Wednesday, March 30, 2011

European Cooking 2&3: Hungarian Paprika and Czech Semolina

I’m dying to share pictures and stories from this past weekend’s trip to the Moeraki Boulders and Otago Peninsula, but I’m waiting on some photos from a friend to make it complete.  In the meantime, I can give you something small to munch on: my second and third cooking classes.

Last week we took a quick trip to Hungary and were introduced to the slightly sweeter Hungarian paprika, of which Chef Zuzana dumped copious amounts into both our soup and entrée.  After a quick intro, the class proceeded much like the first one.  Zuzana gave us recipes that we barely glanced at the entire class, (in fact, they turned out to be so insignificant that I forgot mine on the counter at the end of the night - oops!), we each took turns stepping forward for different tasks, and we went much later than anticipated, (I got home close to 10 pm).  This is what we came up with:

[Halászlé (Fish) Soup: We made our fish stock the authentic way - with actual fish heads.  Zuzana refuses to do it any other way.  We boiled these and two bodies of some type of sea fish (she wasn’t sure what kind specifically - she was too upset that she could find a freshwater trout which would have been more traditional).  A small catastrophe stuck as we attempted to get the heads out of the water.  Long story short, much of our fish ended up in the sink.  We cleaned it up and added the veggies and wine.  Very light and tasty, despite my usual aversion to fish-based dishes.  Though I could have done without the aftertaste that hit me hours later...]

[Hungarian Goulash: We browned some chucks of pork and added two huge cans of sauerkraut - a very different dish than the soupy goulash I’ve had before.  Add some chopped onions and garlic (don’t forget the paprika, wine and salt), and it was ready for the oven.  Again, tasty, but a new taste for me.  I enjoy sauerkraut now and then on my sausages or hot dogs, but this was quite a bit in one go.  It definitely added to that fishy aftertaste I had going later...]

[Traditional Apple Strudel: Yummmmm.  Any uneasiness I had experienced while eating the first two dishes was completely made up for by this delicious dessert.  We didn’t have time to make our own phyllo dough, but we layered it with lotttssss of butter and poured chunks of apples, cinnamon, sugar, and rum-soaked raisins inside.  After emerging from the oven, we barely gave it any time to cool before digging in.]

This week we covered the Czech Republic, Zuzana’s homeland.  She came prepared with easy, no-fail favorites that she uses for pot-lucks.  This class was a little crazier than the last two.  Zuzana had been running to class following a busy shift at the hospital (did I mention she’s a nurse?) and had accidentally forgotten some crucial ingredients, like onions.  Everyone was also much more confident this week, and soon all three dishes were being made at once.  I stood back and watched as well as I could while everything went a little too fast.  Luckily, someone soon made a quick run for the missing ingredients and Zuzana did her best to slow the class down.  Some steps were accidentally skipped in the mess, but it all worked out pretty well in the end:

[‘Orange’/Yeast Soup: The base of the soup was nothing but veggie stock, some seasoning, grated carrots, and yep, yeast.  We made dumplings out of semolina and eggs, and as the soup simmered, we dropped the dough in little bits at a time.  At the very end, we mixed in a couple beaten eggs for texture.  It had a pretty interesting and light taste.  The yeast wasn’t too overpowering, but it definitely made itself known.]

[Plnená Paprika (Stuffed Peppers in Tomato Sauce): The title is pretty descriptive.  We mixed together some raw minced beef with uncooked rice, garlic, onion and seasoning and stuffed it into hollowed-out green peppers.  The sauce was simply tomatoes, onions, flour, and seasonings - but very tasty.  This may have been my favorite entrée so far.  Very filling with a nice, but not too strong taste.]

[Bublanina (Plum Semolina Cake): Again, yummmmm.  Another nice simple recipe consisting of plain and semolina flours, sugar, eggs, etc. with canned plums dropped into it right before baking.  Powdered sugar thrown on top before serving, and it was the perfect end to a nice dinner.]

