Grilled marinated lamb chops

I have had these pictures for a while, but haven’t blogged them.
Back in the Spring, we could get decent local lamb from some butchers. I’m especially fond of Pavlis on Vinohradska, who also carries pink veal and piglet. More on that later. Anyway, starting the week before Easter he had lamb. I bought a section of saddle and had him cut it into chops.  I then marinated the chops overnight in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and fresh rosemary.

Marinating lamb chops

I pan broiled the chops in a heavy steel skillet.

Broiling chops

When they were done, I deglazed the pan with the marinade and extra red wine and served the chops with stir fried Malabar spinach.

Marinated chops, wine sauce, and spinach

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Making Chlodnik

Chlodnik is a delicious cold Polish borscht variant, sort of an E European gazpacho. It involves young beets with their greens, salt-pickled gherkins, herbs, and several fermented milk products. The exact proportions vary widely. It is extremely refreshing on a hot day. This time I made chlodnik with the following ingredients:

  • Beets
  • A fresh cucumber
  • A bundle of radishes
  • 2 cloves of young garlic
  • Dill
  • A scallion (because I couldn’t find chives)
  • 750ml of žinčica
  • A cup of yogurt
  • A couple tablespoons of sour cream
  • A 400g bag of Albert salt-pickled cucumbers. By salt-pickled, I mean the kind that don’t have any vinegar and require refrigeration, because there’s a live culture in them. Czech rychlokvasky, Polish malosolny ogorek, or actual Jewish, not frikikin ‘kosher style’, pickles. Can make them yourself easily enough.

First I separated the beets from the leaves, peeled the beets, and discarded the excess stem lengths.

I diced the beets and chopped the greens very fine.

I put the beets and greens in a pot, added water to cover, and brought to a simmer (NOT to a boil).

Simmering beets and beet greens

Meanwhile, I prepared a large bowl of water. When the beets were tender, I removed the pot from the stove and immersed it in the bowl of water. The pot and bowl were of such a size that I was able to spin the pot in the bowl, which cooled the pot down very quickly.  (Spinning the pot circulated the water in the bowl, so hot water from next to the pot was quickly exchanged with cooler water).

Spinning the pot in a bowl of cold water

I haven’t bothered with photos for the rest. I coarsely chopped the vegetables and herbs with the chopping attachment to a hand blender, set at lowest power, and added them to the pot. I added the brine from the bag of pickles and the dairy products. The result was not beautiful (though the liquid has a pink color very unusual for food), but after a couple hours of refrigeration it was delicious.

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Lunch at Aromi

Aubergine and I had an amazing lunch at Aromi today. Sorry. no pics. But we started with their 65kc salad bar. Today they had grilled tomato, aubergine, and zucchini; mixed salad greens, including the expensive ones; pepper and squid salad; and tuna salad. The tuna salad was very simple: only tuna, vinaigrette, and sliced red onion. But it was the best tuna salad we’d ever had. Later we asked the waiter about it. Turns out they made the salad with freshly poached tuna. That would explain it.
We continued with the soup and main course lunch special. The soup was an unusual minestrone, with potato and a bit of cream in it. It was nice though not spectacular. The mains, however, were great. One was pan seared chicken breast with black chantarelles and mashed potatoes. The other was penne amatriciana. The chicken was tender and the chantarelles had been sauteed in a ton of butter. The dish was served very simply, with a bit of light cream sauce. There obviously was cream in the mashed potatoes, too. For those of you who know chantarelles, not much more need be said.
The penne managed to match the chicken and chantarelle dish, which is no mean feat. It’s hard to explain just why. The penne were perfectly al dente. The sauce was based on very fresh tomatoes with just a bit of bacon and parsley. The parsley was still bright green and the tomatoes were still chunky. It was very light for something with bacon in it.
Later, the waiter said that when patrons that day asked him which special was better, for once he really couldn’t answer them.
The very friendly waiter convinced us to try the chocolate truffle pie for dessert. We split one piece, and could have invited 2 more people to share it, it was so rich. Surprisingly, the truffle pie had a bit of black truffle in it. Probably made with truffled butter. It was insanely rich, yet the filling melted to almost nothing as soon as it was in your mouth. We figure cream, cocoa butter and butter are to account for this. It took us as long to eat that one piece of pie as it took for the rest of the meal. Different members of wait staff kept coming over and saying “Isn’t that the best pie you’ve ever had in your life?”
This was one of the best meals we had had for ages, even though it featured mainly the “cheap” daily lunch specials.

