and sweet ones, at that), they’re a rather different shape from the almonds you might be used to; they are rounder and shorter, and seem to contain rather more oil.
We came across a stall selling trdlo, a soft yeast dough which is wrapped around a hot metal pin and baked into a cylinder, then rolled in ground local almonds and sugar.
When you buy a hot, fresh trdlo, you’re gestured towards a tray of ground almonds and sugar to roll it around in as much as you like. We saw other trdlo being made in stalls which didn’t seem as even and golden as ours were. Watch your food being cooked (if you can) before you commit to buying it. These trdlo were crisp and sweet on the outside, with a beautifully tender crumb.
Away from the tourist areas we found a food market, where you could buy non-uniform vegetables. The greatest curse of the supermarket back home has been to encourage farmers all over the world to produce perfectly straight cucumbers, spherical swedes, beans of identical length and bananas which all curve in a sinister, congruent fashion, nesting together like bits of organic jigsaw puzzle. In emphasing shape and size, we’ve completely sacrificed taste; I promise you that you will never find a banana that tastes of cardboard in Malaysia, where they grow the things (or, it seems, in Prague, where they don’t). These peppers were a delight; different colours, different shapes (and different spiciness, according to the stallholder); you were encouraged just to pick out the ones you liked the look of.
I wish I had an oven here.
Spices are sold in little plastic bags. Although my Czech is non-existent, I was able to identify these by sight (and by helpful words on the packs like ‘barbecue’ on some of the mixtures) – I’m sure you can too. Everything looked fresh and smelled good. I bought a stick of marzipan from the lady on this stall, but unfortunately it vanished into Mr Weasel’s sugar-craving maw before I had a chance to photograph it. Every spice you’d use in a European kitchen was represented here; as well as these bags of caraway, allspice, pepper, coriander and nutmeg, tiny vials of saffron and whole vanilla pods were held behind the counter, out of the reach of shoplifters.
Shopping, especially outdoors, is crucifyingly cold at this time of year in the Czech Republic, where in the winter the temperatures seldom come above freezing. Although I was wearing what passed for ski-less ski gear, I am still, hours later, unable to feel my left ear; bring a hat.
Of course, the big emphasis in Czech cuisine is on the meat. In a little supermarket I found this counter of preserved sausages. (This evening’s meal incorporated a sausage a lot like Mortadella – Baloney, for you Americans – preserved in vinegar and chilis. I’ll write about it later on.) Every part of the animal is used here, and there are vendors on many of the streets cooking and carving pieces of meat for you to eat on the move.
This man is preparing a piece of ham for spit-roasting. Sadly, his fruitwood-roasted ham knocked the socks off anything I’ve been able to cook at home; the whole of the Old Town Square was filled with a smoky, porky aroma which went directly from my nose to the most animal parts of my brain, persuading me to hand over my Czech crowns while trying to mask the embarrassing dribble behind my scarf.
The biting cold is easily remedied with a glass of one of the many hot alcoholic drinks you can buy here. You can choose from
something called grog, which appears to be Southern Comfort, hot water, sugar and a slice of lemon (deadly and not really awfully nice; I don’t recommend it); punč (pronounced ‘punch’), which is port and brandy with hot water, sugar and a slice of lemon; and a mulled wine which has been excellent wherever I’ve bought it. If you visit Prague, you may want to try these drinks in the cafe inside the House of the Stone Bell, the city’s oldest building (in the Old Town Square, next door to a bookshop where Kafka lived). It’s now an art gallery. You can see the bell on the left of the picture; the building is well worth a visit. Happily, I failed to pupate, fall prey to an execution machine or do anything else Kafka-esque; somebody should really tell the Restaurant Metamorphosis down the road that their name is scaring me away from pushing their door open.
