pickled cheese? czech.

I finally found a preparation for those anemic supermarket Camemberts, thanks to Czech bar food, which takes no prisoners. Nakládaný Hermelin is a garlicky Czech specialty I wish I had found in Prague last summer, but saw it on the internet instead.  Hermelin is a bloomy rind cheese similar to brie, and it is pickled in big ol’ jars of spiced oil made heady by garlic, peppers, and onion.

Of course, if you wanted to use an imported Camembert, my assistant and I wouldn’t say no.  Nakládaný Hermelin hails from the same class of bar snacks as utopenci (“Drowned Men”): fine-grained miniature sausages, pickled in vinegar.  See?  Take no prisoners.

Preparing Nakládaný Hermelin is quite easy: just take a wheel of Camembert, slice it in half horizontally through the middle, press slivers of garlic and dust each half liberally with top quality paprika and pepper, then put the two halves back together.  Slice in wedges so it will fit in your sterilized jar, then layer with onions, bay leaf, and pickled peppers, and cover in oil.

I’ve adapted the recipe adapted from a blog called Northern Table and variations on this Czech food message board.  I’d warn against any of the versions that suggest leaving the cheese on the counter to ripen at room temperature for several days or longer, however, or reusing the oil.  You can get pretty sick by eating soft cheese left on the counter under any circumstances, and Camembert doesn’t quite have the acid one needs to stave off botulism in anaerobic (i.e., under oil) environments.

What you’re losing is the ripening and oozifying of the cheese.  By using pickled peppers you’d be lowering the pH even more, so, um, maybe…but I really don’t trust those garlic slivers in the center of the cheese.  It’s just not worth the risk.  And it’s still pretty darn good, all garlicky and spicy, after being refrigerated for a week.

I wouldn’t waste your best, raw milk Camembert on this preparation either.  Use pasteurized cheese, both for safety and budget.  The garlic and oil will kill any subtle nuances of a good cheese, believe me.

Rawr!!

Before serving, I’d suggest taking out the wedges you’d like to eat and letting them sit at room temperature for a while (and I’ll let you decide how many hours is “a while,” with the food safety proviso that 2 hours max is the limit for prepared foods).

As for the size of the jar, well, that’s up to you.  A quart canning jar for two small rounds of cheese seems ideal to me.  I managed to squeeze a small wheel into a pint jar, just barely, for my first try, and had a hard time getting the oil to fill all the air pockets (also important for food safety reasons).

Be sure you sterilize the jar by washing it well, then letting it go through the heat cycle of your dishwasher or boiling the jar for 10 minutes.

Dobrou chut!

Nakládaný Camembert

This recipe is easy to scale up or down, and Czechs experiment with the spices to their own taste, so you can’t go wrong.  The proportions here are estimated, since I made mine in a pint jar.  I’d advise using more paprika than less, and less garlic than more.  I’m not sure that I’m happy with using vegetable oil, since it didn’t add anything to the flavor of the cheese, but that’s what they use.  You might experiment with olive oils.  Other suggested spices are mustard seed, whole coriander, fresh rosemary (make sure it is completely dry), or dried hot peppers.  You could also just add 2 tablespoons of pickling spices for a slightly different taste.

  • 1 jar, quart-sized
  • 2 small rounds of pasteurized Camembert (about 8-10 oz. each), not too ripe
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, slivered as thinly as you can
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thinly in rounds
  • 2 cups pickled peppers (try a mix of pickled jalapeño rings and pickled roasted red pepper strips if you don’t have your own canned)
  • 2 tablespoons good quality sweet paprika (smoked would also be good)
  • 2 teaspoons juniper berries
  • 2 teaspoons whole allspice
  • black pepper
  • 3-4 fresh bay leaves (if you wash them, be sure to dry them completely, since moisture in anaerobic preparations encourages clostridium botulinum growth)
  • 1-2 cups vegetable or a light olive oil (you’ll need enough to cover the cheese completely)

Prepare a clean, sterilized quart jar (see notes above) and a lid/ring combo or a plastic cap.  Refrigerate the cheese so it is as stiff as possible.

Slice the onion thinly into rings, and slice the garlic thinly, then cut it into slivers.  Thoroughly dry your bay leaves.  If you have a mortar and pestle, crack the whole spices to release the oils.

Prepare the chilled Camembert by slicing each wheel in half lengthwise, so you expose the inside of the wheel. Work fast and with a confident hand, because it is sticky and may fall apart if you mess around with the cut too much.  Press the garlic into one of the exposed halves for each cheese.  Sprinkle both halves of the interior with the paprika and lots of fresh black pepper.

Rejoin the two halves of the cheeses, then slice into wedges that will fit neatly into the jar in layers.

