Thursday, December 27, 2012

Štědrý Večer 2012

The Orsak-Lubrano-Georgio-Apple-Armstrong-Cormie-Chapman-Theriot-McMurray family.
Since I was a teenager, my parents have hosted dinner on Štědrý večer (Christmas Eve) Texas-Czech style. I could write a small book about this meal, but will settle for this post. The meal is the same one my mother ate when she was growing up (and we went to my grandmother's for when I was younger) and many of the dishes are, in fact, the same or similar to those her parents ate when they were growing up. We are, as a family, very proud of this meal, since my mother is the only one of her seven siblings who has carried on the culinary traditions. We have the same dishes every year; most have some Czech background.

To begin the meal, we have a meatless soup that traditionally has every foodstuff available at the time in it to ask the universe for a good harvest for all crops in the coming year... vegetables dried and fresh, legumes, a grain. In our house, the soup has evolved into a peppery vegetable soup with "homemade" noodles. This year, the soup was thick with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions and celery. It's peppery because my grandmother loved the spice.

The main meal is a collection of dishes, each of which has a story and history. To give you an idea of just how old a few of these dishes are, in a December 22, 1972 article in the Texas Catholic Herald, my grandmother's brother, Bishop John Morkovsky, was interviewed about his memories of Christmas as a boy. The article states "Other memorable events the Bishop cited were the Christmas Eve suppers on the farm near Yoakum from 1912 to 1918. In keeping with Church law and the custom of their Czech ancestry, Mr. and Mrs. Morkovsky (the Bishop's parents) and their seven sons and three daughters would have a salmon salad as the main dish. In the old country the main dish was baked fish." My family has both dishes for our meal. The salmon salad, now being eaten in the same way for at least 100 years, is made with potatoes, flaked poached salmon, pickles and onion.

Skinning the salmon fillets for the salad.
Cold salmon salad.

When my mom was a child, the fish her Catholic family ate on Christmas eve was caught by her father in a local tank or pond and was probably trout. When my father fished regularly on the coast, we would have something he'd caught and froze. Some years, my parents just buy the fish. But this year, we ate yellow cat (catfish) caught by an aunt and uncle in Lake Texana, on whose shore they live. Below is my intrepid Aunt Deniese holding the fish we may of eaten for Štědrý večer and below that, my father's pan fried yellow cat. Rather than stuffing the fillets as he usually does, he laid the chunks of fish on top of the stuffing (which has crab and sometimes shrimp in it) and then baked it. 

We also have fried oysters, which were an addition from my grandfather... not Czech, just yummy, and now they're traditional on our table. My father used to fry them himself, but family members complained about the whole house smelling like oysters all night long, so now someone slips away a few minutes before the meal and picks them up from Landry's. Below is my grandmother's handwritten recipe for frying oysters. Couldn't be simpler.... "Clean, salt and pepper them. Roll in cornmeal. Fry in deep fat."

To accompany all the seafood, we have creamed peas (below), various pickles from my parents' canning pantry (beets, cucumbers, okra), and the decidedly non-Czech dishes of au gratin potatoes and pimiento cheese-stuffed celery sticks.

I used to be frankly embarrassed to mention one of the other dishes on our table... Cream of Wheat. Who eats that for dinner and especially for the most special meal of the year? Well, some Slavs do. It took a post by Barbara Rolek in her awesome blog Eastern European Food for to educate me. It turns out that cooked wheat puddings are eaten in several Slavic cultures for Christmas Eve. Our Cream of Wheat was vindicated! I don't know why this seemingly archaic dish lasted in my family from Wallachia to Houston, but somehow it did and it's one of my favorite parts of the meal. My mother cooks it with milk, butter, cinnamon, vanilla and globs of butter.
Cream of Wheat with cinnamon and butter.
Cooked prunes.

Lastly, we have what I'd heard my grandmother call both plum pudding and prune gravy, which is what we call it now. It's really just pitted prunes cooked down with butter and cinnamon. I'm not sure how it was originally eaten, but my favorite way is plopped on top of a scoop of the buttery Cream of Wheat, especially leftover for breakfast.

