Friday, August 26, 2011

Foods that Make me Glad I'm Czech

It would be unthinkable to be fascinated with the foodways of your own culture, but not like the food. I genuinely love a lot of Texas-Czech foods and there aren't many that I come across normally that I would turn down. There is something elemental about sausage and sauerkraut... the tang of the cabbage and the richness of the pork. It's truly one of my favorite things to eat, if done right. Add noodles to it and it's the perfect comfort food. And have you ever bought an apricot kolach from Weikel's early in the morning fresh out of the oven? Who would not want to eat one every day for breakfast?

And the list goes on to include chicken noodle soup at our extended family Christmas gathering... a rich broth with homemade noodles from Mrs. Bujnoch in Hallettsville served with chicken salad sandwiches on white bread. I have to take a styrofoam, Saran Wrap-covered plate full to eat in the car on the way back to Austin. I love cold salmon and potato salad on Christmas Eve, buttery apple strudel, and more sausage. I love pan sausage in Hruska's klobasnik with sauerkraut, City Market's jalapeno sausage on the grill, Elgin hot links in a warm tortilla with mustard.

I've been thinking about the Czech foods I love as I do research for the cookbook I've been working on half-heartedly for years. Only now I'm working on it whole-heartedly. As I pour through community cookbooks, heritage society newsletters and magazine articles, looking for recipes, I'm creating menus in my head from all the delicious dishes I have yet to try, like cream soup with potatoes, pork cheeks with saukraut, wilted lettuce salad with bacon, pickled peaches, baked sweet rice, and homemade beet wine. 

However, there's the reality that Texas-Czechs are a frugal people who cooked many parts of animals that I, let's say, haven't developed a taste for yet. If I want my cookbook to truly capture the variety of traditional food in the state, I'm going to have make some culinary leaps of faith. I'm running across recipes for things like, gulp, breaded pigs feet, scrambled eggs and brains, pickled beef tongue, and head sausage. Not sure how I'm going to tackle this task yet, except to solicit some really brave recipe testers. Luckily, I pride myself on not being a picky eater and I don't get grossed out cutting up a chicken. I've never actually handled a foot, brain or tongue before, though. Maybe I could contract with Kocurek's Charcuterie to test the recipes and let me just come over and taste them?

Because the cookbook I want to write won't just be about kolaches and sausage. I want to capture the variety of ways people adapted to resources here in Texas after they immigrated, and how those adaptations created the cuisine we know as Texas-Czech (not really Czech food in Texas.) If industrious 1st generation Texas-Czechs utilized the whole hog, then I want to include those recipes in the book. And I certainly couldn't include a recipe without testing it... 2 or 3 times. I can imagine the scene now as I call my 12-year-old to the dinner table and he passes out.

But I'll cross that bridge (or pickle that tongue) when I come to it. For now, I'm going to pay homage to a few of the well-loved, time-tested foods that have inspired me to write the book to begin with.

Gene Marie Bohuslav's fantasy-colored ruzicky (rosettes.)
Moravia church picnic 2011 - fried chicken, stew, sauerkraut, green beans, buttered potatoes, white bread and sweet tea.
Kolaches from the best place to buy them in Austin.
My man braiding vanocka Christmas Eve morning.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Picnic by the Lake

Babies like sausage by the lake - sand and all. 
I love picnics. Once you get all the work out of the way, it's once of the most enjoyable ways to share a meal. We live near Lake Austin with the entrance to a neighborhood lakeside park 50 yards from our back door. It's a shady, friendly, breezy spot to spend an afternoon, watching the kids play in the lake and sitting at a picnic table having a cold beer. Because our house is so close, we can run up for supplies we forgot or carry down hot food we made on the stove. For one Sunday afternoon meal, we tested a couple of family recipes to accompany a link of sausage my Dad gave me... my great aunt Louise's green beans with a dill sauce and my grandmother Irene Orsak's cole slaw. 

