Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ballpark Food (aka my ode to the Rangers in the playoffs)

One of the joys for many in summertime is attending a baseball game.  Ballpark food has certainly evolved from my recollection as a child attending Milwaukee Brewers games in County Stadium.  All I remember eating is a bratwurst or hot dog.  I think Bratwurst was "exotic" outside of northern ball parks such as County Stadium, Wrigley, and Cominsky.  My, how times have changed!

IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to attend a number of Texas Rangers games this year.  He remains a loyal fan from birth, so over the years he has attended many of their games.  There is something so pure about the experience of baseball - I think it transcends generations - the rules remain the same and it's a game children grow up with in America and many Latin American countries.  The same can be said for some of the food - you will find hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels, and Cracker Jack anywhere.  The cuisine (and I say the term loosely) varies geographically.  The Rangers lay claim to ballpark nachos.  Unfortunately, when you get used to good nachos with freshly fried chips, real cheese, and fresh toppings, ballpark nachos can disappoint.  With that in mind, here is my top ten guide to food at The Ballpark in Arlington.  While I wish that the new ownership team would consider revamping the menu to add some choices and some more unique "must get" items, I can always find something to eat.

10.  Stick with the B's - barbecue, bacon, and beer.  The Ballpark offers barbecue sandwiches that, while they will never win an award against a true bbq joint, they are decent and a fairly "Texan" item to choose.  A new favorite is a bacon-wrapped hot dog.  As the saying goes, everything is better with bacon and this certainly is true with this take on tradition.  A hot dog, perfectly cooked, wrapped in a crispy, chewy slice of bacon and served with choices such as grated cheese, bbq sauce, and sauteed onions.  Very yummy and worth seeking out on the main concourse.  Beer is, well, beer.  You can find the typical brands, but recently I've seen a greater variety including both imports and domestic such as Leininkugel's, Sam Adams, and Landshark Lager.  Just don't ask how much they cost!

9.  Know your vendors - better to find out where your favorite noshes are and seek them out than settle for substandard fare.  The main concourse offers the greatest variety, so your best bet if you want something unique (Chicago dogs, Tex-Mex, sandwiches, or healthy fare, for example), better to get those items on the way to your seats than find yourself stuck with more limited options if you're in the Club level (2nd deck) or third deck

8.  Lemon Chill and ice cream cookies - In the middle of summer it's just plain hot and miserable at a ball game.  One of the bright spots (and perhaps one of the most popular) is a lemon chill.  It's basically like an airy frozen lemonade.  Strawberry flavor also available and while it's a bit overly sweet by the end, it's a great option on a hot day.  As for ice cream sandwiches, who doesn't love vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies for about 1 BILLION calories?  It contributes to all the important parts of the body - a cookie for each thigh and the ice cream for the middle!

7.  Captain's Corral (Kids area) - For the bambinos, they offer numerous games and more than just hot dogs.  You can get a PB&J with a side of wiffle ball baseball.

6.  Healthy choices - Bravo to the Rangers for thinking about offering "healthier" options.  I'm not sure they actually have a philosophy for it since I've seen some pretty typical fare there (hot dog!?), but they do offer fresh fruit, which is at least a start.

5.  Tex-Mex treats  - I would never tell you to go to a ball park over a good Tex-Mex restaurant, but if you're looking for a Tex-Mex fix while you're there, options abound.  Standard nachos (chips, day-glo cheese-like substance, and jalapenos), deluxe (with lettuce and tomatoes), fajita nachos, burritos, and taco salads to name a few.  It gives you the flavor profile anyway.

4.  Peanuts and Cracker Jacks - who doesn't love these? 

3.  Ballpark sundaes - My first trip with IceDaddy to The Ballpark he made sure we had sundaes in a souvenier batting helmet.  It just tastes better that way and makes you feel like a kid again. 

2.  Discounts - Thank you Hank Greenberg for running the Blue Light or Red Rally specials!  If the Rangers score in the 5th inning, they run a special in the 6th.  One food/beverage item and one clothing item is discounted during that inning.  I wouldn't say the prices are slashed deeply, but it's a start. Last night, for instance, they offered $1 off of beer during the 6th inning.  I've seen people literally sprint out of their seats to get their special.  Another special?  Hot chocolate is available for only $1.  Frankly, it's been a bit of a joke since the weather has not really helped, but the point of having a food item for a dollar is still a great one.