My father waiting patiently for everyone to come to the table already.
In the Catholic Herald article I mention above, the reporter wrote that Bishop John reminisced "But the festive meal was secondary to the family gathering that made Christmas Eve suppers so unforgettable." It's the same for our family. We were blessed to have all but one family member at the meal this year. We had new family members with us - my parent's 3-week-old great granddaughter and my brother's fiance. There were 10 kids age 3 weeks to 16 years, unstoppable running from outside to in, upstairs to down. The adults did a lot of drinking and laughing and dishwashing and children chasing with not a TV in site, I'm so pleased to say, though there was some checking of Facebook. It was certainly a different kind of gathering than my grandmother and her brother experienced as children in the 1910s, but the spirit of the night, full of food and family, prevailed.

My mother and her great-granddaughter, Charley, three weeks young. 
My son, Rome, gives the superhero fist up for family traditions
(in satin cape sewn by my mother for Christmas.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Markets in West/Prague

There are so many things going on this month that I could write about from Czech organization Christmas parties to food at family gatherings. But because there's so much going on, I have little time to write. Trying to create Christmas memories for two boys and juggle a full time job and time-consuming hobbies is really bearing down on me this year. I'm going to do several posts in the next two weeks that may have lots of photos but less in-depth writing. This is the first.

In 2008, my mother, brother and I traveled to the Czech Republic in December to visit relatives and friends and to shop the Prague Christmas markets. The market on the Old Town Square was spectacular, made more so because we were there on the eve of St. Nicholas Day. The photo above is an outdoor stage where there were singing groups, bands and skits.  Below is a photo of a man in the square dressed as an unofficial St. Nicholas. Besides the kiosks with traditional food (palacinky, sausages, cookies, mulled wine), there were booths of toys and other gifts, a petting zoo, and the biggest pine tree you've ever seen outside of a forest. Here's a YouTube video someone posted of the market the year I was there.

So, I was very excited to read in the Vestnik that the town of West created what they called a "Czechmas Merry Market" modeled on Prague's Christmas market. This was their first year to hold the event and I went Saturday, the 8th on their second weekend to be open. Driving into West, we were greeted  by women in white t-shirts and Santa hats waving and holding signs that said Merry Christmas. I wasn't sure what to expect of the market. I was a little biased since I'd been to the markets in Prague and thought they were so wonderful. The West market was inside, not out. And the food was served only in local restaurants as opposed to street booths in Prague.

Entrance to the Czechmas Merry Market in the Best Theater Building in downtown West.

Above - Window painting across from the Village Bakery showing the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square in Prague. 

At right - inside the Merry Market. There were actually two locations. Both had booths of gifts, jewelry, beauty products, religious items, and some Czech merchandise.
Below are photos of signs from West (on the left) and the Prague market (on right), showing St. Nicholas and his companions, the angel and the devil. 

I hope there's an attempt to add traditional music somehow next year. There was actually an accordion player playing inside the Village Bakery when we visited for a kolach before walking to the Market. His waltzes and Christmas carols would have been perfect there. But I thought the whole endeavor was a very noble first attempt for the community and would encourage people to visit next year. The window paintings were so sweet. The Market itself was festive and people were kind and enthusiastic. The local restaurants had Czech food specials running... even the Leo's Mexican Restaurant offered a burrito that had sausage and sauerkraut in it. St. Nicholas made visits, too, but we weren't there at the right time. I'll plan to go back next year for lunch at the Czech-American Restaurant and some shopping.

Monday, December 3, 2012

St. Nicholas Day and Tangerines

Saint Nicholas will be coming to visit my two boys this week on December 6th... the day designated by the Catholic Church to honor the saint who is the patron of children. In many European countries (including the Czech Republic,) children hang their stocking or place shoes by the fireplace the night of December 5th, knowing they'll be filled overnight with small treats by St. Nick.

Growing up, I always felt the celebration of this holiday was unique to Texas Czechs. I never met another child who knew what it was and, as an adult, only other Texas Czechs seem to know about it. And usually those adults I've met who do know it only have vague memories of the meaning and the activities surrounding it. That's more interesting when you consider that the name Santa Claus evolved from Sinterklaas, a short form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas.) There are a few places in the state that have public events for the holiday, including the Czech Center Museum Houston which hosts a holiday dinner (for grown ups) on December 6th and the town of West which features Svaty Mikulas (Saint Nicholas) at their Christmas Market on December 7-8 and 14-15. But it's rare for me to meet someone who's children still hang their stockings on the night of December 5th as my boys do; as I did; as my mother did; as my grandmother did.

