Chicken Braised in Beer

dsc_0170-2

This is a special bonus for Cookslovak fans and followers, as well as those who have already bought the cookbook. Each recipe in A Taste of Slovakia’ had been tested at least twice, so we had a good choice of photos from different shoots when my graphic designer was laying out book pages. Sometimes a batch of pictures came out so well that it wasn’t easy to choose just one or two. At other times, we had a completely different problem and I had to repeat the same dish over and over again to finally get a photo we were reasonably happy with.

When leafing through the book now, I can still see flaws and imperfections, but that’s what learning is about – a work in progress, honing your skills, constant refinement of your style. Although the recipe below is identical with the one that appears in the book, the photos are different, so those who own or have seen a copy can compare, judge and comment.

dsc_0172

Chicken Braised in Beer
Serves 4

  • 1 chicken, gutted and carved
  • 200 g smoked bacon, sliced
  • 500 g sauerkraut
  • ¾ cup dark beer (200 ml)
  • salt, pepper, caraway, paprika to taste

Method:

  1. Use half of the bacon slices to line the roasting dish. Put the sauerkraut on the bacon slices and spread around evenly.
  2. Wash the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Rub the seasoning onto the chicken and put it on the sauerkraut. Cover with the rest of the bacon slices.
  3. Pour some of the beer over the chicken and put in the oven. Cook at 200°C for about 40 minutes, adding more beer when needed. The chicken is cooked through when the meat is coming away from the bone. Increase the temperature to 250°C and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes to give the chicken a nice, golden brown crust.
  4. Serve with boiled potatoes or rice and a garnish of sauerkraut.

dsc_0030

The juicy sauerkraut adds such zing to the dish which, together with a subtle undertone of the beer and crispiness of the bacon makes for a delectable Sunday lunch.

As I wrote in the post on Decadent Sauerkraut Soup, sauerkraut is a very popular ingredient in my country now that it’s still in the grip of winter. As for beer, I learnt about its many uses in the kitchen when I was researching recipes for my cookbook – and I was surprised by the new flavours this ingredient imparted to classic dishes.

Honey – our sweet medicine

dsc_0046

I usually survive the Slovak flu season, which peaks at the turn of January and February, with a raspy throat and a headache that normally eases off after taking a paracetamol and drinking plenty of hot lemon tea. But this year my husband had brought home a particularly viscious strain of the virus, which caught my immune system completely unawares. I lay down in bed with fever for three days – something I can’t remember doing since my childhood! Even after my body temperature had gone down, I felt quite poorly.

My husband had a nasty cough, which he was taking medication for, but what really helped soothe his windpipe was a mug of milk with honey and butter that he always drank before going to bed. We were lucky to have a big jar of raw, unprocessed honey from Vargapál‘s farm in Eastern Slovakia, which I’d got when I was researching bee products in Slovakia for my cookbook.

On my travels around the country I’d had a chance to learn about a beekeeper’s life, the challenges they face these days, especially when tackling honeybee diseases. I understood how much work goes into procuring high quality honey, how important it is to know the honeybee life cycle, and how crucial the decisions are about moving a bee colony at the right time to ensure the bees always have enough food.

Slovakia has a strong beekeeping tradition. It’s a skill and an occupation passed down from generation to generation within beekeepers’ families. These are wise, industrious people who obviously learn a lot from bees. Here is a sample of what they can produce:

As I have found out, beekeepers are extremely open, friendly and hospitable people. They love talking about their passion and sharing the fruits of their labour with guests. Those I have met in Slovakia are nurturers more than profit hunters. I know they would never cheat on their products – it’s a matter of honour, after all. Since I discovered how delicious, aromatic and life-supporting Slovak honey is, I haven’t bought a cheap alternative in a supermarket. They will never look like this anyway:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Trying our honey is definitely something you shouldn’t miss when in Slovakia. There are so many varieties to choose from, like a wild flower honey, a forest or acacia one, a lime tree or sticklewort honey. They will differ in colour, texture and aroma, but also in their nutritional value. The dark honeys typically have a more-proclaimed flavour and a higher content of minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

Although they’re not always easy to find, there are quite a few honey-farm shops around Slovakia. The pictures above are all from the Vargapál‘s shop in Košice.

