Like many styles of Slavic and Eastern European cuisine, Czech cooking is not terribly complicated. But, it does have some unique features. John discusses some of those features in this episode, plus shares some announcements of potential interest to LUKA community in St. Louis. Here’s the link for the discounted tickets for the Czech cooking event, and here’s the transcript for this Czech cooking podcast:
Hey you’re listening to Eastern European cooking with LUKA the podcast of the LUKA dining series. This is technically the second episode, but it’s officially the first episode. Some of you probably heard the first episode in which a sleep-deprived version of myself warbled on about Polish and Romanian cuisine. Oh, there was love in the air, and I was the guest of honor.
I would have been happy to leave that episode up were it not for the fact that the music I used was not actually in the public domain as I originally believed it was. So with this episode I used my own original music, and while it may not sound Eastern European, I do have full license to use it however I wish. I’ll put some work in on theme music that’s more appropriate for future episodes of this particular podcast, but for now I’m using the generic Instrumental Space Crunk of my solo recording project, Cenozoic.
On with the show…
I should take care of some business before we get onto today’s topics. Ticket sales for the Czech dinner on Wednesday March 4th, will end tomorrow, Saturday February 29th. Ordinarily I don’t mind selling tickets right up until the day of an event, but we’re using a different service model for the next couple of menus, and we need everyone’s orders at least 3 days ahead of time to deliver that highly specialized level of service. So, you have one day left to purchase tickets for that dinner. If it helps you decide, I’ve included a link at the page for this episode, entitling you to a 15% discount for the 5:30 p.m. seating.
The next announcement is that we have a Hungarian menu scheduled for the following Wednesday March 11th. Tickets are now on sale for that, and I have liberally sprinkled the internet with links to the ticket sale page.
Announcement #3 is that I’m working on some other services and initiatives within the LUKA concept, and I’m looking for some people to help out with that. Specifically, I am looking for servers for dining events, but also dedicated delivery drivers and sales people. Your participation will happen with minimal time commitments, and compensation will be more than fair. You can contact me about this at the website, or you can call the office line at 314-226-9184.
I think that takes care of the announcements, so let’s start talking about the menu for the Czech dinner on Wednesday.
The name of the event is Vepřo Knedlo Zelo, which essentially translates to “pork, dumpling and greens.” As loosely as that can be interpreted, it means a pretty specific thing in the Czech Republic. That specific thing is the Czech national dish, which is oven-roasted pork, boiled bread dumpling, and braised sauerkraut or cabbage.
I know you’re asking your own self and mine, “How is it possible that those three Czech words can all end with the same letter, especially when I know that at least one of them actually does not?”
I’m so glad you asked, and I’ll try to explain.
I’m no expert on the Czech language, but it appears that, as with other Slavic languages, finishing a name or noun with an ‘o’ can turn it into an affectionate nickname. It’s kind of like referring to someone named Nick as ‘Nicky’, or someone named Pat as ‘Patty’. Now that I think of it, we do this a little in American English too. Consider Steve-O of the popular Jackass television and movie series.
In any case, let’s talk about the individual components of this sacred triumvirate. We’ll begin with the dumpling.
The classic boiled bread dumpling in Czech cuisine is known as knedlik, and it is the cousin of the German Knödel. The basic preparation of this dumpling is always the same, but the ingredients can vary slightly. It begins with a yeast dough that can be made with wheat or potato flour. Day old bread or cooked potatoes can be added to the dough as well, but it’s always a yeasted dough, and it’s always gently boiled.
The dough is formed into a loaf roughly the same size and shape as a bread loaf, and then it is very precariously lowered into a pot of simmering water. The result is essentially a very fluffy loaf of bread. Since it has been cooked in water, there is none of the browning that you get from the Maillard Reaction of dry heat cooking. The loaf is cut into slices and arranged on a plate to be the starch component–usually with very saucy main dishes, since it absorbs sauces very well.
If you add chunks of day-old bread, those become little bonus studs of texture in the dumpling. That’s about as much fanciness and innovation as I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to tamper with the formula for our event, since the aim of the LUKA series is to represent things faithfully.
Next let’s talk about the protein. It’s pork roasted with onions and caraway, and then a gravy is built from the pan drippings. As tempting as it is to use pork loin, pork loin is the wingless equivalent of chicken breast: It has practically no fat, so it can come out very dry and it doesn’t carry aromatic flavors very well. I’m going to use pork shoulder because it has higher fat for greater flavor and moisture.
