Monday, February 7, 2011

Ceske Krumlov in the snows...on a quiet Saturday

It was a lovely, sunshine-filled Saturday morning. We arose, feasted on Eggs Benedict (earlier posting) for brunch and then thought we'd head westward to the sleepy Medieval village of  Ceske Krumlov (25 km away) to see the Schwarzenberg's summer castle in the snows (remember there are many castles around here; the Schwarzenbergs used the Hluboka Castle as their fall hunting 'cabin'--see 25 December posting). We visited Ceske Krumlov late last year (see September posting) when the Vltava River was still quite high from the August rains and many people were boating along the river through the city....which was filled with tourists!  Today, however, it should be noticeably quieter with many locals and a only few tourists soaking up the ambience of a colorful, sleepy Castle.
We approach the towering walls of the castle, with the dormant tree trunks covered with evergreen ivy, Hedera helix. Solitary sentinels frozen at attention (well, actually listing a bit!).

We cross the swift running moat...fortunately the draw bridge was down and welcomed us across...the water would have been a bit too cold to venture through,

and then pass through the elaborate, multi-storied Romanesque aquaduct entrance, framing the skies
From the inside of the wall, you can see the immense Castle walls which were carefully built into the rock towers.
As we near the Vltava River and the small bridge crossing (left below),
the gorgeous rose-colored Tower of the Castle is resplendent across the skies!
The Vltava River rushes madly through the Medieval village, having worn down the hillsides to this lower level.

We stop and listen to the mighty rush of waters passing us...on their way to Prague, through Ceske Budejovice, and then to the North Sea. Mark thinks great thoughts...

while Neil smugly delights in not having to collect Phalaris along the river today!
It is an awe-inspiring view...this Castle!
We wend our way through the tiny streets, over the rough cobblestones
and stop to admire, once again, the numerous examples of true 'graffiti' in the walls of this old building:

Around every bend and turn, the rose-colored Castle Tower provides a majestic focal point
then to the Town Square...rather quiet and solemn in the winter sunshine!
We admire the numerous buildings facing the square, with all of their various facades, designs, and paintings.
On the top of the hill, St. Vitis Church dances across the sky. We did a St. Vitis dance there last fall!
More intriguing paintings on the walls of the buildings around the Square.

Mark wanted to visit the Wax Museum (which we'll do next time)....since the sunshine was glorious we thought we'd visit this after sunset.
Maybe you'd like to rent a flat here in the Square and wave to the visitors every day?
At this restaurace (restaurant), which boasts signage of the Castle Tower,
we gaze at the many ornamentations placed into the wrought iron protectants around the windows. Here ancient silverware wards off any recipe thieves,
while many small, empty bottles festoon another;
Ah, and the village winemaker posts his wares,
while the effects of the Cocktail Bar are already taking hold!

Then, as we round the bend, once again the glorious Castle Tower beckons us to the hilltop.
On the way up the steep climb to the castle, children play with the rotating ladies outside this restaurace. Then, of course, Mark has to try his hand at it as well!

After climbing the hill towards the Castle, we were famished. It was now ~1530 in the afternoon. So, we  stopped in for a light lunch at Restaurace Terasa. Sitting over the Vltava River so we could watch it rush by, we were delighted to have a visit from the two Chefs who announced (in Czech) that they were our neighbors at Antonina Barcala in Ceske Budejovice and that, in our honor for visiting the Restaurace Terasa, lunch would be 'on the house'! We were extremely pleased, but very surprised!
We dined on on Garlic Soup (Neil) and Beef Soup (Mark), followed by Hluboka fish (Mark) and wild boar (Neil). Absolutely divine fare! We'll happily return for another visit...
As we leave the Restaurace and cross over the Vltava River, the Castle Tower picks up the evening far red light
even making the bare tree skeletons shimmer in the warmth.
A truly spectacular visit to one of our favorite Castles in the Czech Republic. Do come and see it for yourselves...delight will be yours!