1.  Garlic fries and The Fry Depot - The Rangers didn't invent the garlic fries (I think Safeco Field might have??), but let me tell you, The Fry Depot station at the Ballpark is probably my very favorite.  Fresh thick-cut fries tossed in a choice of toppings and served in their salty goodness to long lines of patrons.  Our personal fave is the garlic fries.  These are tossed with oil, chopped raw garlic, salt, and dried parsley.  This is literally such a garlicky dish that I've had colleagues ask me if I had a lot of garlic the day before!  You will OOOZE garlic from your pores, but they are awesome.  Runner-up options include cajun fries and sweet potato fries.  Skip the standard fries!

We are Berliners!

Our final stop on the National Lampoon's European Vacation, er our trip to Europe (at times it had the comedy of errors feel that the movie did - imagine shopping for clothes in a country where you speak none of the language due to the airlines screwing up and losing your baggage!  And then nothing fits....).

Anywhoo, Berlin was both the start and stop of our trip.  Though we basically saw none of the city on the way out to Poland, we did have the opportunity to spend a day there on the way back.  We rolled into town after a 5 hour drive from Dachau - not the most positive and uplifiting experience, but one that certainly fit with our theme of touring places with historical significance.  I think what fascinates me about Berlin, other than our familial origins, is how truly new this city is.  From the early 1960s until 1989/1990, it was geographically, politically, socially, and physically defined by a wall.  That wall came down and ushered in a different era.  The city has worked to redefine itself since as a model for tolerance and cosmopolitan style mixed with history and diverse cultures.  You're equally likely to find a kebab place near a biergarten.

My cheese plate

We stayed near Potsdamer Platz which, until 1990 was behind the Iron Curtain.  In the last 20 years it has become an office building mecca.  I'm sure there are those that lament this type of change, including our bike tour guide, but it's fascinating to see the Western development mixed with the traditional East Berlin buildings as well.  Our first meal was at a restaurant located in the Sony Center - a place that demonstrates all things good or bad about capitalism in Potsdamer Platz.  The restaurant, Josty, had a great outdoor patio area where we dined.  I don't think the food was the best or most traditional we would ever have, but the standouts were a sausage/potato soup that Ray inhaled and a mixed cheese plate with a variety of local (read; German) cheeses.  For me, the one I kept going to was a caraway-flavored wine cheese that was like cheese and rye bread all in one.  I know, doesn't sound awesome, but trust me, it was.  For my main course,

I had a bratwurst in onion gravy with a side of bacony potatoes.  I swear that pork fat was running through my arteries this whole trip!   The highlight of our evening was seeing a rollerblade team skate through the Sony Center.  Yeah, I really puzzled on that until we found out the next day that on Saturday they were doing a rollerblade marathon(!)

Our next, and only full day in Berlin, we elected to take a bike ride around the city focusing on both the Cold War history and a few monuments to the Holocaust.  If ever you have the opportunity to tour Berlin via bike, we would highly recommend Fat Tire Bike Tours.  I hoped for a hot Aussie tour guide, but instead got a rather nerdy Canadian.  

The one (of 2) sections of the Berlin
Wall still standing

Oh well...  He managed to interject pithy comments and sarcasm for the benefit of native English speakers.  We enjoyed the sights, but I will say this - Checkpoint Charlie is the cheesiest tourist trap in that city.  Seriously.  It's the worst example of capitalistic influence there.  Aside from that cheeseball event, it was quite enjoyable  During the ride,  I was distracted by the Danish woman in our tour group riding her bike in a micro mini - REALLY!  You'd stare too and marvel how she managed to a) keep her bike upright and in a straighter line that I could and b) keep her lady bits covered.  During our lunch in the biergarten, I asked her about drinking and biking and she said that's pretty much what the Danish do - she only owned a bike. The food in the biergarten was some of the best we'd had - a basic Bavarian pretzel and a sausage in a roll.  Uncomplicated and perfect.

Feeling virtuous from the 6 mile ride (yeah, it was a 4 hour ride and we drank beer in the middle, but go with me), and needing a way to induce a food coma since our hotel room kinda sucked, we decided to have one last traditional (read: heart attack-inducing) meal.  After combing our neighborhood for options, we settled on a small bistro near our hotel.  The menu looked appetizing and it delivered.  We had one of the best meals of the trip - Ice had a breakfast delight (I have no idea of the name but it was something he would definitely eat for breakfast) - sauteed bacony potatoes, sausages, and 3 eggs over medium. 