[So tasty that I might have gone back for seconds... and possibly thirds...]

Though I’m excited to see what happens next week with Portuguese food, I’m sad to that the class will be over so soon.  I’ve been exposed to some very new tastes, and even though they may not be my new favorites, I’m glad I’ve gotten to try some new things.  I’ve come to realize how narrow my cooking scope is (sautéed veggies, cheese, and pasta, and I’m set), so it was definitely time for me to step out of that comfort zone for a bit.  Luckily my flatmates like different types of food, too, and are excited to expose me to some Indian, Japanese, Thai, etc. dishes while we’re here.  The foreign food restaurants are plentiful here, and I’ve only had small tastes at home.  These choices aren’t as readily available back in central PA - and when I do find them, I have no idea where to start. I usually run to the nearest Olive Garden instead.  (Or better yet, cook a yummy pasta dish at home.)  Maybe I’ll get lucky and will find some new flavors to bring back - but my home favorites are pretty hard to beat.  Dinner at the flat tonight: Italian-dressing-marinated steaks, roasted potatoes with thyme, and garlicky, buttered green beans.  It doesn’t get much better :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Catlins: Wet, but Wonderful

This past weekend I hitched a ride with my flatmate Julia and her friends as we made our way down to The Catlins region on the southeast coast for a one-night camping extravaganza.  (Though New Zealand definitely has me missing the convenience of having my own car, I’m enjoying being the tag-along for once.  Much less stress!)  Honestly I hadn’t heard of the Catlins before Julia mentioned the open van seat, but a quick web search left me drooling over pictures of beautiful coastline, waterfalls, and penguins.  How could I say no?  I got my gas money ready.  And even though this last excursion left me sneezing, coughing and bed-ridden for a day, I’m sure you’ll soon agree the sites were well worth it.

Stop I - Roaring Bay
After driving for nearly two hours and getting a little antsy while watching the amazing scenery roll by the van windows, we made our first stop at Roaring Bay.  It promoted penguin viewing, but alas!  Thwarted again.  I guess the Bay itself kinda made up for it...

[Cheesy pose?  Maybe... or maybe I was just trying to hugging myself against the freezing ocean breeze.
Photo by Alicia M.] 

[Picture of Roaring Bay when we first rolled up]

[After following a steep gravel path, we were able to get a bit closer.  There was a smaller, even steeper muddy path that led to the water’s edge, but since it was ‘penguin time’ (after 4 pm) we weren’t allowed to get too close.]

Stop II - Nugget Point
Another five minute drive and we were finally there - Nugget Point.  This had been on both Julia’s and I’s list thanks to our geology/env. science backgrounds.  I guess New Zealand is the place to be if you get easily excited about cool-shaped rocks...

[The lighthouse we walked out to...]

[The Nuggets!]

[The shot of our path snaking back to the carpark. On our way back, we were greeted by many fur seals taking a break from the waves in some small pools.  The babies were so cute as they flopped from pool to pool.  Too far away for a picture, but definitely adorable :) ]

[Nuggets & Me]

Stop III - Curio Bay
Back in the car for another two hour drive!  Just as we were leaving Nugget Point, a light drizzle started up.  As we rolled into our campsite for the evening, the rain was coming down in buckets and with no signs of stopping.  I was thoroughly soaked after setting up our too-large, four-man tent (in the dark, I might add).  While camping right on the coast might be nice on a warm, clear night, the cold, strong winds we had to endure were not so pleasant.  Our tent was taller than the ferns and grasses that surrounded our campsite, so we dealt with tent sides slapping us in the face nearly every five seconds as we tried to shield our ears from the pounding rain.  At one point, our rain fly even tore off (thank goodness it was during a brief break in the precipitation), and we had to go digging for the stakes in the mud.  Definitely not the ideal situation... but eventually exhaustion took over and the three of us staying in the tent somehow got a couple hours of sleep.  Thanks to my rain-drenched hair, I woke up the next day sniffling and sneezing.  Greeaaat.  At least we were heading home after just a couple more stops...