Traditionally -- for children who have been good all year -- candy, little toys, nuts and fruit were waiting on the morning of the 6th. We were told that bad children would receive rotten potatoes, coal, or a switch (for their parents to beat them with.) I don't really remember the toys I received - maybe Matchbox cars, maybe a Barbie. My 14-year-old son has looked forward to an iTunes gift card the last couple of years. (The times, they are a changin'.) For candy, I specifically remember getting a candy cane, chocolate coins, a "book" of Lifesaver rolls, a Pez dispenser, and, for the family, a bowl of Brach's hard raspberry candies would be near the fireplace. My sister and I still search for the raspberries and chocolate coins every year for our children, usually finding them at Walgreen's of all places. I look for the other candies, too, for my boys, though none of them are Czech, nor are the nuts, apples and tangerines I put in the stockings. It's the holiday that has some cultural significance for us, not the foods. 

In 2012, it would pretty hard to get a child excited about a tangerine considering the embarrassment of riches in US grocery stores. My mom gets teary-eyed thinking about the box of oranges her father would order from the Valley for the holidays. Though my older son does know how special the tangerines in his stocking are because he picked them himself from a tree in my mother's backyard -- see the picture above. (If my 4-year-old knew where the fruit came from, it would blow the whole mirage of St. Nicholas' visit.)

In 1993, my now-ex-husband was working for a community gardening project in Houston lead by a now-legendary-gardener name Bob Randall, who started Urban Harvest there. For our wedding present, we received from Bob and his wife, Nancy, a tangerine tree not even two feet tall. We were living in a series of duplexes in pre-gentrified Montrose, so we planted the tree in my parents' backyard in suburban Katy. It was the right spot for the right tree stock and today the tree is two stories tall and produces hundreds and hundreds of tangerines around Thanksgiving. 

My sons, nieces and nephews love to climb up into the tight branches with clippers to pick the fruit. (So do complete strangers who pick the tangerines from branches hanging over the back fence. This infuriates my Dad even though, at some point, we simply can't pick, eat, or juice any more and the tangerines start rotting off the tree.) Family members have made tangerine marmalade, tangerine martinis, tangerine vinaigrette, juice for breakfast, and used tangerines in the Jell-O salad we have on our Christmas Eve table (one of only a couple of foods that don't have a Czech origin.)

I have a basket of tangerines on my cabinet right now, picked Thanksgiving weekend by my son, brother, father and me. Since St. Nicholas Day is the first opportunity to start baking for Christmas, I decided to try cookies using them. Below is a variation on the recipe for Czech cookies called Linecke Testo DvoubarevneThey are also a variation of the pinwheel cookies my mother makes at Christmas -- hers are green and white or red and white and flavored with peppermint extract. My cookies do have two colors -- orange and white instead of the traditional black and white. They have a bright, but subtle tangerine flavor and are not too sweet. I think they'd be very pretty with sparkly sugar sprinkled on top before baking.

The four-year-old licking the mixer beaters. 

Tangerine Pinwheel Cookies
8 ounces softened butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
zest from two small tangerines
red and yellow food coloring
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and the vanilla and mix until until fluffy. (I used a hand mixer up until this point.) Add the flour and work into a smooth dough. Divide the dough in half. Into one half, mix in the tangerine zest, 3 drops of red food coloring and 6 drops of yellow. You have to work the dough thoroughly to get the zest and coloring evenly distributed. But work fast! The dough is so full of butter that it gets soft and sticky quickly. Put the two doughs into the refrigerator for about an hour to stiffen them up a bit and make rolling easier. 

The two layers of dough being rolled up into a "log."
Roll each of the two doughs out on the cabinet or between waxed or parchment paper into a rectangle shape. Lay the contrasting colored rectangle of dough on top and roll them up together into a log. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough "log" into 1/4-inch cookies and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10-15 minutes, being careful not to let them brown and then cool them on a wire rack. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Tangerine Pinwheel Cookies cooling on the rack.