I decided to go for "lighter" fare - a sauteed pork chop, those same potatoes, and a salad.  This was after our appetizer of tomato soup (me) and sausage/potato soup (Ice).  The pork chop wasn't tender, but it was seriously juicy - made me want to suck on it like a pork lollipop.  It was served with a thin peppercorn sauce that complimented the potatoes and pork nicely.  Oh yeah, and they did a nod to healthy with a cucumber slice, tomato slice and one lettuce leaf.  Yeah, neither of us could finish our meals, but they were darn tasty.

And so closes another adventure in travel and eating.  This trip, a journey to the part of the world from where my family traces their lineage was amazing.  We were able to experience such a variety of cultures and countryside (hello - 1500 miles of driving through Europe!) that, had we not driven, we never would have seen.  I anticipate that my cooking will begin to show influences of the cuisines of Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic (due respect to Poland, we only really had a danish and McDonald's there - thanks American Airlines).  I'm sure Ice won't complain since his words about the food was, "I'm home!"

Friday, October 15, 2010

A taste of Italy all week

I'm catching up on posting from the past month, so this was actually originally written in September.  I'm sure by the time we leave on vacation at the end of September IceDaddy will be tired of my theme, but for some reason, the food that appealed this week was Italian-inspired.  On the list were a plethora of pork products (ooooh love THAT alliteration!) and pasta.  Since we still have summer corn in the stores, I took advantage of that to create a corn and bacon pasta.  One of two "trends" I've noticed in my cooking magazines was to incorporate corn with pasta, which seemed a little unusual to me.  One recipe I found was from Bon Appetit and it used corn to make a pesto.  Sounded good, but somewhat complex for a first go at pairing corn with pasta.  I ended up choosing a "quick" meal of sauteed corn and bacon with a ricotta cream sauce, found in my Cooking Club magazine. 

The dish was unique, but Ice gave it two thumbs up.  It really gets done in phases, so from a make-ahead perspective, cooking the pasta could be done even a day ahead.  If done that way, I would recommend tossing with some olive oil to keep the pasta separated.  I cooked up the thin penne pasta, and set aside while focusing on the sauce.  The bacon was sauteed until crispy.  My twist on the dish was to then saute chicken tenders in the bacon fat.  After the chicken was cooked, I removed to a plate to rest and cut into chunks prior to adding back to the pasta.  Sauteed up corn (fresh cut from the cob) in the pan, added basil, ricotta cheese, and pasta water.  That is the secret to creating a creamy sauce without heavy cream.  Once heated through, I added in the pasta, chicken, and bacon to toss.  A great way to celebrate the end of summer corn.

Now, Ice won't partake, but I LOVE brussel sprouts.  I don't know why, but it's just one of those "weird" foods that I eat and have loved since I was a kid.  If you like cabbage, I think you'd like this.  Cooking Light  had a recipe for sauteed brussel sprouts with shallots.  Pretty simple - cut up a boatload of shallots (definitely don't buy at the regular grocery store as you'll spend like $3 on enough shallots to make the recipe - buy at the produce market), trim up the brussel sprouts and slice thinly (I cut the bottom off, then sliced into thirds), mince two garlic cloves, and get cooking!  Saute up the shallots until soft in some olive oil (medium-high heat), add garlic, then brussel sprouts, 1 tsp of sugar, and cook about 5 minutes until the sprouts are brown.  Season with salt and pepper and serve!  I think they were tasty good and had both the sharpness of the sprouts and the sweetness of the carmelized shallots and sugar.

I have to admit, I succumbed to a pre-prep ingredient this week - mushroom ravioli from the refrigerated section of the supermarket.  I was buying the ricotta for the corn and bacon pasta and noticed a new line of fresh ravioli at Target - Monterey Pasta Company.  I found a limited edition portabella mushroom ravioli.  It spoke to me, and I anticipated the need for a quick meal at least one night this week.  Since I had some fresh tomato sauce from last week left over, I was able to make a meal in about 10 minutes - 5 to boil the fresh ravioli, then another 5 to heat up the tomato sauce, saute some prosciutto until crispy, and then mixing them together.  Yum!  The mushroom ravioli was limited edition to take advantage of the seasonal produce, so I'm not sure how long it will be around, but I plan to buy a few more! 