Decadent Sauerkraut Soup

dsc_0048

The mercury plunged to -16ºC last night, which is not uncommon for January, especially in the northern parts of Slovakia and most of its valleys. Do you know what we do to survive such harsh winters? We have a list of old recipes and potent ingredients we return to when those nasty bacteria are getting at us, though it’s far from the only reason why we like to cook the Sauerkraut Soup or Kapustnica. As with most recipes, the soup has many variations, but what it can’t be short of is sauerkraut, garlic, dried forest mushrooms, and in some regions paprika, too.

Sauerkraut is finely chopped white cabbage that is layered with salt and left to ferment in crocks (earthenware pots). Properly cured sauerkraut has a wonderful microbial composition, is high in calcium, magnesium, iron, to name but a few minerals. It’s the richest and most natural source of C vitamin in our latitudes, which explains why all the stores in Slovakia are stocked with this staple all through the winter. Sauerkraut is also a very good source of fibre and antioxidants, it balances pH levels in the stomach and helps break down proteins.

I always put a wad of sauerkraut aside when cooking, and eat it raw. Delicious!

Decadent Sauerkraut Soup
Serves 8 – 10

  • 700 g sauerkraut
  • 2½ l water
  • 2 handfuls dried forest mushrooms
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns, 3 allspice corns, 4 cloves
  • 4 large potatoes
  • 100 g dried cranberries or prunes
  • 200 ml cooking cream (12% fat content in Slovakia)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Soak the dried mushrooms in cold water for about an hour. Strain on a sieve and place in a large cooking pot.

Soak the dried mushrooms in cold water

Pour in the water and bring to the boil.  Add the bay leaves and the whole spices enclosed in a tea strainer. Adjust the heat and let simmer.

Meanwhile, peel and wash the potatoes. Dice and add them to the simmering mushrooms. Peel the onion and the garlic. Rinse the cranberries/prunes on a sieve under running cold water.

dsc_0044
The Slovaks often add prunes to their sauerkraut soup, but dried cranberries are just as fine.

When the potatoes are tender, stir in the saeurkraut and the cranberries/prunes. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the cream with the flour until smooth. Add to the simmering stock and stir until it comes to the boil again. Throw in the paprika, stir well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bear in mind the salinity of the sauerkraut.

Serve hot in soup bowls.

dsc_0048
Decadent Sauerkraut Soup or Kapustnica

Don’t throw away the leftovers. The Sauerkraut Soup gets tastier the following day or afterwards, so keep it in the fridge and reheat it as many times as you need. It is a proven fact that this brings out even more of its flavours.

For festive occasions, we cook traditional kapustnica (Sauerkraut Soup) with home-made sausages or smoked ham, and often replace ‘single’ cream with crème fraiche (33% fat content in Slovakia).

Sweet Immunity Boost

dsc_0045

Who wouldn’t need it on a frosty January day? Here in Slovakia the temperatures were as low as -30ºC a few days ago.  Although conditions like these are quite rare, they do occur and you have to be prepared, unless you want to spend days at home cooped up in your room. Well, you can’t afford it either, as a matter of fact. There are things out there that need to be done, and besides, you want to get your daily dose of fresh air. So, apart from wrapping yourself in warm clothes, try this simple yet powerful formula, which is sure to give you still more warmth and that much-needed kick.

dsc_0045

Sweet Immunity Boost
Serves 4

  • 4 apples
  • 10 g fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Method:

Peel the apples and the ginger. Grate them into a bowl. Add the honey and mix well. Serve as a dessert or a healthy snack.

Yes, it’s as simple as it sounds! Try and get raw, unpasteurized honey from a small local beekeeper. This way you will not only have your bowl packed full with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but you also add subtle flavours of the regional flora to it, as well as a delicious aroma.

dsc_0028-1
It’s always good to know where your honey comes from. Go for a quality brand from a trusted local source if you can.