My Dad's deer processed by City Meat Market in Schulenburg with pork and lots of garlic and black pepper into the tastiest sausage we ever ate.

My experience with green beans in Texas-Czech cuisine has been limited to them being pickled or the ubiquitous side dish - canned green beans dressed up with a little chopped onion and bacon. This dish is found at church picnics (like the one in Moravia), weddings and funerals. A look through 10 different community cookbooks yielded 4 recipes that could maybe, possibly, have some sort of basis in traditional Czech ways of cooking green beans, though none of them was the standard I just described. All involved pouring a sauce (or gravy) over beans first simmered in water until tender. One sauce had paprika and sour cream, one had garlic, two had vinegar and one had Shiner beer.  My aunt Louise's recipe was similar, in that is uses a cream sauce livened up with a little vinegar. I used fresh dill, of course (can't imagine using dried.) 

The recipe came from one Orsak reunion where my sister and I had encouraged people to bring family recipes for a homemade cookbook. I think I had the recipe 10 years before I tried it, which tells you a little of the state of my organization of the materials I've been collecting for a Texas-Czech cookbook. One of aunt Louise's children brought the recipe and wrote on the bottom "Louise Orsak makes this and so do some of her children. It's a favorite dish of just about everyone." Now it's one of mine, too. 
Dill sauce for green beans.

Aunt Louise's Green Beans with Dill Sauce (quantities in parenthesis added by me)

Cook fresh green beans (1 lb.) with onion (1/4 c. chopped) and some salt until almost tender. Melt 1/3 c.  margarine in a pan. Add 1/4 c. flour and fry until light brown. Drain some water (1/2 c.) from the beans with some milk (1 c.) to make a thick sauce. Add a little vinegar to taste (1 tsp.) and 2 to 3 Tbl. chopped dill. Drain the beans. Add sauce to them and simmer briefly in the sauce. 

Don't overcook the beans and be careful not to boil the cream sauce after you add the vinegar or the sauce will separate (see picnic plate photo below.) 

A colorful Texas-Czech picnic plate with a nice contrast of flavors so common in Czech food -  rich garlicky pork and venison sausage, cream and dill in the beans, the tangy vinegar and black pepper in the cabbage and carrot cole slaw - all washed down with a Shiner. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Taking It On the Road

Just got photographs from my friend Lori Najvar taken during the Texas-Czech culinary tour that my Dad and I lead on June 1st for the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, which happened in Austin this year. It makes me feel exhausted and satisfied thinking about the day. An enthusiastic, curious, and patient group of attendees proved that Texas-Czech culture has sex appeal, sort of. I'm still amazed 23 people had enough interest to not just go on the tour, but PAY to go on the tour. And I wonder how many more people there are like that out in the world. Almost all of the attendees were from out of state, but we had a Texas Czech, a Texas German, and a relocated Nebraska Czech, too. 

My goal for the tour was to relay as much as I could about Texas-Czech foodways on the bus ride punctuated with edible examples at the best places I could find on the easiest/quickest route through Fayette and Lavaca Counties. I wanted people to know that Czech food is interesting, delicious, and that the traditions are alive and well. Here's the run down of the whirlwind, hot and dusty day.

7:45am - Loaded the buses at the Hilton Downtown with sponsored drinks and Zubik House kolaches... sweet ones with either dewberries or Confituras fig preserves and savory ones with either wild boar and mushroom or bacon/apple/brie. Since we were hitting a totally traditional bakery later in the day, I wanted attendees to see that there are some chefs expanding on the tradition by using unusual fillings that still honor its spirit. Dewberries are, of course, totally Texas, but you almost never find them in kolaches at the commercial bakeries. (Found them at Sengelmann Hall's bakery after some investigation.)