Rounding out the week was a sandwich.  First up is the sandwich.  It was a riff on a Cooking Light recipe from the same edition on a mozzarella, ham, and basil panini.    I paired ciabatta bread with fresh mozzarella, sliced prosciutto, and mustard, cooked on a griddle and pressed.  When Ice and I were in Florence last year, we fell in love with a mozzarella and prosciutto panini, so while I respect the use of ham in CL (a more commonly available ingredient), there's just something about the taste of the prosciutto that is more successful with mozzarella - they just scream "eat us together!"  I decided to pair the sandwich with a recipe I had at my brother's house last week that was so different but really amazing - blackened green beans.  Yep - I know it sounds bizarre, but go with me on this.  There is a local burger place in Philly that basically takes green beans, adds oil and blackening seasoning, and cooks them up crisp-tender.  Not that it's a substitute for potato chips, but it does add the crispy texture and salty flavor.

Blackened Green Bean "Fries"
1 lb fresh green beans, trimmed
1/2 - 1 Tbsp. blackening seasoning (pre-prepared or make your own)
1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. olive oil, divided

Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt liberally.  Blanch the green beans in the boiling water.  Remove and add to ice bath of water, salt, and ice.  (The water should taste like the ocean).  After the green beans have cooled, remove to paper towels and blot dry.  In a bowl, add the green beans and 2 tsp olive oil.  Toss to coat.  Add blackening seasoning and mix.  Heat a skillet to medium-high heat and add 1 Tbsp. olive oil.  When oil is hot, add the green beans.  Saute the green beans until heated through, about 2 - 3 minutes.  Serve immediately.


Beer in Bavaria

Our first impression of Oktoberfest
I don't know about you, but I've always had on my bucket list to go to Germany.  I think part of it is that I am half-German (my mother's side), so I've always associated identified with the food and culture of both Germany and Poland (the other part of my heritage).  It was with great excitement that we had the opportunity to travel to Germany this past week.  As part of that, we decided to stop in Munich to attend Oktoberfest.


I have to say, driving into Munich, I wasn't sure what to expect from Oktoberfest.  I've heard mixed things - the drunken loutish behavior, the fun times, the heavy alcohol consumption, etc.  Upon arrival, we entered our very "formal" hotel - lots of wood, chintz, etc. after seeing our more "informal" neighborhood complete with strip clubs, bollywood fashion, small grocery market, and various restaurants and bars.  Dropping off the bags, we headed out in the general direction of the Oktoberfest grounds, about a 10 minute walk.

Hoffbrau Beer Tent
We received the best tip of the trip from some people that we talked to on the street hailing from Chicago.  They warned us against actually finding places in the beer halls and instead to check out the beer gardens (biergarten).  If the weather is nice, you get a breeze to accompany the beer.  Inside the "tent" (really an actual wooden building), it's stuffy, overcrowded, and rowdy.  That could be fun too, but I'm not really a fan of sitting on vomit while trying to eat.  We immediately headed to the most well-known place, Hoffbrau Haus and found empty tables in the back of the biergarten.  Score!  We played like all the others and ordered two liter mugs of pilsner. 

It was pretty good, but knowing that we potentially had a looooong night ahead, we wisely also ordered 1/2 roasted chicken.  Yummy - crispy skin, properly rendered, and tender meat that only needed a knife to separate from the bone.  Later, we also polished off an order of spareribs.  The only blight to those?  Their version of bbq sauce was - literally - Heinz 57!  We tucked into two more beers - Ice had another liter, while I had half-and-half - a mix of beer and Sprite.  Can't say I loved it, but it probably did save me a hangover!  Our evening ended with a lively discussion that included two Americans from upstate NY, a group of young Aussies, and a recently divorced German man that we instructed on the finer points of throwing a Halloween party.

The remains of Hoffbrau lunch...
and pretzel!
 The next day, we decided that we needed a bit of respite.  We slept late and meandered our way to Marienplatz (center of town) to hear the Glockenspiel play and have lunch at Hoffbrau Haus (the original).  Their efficiency is a cross between a Vegas buffet serving thousands and a pub like The Flying Saucer.  The oompa band plays, people sing, and you can enjoy a variety of Bavarian fare with (generally) English-speaking staff.  I stuck with the tried-and-true - Bratwurst plate with potato salad (we would call it German potato salad) and sauerkraut.  The bratwurst was yummy - mildly seasoned and the potato salad was typical of the style, but the sauerkraut was the closest to my gramma's I've tasted - porky goodness with both a sweet and sour taste. 