The ball season has started

novycaptureone25493

I don’t know if it’s the same in other European countries, but the ball season in Slovakia traditionally starts after Epiphany (6th January), and lasts until Shrove Tuesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

I wasn’t originally planning to write about clothes on this site (I’m far from a fashionista), but when I spotted this fabulous dress in my news feed this week, I knew I had to share it with you. And not just because it’s so divinely beautiful. It also touched my heart.

novycaptureone25493
Slovak Haute Couture (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

The dress was sported by one of the guests at the opening of the 2017 ball season in the Slovak Opera House in Bratislava. The finely embroidered top and the headpiece both come from a traditional folk costume representing Očová village in the heart of Slovakia. The skirt was designed specifically for the occasion to complement the top and give the whole outfit a more contemporary look. Yes, it wonderfully bridges our traditional arts with today’s fashion trends, as the model – the Slovak writer, journalist and presenter – wrote on Instagram. I didn’t know Tamara in person, but I contacted her immediately, and she happily gave permission to publish the photos on this site. I understood she is a lover of all things Slovak, especially traditional folk dresses, and as you can see in the pictures, she knows how to wear them.

This is how Tamara describes the outfit she wore for the prominent ball in the Opera House:

The top and the headpiece are more than 80 years old – they were borrowed from a private collection of two Slovak enthusiasts who have preserved traditional folk costumes from around Slovakia for decades. The intricate embroidery has been done by hand with a special hook-shaped needle, and is typical for the Podpoľanie (Podpolyanyie) region, where the village of Očová lies.

novycaptureone25458
The sleeves are richly embellished with ‘carved’ embroidery (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

If you wonder how the ‘carved’ embroidery on the airy sleeves is done, here is the answer: The patterns are first sewn on linen by hand, then bits of fabric are cut out with special scissors. Well yes, it does take ages -and an impeccable skill as well – to make a piece like this.

And why do I have such an emotional bond with this art? I was born in Detva near Očová, and I could not only see these fine dresses being made and worn on numerous occasions as I grew up, but I also learnt to do the embroidery, though I have to say my pieces were nowhere near the exquisite work pictured above.

Looking back at 2016

dsc_0041

There are events in our calendar that will repeat themselves with unfailing regularity year after year, though no two of them will ever feel the same. Silvester, which is what 31st December is named in the Slovak calendar, is no exception. No matter how many Silvesters I’ve lived through, the end of year never ceases to surprise me with new findings.

Although it hasn’t been the best year on the international level, the 2016 has brought a lot of positive things for my family and friends. We haven’t lost anyone, yet we welcomed a few new-borns. My eldest daughter got engaged, the younger one has successfully weathered an exceptionally difficult time in her professional life, our son has finally found his true vocation.

On a personal level, it’s been a very productive year. At long last, I managed to gather enough resources to publish A Taste of Slovakia – my first book, which started selling at a few bookshops around Slovakia and a couple of other venues, like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco s.r.o. Smolenice and Podpolianske múzeum Detva.

I have also shipped a few copies outside Slovakia and some buyers have taken the book as far as the USA.

14853257_792910467518236_2125715740930297910_o

All through the year and especially during the book completion I was fortunate enough to meet passionate and supportive people, many of whom have become friends.

Thanks to you, my dear readers and fans, Cookslovak website continued growing and attracting more views. I’m extremely grateful for all your likes, comments and the positive energy you’ve brought on board.

Looking back at 2016, these top five posts have caught attention of most viewers:

1. A Taste of Slovakia

dsc_0025

2. Exploring Liptov

3. Let’s dance!

4. How to make ‘halushki’

5. Slovak Sour Potato Soup

It’s been really great to have you around. I hope you’ll stay with me next year and I promise not to disappoint 😉

Have a happy and peaceful 2017!

Christmas Baskets

dsc_0040

My mum used to simply call them Košíčky (Baskets) and that’s how these dainty cakes are recorded in my old hand-written recipe book. Mum always made them for Christmas, because she knew they would be winners and none of us would make excuses to avoid helping. It was quite a lot of work, granted, but there was also a fair chance to get a sneak lick of the cream or the chocolate icing when Mum wasn’t looking.

I can’t remember when was the last time I baked Košíčky, but it seems long enough to dust this old classic off and give it a new twist. The good thing about Christmas Baskets is that you can bake the pastry well in advance, and do the cream and icing a couple of days before Christmas. And that’s what I did.