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

French Onion Soup (Soupe À L'oignon).....portends of spring!

We have on our docket to head to Paris and southern France during the spring to soak up more culinary ambience....but until then, it's dreaming in the kitchen. This led us to think of something French to make, of course, ... and what came to our minds first, none other than....

French Onion Soup (Soupe À L'oignon).
First, you'll need some good bread to put in the soup. If you don't have some day-old French bread or wish for something different, then off to the bakery we did...make your own!

Saffron Bread or Rolls
This is a recipe we made up years ago in celebration of spring, as these have a rich yellow color and provide flavorful delights to any springtime meal.
Dissolve 1 packet or 1 tablespoon yeast
in 1/2 cup (125 ml) warm water.
Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and two pinches of Saffron threads (Crocus sativus).
Let sit at room temperature until the yeast is bubbling furiously.
Add this to: 1 cup (250 ml) heated milk, 1/4 cup (75 ml) olive oil, 2 cloves crushed garlic (Allium sativum), 1 onion (Allium cepa), finely chopped, and 1/2 small bunch fresh chives (Allium scheonoprasum), finely chopped.
Slowly mix in 1/2 cup cornmeal, then add in enough flour to make this a suitably stiff dough. Knead vigorously until the sweat stands out on your brow. Place in a greased bowl, cover with a tea towel, and put into a warm oven to rise. Punch down the dough in 45-60 minutes and let it rise again.
Form into either 2 loaves of bread or make circular or triangular buns. Place in greased bed pans (bread) or baking sheets (buns) to rise again. Heat oven to 160C or ~375F. Before placing bread or buns into the oven, brush each with an egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 teaspoon water plus a few Saffron threads for color). Bake until brown and delightfully crispy.
You might have to sample one right away with some fresh butter (maslo), just to ensure to sample the perfection.
Ok, now that the bread is made and's time for the the stock base for the soup.

Roast Beef Stock
You will need an excellent, flavorful roast beef stock as the base for your soup. Plan this in advance! Don't use those salty, fake beef bouillon cubes from the store....they're full of who knows what (perhaps even monosodium glutamate, MSG!). Make your own stock.
For this, make a beef roast! You can get 3-4 meals out of a beef roast. First, sear a good cut in olive oil using your favorite old-fashioned cast iron pan (after rubbing the cut with sea salt and fresh ground pepper). Add in 1-2 fresh bay leaves, 2-3 cloves crushed garlic, 1/2 bunch fresh parsley (finely chopped). When seared, pour 1/2 bottle of your favorite French red wine (Bordeaux, mais oui?) over the roast and roast in the oven uncovered for 1/2 hour at 180C (~400F); then cover and drop the temperature to 130C (~325F) and let it slowly bake until tender. (Likewise, if you're in a bit of a hurry, after searing, place the roast and all tasty components into a pressure cooker and cook, according to direction for your cooker, until it is done). Either way, you'll end up with your first meal of tasty, roast beef.  Maybe complement it with roasted leeks, potatoes, carrots, and onions as we did.
Meal two can be Boeuf au jus sandwiches for lunch the next day. Use the Saffron rolls, cut up some slices of beef (warm them in a pan with some of the au jus). Place the beef inside of the rolls and use the au jus as a side sauce for dipping. Pair with a bit of melted Parmesan Reggiano cheese and slices of fresh pear on the side. Bon appetit!
Now, for the third meal, use the beef stock to make your fabulous French Onion Soup! Set the remainder of the stock aside; toss the used Bay leaves over your shoulder for good flavor. If you have ~ 8 cups of stock (2 L), you're ready to go. If not, add in additional water to get the proper volume. Set aside for use in a few minutes.

