Monthly Archives: September 2010

Thanks be to Matzo Ball!

I went to a public school in NYC. I went to a school with children whose families came from all corners of the world. Yet throughout my educational experiences and settings, I noticed that certain groups clearly made up the majority in my world. In my childhood, I went through waves of wishing I could be more like “them.” I secretly wanted to be Jewish.

There were a small number of Filipino families in my local neighborhood. And when one is Filipino, it typically means that you might be Roman Catholic too. I had a number of Jewish classmates, and as a result I learned plenty about their culture. The New York City Board of Education also observed a few of the Jewish holidays. I remember how great it was to begin school just after Labor Day, and about a week later, we got two days off for Rosh Hashanah. My parents, who knew little about the Jewish customs and holidays before moving to NY from Manila, and I, were quickly educated by my elementary classmates and their parents.

I also learned about Yom Kippur, Purim and Passover. During my years in middle school, I attended many lavish bar/bat mitzvahs. My Catholic confirmation wasn’t as eventful as the catered affairs of my peers. I met this rite of passage along with 11 other boys and girls. Collectively, we recited our parts and then filed one after the other with our sponsors, to accept this sacrament. My Jewish friends, as I witnessed, celebrated individually, holding the stage completely on their own. As a result of attending so many, I ended up with a great collection of personalized party favors. Unlike the friends I grew up with, I didn’t have any Filipino National holidays, that were publicly acknowledged by the U.S., to brag about. Even Christmas didn’t seem as spectacular when my friends and I would compare this one-day event to their 7 day Hanukkah feast.

Besides learning so much about Jewish culture and religion, I was also introduced to plenty of Jewish food. Looking back, I am very thankful for the exposure and experience. As a student in college, these dishes concluded the evenings of our “girls nite out,” as we regularly ended up at one of the many diners opened 24/7. In fact, some of these foods sit on the top of my personal list of “Favorite Comfort Foods.” Hamentashen cookies, bagels, challah french toast style and blintzes come to mind. Even my mother developed a sore spot for matzo. I can easily picture my mom breaking this unleavened cracker in two, then spreading peanut butter and grape jelly on one. Then she would take the other piece and stick it on top and have her thin PB & J sandwich with a cup of coffee. My ultimate favorite is Matzo Ball Soup. When the weather is grim and it’s bitter cold outside, nothing soothes my chills better than a bowl of matzo ball soup.

I no longer carry the desire to be Jewish. I am not even much of a Catholic. Instead, I have turned into a worshiper of earthly delights. I am a devout foodie.

Chicken Vegetable Matzo Ball Soup (as adapted by a Filipino girl from Queens, NY)

Chicken Vegetable Broth

2-3 Tablespoons oil
1lb Chicken parts
1 onion peeled and diced
2 carrots peeled and sliced
2 celery peeled and sliced
1 1/2 -2 teaspoons salt (season according to your taste)
Pepper to taste
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
6 cups water

Heat oil.
When hot, add onions and fry until soft.
Add carrots and celery and cook for another 5 minutes, stir to prevent vegetables from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Add water.
Add chicken(including bones), salt and herbs.
Boil for half hour.
When chicken is cooked, remove and strip away the meat from the bones.
Discard the bones and add the meat back to the pot.
Continue to let the broth boil and add the matzoh ball dumplings.

Matzoh Ball
(should be prepared before the broth, needs to be refrigerated for a half hour)
1 cup of Matzo meal
4 large eggs
1/4 cup of oil
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of black pepper

In a bowl:

Beat eggs.
Add oil, water, salt and pepper.
Mix well.
Then add matzo meal.
Refrigerate for up to 1/2 to an hour.

When ready to add to the soup, moisten hands and begin forming the meal into balls about 1″ in diameter.
Then drop balls into the broth and allow it to simmer for another 20-30 minutes.

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Goodbye Plums. Hello Pears!

Autumn has made her appearance. All around Prague, the signs of summer have begun to disappear. The tables of our outdoor beer gardens are no longer packed with people and with glass mugs in their hands. The hills of Petrin have exchanged their green leaves for scarlet, yellow, russet and chestnut hues. People walk the streets in layers of long-sleeved sweaters and jackets, no longer able to show off their sun-kissed shoulders.

As my husband and I took the tram up to Jiřího z Poděbrad and joined the Burčák wine festival, (another sign the season is coming to an end,) I wondered if I could truly say goodbye to summer and embrace the Fall. I asked my husband what he thought and during our ride, we listed a few things that we would be looking forward to in this next act of the seasons. I’ll share five of them with you.

Reason 1: Being able to sit out in the Autumn Sun vs. the Summer sun. For me, this means not having to worry about wearing a high amount of sunblock protection and breaking out. For my hubby, that means having to sweat less and be able to bear the sun’s rays.

Reason 2: There will be less tourists in Prague and we can peacefully walk across the Charles Bridge once again without the heavy crowds and traffic of visitors.