In the recipe below I only reduced the amount of sugar for the pastry, but changed the ingredients for the cream/filling. If you want to give it a go, make sure you have enough cake moulds. As you can see in the photos below, I used a pack of fluted tartlet pans (60 mm diameter).

dsc_0040
Christmas Baskets

Christmas Baskets
Makes about 60

For the pastry:

  • 100 g ground nuts (I used walnuts)
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 250 g plain flour
  • 150 g butter
  • 50 g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ sachet baking powder (about 7 g)
  • flour for dusting

For the filling:

  • 450 g thick yoghurt (Greek is perfect)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½-2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • jam (I used home-made blackberry one)
  • canned or fresh fruit to decorate

For the chocolate icing:

  • 100 g cooking or dark chocolate
  • 50 g margarine or shortening

Method:

I like to have my nuts freshly ground before baking, although they can be bought at the store these days. In Slovakia, walnuts are by far the most popular for baking.

dsc_0001
I use my old, but very reliable hand grinder to grind walnuts.

To make the pastry, put all the ingredients in a large bowl and combine well until a smooth, soft dough has formed. I always knead the dough by hand, but a food processor is fine as well, I guess. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let the dough rest for an hour in a cool place.

Prepare the cake moulds and start filling them like this:

Preheat the oven to 180ºC and bake each batch for 10 – 12 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool down and remove the baskets from the moulds by tilting them gently, as seen in the photo below:

dsc_0014
The baked baskets slide out of the moulds easily. Store them in an airtight container or start filling them straight away.

Spread a little of the jam at the bottom of each basket.

To make the filling, mix the yoghurt with the sugar and the cinnamon in a bowl. Fill in each basket with the yoghurt mixture and level the surface. Put a piece of fruit in the middle. Cover with the chocolate icing.

To make the chocolate icing, follow the instructions here.

Let the baskets rest in a cool place for at least 24 hours, in which time the pastry will have absorbed all the flavours and softened.

dsc_0049

A very happy and peaceful Christmas to you all!

For chocolate lovers

dsc_0048

It’s that time of year again when – apart from other goodies – we also get more chocolate, at least here in Slovakia. The reason is that on 6th December Mikuláš (Slovak for St Nicholas or Santa Claus) has his day in the Slovak calendar and, by tradition, he brings packets of sweets and chocolates to children, supposing they were nice and good all through the year. In most Slovak households children clean their boots on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and put them up on the window sill, where Mikuláš will leave his treats overnight.

More often than not, chocolate will also adorn our Christmas trees. If you happen to be in Slovakia at this time of year, you’ll find our shops and supermarkets filled with collections of chocolate toys, figures and little ornaments packed in festive boxes. Not only are they meant to be put up on the Christmas tree as decorations, but they can be eaten as well, so we have to make sure there’s enough trinkets up there to avoid the Christmas tree going naked 😉

For people like me though, chocolate is an all-year love affair. A cup of hot cocoa is not only a sweet memory of my childhood, but it remains my comfort drink to these days. Here is how I make it:

dsc_0023
3. Transfer into a mug or cup, and stir in a teaspoonful of sugar or honey.

When I want to treat myself or my special people to a quality hot chocolate (horúca čokoláda), I’ll take them to a chocolate house/bar. Now, hot chocolate means different things to different people, and not only in Slovakia. I have drunk hot chocolate in Belgium, Switzerland and England, but none of them tasted the same. Depending on the venue and the price, hot chocolate can be anything from a cheap, thin mixture of some artificial powder with water (at least it tastes like that), to a more pronounced chocolaty drink (I don’t know what they make it from, but it’s more expensive and tastes much better), to a thick, rich, warm chocolate probably made by melting chocolate chips. And this is what I’d call ‘crème de la crème’ of hot chocolate.dsc_0049In Slovakia, this ‘real’ hot chocolate comes in many different flavours (vanilla, cinnamon, chilli) and with various additions (fruit, cream, liquors). Last time we went to our favourite chocolate bar with my daughter, she ordered a mix of dark and white chocolate with vanilla flavour, and I had a dark one with bilberries.

I found mine a little on the sweet side, but I suppose I could have just asked for less sugar in it before serving. All in all, it was a delightful experience, as the place had a very pleasant, cosy ambience, and a beautiful mirror ceiling.

 

Roasted ‘Encian’ with Cranberries

dsc_0034

Most of you will probably associate cranberries with turkey and Thanksgiving, but in Slovakia, we prefer to serve them with game and, quite often, they will also garnish grilled or roasted cheese. It should be said though that only certain types of cheese are suited to pan-roasting, and for this recipe in particular, the choice is even narrower. The good news is that the cheese you will need is available worldwide, though it might be sold under different names.