[Curio Bay, near our campsite.  This was taken the morning after our wonderful camping experience.  Still a little grey, but much nicer than just a few hours beforehand...]

[The kelp was EVERYWHERE.  Apparently this is pretty common (my CA flatmate made fun of me as I freaked out over my pictures), but I’ve never seen anything like it.  They reminded me of beached squid carcasses... at least they felt like I imagine squid to feel.]

[Huge, crashing waves!]

[The rock platforms (for lack of a better geological term) were so pretty as the wave water ran down their sides...]

[Soooo pretty]

[We were pretty high up, but the waves were still coming in close]

Stop IV - Petrified Forests
So, I don’t know what I was expecting after hearing the term ‘Petrified Forests.’  Guess I got my tree-loving hopes up a little too much... but it was still cool.  Just a little rocky for my taste.  We went here after packing up at Curio Bay:

[Closest thing to a penguin that I’ve found yet]

[Petrified Tree.  It took a while to start seeing them in the rocks, but after we found our first few, they started popping out everywhere.]

[Warm little pools stuck in between the petrified trees/rocks]

Stop V - McLean Falls
After a refreshing stop at a cafe (where I got the biggest, fluffiest scone I have EVER eaten), we made our way to the waterfalls.  A fifteen-minute walk into the rainforest, and this is what we found...

[McLean Falls]

[More McLean.  We were standing RIGHT there.  I didn’t zoom in for this picture at all.]

[A shot of our rainforest path]

Stop VI - Cannibal Bay
Finally, on our way back home.  I was having a good time enjoying the beautiful sights, but the sinus pressure was getting worse and worse with every hour.  One more stop, and then I was happy to be heading back to Dunedin.

[Quick shot of the countryside on our way to the Bay.  Pretty breath-taking, huh?]

[Cannibal Bay.  This bay was much flatter than the other ones we had visited, giving it a beach-ier feel]

[A friend we met on the beach, though this big guy wasn’t too happy to be disturbed during nap time.  My first sea lion!  And he was almost as scary as he was cute.  Don’t think I’ll be getting that close again - he moved a bit faster than anticipated.]

[Hillside at Cannibal Bay.  Note both the sideways tree (all of them were like that permanently due to the strong sea winds) and the sheep (a whole field of them right next to the beach - only in NZ).]

An hour and a half later, and we were finally home.  I got to see quite a bit (just a fraction of what the Catlins have to offer), but I was pretty excited to take a warm shower, put on my sweats, and crawl into bed.  I slept quite a bit the next day, went through a couple packs of tissues and a jug of orange juice on Monday, and was good to go by Tuesday night.  Thank goodness it was a short cold - such a small price to pay for the nice visit.

Granted I can get through some more schoolwork in the next two days (I decided to stick with all of my classes despite still feeling a little overwhelmed), a few friends and I have decided to stay around the Dunedin area and do some exploring here this coming weekend.  Otago Peninsula (and penguins, darn it!!!), here I come!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

European Cooking Class 1: French Cuisine

Why have I never taken a community cooking class before?!?  (My Google search actual gave me the answer earlier today: because there are NONE offered in central PA.  Please, somebody tell me I’m wrong.)  Granted, the course was not as hands-on as I would have liked, nor was it as organized as it should have been, but I still went skipping back to my flat an hour later than previously anticipated, tummy both full and content.

Our teacher, Zuzana Blazov Tichy, was brought up in Slovakia, but her accent and knowledge of where to find the cheap herbs implied that she’s been in or around Dunedin for a while.  She’s passionate about food and cooking, and her energy was quickly transferred to the class’s dozen or so students.  Though we were all timid at first, she handed out tasks along the way and each of us got to play our part in making our delicious French dinner.  (Guess who got stuck with the onions?)  She gave us all recipes to take home, though I believe I only saw her glance at her copies once or twice, and I did my best to jot down her deviations.  Despite the organizers of the class failing to provide Zuzana with many of the basic tools she would need for the food prep (ie. baking sheets, knives, etc.), she kept an upbeat attitude as we improvised our way through the three dishes.