Layer the ingredients in the jar.  Place several onion rings and some spices at the bottom of the jar.  Use onions, pickled peppers, and bay leaves (and dried chiles if using) to separate the wedges, filling the gaps with more pickled peppers. Press the cheese down so it is firmly packed, but don’t pack too tightly.

When you are about half full, add some oil and more spices.  Press lightly with a spoon to release air bubbles.

Keep adding cheese and other items until the jar is about 3/4 full, then top off with oil, again pressing down and checking for air bubbles.  Add the rest of the spices.  Make sure the cheese is fully submerged in the oil.  Close with a canning lid/ring or plastic cap.

Refrigerate for 1-2 weeks, checking after the first few days that the cheese is still submerged.  When you’re ready, enjoy thin slices with traditional rye bread or a baguette, and some Czech lager.  The cheese should taste very garlicky and cheesy — if any off flavors or odd colors or mold are present, don’t eat.

apricot ménage-à-trois

When I saw a lug of pristine Eastern Oregon apricots on my way back from Montana, I knew I had to have ’em.  In short order, they became:

Orangette’s version of Zuni’s apricot tart.  I *love* this recipe.  And the crust is excellent for all pies, by the way.  I substituted plain distilled vinegar, being out of cider vinegar, but I wonder if some of my fruit vinegars might be nice with, say, a blackberry pie.  It would tinge the crust a pleasant mauve.  I think. And the apricots really do soften up and lend a juicy glaze.  It’s almost better to use slightly underripe ones, and don’t go more than a pound.  Restraint, unbelievably, is good.

Apricot jam, two kinds.  The plain jam is tart, sweet, and bursting with summery fruit.  The Czech apricot is flavored with Becherovka, a cinnamon-y bitter, and a bit of cinnamon stick.  Both have a shot of Hungarian palinka, an apricot brandy.  These rely on natural pectin and the softened fruit to thicken the gel.

Brandied apricots.  With a quick boil and sterilized jars, they’ll keep for a few months in the refrigerator.  The brandy can be used for cocktails, and the apricots for ice cream or baked goods.

And the leftover brandy, slightly flavored with apricot, I used for this year’s brandied sour cherries.  The pitted sour cherries are available for a very short window each year.  I usually buy mine pitted by Hentze’s Farm in Junction City by the 5# bag.  Makes life so much easier.  I love the Hentze folks, and they scored some equipment when the local canneries went out of business, so you can save time by purchasing very high quality cut beans and corn, pitted cherries, and shelled nuts that they grow on the farm.

They also have lugs of apricots, another ephemerally short season.  If you want to make any of these treats, the time is now!

culinaria eugenius in karlovy vary: taking the waters

My only small excursion away from Prague in the Czech Republic was a delightful visit to the old town once known throughout Europe as Karlsbad.  Karlovy Vary, still a spa town in Western Bohemia, as it has been for hundreds of years, is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.  Bright pastel facades, many of them fronting hotels, line a small canal of spring water bisecting the old town.  The town rises steeply from the canal, with similar buildings piled up into the foothills.  Massive resorts hulk over the town further up, and a funicular railway allows tourists a vantage point with which to see the whole area.  Well-groomed trails in the woods above the town, also there for centuries, provide leisurely hikes.

Photo by Mia McIver

A friend and I took the 2-hour bus trip to this lovely place.  Since my camera battery was dying, she took most of the photos, and I am grateful: her photography is excellent.  It was so nice to travel with someone who likes taking pictures of food as much as I do.

Photo by Mia McIver

Once landed in Karlovy Vary, we partook in the centuries-old pleasant task of strolling and taking the waters.  There are several colonnades in town, very long covered porches, if you like, where little spring fountains continually emit water for drinking.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a post on Culinaria Eugenius about drinking water, so here it is.

The first photo shows a colonnade built in the late 19th c., and the second shows a Soviet-era indoor colonnade, the only one in town, with a fancy modernized spring.

Photo by Mia McIver

The gazebo pictured below holds another spring.  Each spring has a different temperature and mineral content.  Even more healing, in my view, is the local tipple: Becherovka herbal liqueur.  Here, one can partake in a drink of hot spring water, then wash it down with a bottle purchased at the Becherovka kiosk.  Commercial production began in Karlovy Vary in 1807, invented by a collaboration between an Englishman and KV chemist Jan Becher.  Like Hungarian Zwack or German Jagermeister, this sweet, bitter brew serves as an apéritif or digestif.  It’s marvelous for quelling nausea and soothing a cough, as well (I speak through personal experience).