Encián is the Slovak variety of French Camembert – a soft, creamy cow’s milk cheese with a bloomy edible rind. Like Camembert, Encián is sold whole as small (80 g) or large (110 g) round cheese in cardboard boxes. In the neighbouring Czech Republic, Hermelín cheese is a very close relative to Encián, or perhaps is it vice versa? It’s really difficult to trace the origins of this simple, classic dish, as the Czechs and Slovaks lived together in one country for over seventy years, which explains why their cuisines are so close to each other.

So let’s enjoy one of the Czecho-Slovak dishes, which is perfect for a light dinner, or as a finger-licking treat for your surprise guests. In the recipe below I used the small cheese rounds of 80 g, but larger ones are perfectly fine as well, especially if your family or friends are ‘big eaters’. Also I put to good use the last bottle of the Cranberry Compote left from the previous preserving season.

dsc_0025 Roasted ‘Encian’ with Cranberries
Serves 2

  • 2 Encian rounds (80 g each)
  • 2 heaped tablespoons cranberry compote
  • salt, black pepper, oregano to taste
  • oil for frying
  • fresh vegetables to garnish

Method:

Wash and cut or slice the vegetables. Arrange them on a serving plate.

Warm a pan over a low heat. Brush the cheese rounds all over with oil. Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and oregano to taste. Put the cheese rounds in the pan, increase the heat to medium, and roast on both sides for about 10 minutes. This will ensure the cheese is soft inside and lightly browned on the outside.

dsc_0021

Transfer the warm cheeses on the serving plates, top with the cranberry compote and serve immediately with slices of wholegrain bread.

dsc_0034

Grilled Encián or Hermelín with a cranberry sauce is often prepared fresh at open-air food festivals around Slovakia. You can also get it at Christmas market stalls, which will open in all Slovak towns and cities in about 10 days.

Good news!

dsc_0023

There’s nothing more rewarding for an author than to see their book on a shelf in a real bookstore. More even, if this is a first-time author who has published the book herself after years of working on it and wondering whether all her efforts ever materialize.

I’m quite good at containing my emotions (either positive or negative), and I’m certainly not the one that would dance with her book around the flat taking selfies and posting them online. I don’t go sneaking around that store checking on the number of sold copies (though gosh, how much I’d want to know), but when I got a phone call last night saying ‘we want more of your book’, it sounded like a song to my ears! And I did feel a surge of happiness welling up inside me, filling my eyes with mist. It’s not that I’m desperate to see my name out there along with other well-established authors. I just feel immense gratitude to those who, by buying the book,  quietly acknowledged its worth and dispelled a clump of uncertainties that had accumulated in my mind over the years.

dsc_0031

As I said in the previous post, A Taste of Slovakia is far more than a cookbook. It blends my love of cooking and writing with a new hobby I took up on the way. It was more out of necessity that I started to take pictures – I couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer – but as soon as I grasped the basic techniques, I found myself totally immersed in the new challenge.

The Artforum Žilina bookshop is the only one at the moment to be selling the book, but I’m trying to find more outlets to bring it to a wider audience. It’s not easy, as the market for English books in Slovakia is very small and the wholesale terms & conditions are extremely tough for a self-published author, which you’d expect, wouldn’t you? We’ll have to find a way though, and I’m happy to announce I’ve successfully shipped a few copies around Slovakia recently.

dsc_0028

Until I find reliable, trustworthy partners to help me sell the book outside Slovakia, I can ship individual copies by Slovak registered mail at the rates below:

Europe:  18.80 € (including postage & packing)
Rest of World:  25.80 € (including postage & packing)

As I have found out, the more copies in a package, the less the postage is per item. So if you’d like to own one, just click on the ‘Contact’ button in the top right hand corner of this page and send me an e-mail. I’ll deal with the order according to Slovak trade license conditions, and will dispatch the item(s) together with an invoice that can be paid on the arrival of the book(s).

dsc_0023

As you can see on Cookslovak’s facebook page, the first buyers from Slovakia have already taken a few copies of the book as far as the USA. Let’s hope the tastes of Slovakia will travel happily around the world, and inspire a good many of home cooks 😉