Now, I’ve mentioned that there is a vegetarian option for this meal. Basically, what I’m going to do is replace the pork with mushrooms and make a vegetarian version of the onion caraway gravy. I’m using King Trumpet mushrooms and Oyster mushrooms. King trumpets have a very dense, meaty texture and a very interesting, earthy, aromatic flavor. They’re actually delicious raw. For that reason I think they’re a fantastic meat substitute, and I enjoy them myself at home often. I have decided to include oyster mushrooms for the same reason. The texture has a little more chew than an ordinary white button mushroom, and the flavor is earthier too.
I’ve saved the best for last, and that is the vegetable component. The zelo. The cabbage. I want to look at the word “zelo” first because it has an interesting linguistic story.
The actual vegetable referred to as zelo is cabbage, whether it is fermented and sauerkraut or simply braised. The common Slavic word for ‘cabbage’ is some form of kupus or kapusta, but it’s a green vegetable, so it’s often colloquially referred to as greens, or “zeli”, and the Slavic root word for ‘green’ as an adjective is “zeleno” in the neuter form.
Hold on to that thought, because this is going to come up again when I talk about the appetizer for this menu.
Technically, the cooked cabbage for this classic assembly of Czech dishes will be a braised sauerkraut, and it’s often sweetened, as there is a tendency to combine sweet and savory on one plate in Czech cooking. But since our previous two menus were big on sauerkraut, I thought it would be nice to change things up with a sweet braised red cabbage. This is perfectly traditional and acceptable. I’m thinking about using a little bit of beet juice for extra vibrant color, and perhaps some diced apple for malic acid pucker, but for the most part it will taste like vegetable candy.
So that’s what’s happening on the main dinner plate, but, speaking of vegetable candy, the appetizer will be a three-layered vegetable pâté. Since I would like to give you something to take pictures of for Instagram to help seal the deal on my James Beard nomination, I’m going to aim for as much color contrast as possible while still delivering great vegetable flavor.
To me, this means robust root vegetables, but there’s going to have to be green in there too. A bit of zelo. Everyone loves spinach, but I’m tempted to use a spicy, lusty green, like mustard. I’m still playing around with this dish, and you’ll just have to be open to being surprised.
Pates are very common and beloved in Slavic and Eastern European cooking, and if you’re a vegetarian you should be grateful that I care about you, because vegetable pates are not so common at all.
In any case the Czech word for pate is paštika, and if you want to say vegetable pate, you’ll say “zeleninová paštika”. Did you notice that the root of the first word is the same as that for the name of the vegetables on the main course? I knew you did.
Again the word for “vegetables” is rooted in the word for “green”. If you have any experience with the Dutch language, you already know that the Dutch word for vegetables is ‘groente’, and that it is also rooted in the word for “green”. I’m sure these are not the only European languages with this tendency.
This information may serve you well in the future, so lock it away tightly somewhere.
There’s no dessert on this menu, so you will have to go to one of the fine establishments in the neighborhood for your after-dinner sweet fix, and I’ll be happy to recommend my favorites if you ask.
As you know from the event page, your beverage is complimentary, and you have a choice. If you’ve already purchased tickets, then you’ve already made that choice. If you haven’t already purchased tickets, then you have a little less than 24 hours to do so.
As I mentioned at the top of this podcast—and you’ll see this on the website and Facebook pages, of course—our next menu will feature the most beloved dish of Hungary, Csirke Paprikas Nokedlivel, which is chicken paprikash with Hungarian spaetzl. That’s just one week after the Czech cooking extravanganza, on the following Wednesday evening.
The start times for those two seatings have been adjusted slightly to accommodate more people’s work schedules, but again I’m striving for a brisk service model so that you can come and sit down to a wonderful meal that you’ve already ordered, and then be off into the night for your other Wednesday activities.
if you have any questions you can always use the contact form at lukadining.com, or call the office line at 314-226-9184. Thank you so much for listening. Wednesday night is going to be a great dinner, and I look forward to seeing you.
Your experience of authentic Czech cooking doesn’t require traveling outside St. Louis next week. Get your tickets to the next LUKA dinner, and see what people have been crowing incessantly about!