Reason 3: My birthday is in October! (I was more excited about this than my hubby, he didn’t think readers would really be interested in this fact. Oh well.)

Reason 4: We both have a great collection of scarves and hats, our favorite accessories! Autumn’s weather forces us to sport them around.

Reason 5: Baking! I love to bake and my husband has no problem enjoying the treats. There is nothing like warming up a home with the scent of baked apples, butter and cinnamon floating throughout the house. Of course, I thought this was the best reason of all.

As an homage to Summer and a toast to Fall, I came up with a cake to celebrate the event of the Autumnal equinox. Since plums are usually associated with summer and pears with the fall, I thought I would pair them together with a touch of cinnamon. It was a delicious match!

Reader…What awaits you this Fall?

Pear Plum Buttermilk Cake (adapted from Bon Apetit’s Berry Buttermilk Cake)

Heat oven to 400˚F/200˚C
Grease an 8 inch circular baking pan

Ingredients:
1 small pear, peel, core and cut into 1/4 thick slices
2-3 small plums, slice in half, remove pits and cut into 1/4 thick slices
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 stick softened butter (50 grams)
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Then set aside.

In a larger bowl, beat the softened butter with 2/3 cup of white sugar. Beat at high-speed until light and fluffy. Then add the vanilla and lastly, the egg.

At low-speed, begin to add a little of the flour mixture and then alternate with the buttermilk. Continue to pour small doses one by one, ending with the flour mixture.

Pour mixture into the pan. Then decorate with the pear and plums, alternating the fruits side by side. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Evenly sprinkle the mixture over the fruits and batter. Bake for 25 minutes.

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Breakfast is My Turkish Delight (Teşekkürler K & T)

During our trips to Turkey, we happily took part in a daily delightful morning ritual… going out for breakfast! This first meal of the day happens to be my favorite. Besides waking up hungry and wanting to nourish my belly, breakfast has such comforting memories for me. Certain dishes can draw me back to the kitchen of my childhood. I can picture my Mama hovered over the stove with her frying pan in one hand and the spatula in another, dishing out fried eggs to her three impatient children seated around the table. (Suddenly, a picture of baby birds chirping in a nest with Mama bird standing above them with a worm clasped between her beak, enters my mind. Yeah… we kinda looked like that. Peep, peep, peep.)

My "Turkish delight" photo courtesy of Kathryn Tomasetti

For me, dining out for breakfast in Istanbul was like waking up on Christmas morning and heading for the stockings. I just knew there would be something exciting waiting for me. In Turkey, it seems that breakfast is so popular, that many establishments specialize in it and only serve dishes around this morning meal.  A hearty plate of various cheeses, olives, cured meats, tomatoes, cucumbers, slices of hard-boiled eggs, jams, bee hive honey and creamy butter were the typical ingredients that decorated this platter, along with a cozy basket of bread. If that was not enough, you could also add an omelette, boreki (stuffed spinach/cheese pastry) or a bowl of spiced red lentil soup. This breakfast cornucopia came with such an abundance of food that it invited everyone to partake in a mid-morning communal feast.

On my latest visit to Istanbul, I was completely knocked out by a restaurant that concentrates solely on breakfast food. The Van Cafe kahvalti, located in the Cihandir neighborhood (photo above was taken there) provided all the delicious edible material I just listed and more! It was there that I became acquainted with “Tahini Peznak,” a tasty spread that stirred my curious palate. A combination of tahini paste and grape molasses which, in this part of the world, has been enjoyed for centuries. The creamy texture of the sesame mixed with the sweetness of the grapes and then spread across a slice of freshly baked bread was divine! Just imagine good old peanut butter and grape jelly, but a thousand and one nights better (and healthier for you too!)

Day after day, I indulged in this sweet pairing. On my final morning in town, I visited the Van Cafe and shared one last Turkish breakfast with a dear friend. We sat outside on tables that lined the sidewalks surrounded by other breakfast goers. Moments after the waiter took our orders, a huge storm appeared and buckets of rain came thrashing all around us. Luckily, we were sitting under a huge and sturdy canvas umbrella which managed to keep us dry. The rain remained throughout our insouciant breakfast. We believed the ill weather would cease by the end of our meal, but instead it continued to pour. We had no other choice, but to face the rain and get drenched. However, I couldn’t return to Prague without a container of my new-found sweetness. With two hours left in the city, a new fixation for grape molasses, and despite the heavy rainfall, I trekked my way to the nearest supermarket. Soaked, I traveled up and down the aisles of the Carrefour grocery store until I found my jar of uzem pekmezi. It was stacked right next to its familiar partner- tahini.

Lately, this sweet and nutty duo has made many regular morning and mid-afternoon appearances on our table. And since discovering it, I have also been obsessed with finding a way to use it in other baked goods. Cookies, shortbread, cakes? How about a snack bar with an oatmeal base that could hold the creamy syrupy tahini peznak and allow its flavors to penetrate through to your taste buds?