Although the town has a long history of drinking the spring water, the whole idea of bathing in the water didn’t really catch on until wealthy Russians started moving in to the place.  While what they brought to the town in the 70s (including a monstrous concrete modern hotel squatting in the middle of town like a toad) and in the 90s (serious investments that refurbished the old facades) provided capital improvement and foreign money infusing the local economy, the Russian presence created a resort town full of useless high-end jewelry stores, china shops, and boutiques with garish, overpriced fashions.

This was fine, I suppose, during boom times, but now, with the economy in decline, the diamond-buying crowds have thinned, and regular travelers like me don’t have a single bakery at which to buy some bread or an inexpensive cafe at which we can pick up a sandwich.   All the shops in town are geared toward the tourist industry, and the restaurants are extremely expensive and unappealing.

There are a few state-run (I think) spas, with numbers like Lazne 3 and Lazne 5 (aka Elizabeth Spa), but they’re kind of baffling to understand.  If I had known what features either of these places had I would have most likely taken advantage of them, but because the only spa that had a transparent menu and description in English was right next to my hotel, I took the waters bodily at a new spa, Zamecke Lasne (Chateau Spa).

Pictured to the right, the spa is relatively expensive, and you have to buy packages of 2-, 3-, or 4-hour treatments.  I chose a massage, an underwater massage (done in a bathtub by a nurse holding a powerful showerhead under the water), gum irrigation (a ceramic Y-shaped attachment was fitted to a hose and a sink, and you sit over the sink for the longest 15 minutes of your life with the thing in your mouth, water gushing out down your face), and “Dr. Kniepp’s hydrotherapy,” alternating hot and cold baths in which you immerse your feet and calves, marching in place, for 30 minutes.  With the “treatments” comes a nice fluffy robe, unlimited use of a springwater massage pool (like an oversized hot tub, but lukewarm), a Japanese rock bath in which you walk on rocks to stimulate your feet, a tiny sauna, and all the tea/water you’d like to drink.

The real kicker was the “Spirit of the Springs,” a laser light show that happens in the spa main room from time to time.  The old spring in a grotto alcove of the main room, non-operational when we visited, is one of the main Karlovy Vary springs, but privatization has made it inaccessible to the public.  This could be a good thing, given that the spring is inhabited by an oft-angry Spirit.  The Spirit appears in the main room when he is angry, darkening the entire room, causing the pool to turn red, bubble up, froth, and emit a water jet from one side as thunder peals and lightening jags across the starry sky above.  The Spirit himself appears, illumined in red, in the alcove, looking for all the world like Zeus on a spa holiday.  Picture 4 in the link above shows The Spirit.  And I couldn’t say it any better.

After this brush with the deities and being the picture of good health, we were ready for some healthy spa cuisine.  The manager of the hotel had no idea what we meant.  Salad, perhaps?  A cool vegetable soup?  Ah, fish.

Photo by Mia McIver

OK, so it wasn’t exactly the fish dish we think of as spa cuisine, but the trout was fried perfectly, and it had a nice cabbage salad and those delicious, creamy Czech potatoes.

I had the spicy minced beef in a potato pancake, which turned out to be a pork ragout with canned corn.  The one meal I didn’t like my entire trip!  But that’s ok, since one can’t go wrong with a potato pancake.  For dessert, we opted for the locally famous spa cookie, the oplatky. Catholics will see it’s basically a giant communion wafer, and familiar to those of Polish extraction as the Easter wafer. We washed it down, non-traditionally, with swigs of Becherovka.  On my way back to the bus station, I saw the tiny shop in which they are made, complete with a very Industrial Revolution conveyor belt oplatky pressing machine.

Photo by Mia McIver

I also managed to drink at least a cup full of the aforementioned hot spring water in my special Karlovy Vary cup with the list of springs imprinted on it. The handle of the cup is hollow, and one uses it as a straw to drink the hot, slightly smelly, healing mineral water within.  I soon realized that the way the water healed you was to cause diarrhea.  Ah well.

This concludes my Prague trip.  If you’re interested in the other posts in the series, check out Preserved Prague, Prague Street Food, and Czech gravy. Next up, Montana!  Will Culinaria Eugenius prevail in a state that doesn’t even have an official state food?  Stay tuned…

culinaria eugenius in prague: culinaria praha

Well, even though I entertained thoughts of not coming back and becoming “Culinaria Praha,” a dour expatriate food critic who writes about gravy from the heart of the Czech Republic, I was graciously escorted out of town.  Traveling home was not fun, and I’m pretty thrashed with jet lag and a head cold.  Somehow, I managed to bring back several bottles of hooch and other supplies in my small suitcase.  Like my body, it was a miracle the stuff made it:

So here’s what I brought back, mostly. I also brought souvenirs that I don’t want to reveal, since some of my readers are also souvenir recipients.  But this is the stash I bought for myself:

Yes, that’s four kinds of paprika.  A girl has got to get her paprika where she can.  Also on view: apricot brandy, an herbal honey liqueur, Czech bitter Becherovka, a sample of low sugar apricot jam, a jar of plum paste (lekvar), oplatky wafers from Marienska Lasne, the aforementioned paprika, and Turkisk Peber, a salty licorice candy that is not even vaguely Czech but they had it in Duty Free and it’s one of my favorite things in the world.  I also bought two small bottles of eau-de-vie: quince and apple.  Proof:

I’m still grumpy about the snafu at Duty Free — I had erroneously thought one could buy alcohol to take on the plane, just as people have done since time immemorial.  I had planned to carry my slivovitz in hand, and possibly another bottle of Becherovka liqueur, and possibly some Pilsner Urquell or Budvar for Retrogrouch.  But the clerk assured me that they would take it away at U.S. Customs because of the ridiculous 3-oz.-liquid-in-carry-ons regulation.

This, folks, is not entirely true.  They did clamp down on international Duty Free after all this terrorism crap because some countries don’t monitor their Duty Free shops and enable people to tamper with the liquids before boarding the plane.  And yes, they can/will take away your Duty Free hootch in U.S. customs if it’s over 3 oz., but if you are transferring and you can pack it in your suitcase after you retrieve your checked luggage at your first point of entry, then recheck your luggage, it’s ok.  That is, unless you arrive in a dry state as your first point of entry in the U.S. (e.g., Salt Lake City, UT).  Then they can take away all your liquor, since you are suddenly subject to state law, just as you are to federal law.  A travesty, no?

No one will take away your Turkisk Peber, though.  Yes, my pretty, yes…

I’ve got one more blog post to make, this one about the spa town Karlovy Vary, taking the famous Karlsbad waters, and its discontents.  More trips are coming, so I’ll be posting with haste, posthaste!  I hope you’re enjoying these travel posts.  My blog is going to be a travel food blog for a while.  Nice for a change!

culinaria eugenius in prague: good gravy!

The real star of Czech cuisine, if you haven’t guessed already, is the meat.  Every carnivore dish has been absolutely delicious, and I haven’t even been eating at upscale places, so that’s really saying something.  And even though there are many specialties of roasted meat, such as the roast “pork knee” that is basically a giant hunk (the biggest I saw was 6 inches) of roast pork leg on the joint or the roast pheasant with red stewed sauerkraut below, the meat is best when served in copious amounts of gravy.

And by gravy, I mean Exhibit A, Czech goulash, here served with regular bread dumplings (knedlik) and ones with bacon.

The goulash surprised me, as I had been expecting a paprika-tinged goulash with caraway seed.  I had heard the latter was a popular addition in CZ.  But it’s really just a nice beef stew.  Or this roasted pork shoulder with plain bread dumplings and white sauerkraut.

Tired of gravy?  You could soak your meat in a bowl of garlic soup.  Imagine a French onion soup, but with ham in addition to the croutons and cheese.  Better to ward off vampires, too.

It’s not that Czechs don’t eat vegetables, but other than the ubiquitous cabbage, there aren’t many served in the meat-and-potatoes (I’m speaking figuratively, and I guess literally) places around town.  I did, for you doubters, document some vegetables sold in the market.  I didn’t see these beautiful cauliflower served anywhere. We have the conical cabbages in Eugene, but I don’t know how they are different from regular cabbage.  The importance of sauerkraut can’t be overstated — without it, I firmly believe the whole country would have scurvy.  One really needs to partake in cabbage, in all its forms, if one is to get any vegetably vitamins in Prague.

Or of course, one could just eat fruit.  Let them eat garnishes, cried Marienska Antonova.  Or the slivovitz-macerated dried plums hidden in these bacon rolls.  YUM.

And then you’d be heathly enough to partake in this platter of delights, the Bohemian Wedding Feast at U Medviku, a brewery restaurant established in the 15th century.  I see this as the salad bar of Czech cuisine.  Duck, roast port, ham, and sausages are surrounded by red and white sauerkraut and several kinds of dumplings.

Yes, believe it or not, we did it.  She made such a lovely, delicious bride.  Speaking of couples, I was happy to have trekked out to the Frank Gehry building that caused a stir a decade or so ago.  Like so many things in Prague, the “Dancing” or “Fred and Ginger” building is a study in complements.  Like gravy and dumplings, meat and sauerkraut…

Tanks and bulldozers in the Mobius strip of the 20th century…

A fuzzy plush bear with a machine gun, a museum of communism…

Prague is all about juxtaposition.

I’m stuck at JFK for a few more hours.  Missed the connection to Seattle, so I’m flying home today.  Can’t even tell you how tired I am.  I think it’s time to detox with some good Oregon berries!