It's a meat fest!
 Ice had the sausage platter consisting of a variety of sausages.  The sauerkraut was his, but, he's not into kraut, so I took that from him. 

Sausage, kraut, and potato salad
The final highlight is the Bavarian pretzel.  It's the size of my head and manages to have both crunchy and chewy elements.  It's richer and more malty-tasting than a typical American pretzel and paired nicely with the beer.  Heading back to our hotel, we acquired some chocolates from a local shop and some gelato because a trip to Europe would not be complete without it.  We ended up consuming the chocolates en route to Berlin and, well, apparently they like hard liquor in their candy - woah!  We also made about our 5th trip to Mickey D's to get ice cold sodas.  If you've been to Europe, you understand the luxury of a drink with ice on a hot day after lots of beer and walking.

Pretzel Love!

Our final foray into Bavarian adventure was to return to Oktoberfest and find another tent.  After about an hour of wandering in and out of the various tents that were absolutely bursting with occupants, we managed to squeeze into a spot in the Schottenhamel biergarten.  We settled in for a round of liters and light conversation with the Aussies next to us.  Later, we engaged in a conversation with perhaps the only American Football fan in Dusseldorf!  Ray and he had such a wonderful time that we ended up heading to the Spaten beer tent for afterhours drinking.  Beer tents generally close by 11 pm (so therefore you have to start drinking early in the day based on that principle, right?), with the exception of one that gets a late license until around 12:30 or 1 a.m.  And yes, we closed it down with the Dusseldorf boys!   


Monday, October 11, 2010

Prague... Or the place Ice thinks cooks food just for him

The roadside diner's version of
 So, after the vodka fest of Slovakia, we drove with my brother and his wife to Prague, Czech Republic.  It was a wonderful road trip since I had people to talk to while Ice drove and a native speaker that could actually converse and order food in a way that would guarantee better service.  We stopped near Bratislava (a gateway to a bunch of countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria to name a few) and ate Goulash.  This is as varied a recipe as you can find.  This version was a thin tomato-based broth spiced liberally with caraway and mustard seeds with chunks of potato and beef  and served with a side of bread.  Not bad, and only about $6 per person, a relative bargain and eaten outdoors on a beautiful day, even better.

Upon arrival in Prague, I was treated to Ice's version of parallel parking on the left side of the street.  All I can say is the city is hilly like San Francisco, cobbled like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, and with the narrow street feel of Rome, but without the psycho scooter drivers.  Actually, Prague is gorgeous and really worth seeing.  It has the charm of Florence, Italy, is clean, and very American friendly.  Our first evening, we ate at a local bistro where we had perhaps some of the best food in the trip.  B, my brother, chose goulash.  This version, however, was a rich, thick, and beefy concoction with much more developed flavors.  M, his wife, chose a sauteed pork chop with a thin peppercorn gravy.  She also ordered a side of "white bread dumplings." 

Wonderbread meets country biscuit

The process to make them is apparently complicated, but I literally thought it tasted like a steamed piece of Wonder Bread - a very spongy, soft texture.  By itself, rather plain, but the peppercorn sauce elevated it.  As Ice described it, "this is like the Czech version of biscuits and gravy!"  Two thumbs up!

Ice had a breaded and sauteed pork cutlet (good, but unremarkable) and I had the dish of the night.  It was a crock of porky goodness - pieces of bacon, ham, and sausage with sauteed potatoes baked together in a crock.  It was so rich I barely touched the dish, but I had plenty of help to finish it as it was just about the best thing ever.  If I learn to make this, Ice will never leave me.  Some men's hearts are through their stomachs.  I think, in the case of my husband, it's his body, mind, heart, and soul.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Americanized Italian - From Biba's Italian Kitchen

At my favorite bookstore Half Price Books, I was browsing the other day.  My first stop - cookbooks, of course, and more specifically, clearance cookbooks.  While there is generally an overabundance of crappy items in that section, you never know what you might find.  This was one such trip.  I've been grooving on Italian food lately.  Perhaps because the flavor profiles are already familiar to most Americals from birth, the cruise to the Mediterranean last year, or because of the mozzarella making class we did this summer, but I keep coming back to those flavors.  Italian flavors make sense and even the simplest of preparations can taste amazing with the right ingredients.