Her philosophy appeared to be, ‘As long as there’s still wine in the bottle or salt in the dish, the food doesn’t taste quite right.’  And man, did that attitude pay off:

[French Onion Soup.  A dish that reminds me of home, as it is one of my mom’s favorites.  Zuzana used both chicken and beef broth, and I liked how it gave it a slightly lighter flavor.  The toasted bread and freshly grated cheese made the dish, of course.]

[Coq au Vin. (Chicken with Wine)  Very, very tasty.  Zuzana recommended using thighs over breasts (with almost any dish, actually) because breasts are often too dry and chewy once cooked.  And the meat did fall off of the thigh bones quite nicely... The copious amounts of red wine, fresh herbs and chunks of super-thick bacon didn’t hurt either.  Served over linguine.]

[Galette des Rois. (King’s Cake)  Mmmmmm... Puff pastry shell filled with almond/rum custard.  How could you go wrong?  Apparently this dessert is served on Three Kings Day in January and often with a small bean or token inside - whoever finds it is king for a day!  Can be filled or topped with chocolate and/or fruits as well.]

(All photos by Sumin P., a classmate)

Can’t wait ’til next week!  She hadn’t decided between Hungarian or Portuguese - and I will complain about neither.  It was so nice to just forgot about classes and being in a new country for a while and instead simply cook and eat good food.  We were all much more relaxed by the time the meal was served, and we shared some light chit-chat over our bowls of steaming food.

Just a few days of classes to wrap up, some assignments to start/finish last minute, and then another weekend begins!  I’m looking forward to this one - and not just because of the trip I have planned.  My relaxed cooking fun was quickly replaced with a homework frenzy as my classes began to pick up steam.  Combine this franticness with a bad case of homesickness, and I’m pretty worn out.  I believe I will be dropping a class tomorrow (my intro. food science course - too much busy work) so I can spend more time focusing on my upper-level studies and actually enjoying my beautiful surroundings.  I’ve already plowed through far too many hard semesters at Juniata to pass up my opportunity to stretch my wings on the other side of the world.

Oh well - no worries!  It’ll all work out.  And none of this will stop me from enjoying my time at The Catlins this coming weekend - stay tuned!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Eco-tour to the Karitane Peninsula

And so begins the never-ending search for penguins.  Prompted by a friend, I signed up for the Karitane Eco-Tour offered through our recreation center, the Unipol.  The pamphlet talked of plenty of wildlife viewing, including sea birds, seals, and penguins.  It even mentioned an opportunity for swimming with dolphins - I was so in.  Unfortunately, our tour take place this past Saturday, just a day after the disastrous earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.  While our trip continued as planned, any hopes of swimming or spending time at the beaches were dashed.  (A small price to pay in face of such a large catastrophe.)  Add in the awful rainy weather we had, and much of our wildlife-viewing was compromised as well.  Despite these factors (and the wooziness caused by my dramamine), we were all able to still have a great time and see some awesome sights.

We arrived to the dock shortly before 9 am and boarded the Caprice, a well-equipped catamaran.  Allan, our tour guide, gave us some quick safety instructions (complete with sarcastic asides), and then we were on our way!

[Our boat, which had seats in the cabin, outside under the awning, on the front deck AND even hammock-like nets that hung from the front of the boat just a few feet above the water.  Very nice - even on such a cold, wet day.]

Once we made our way out to the deeper part of the harbor, Allan and his crew pulled out a few fishing poles and helped us each take a turn at some ‘trolling.’  Almost all of us got to reel in large barracudas, anywhere between two and three feet in length.  Just holding the big pole against the current caused by the moving boat was enough for me - reeling in the feisty fish was quite the workout.  We kept most of our catch, both for our lunch AND the albatross’s.