I am delighted to note that every single restaurant menu in Prague appears to be bi-, and occasionally tri- and quadri-lingual, so ordering is a doddle. This sign was displayed outside a restaurant called U Modrého Hroznu (Husova 15 Praha 1 – Staré Mesto). It’s next to a beer hall frequented by Václav Havel, the ex-president (it was shut this morning; I’ll try to post from there later in the week), and good smells were seeping out through the cracks around the door. We spent about thirty seconds wondering just how we would feel about dumplings, decided that those feelings were mostly positive, and went in.
The restaurant is tiny, and has two rooms; the one we were in has only three tables, so if you’re going in the evening you’d be well-advised to book.
Our waiter was strangely dour. I can only surmise that his puppy had just died. We grovelled with gratitude over the excellent food, beamed at him, told him how happy we were to be in his beautiful city – and were rewarded with a stubbly glare which later degenerated into an outright snarl. No matter. The food was coming thick and fast, and my, it was good.
Czech food is heavy. This is a country where protein is king, and offal is treated with the respect it deserves rather than being consigned to emulsified bags of pulp, fried and fed to schoolchildren and cats, which is what we seem to do with it in England. Dumplings there were in profusion. I had spoken earlier to a Czech lady who told me the story of her parents’ courtship; her father had nearly jilted her mother a week before their marriage, when she first cooked him a dumpling. ‘It was like tennis ball, or dinosaurus egg’, she said. ‘Fortunately she also was very pretty.’ The dumpling clearly occupies an important place in Czech culture which elevates it to the position of National Preferred Starch, and is, apparently, surrounded by all kinds of arcane etiquette. Perhaps our attitude to dumplingkind was what was making the waiter so grumpy.
Flavoured butters arrived. The red one was pounded in a pestle and mortar with sun-dried tomatoes and a very strong onion, the round yellow one with roast garlic. The long sliver is a beautifully lactic and sweet butter of the kind it’s easy to find on the continent and almost impossible to get your hands on in the UK.
Mr Weasel and my Dad led the field in beer-ordering. Only one was on offer in this restaurant – a pale, wheaty Pilsner with a glorious flowery aroma.
Intent on the whole Czech experience, I ruined it all by ordering something Italian for a starter – a carpaccio of beef. My Mum, across the table, had an endive and carrot salad with a sugary lemon dressing, and Mr Weasel and my Dad opted for a pate. The carpaccio was advertised as coming with Parmesan shavings, so it was a surprise to find soft gratings of something a bit like Gouda spread about the plate, but it was extremely good; the raw steak was soft, tender and meaty. The pesto in the centre of the plate was home-made and sharp, but again made with something that wasn’t Parmesan; it was still very good indeed.
The main course arrived, heavy with dumpling. These were bread dumplings (that which looks like moulded potato around the edge of the plate), and I had been expecting something small and round; instead we got slices of something loaf-shaped. (I found a recipe here if you feel like having a go. The dumpling is so light that it has to be sliced with a thread.) The dumplings were airy, and soaked up the rich, reduced sauces with our meats. In the picture is a pork potroast which was strangely delicious, but somehow not entirely European. The glossy, dark sauce had been spiked with a light soya sauce and some sesame oil; the richness of the sauce, the thick meat and the light-as-air dumplings were a triumph together.
Weiner Schnitzel came, fried to a perfect gold in that delicious butter. Two goulashes (‘the best in Prague’, according to the waiter, who now appeared on the verge of suicide) were inhaled by the men almost as fast as the beer. The only low point came with the one dessert that was ordered (Mr Weasel, hypoglycaemic again); his chocolate banana was a banana dipped into Nutella. In the restaurant’s defence, it was pretty clearly a dessert marked out for children, and, as my mother pointed out, it was a very nice ripe banana.
Now, clearly, it is not in your interests if I keep going back to the same restaurant every day until Tuesday. I am, however, sadly tempted. Tomorrow, I shall be investigating the Christmas market, and attempting to purchase edibles and somehow store them until Christmas for presents without eating them. Perhaps I will get something for the sad waiter and see if I can make him crack a smile.