I've debated whether my Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian is the right Italian cookbook for me at this time.  So, for the bargain price of $2.00, I uncovered From Biba's Italian Kitchen.  Biba's book really had appeal - a variety of simply prepared fare that covered the gamut from appetizers to pastas, to main dishes, with a few desserts thrown in for good measure.  Desserts were a weak point, but since I've now mastered homemade limoncello, once I serve that, people won't care what actually gets served with it.  If the taste doesn't wow them, the Everclear will knock them silly.

Upon delving into Biba's book (based on the TLC series she hosted in the 1990's), I discovered a number of dishes that appear to be inspired by Biba's childhood in Italy and did not appear overly authentic, at least compared to other cookbooks I've read.  Authentic or no, the recipes were appealing.  For my inaugural Biba meal, I selected an Italian version of an American standard - meatloaf.  I chose to pair that with homemade pasta and Biba's recipe for tomato sauce.  On the side was a skewer of baby bella mushrooms layered with sauteed pancetta and fresh sage leaves. 

Overall, my biggest disappointment in Biba's book was the pasta recipe - she calls for all-purpose flour and eggs.  I really had to wonder if, at the moment that cookbook was authored, it really was hard to locate semolina flour in the average supermarket or Whole Foods.  I absolutely, after trying the Frugal Gourmet's pasta recipe (which uses a mixture of bread flour and semolina) could not fathom just using AP flour.  Perhaps she knows something I don't but I'm willing to bet that if the cookbook were updated (15 years later), she would have updated her recipe.  I chose to use my old standby FG recipe and of course the results did not disappoint.  I did like the simple "gravy" of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and salt/pepper.  It was a nice, simple sauce that I can throw together in 15 minutes (and with canned organic or San Marzano tomatoes still tasted good).  I chose to puree (love the stick blender honey!), and served over both the pasta and the meatloaf.

The absolute hit of the meal was the meatloaf.  Most of the recipe is similar to what you'd probably expect - you take white bread, soak in milk, wring out, then add the beef, fresh chopped parsley, eggs, salt/pepper.  The three "twists" if you will are - adding grated parmesan, the addition of pancetta (Italian bacon - if you can't get pancetta, use a couple strips of regular bacon chopped up) - chopped up and added to the meat, and rolling, yes rolling, the meatloaf in dry plain breadcrumbs, then browning in a pan before baking.  This one technique absolutely made the difference in this meatloaf.  I'm not a big meatloaf fan, but I will DEFINITELY make this again.  It wasn't the easiest technique to turn a 2-lb meat hunk held precariously together with beaten egg and soft bread, but the end result was worth it.  The other trick?  After about 30 minutes of baking, she has you add thinly sliced onion to the pan and mix with the pan juices, then bake 30 more minutes.  If you're a fan of carmelized onions you will be in absolute onion heaven! 

While I have to try a few more recipes to give Biba a more permanent spot on my shelf, she has earned the right for at least a few more recipe sessions!

Though I didn't serve this with the meal, I did make this salad this weekend and it would be a GREAT addition to the meal during the summer.  I know it sounds unappealing, but having tried it, I am a believer now!  The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit.

Watermelon/Tomato Salad
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed in 1/2 inch chunks
2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped into chunks
2 - 3 green onions, finely chopped (green parts only)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 - 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled

Cut up watermelon and tomato and add to bowl.  Mix in green onions.  In a separate bowl, add olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste (you generally want a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part acid for a vinaigrette.  I tend to like more acid, so I add more, but create to your taste).  Pour vinaigrette over watermelon/tomato mixture.  Add Feta and mix to incorporate.  Serve chilled.

Holiday Road - The Hambrick's European Adventure Part 1 - Slovakia

Sadly, we tried McDonald's in 3
countries - it was easy to order

Guten tag dear readers! I write this sitting in Berlin, Germany, which is about as exciting as it gets! IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to travel back to Europe much sooner than we planned courtesy of my baby brother getting married here! Well, not here, but in Central Europe. His bride, though now living in the US, was originally from Slovakia. For those that don't know the history or location, the blog posting will probably give you WAY too much info, but if you're ever planning to travel there, I hope this provides you valuable tips as a fellow foreigner. Beyond the history info, I'm going to describe the non-traditional wedding feast we enjoyed since it was so unique and absolutely delicious!

Slovak Republic history - Slovakia for short, is a country of beautiful hills, mountains, and sparse population. The largest city, Bratislava, has about 1,000,000 people. The next biggest city, Kosice (pronounced Co-sheet-za), has about half of that. Slovakia became its own country in 1993 after separation from the Czech Republic (together forming Czechoslovakia prior to 1993). The separation, termed The Velvet Revolution, successfully saw the removal of the authoritarian government. Today, the countries exist separately and are part of the European Union.