On the road from Austin to Schulenburg via 183 and I-10. Got my "bus legs", standing facing the back of the bus and ad libbing to the crowd at the same time. My Dad chimed in when moved to or thankfully took the microphone when I handed it to him because I ran out of (or forgot) things to say. I couldn't have done the tour without him, if for no other reason than emotional support. Sometimes a girl just needs her daddy. I can't tell you how many hours I spent agonizing over what I was going to talk about while we were on the move. I felt compelled to relay the entire history of Texas-Czechs and their foodways in one bus tour, which was, of course, a little unrealistic. 

City Market in Schulenburg, Fayette County. Plant Manager Wayne Kloesel was our host at this 67-year-old meat market that makes its own sausage and bacon as well as barbecueing on Saturdays. Attendees tasted pork garlic sausage, head sausage, dried sausage and homemade wieners and got to watch sausage being made. Owner Roy Smrkovsky (bear hunting at the time) was generous with the tastings and attendees made it worth his while by purchasing a lot of dried sausage... the only thing that was going to travel well back to everyone's home states.

Bread basket at Sengelmann Hall lunch.
Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg. The hall needs a blog post all its own. After a tour of the upstairs dancehall, my compadre (pritelka) in all things Czech, Lori Najvar... hard working, independent film maker... showed her masterpiece Czech Links about the Morkovsky family and their tradition of sausage making. Favorite moment of the day... one of the attendees got teary eyed at the family-togetherness of the film and remarked, "I've got to call my sister soon." Then lunch... topinka (rye bread rubbed with garlic and fried in duck fat... YES!), Shiner beer bread and rolls on the table as folks sat down. The main courses were German ribs with sauerkraut and holubki (pork and beef-stuffed cabbage rolls) with garlic mashed potatoes. Shiner Bock beer and iced tea washed it all down.

Holubki at Sengelmann Hall lunch.
Kountry Bakery in Hallettsville, Lavaca County. Tour attendees were treated to the real thing here - svacina with coffee and prune, cottage cheese or apricot kolaches and a poppyseed roll. I cringed at some who had to have their Diet Cokes, but it was out of my control. My own family buys our klobasniky at Kountry Bakery for our Christmas gathering at the Kocian Building on the town square. Even better than the food was the presentation by Doug Kubicek, local school teacher and Lavaca County historian, who talked about the history of Czech settlement in the area all the way through statistics about how many family Czech farms are being lost as young people go away to college and don't come back. 

Putting an attendee to work slicing poppyseed roll at Kountry Bakery.
Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Lavaca County. Man, they do a good job with the tours. I've been on it twice now and the second time was as cool as the first. Annie Rabbe, the tour guide/PR powerhouse there knew we were coming and threw in Czech-related tidbits to make the stop more relevant. At this point in the day, I'm not sure what attendees were absorbing, but it was hard not to enjoy oneself with Annie's commentary and some exceptional beers. Shiner beer makes me proud I'm Czech, even if I have nothing to do with it. If I see someone order it, I puff up a little and think... hmmm... my grandmother made her first communion in Shiner's Catholic Church in the early 1920s. Does that make the beer taste better? Of course not, but for some reason it makes me feel some tangentially-related ownership.

Czech proverb - "Don't go to the pub without money." (...for t-shirts.) 
The worst moment of the day was leaving my 68-year-old Dad in a gas station parking lot on I-10 waiting for my aunt to pick him up. We had to keep moving!  Though he did get quite a send off with much applause and hand shaking. Then, the loooooooooooooong drive back to Austin. I'll just say.... bellies full of Shiner and kolaches, rented bus's air conditioning went out, overturned 18-wheeler on 183 caused a 45-minute delay just as we made it back to Austin. Enough said. But would I do it again?... hell, yes if I could find another 23 people who want to go. 

Attendee Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen posted her gorgeous photos of the tour to Flickr. See them here and check out her very sweet blog, too, at about Thai food. Thanks for the inspiration, Pranee!  

* All photos in this posting by Lori Najvar of PolkaWorks.