French Onion Soup (Soupe À L'oignon)
Finally...we have all of the necessary ingredients to make soup!
Peel  ~7 large onions. Leave the basal plate in place. Cut each onion lengthwise down the middle. Then slice thin wedges off on your cutting board, making sure that each wedge has a fraction of the basal plate. This will ensure that each wedge stays together while caramelizing, creating little fans of onions to enjoy while eating the soup.
Caramelize the onions over a fairly warm fire in your favorite cast iron pan, along with adequate butter to  coat them. Stir occasionally to avoid blackening too much. When the onions have become translucent, keep stirring until they turn caramel brown in color. The onions should have enough starch or sugars to caramelize properly (some chefs add sugar to ensure they caramelize properly, although we resist this quick fix).
Once caramelized, add the onions and all drippings into your favorite large stock pot. Stir in 1/2 cup of fine flour to make a roux. Add in the beef stock, 1 cup (250 ml) white wine and let simmer for 1/2 hour. Then add in 1/2 cup (125 ml) of French Cognac (Courvoisier, perhaps?)--this is a must! Proper French Onion Soup must have Cognac in it. Cognac adds in an essential flavor that will transform your Soupe a l'oignon from just 'bon' to 'tres bon'!
Simmer longer until you're ready to plate up.
Choose your favorite soup bowls for serving. Maybe they're small ones or larger ones with wide rims for the cheese to display itself artfully. Ladle in the hot Soupe a l'oignon. Cut one Saffron bun in half lengthwise and float in the soup (or add in one thick slice of Saffron bread). Shave on top some pieces of Parmesan Reggiano cheese, as well as some fresh or aged Mozzarella to cover the top of the bread and soup. 
Place each bowl under a hot broiler to let the cheese thoroughly melt.
Serve. Eat and enjoy!
Bon appetit!

Mark is thanking Julia Child for her continued inspiration of French cuisine to all people...

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Eggs Benedict that gives a fitting benediction to all other recipes!

Well, this Saturday morning we arose late (after being up late the night before, of course!) and had a sudden hankering for Eggs Benedict.
 We had been longing for some for quite some time, but always stopped by the fact that no English muffins are made/sold here! We've been looking for them for months, but unavailable as fresh cilantro or bagels (see earlier postings). Even our favorite British store, Tesco, does not carry them!
Since it was late, we decided against making English muffins this time, but will do so in the future (they're really not that hard to do, just 'putsy').

Eggs Benedict are not difficult to make, it just requires very careful chemistry and impeccable timing. It just consists of sacred, homemade Hollandaise Sauce (don't let those most restaurants fool you that they made their own! Most use that awful premade mix they get from the wholesalers!). But, this can't be made too soon or too late, or rushed. Along with it you need to make poached eggs (don't over cook them!) to go onto toasted bread or English muffins (should you be so lucky). So all three things have to come together with symphonic coordination.

Hollandaise Sauce Extraordinaire.
So, start out by separating three eggs. Keep the whites for something later, like meringue or Angel Food cake?
Whisk the egg yolks in a double boiler (you can make it ok without one, but the risk of burning or overheating becomes extraordinarily high).
Add ~1 tablespoon of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, drizzle in ~180 g (~1 stick) of butter (maslo) only until it can't hold anymore. Save the remaining melted butter for spreading onto your muffins or toast.
Add a pinch of sea salt and a pinch of Hungarian paprika (some use Cayenne's a matter of taste).
Then, here comes the secret ingredient.....lemon zest! Neil hates to not use the rind of lemons....goodness think of the lemon zest potential uses--so we dared to incorporate it.
Zest in the rind of 1/2 a fresh lemon. Whisk away just until thick. Set aside and keep marginally warm until you're ready to plate up.
You won't believe what the lemon zest will do to lift the flavors of this Hollandaise Sauce from ordinary to extraordinary!