We actually stayed about as far East in Slovakia as you can before coming to the Ukraine, nearby to a village Michalovce. Our hotel and the wedding were both about 15 minutes from the village, but in opposite directions. The hotel, Hotel Euro Penzion Salas, was a hidden gem. It is located on a lake popular for outdoor activities in the summer. As we were traveling in late September, they were in the off season and thus we were two of only a few guests. The room is huge - three separate areas for bathroom, bedroom, and a living room opening to our own private balcony. It was a rustic lodge feel, and other than the bed (not comfy by American standards though others in the wedding group said theirs were fine - could have been ours), and bathroom (a little dated), this place ooozed warmth and charm. They recently renovated all of the outside areas with new flagstone steps, garden, and outdoor searting (easily seating 100+ on their patio).

Now, we later found out that basically NO American tourists really ever visit this area. It's literally backing up to the Ukraine, so you have to travel pretty far (about 3 hours from Budapest, Hungary). That mean that the entire town was fascinated by our visit. Not only was my brother (the new husband) there, but myself, IceDaddy, and a friend of my brother who was working in Paris and flew in. None of us four spoke any Slovenska upon arrival, but trust me, the universal language of both food and love (ok shots of vodka if I'm being honest) enabled us to understand each other.

One of many vodka shots
After a long, fairly arduous drive from Wroclaw, Poland, we arrived at M's (the bride) family home. This drive involved highways to Krakow and country roads after. When I say country roads, I kid you not when there were places it was one lane because the road fell off the mountain and they just put up a barricade rather than fixing it.

After about 10 hours of driving plus two hours of having to find clothes because of American Airlines screw-up, we made it to M's family home. The drive was worth it - they immediately welcomed us with shots of vodka, both homemade and non. Now, neither Ice nor I are vodka experts, but I generally know a good from a bad (at least in terms of how "harsh" it goes down. If ever you think to try Nikolai vodka, you might want to reconsider - it's a bit harsh. Now, we also had some homemade liquor that literally tasted like a reposado tequila. I have no idea how they make it, but it wasn't bad. Ice was driving, so he had one and tried a local beer. For those used to our typical American bottles, these were more like "40's."

Everyone was so excited for our visit - I think M's mom and sister were glad to entertain. First we had a delicious chicken soup with homemade noodles (vermicelli-like). I am no big fan of chicken soup, but this one was great, and as a person that makes my own noodles, I really respected the work that went into the dish. From there, they brought out local bread (a cross between rye and white bread), pickles, along with homemade smoked kielbasy (their spelling) and smoked pork shoulder. When I tell you this was smoked for 3 days, the smoke ring basically went to the center of the meat. I would put the flavors up to Texas bbq (though different from that). With pride, we were told by M's dad that the pork was from their own pig that they butchered. When I say they butchered it, I don't mean she was sent off to the sausage factory. I mean they butcher the pig in their backyard. Wow!!

Our main course was a simple meal of a chicken stew (similar to tetrazzini) and rice. Tasty and filling, especially after only eating McDonald's in Poland because we could order there - Mc Royal with cheese does translate! Now, the other part of their culture is to celebrate with drinks. As Ice was driving, I shared several shots of vodka with M's dad (four in about 40 minutes). For those that know me, I'm not used to drinking like that, but blessedly, I think the food absorbed a good amount of the alcohol (thanks for the idea of the asparagus sandwich Collin!), so I managed ok. I think we all knew what we might be in for the next day however....

The wedding couple... Congrats!
 Wedding day!!! The day began early with the wedding at 9 am and a little breakfast snack. The same pork, kielbasy, and bread were present, plus ham sandwiches with hardboiled egg and pickle. They also had a savory biscuit (more like a cookie) made with pork fat. The ceremony was Greek Catholic (an offshoot of Catholicism more common in that area) where the priest said a full mass and then Brad and Marianna took their vows. Not knowing any of the language, we just took in the beauty of the hand painted frescoes on the ceiling and walls in this picturesque 100+ year old church. Following pictures, we traveled back to M's house for a celebratory shot and thus the party began at 10:30 a.m. Happily, the reception was to be at the same location as we were staying, so drinking could commence in earnest....