[Photo by Silje M.]

[Not entirely sure what to do with such a big, unhappy fish... Photo by Silje M.]

[At least one of us is smiling... Photo by Silje M.]

We made our way along the coastline, with the occasional shout of ‘little blue penguin ahead!,’ which frustratingly I never got to see.  I maybe caught the head of one sticking out of the water as it watched us go by, but nothing close enough for a picture (or for it to count as a checkmark on my list).  Fortunately, it was not long until we found some adorable fur seals sunbathing on long-ago hardened lava flows. We saw a few gliding through the water, but most were lazying around on the warm rock, a couple making the effort to pose pretty for the cameras...

[They made some noises, too, but it was hard to hear them over the shrill ‘AWWWWWW’s that were impossible to control...]

Finally, we made our way out to sea to try our luck at albatross-baiting.  After about 30 minutes or so, we began to lose hope... and then out of nowhere, a giant white bird came swooping in to grab a piece of fish Allan had just thrown into the water.  Before long, a dozen or so albatrosses (plus many other much smaller birds) were partaking in our barracuda feast.  The albatross is so unreal - it looked more like a metal statue than a living animal.  Their heads alone were so weird, almost like they were wearing a permanent warrior’s mask.

[The White-Capped Albatross.  They can have wingspans of up to 8 ft!  They dwarfed the seagulls and mutton-birds that were swimming around them.  And yet these guys even looked small compared to the one Royal Albatross who showed up just as we were leaving.  They can have wingspans that reach 10 ft - we’re talking big, BIG birds.]

[White-capped Albatross as it swooped in for some food.  They would casually wait, floating calmly in the water behind the boat, but as soon as the fish pieces hit the water, the would run (yes, RUN) across the surface of the water and dive under completely to grab their snack.  If it could escape its peers long enough after emerging from the water, it would throw its head back and swallow the long piece of meat whole.  Apparently they can also do this with full-size barracuda skeletons - but none of them were quite that hungry that day.]

[Allan as he prepared more slices of fish under the careful supervision of the birds]

[They made the most awful noises while fighting over the food - you’ll have to YouTube it]

[Yellow-nosed Albatross.  These guys showed up a little bit later and were a little bit smaller - but that didn’t keep them from getting their fair share.  These can reach a wingspan of a little over 6 ft.]

Next stop: Allan’s crab cages.  Not only were we having fresh barracuda for lunch, but some Paddle Crab, too!

[Allan as he dragged the heavy crab cage onto the back of the boat]

[A cage full of Paddle Crabs!  Allan quickly pulled out the few large ones and let the little ones go back out to sea...]

[A crab that was jokingly tossed into our pile of warm blankets]

As we slowly made our way back to the harbor, Allan left the steering to his crew and made himself comfortable in his compact kitchen.  Using crackers and salt, he fried our barracuda and steamed our crabs.  Squeeze a little bit of lemon on top, and both were fall-apart-in-your-mouth delicious.  You just had to keep an eye out for the thin barracuda bones hiding in the hunks of meat.  I was offered help with my crab claws, but when I proudly explained that my mother had taught me how to properly pick apart a crab, I was met with blank stares.  I guess ‘Maryland’ doesn’t mean a whole lot to a bunch of New Zealanders and Europeans.  But no worries!  We all sighed with content as we enjoyed probably the freshest seafood we had ever eaten.  Then we all snuggled into our fuzzy blankets and watched the scenery roll by...

[A bird colony along a rock-face...]

[... and closer up.]

[Sea caves]

[Dreary day...]

[The fog was sooo low - the smaller hills were even disappearing]

And then we were back!  We said our thank you’s and made our way back to the Unipol.  Despite the things we missed out on and the yucky weather, it was still a wonderful trip.  I’m so lucky that the University offers so many things for students to do - and at reasonable prices, too.  The next adventure - European cooking classes!