Tahini Peznak Pistachio Cranberry Oatmeal Bars– let me know what you think!

Tahini Peznak Pistachio Cranberry Oatmeal Bars

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Bottom Layer Base:

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup oats
1/4 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt

In a medium bowl:
Beat butter and sugar until creamy.
Then add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. It will look a bit crumbly.
Grease a 8×8 square pan.
Bake the base for 10-12 minutes.

Tahini Peznak Top Layer

1/3 cup tahini
1/2 cup grape molasses a.k.a. Uzem Pekmezi
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. flour

In a medium bowl:

Combine all the ingredients together.
Then pour over the oatmeal base.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.

When cool, sprinkle some powdered sugar on top.

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A Farmer’s Market on the Riverside

Farmer's Market on the Vltava

I admit it. I have been unfaithful to my blog for the past two months. My blog activity was slightly interrupted by an eventful summer which included sailing off the shores of Turkey, strolling the city sidewalks of New York, seeking air-conditioned spaces in Nashville, TN and cycling around the town of Cape May, NJ. Yes, it was rough…

Therefore, after so many weeks of living on an unregulated schedule it was very difficult to come back to the city of Prague in which I live and work. Yes, even the enchanting streets of Old Town and the sight of the Prague Castle can be a bit tiresome. However, while I was away, plenty of developments were happening on the banks of the river.

My first Saturday back in town was a particularly hot and humid August day. Dressed in a light sundress and flip-flops, my hubby and I went out for a walk. Just two blocks away from our home is the Vltava River and as we were crossing the Palackého bridge, we spotted a number of tents lined up along the river bank and crowds of people strolling along the cobble stoned path. As we got closer, we saw a banner printed with the words “Farmarsky Trh” It was a farmer’s market!!! A FARMER’S MARKET!!! Unfortunately, we caught the tail end of it and only a few stands still had products for sale. I would have to wait another week to get the full experience.

Veggies!

The following Saturday, I was all set with my honey brown straw basket and wallet full of Czech crowns to do some serious farmer’s market shopping and I was not disappointed. There were a number of fruit and vegetable stands selling the usual staples: cucumbers, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. Also on display were some seasonal fruits such as plums, peaches and berries. Different varieties of homemade cheese such as tvaroh, bryndza and some made from goat, could be sampled before purchasing. In addition, there were smoked meats, bread, honey and local wine also available to take home. There were two stalls that completely surprised us, one selling fresh trout and another selling grilled fish sandwiches!

Fresh trout, VERY fresh trout

Grilled Fish Sandwich? Just 60 crowns!

I happily returned home with our local items and I couldn’t wait to get something on the table for us to snack on. The most exciting purchase was my bag of peaches which is one of my favorite summer fruits. I had a great supply of them during my visit to Nashville, TN. where, I also discovered a delicious new way to eat them, courtesy of the brunch menu at Marché Artisan Foods. This simple, yet sweet meal, consisted of toasted whole wheat bread with ricotta spread on top, then layered with fresh ripe peaches and finally a drizzle of honey on top. Delicious!

Local goodies

Sad to say but a fresh tub of ricotta cheese was not sitting in our basket. Instead, I thought I could substitute ricotta with the plastic container of homemade farmer’s tvaroh cheese that I just bought. What is tvaroh cheese, you might ask? Well, it is slightly like ricotta and cottage cheese. Ricotta differs because it is made from whey (the leftover milky stuff after it has been curdled and strained) and although tvaroh is a curd type cheese, it is not as watery as the cottage cheese we buy at supermarkets. I like to think of tvaroh as a thicker version of cream cheese but without the sweetness. It’s very low in fat too, just in case you are counting calories.

I attempted to recreate the Marché Artisan dish using the local products from the market. The result was just as lusciously sweet, and I was especially satisfied because each item on our plates came from one of our local farms. I had a peachy homecoming after all!

(Tip: If you plan to visit Famarsky Trh (Farmer’s Market) the best times are between 9 and 11, otherwise any later than that, they may be sold out of the good stuff)

Sweet Peaches, Tvaroh & Honey on Whole Wheat

Peaches with Tvaroh cheese & honey on toasted whole wheat bread (inspired by Marché Artisan Foods restaurant in Nashville, TN)

2 Ripe peaches, peeled and sliced
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 cup tvaroh cheese (can subsitute ricotta or cottage cheese as well)
1 Tablespoon honey
Slices of whole wheat bread

Peel and slice peaches
Lightly pan fry them in a neutral oil.
Add brown sugar and gently toss them around in the pan for a minute or two.
Toast bread.
Spread cheese over the slices of bread.
Lay peaches flat on top of cheese.
Then drizzle honey over the peaches and cheese combo.

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