Next, Poach the eggs! We prefer home-raised ones when they're available and...yes...always the non-white ones! The key here is pH to do this properly. I know many of you have egg poaching cups, etc. but all of these things are completely unnecessary. Fill a large skillet 2/3 full of filtered water; then add in 3 tablespoons of your favorite it apple cider, distilled white, Balsamic, or rice. They will all work and add spectacular flavors. Bring to a boil. Now, crack in each egg quickly. They will fall to the bottom of the pan. Carefully loosen them from the base with a large spatula or turner after you get all of the eggs in the pan. Cover. Let them poach for 1-1.5 minutes but no more. Carefully turn each one over, for just 20 seconds...enough to finish cooking the whites.
Pull these out with the spatula or turner and place each one onto hot, buttered toast or muffins. Drizzle the Hollandaise Extraordinaire over the top. Garnish with fresh ground pepper (red, green, black) and enjoy immediately!
 Let us know what you think of the lemon zest in the Hollandaise. We couldn't believe how incredibly tasty it made the sauce......a fitting benediction to all the other Hollandaise Sauce recipes.
Next, we're sure this will be a tasty sauce for poached fresh spring asparagus, perhaps?

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

Essen IPM Congress, Essen Germany 25-28 Jan. 2011

The Essen Congress is a huge draw for everyone in Europe and across the Rest of the World (ROW). Several hundreds companies exhibit here, setting up immense booths and drawing in the 10,000-15,000 people that attend during the four day period. Step up, buy your ticket and the large congress manual and let's see what lies inside!

There were 12 congress halls (immense buildings) each with a different them, such as nursery products, floral design, potted flowering plants, cut flowers, hardgoods, etc. It was mobbed every day of the event, so it took time to move from one section to another.
Here is the famous stained glass window in one of the buildings:

Many booths had breakfast/lunch/coffee bars for their customers...with splendid uses of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

 Some of the interesting things seen included living walls.
This one is grown with baby tears (Solerolia solerolii)

while others had new Campanula highlighted
Then there were furnishings for your 'eye' to sit on....this one is flowering Thanksgiving Cactus, Schlumbergera truncata.
 No matter what, you're Number 1!
 New technologies abounded everywhere, of course. Neil was particularly interested in the geothermal greenhouse energy displays....and spent nearly a day talking with various researchers...
Then there were the green roof technologies. this is the one outside our window on the rooftop of the hotel.
And, of course, every company was showcasing their new cultivars. Here's a Japanese version of Caerulea tweedii as a new cutflower
 New colors of fragrant, sweet peas, Lathryus odoratus. Smells like spring!
 New, larger climbing lilies, the infamous Gloriosa Lilies, Gloriosa superba.
 And, numerous cut flower roses, Rosa x hybrida. Here are several pastel old-fashioned types (minimal fragrances).
And, of course, bonsai exhibits everywhere from the Italian to Chinese and Japanese booths. This one is of a fruiting ornamental crab apple tree.
 Then, the Italians have now found a use for the beautiful old and gnarled Olive trees (Olea europaea)--trim them and sell them!

 This one was 350 years old
 or you could buy one that was a mere 620 years old....and at quite the prices (thousands of Euros)! They were all sold already!!
 Not to be outdone, the Christmas tree distributors created these novel dog designs out of spruce and firs.
 While the lumber industry now uses floral design and potted plant displays while drying their timber. Here are entire logs, cut to specific board thicknesses with drying splints inbetween and used for displaying plants.
 Everyone's Mother-in-law had their tongue tied (Sansiveria) during the entire exhibition....sadly.
 Strange people were inviting us to come to the Floristsics Congress to be held in the Czech Republic this year....
 New colors of fall-flowering witch hazels (Hamemelis virginiana)--tawny brown/maroon and creamy white.
 as well as this show-stopper dark burgundy magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana)

 Tree wisterias (Wisteria sinensis) instead of vining types...
 and they had weeping forsythias which were grafted onto an interstock.  Stunning.
These non-grafted upright types (also new), below, were talking with us.
We'll show more pictures of some of the floral artistry in a subsequent posting.

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.