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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sunday Supper And Other Things

I'm not a DIY kind of a guy. Really, I'm not. At all.  Lately, I've found myself knee deep in projects that stupify me.  Not only are they tedious and frustrating, they keep me out of the kitchen.  Pouring concrete, re-building window frames, grouting, sanding, and painting have left little time for me to fuss around in the kitchen.

This past Sunday was filled with projects. Because they were my primary focus for the entire day, I needed our Sunday supper to practically cook itself, unattended. The ticket? A long slow languid braise.

German and Slavic flavor profiles inspire me. They're part of me. I was born in Germany, lived in Austria, and was cared for by an escaped Eastern Bloc Czechloslovakian  hotel chef.  My younger years were influenced  by the similar culinary traditions of those three countries. Frau Olga, my nanny, was a wonderful cook. She cooked effortlessly and  constantly, preparing meals inspired by her native Czechloslovakian cuisine intertwined with Austrian and German undertones. Her loving devotion to braising, simmering, and baking filled our house with warm comfortable aromas that gently wafted up and through the elaborate black wrought iron spiral staircase that anchored our 5 story Vienna apartment. I was a lucky kid.

 I craved that aroma and comfort last Sunday, so I drew from the spirit of my dear Frau Olga and adapted an unconventional version of her incredible braised Czech pepper steak.

I had projects to tackle, so I worked quickly. I sliced a well marbled (fatty) chuck shoulder into huge pieces, seasoned them liberally,  browned them in hot oil until they were crisp, and set them aside. After tossing handfuls of thinly sliced purple bell peppers and candy onions into the hot oil to sweat, I added minced garlic, tomato paste, pureed heirloom black brandywine tomatoes, and sweet Hungarian paprika.

After the tomato paste browned (adding an earthy deep flavor) I deglaced the pot with white wine and let it reduce until  the paprika-flecked evaporated wine formed small bubbles around the fond.  Just before the wine cooked completely away, I added 4 cups of beef stock, brought it to a boil and reduced it to simmer before returning the browned beef to the smouldering stock. When the liquid came back to a gentle simmer, I covered the dutch oven, slid it into a 325 degree oven, and let it braise for a ridiculous 3 1/2 hours.

3 1/2 hours gave me plenty of time to pour concrete.

And drink wine.

I did both.

After mixing, stirring, destroying, and trashing three different batches of concrete, I threw in the trowel and happily ventured back into the kitchen. Familiar territory.

As a nod to my German heritage, I made a big batch of Kartoffelkloesse (German potato dumplings) to accompany our Czech pepper steak.  Because I throw nothing away, I had a stash of  riced potatoes tucked away in the freezer. After allowing them to thaw, I measured out 2 cups of the potatoes before kneading them with 1/2 cup flour, 1/8 cup cornstarch (potato starch would have been ideal), 1 egg, and a pinch of nutmeg, adding additional flour or water to achieve a doughlike consistency. When the potato dough felt right, I dusted my hands with flour and rolled it into 2 inch round dumplings, eschewing the tradtional inserted crouton.  I set them aside, went back outside,  and ripped out a decaying 130 year old Victorian exterior window sill. Fun. 

With all my projects safely tucked away for the evening ( plastic-wrapped and duct-taped), I joined Michael in  the parlor for a proper glass of wine.  The house smelled heavenly.

When it was time for our Sunday supper, I pulled the  pepper steak from the oven to rest and  boiled  the potato dumplings in heavily salted water until they floated to the top and were tender, about 20 minutes.

After spooning  the Czech pepper steak pieces onto our plates, I topped them with thinly sliced onions and peppers to echo and reinforce the flavors of the long braised vegetables. I nestled the bulbous dumplings to the side, finishing them with fresh snipped chives.

The steak/stew, bathed in a rich smoky sauce, was meltingly tender and moist. The onion and pepper garnishes snapped when bitten, awakening the sleepy meat with needed crunch and wetness. With earthy riotous goodness swirling around our plates (and running down our chins), the pillowy dumplings provided  calm.  They were delicate and soft, perfect soppers for the fabulous messy sauce.

Although Frau Olga was a much better cook than I'll ever become, I could almost hear her broken English whisper, "You're a God boy, Tommy."
It was a good day.

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