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Lamb’s liver and Chinese celery

This is an unplanned dish that turned out surprisingly well. On the weekend, Aubergine and I picked up some Chinese celery at the Vietnamese market in Malesice. The plan was to make Andrea Nguyen’s Beef and Chinese Celery dish later in the week.
Well, I didn’t like any of the beef in the neighborhood butchers’ today. One butcher, Pavlis, did have some of their amazingly good suckling pig. I got a length of loin but it wouldn’t go with Chinese celery at all. However, they also had some lamb, and they had some lamb’s liver.
Aubergine and I like liver occasionally and we both like lamb’s liver in particular, so I got a slab of it. Then I thought “Hey, this is pretty strongly flavored stuff. What if I made it in the usual way but put in that Chinese celery.” So that’s what I did, and it came out very nice indeed.
So, here’s what I did. I washed the Chinese celery, cut off the roots and cut the rest into 5cm/2in lengths, including leaves. I washed it in our salad spinner.
Then I made the liver as normal. I julienned an onion and fried it in a little peanut oil and dripping. In the meantime I cut the liver in half, salted and peppered it, and rolled it in a little flour. I banked the onion and added the liver. After browning the liver thoroughly, I poured in about a glass’ worth of a full-bodied Lebanese red wine, Cave Kouroum 7 Cepages. Then I mixed in the chopped Chinese celery and let the whole thing simmer and reduce.
I served it with a mash of rather nice French potatoes and carrot and followed it with a big salad of other interesting greens we got at the market. All washed down with the rest of the wine. Very good. No pictures, though, as it was not at all photogenic.

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Alphonso mangoes

Aubergine recently bought a box of Alphonso mangoes, imported from Pakistan. I hadn’t had this type before. They’re small and brownish-skinned and absolutely amazing.

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Press Cafe 1911: An extension of our living room

We are lucky to live around the corner from Press Cafe 1911, which just celebrated its second anniversary. There are lots of cafes in Prague these days, but Press has some rare qualities, even rarer in combination:

  • They actually know how to make coffee. Don’t laugh. Those of you who do not live in Prague may not appreciate how rare this is.
  • They have excellent light meals. Soups, salads, sandwiches, and quiches are fresh and tasty.
  • Friendly, long-term, loyal staff, with the owners working shifts.
  • A solid group of regulars.

This adds up to a very pleasant atmosphere in which to lose oneself for some hours. Physically, the cafe is very nice, too, though arguably it could use some more soft couches and fewer wooden chairs.

Breakfast is available all day and includes the usual suspects, plus pancakes (Czech raised pancakes, livanecky, not flat crepes) and a very popular breakfast sandwich of egg, bacon, cheese, lettuce, and tomato, on a ciabatta.

The lunch menu includes three daily specials, of which one is a vegetarian entrée and another is a salad. There’s also a lunch special of small soup plus sandwich, Quiche, or small salad, for 100 kc. Of their various sandwiches, the roast beef really stands out. I have no idea where they source the roast beef from, but it’s cooked medium, sliced very thinly, extremely tender, and extraordinarily free (for Czech beef) of fat and connective tissue. The sandwich comes with garlic mayo, cucumber, tomato, and red onion and is served on a ciabatta. The roast beef is also available as a platter.

Speaking of their soup, it isn’t interesting every day, but when it’s good, it’s very good. Here is a bowl of potato and garlic soup with blue cheese croutons, presented with Press’ typical care.

Press now has a dinner menu, more or less in beta stage at this time. Most of the items used to be available all day, but caused a bottleneck in the kitchen when ordered during lunch rush. The menu has a Mexican section, ranging 125-150 crowns, including a quesadilla with either chicken or spinach and a burrito with both.  The quesadillas and burritos are always properly toasted and contain fully melted cheese. The salsa is fresh and simple, just chopped tomatoes with some onion and garlic and a touch of cilantro.  I’m a sucker for the chicken quesadilla, myself.

Outside the Mexican section, you can have a meal salad for 105kc. Choices are Caesar, Roast Beef, or Goat Cheese. The basis of all 3 are a mix of iceberg and Romaine, which I find balances flavor and crispness nicely. The Caesar has grilled chicken instead of a hard-boiled egg, this being Prague, but there’s identifiable anchovy in the dressing, and it comes with bacon, Parmesan, and croutons. The roast beef salad has the house’s own vinaigrette dressing and is made with the same excellent roast beef as the sandwich.  The goat cheese salad includes green beans and black olives. All salads are dinner plate sized, always fresh, and quite flavorful.

Press Cafe has recently introduced 3 grilled entrees for dinner. Patrik in the kitchen is a fine grill chef and these new entrees let him strut his stuff. Entree #1 is a hamburger. I like it very much, but folks who like lots of toppings may not. I prefer my hamburgers to be relatively simple and to taste mostly of beef. This is a simple 200g patty, grilled to medium, and served on a toasted ciabatta with some rucola and grain mustard. I’m sure they’d add more stuff  if you asked. The burger comes with a side of higher-end frozen frites, which will be replaced when they get a deep frier. Entree #2 is a grilled duck breast with caramelized red onion and mashed potatoes, for 165kc. This is an amazing dish and even more so for the price.  As I said, Patrik knows his grill, and the duck is perfectly medium, not dried out at all. Press’ mash has garlic in it and is quite yummy.  And the caramelized onions…well, they’re caramelized red onions. Can’t really go wrong there, except by stinting on them, which Press does not.