M and B (the wedding couple) wanted to have a meal of mostly traditional Slovak cuisine as this would be our first exposure to it. Additionally, instead of the usual all-night event, they wanted to have the event from around 1 pm until 8 or 9 pm to allow for a reasonable amount of rest. That or they were afraid we couldn't "hang" with the locals if you will.... I think what they ended up doing was just perfect - it was a really nice event, we had amazing food, and the attendees (mostly) did not get sloshingly drunk.

Now, the table was set a bit differently than perhaps we are used to. Each person had a plate and silverware (two sets), but in addition to that was a highball glass (to be used for soda or sparkling water), a wine glass filled with a sweet wine and lemon slice (called a "martini" in France)... and a shot glass. There were a planned six courses, plus the table contained fresh fruit, nuts and pastries. Now, I hadn't mentioned them, but the pastries were actually different types of layered tortes - each with different flavors and sliced into modest portions. I had assumed they were ordered from a bakery, but M informed us that neighbors baked them and sent them over as a wedding gift. Literally there was probably a full sheet cake of them, plus a wedding cake for later. The snacks were intended to tide us over during the time between courses. This was going to be a 7 hour meal.

Our first course was actually a surprise - prosciutto and mozzarella with fresh tomatoes. Nope, not traditional, but tasty. The tomatoes literally tasted garden fresh and, based on the observation of how many people have gardens and grow a fair amount of summer produce, I definitely believe these were locally grown. Ice was pleased since this reminded him of our trip to Rome last year and the flavors definitely mirrored that. It was a great (and light) start to the meal. Additionally, there were two "martini" toasts. The martini is basically a sweet white wine with the lemon slice. A summer cocktail if you will.

First course

Next up was chicken soup, similar to what we had the day before, but just not as tasty. I guess mom does make it best! This was one of the longest pauses between courses after that. There started to be a fair amount of vodka toasts as the couple made the rounds of the table. 30 people were at the main table, with 6 to the side in a room decorated like a bavarian country chalet. We sampled the pastries (lemon torte was the best) and visited with B's American friend. At this point of the day, the game plan for survival emerged. We were constantly requested to do a toast with Hrushka (a pear vodka), Nikolai vodka, or another spirit. Knowing that it would be both foolish and impossible to drink every time offered, we started rotating who would take a shot, taking 1/4 or 1/2 shots, and eating bread and snacks. Among the four Americans, we took upwards of 40 shots (again, not all full shots). I personally had 10 (some 1/4 or 1/2) by the end of the evening - absolutely a record by far.

Third course

Third course was perhaps the most unusual to me, though I'm told it's traditional there - a fried pork chop topped with a gravy made with chicken breast pieces, peas, and carrots (like a tetrazzini), fried potato wedges, rice and a garnish of a tomato slice and lettuce. It tasted good, but just was something I had to accept as different - I would not think to put the chicken "gravy" over the fried pork chop. Tasty either way.

Fourth course was a sweet course - potato pancakes (but more like a crepe) with a strawberry jam and chocolate. Delicious, but with so much ahead (and to come), we paced ourselves accordingly. The interim course (I say that because it wasn't designated as its own) was a smorgasboard of stewed beets and cabbage, kielbasy, pierogi, and condiments such as sour cream and mustard. I have to say, I expected the pierogi to be the best I've had, and they were tasty, but not the most amazing thing I ate. They were a dough with dill and a cheese filling.

The Duck

Potato Pancakes

The piece de resistance of the meal was a course of duck legs that I believe were first cooked confit and then roasted to crisp the skin. Paired with delectable potato pancakes dripping with butter, it was a decadent end to the meal. Ice voted the duck as the best, where B and I absolutely loved the pancakes.

The wedding cake was almost an afterthought - people actually forgot to eat it (there was no big fanfare for cutting the cake), but it was good - chocolate cake layered torte-style with chocolate mousse filling.  I would be lying if I said that the wedding cake eating was the end - rather, people began to dance to the traditional Slovak music (including all of us) and continue to toast the occasion with vodka (now including Finlandia). With the "divide and conquer" strategy, we all managed to finish the night and just relaxed after the guests had gone.

We are so grateful to the hospitality and warmth shown by the Slovak people - everyone was helpful and friendly and welcomed us openly. We wish that more people could experience a tradition such as this - for us fast-paced Americans, it represents a reminder to slow down and enjoy something different and to truly savor the experience both before and after. I know we did!