Oh, there’s also a pork chop as entree #3, and I’m told it’s very good, but it would mean not ordering the duck.

Press Cafe also does Sunday brunch, with a unique take. You order 4-7 items off a menu of small dishes. Half the items you order may be meat. If you go for the big 7, you get free pancakes for dessert. Aubergine and I usually split a 6 or 7. Highlights of the brunch menu include roasted goat cheese in foil, chicken quesadilla and roast beef from their regular menu, and the closest thing to Linconlshire sausage I’ve had in a Prague restaurant. Plump sausages containing actual sage. Amazing.

What else? There’s wifi, of course, but they’re in thrall to O2, so it’s not very reliable. Still, I’m posting this from there. There are special children’s days on occasional Saturdays, which we avoid. There’s fresh orange juice, a special coffee in their second grinder (vs Vescovi as the normal), and a surprising range of rums. Beer is Pilzner Urquell, reasonably well-kept. House wine is sometimes good but last time I had the red it was rather awful; still, they have some respectable vintages in bottles. It’s a pleasant place to while away the afternoon, working on your laptop and posting to the Internet when the connection’s working.

Last point: if you live in Prague, you may want to follow Press Cafe 1911’s Facebook page.

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Da Clara: Home-style Italian restaurant in Vrsovice

Aubergine and I went there for our anniversary last weekend. I’m not going to write about the restaurant, because Brewsta at expats.cz has already written a review that I concur with entirely.

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Bun Ca in Malesice Market

On Sundays, Aubergine and I have the custom of going to the huge Vietnamese market complex in Malesice. Aside from the household supplies and countless dodgy textile stores, they have a couple of Asian grocers that actually sell fresh green stuff (hey, this is the Czech Republic) and some luncheon places that mainly serve the market workers. We usually go to the one at the end, run by a matriarch and her family, advertising Pho Ba Dac Biet (home-style). There we sit huddled over a formica-topped table and watch Vietnamese state TV while having a big bowl of pho ba (beef noodle soup w broad rice noodles), or construct-your-own bun cha (crispy barbecued pork belly, not greasy at all, in a marinade, along with a bowl of rice vermicelli and a plate of greens. You spoon the marinade on the noodles, break up some greens on top and eat it with a slice of pork belly.) My favorite dish there however is bun ca, fish soup with rice vermicelli. They make it from carp, the local cheap farmed fish. Normally I avoid carp as it is rather muddy and has a mushy texture, but the soup is made from tiny crispy fried bits of carp, in a broth with hot peppers, tomatoes, dill, onions, garlic, and scallions.

The pink lump in my bowl was a big cake of fish roe. I don’t know if it was carp roe, which I never would have thought about eating, but it was certainly edible, whatever fish it was. Probably carp just due to the size. I shared my roe with Aubergine, who never met a fish egg she didn’t like. Note also the condiments on the table, including a bowl of crisp fried onion and hot pepper in oil (white bowl in background), which makes pretty much anything delicious.

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Welcome!

Zucchini and Aubergine like nothing so much as a no-frills eatery that does a handful of dishes, does them home-style and does them well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soup dumpling place on Wellington Street in Hong Kong, an old hippy couple grilling fresh fish by a shack on a tiny Croatian island, or a matriarch and her family serving pho and bun dishes to fellow Vietnamese in a wholesale market on the outskirts of Prague. It’s tasty, it’s simple, it’s made with pride, and sitting beneath florescent lights at a formica-topped table and eating it makes us happy.

We eat at other places. We eat at regular mid-range restaurants and we go to high-end places sometimes, too. We are not inverse snobs, or we hope we aren’t. But even at the high-end, our heart goes out to places where the owner or owners are there in the restaurant, taking pride in their food, and making the customers feel at home.

Zucchini and Aubergine like most cuisines, when they are cooked with competence and with feeling. We do not turn our noses up at grilled pork knee with mustard and horseradish, served beneath chestnut trees in the garden of a Czech pub. We do not turn down “the best fish and chips in East Devon.” And we will be damned if we go to New York and not have a knish at Yosha Schimmel’s, the pastrami at Katz’s, or the made-at-your-table chopped liver at Sammy’s Romanian Restaurant. But we do prefer cuisines with a bit more spice in them, and cuisines that appreciate fresh vegetables.

PS As the Yank of the team, I’m Zucchini.

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