Pennette Rigate with Saffron Manchego Cream Sauce

I’ve started experimenting with the way I’ve been storing cheese lately and somehow forgot about a nice chunk of Manchego in the back of the fridge.  I had wrapped it in paper so it was able to breathe – It’s supposed to be better for the cheese’s flavor.  Turns out, when I discovered it after a couple weeks, there was no mold on it whatsoever but it had dried out considerably.  I took this in stride and decided to improvise a recipe from the hardened chunk of sheep’s cheese.  Man, am I glad I did.

What I came up with was a rich and flavorful pasta sauce heavily influenced by the flavors of Spain.  It was a simple recipe and I totally winged it.  I just love it when dinners like that work out.  Here’s what I used:

1 Cup Heavy Cream (1/2 and 1/2 would be fine, too)
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Small Onion
4 Cloves Garlic
1 Pinch Saffron
3/4 Cup Shredded Young Manchego
Salt and Pepper
1 Pound of Pennette Rigate (That’s what I had on the shelf.  Most anything would work.)

Mince the onions and garlic and saute until soft in the olive oil.  Add the cream.  Add the saffron.  Stir as pasta cooks.  Slowly add the Manchego in the last couple minutes and stir until fully incorporated.  Top the cooked pasta and enjoy.

While Mrs. NH and I ate, we commented that this would be completely adaptable.  Want to add more Spanish flavor?  Add some chopped jamón.  Seafood?  Shrimp would be nice.  It has all of the characteristics of a paella base and a nice cheese bite.  The Manchego is much milder than Parmesan so it’s a nice change.  Try a version of you own and let me know about it in the comments, eh?

Cranky Frank’s BBQ – Fredericksburg, TX

I love to cook.  Part of the reason for that is the fact that I love to eat.  What’s more, I really like to eat good stuff.  So, Mrs. NH and I have put our cooking skills to use over the past 5 or so years in order to recreate the flavors from the US that we miss eating.  However, there’s one flavor that we haven’t been able to completely master in our Prague apartment.  That’s barbecue.  We’ve tried and even had some good success with ribs cooked in dark Czech beer and the legendary Coca-Cola brisket.  They hold our cravings at bay.  Well, I should say they did until this last trip to Texas.  Then, darnit, my folks took us to Cranky Frank’s and ruined everything.

Cranky Frank’s, quite simply, is the best Texas BBQ I have ever had.  No, I’m not the biggest Q expert on the planet but I do know the good stuff when I have it.  On our last swing through Texas, we hit the aforementioned Frank’s (Fredericksburg), Rudy’s (Austin), Strack Farms (Spring), and Salt Lick (Dripping Springs).  All had something to love, but honestly, Cranky Frank’s kicked the butt of all of them.

I ate there several years back when it was still Ken Hall BBQ and it wasn’t as good.  This time, it was superlative.  Tender, moist and succulently salty ribs.  Pull apart brisket laced with just enough fat to equal tons of flavor.  And the right “bang” of vinegar in the potato salad to stand up to Frank’s signature sauces.  Smokey beans with a nice, silky texture.  Wow, wow, wow.  It so hurts to write this post from over 3000 miles away.  I topped all of those flavors off with a Lone Star beer (criminally underrated brew, by the way) and haven’t stopped talking about the meal since then.  To add to it, I brought a Cranky Frank’s bumper sticker to a Welshman named Frank who works down the hall from my office.  Lo and behold, he’d been to Fredericksburg but sadly for him, not to Frank’s.

No, that meal hasn’t left my mind since I took the first bite off of those beautifully smoked ribs.  It’s the gold standard of Texas BBQ as far as this blogger is concerned.  The fact that it’s something we can’t replicate at home makes it all the more legendary – and that makes me cranky.

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

As February drew to a close, I was quite happy to see the month come to an end. It has been a cold winter and with the advent of March, the mind starts to churn with the coming promise of spring. Even if the temperatures don’t reach much above 40°F here, the sun has come out and melted all of that blasted, dirty snow.

I’ve been hibernating somewhat.  The Spain trip broke up the time but the rest has been work.  Except for the beautiful shades of green at either end of this post.  Yes, the promise of the green of spring.  Green.  Spring.  Green.

Those are Pimientos de Padrón.  The start and the finish.  Straight from Barcelona.  I cooked them myself.  I only wish I would have been the only one eating them.

Spring is springing.  Stay tuned.

Duck Ragu on Fresh Fettuccine

I can’t believe the food we manage to turn out from this kitchen.

Yeah, no [kidding].

That’s a slightly redacted conversation my wife and I had last night as we cleaned up the kitchen after turning out home-made fettuccine topped by a succulent Duck Ragu. It was one of the more labor intensive and sophisticated dishes we have ever made. It’s also one that I would have been happy to serve to any discerning foodie.

Being a Sunday, we had time to cook this one. Good thing, as I ended up doubling the cooking time that was originally on the recipe. We adapted ours from the Mario Batali Duck Ragu recipe. His original steps only called for about 1.5 hours of simmer time. Ours had a good three hours. Our version also had a lot more wine in the sauce and we substituted prosciutto for the mushrooms. Consequently, the ultimate dish was a deep, ruby-red with really intense flavor. We made a thick (#5 on our hand-crank pasta maker) fettuccine noodle to stand up to the robust, rustic sauce.

Rounding out the meal on the drink side was a bold 2007 Querciabella Chianti Classico.  It was a classic meal on a cold Sunday evening.

So, as the folks in America were gearing up for some world championship football in the form of the Super Bowl, I was snug in my bed, with a belly full of world-class food.  Not a bad trade-off.  Admittedly, mine didn’t have commercials.

Meatloaf With Tomato Gravy

The cold weather and winter “blahs” continue in Prague so I was pretty happy last week when Mrs. NH said we’d be having meatloaf.  I grew up eating meatloaf just often enough to enjoy it.  So many other people I know must have had mothers who made it too much.  In my own experience, the reputation of meatloaf in much of the world isn’t so great.  Nevertheless, Mrs. NH made the recommendation and I quickly showed my enthusiasm.  The one she wanted to try had an extra twist – tomato “gravy”.  I grew up with my mom doing a ketchup based glaze on meatloaf so I was skeptical about the need for this extra sauce.  After all was said and done, I’m glad we tried it.  It helped transform the dish into something that popped with even more flavor.  It also made it pair really well with a Chianti.  In fact, the final product was more like an Italian meatball than a roadside diner meatloaf.

It was delicious and if you’re in the mood for meatloaf, it’ll totally scratch that itch.  Here’s the recipe from foodnetwork.com.  Oh, and get ready for some tasty meatloaf sandwich leftovers!

Baby Ruth Stuffed Jalapeños

Sometimes simple is the most surprising.  You know, like stuffing a jalapeño with 1/2 a mini Baby Ruth and throwing it on the grill.  Who on earth ever thought of that?  I’m not quite sure who came up with the dish but I had a couple as an appetizer at my folks’ house in Fredericksburg, Texas.  Yes, chalk up one more Texas surprise from my trip down south.

The picture above actually does the dish justice.  If you know what a grilled jalapeño tastes like and if you’ve ever had a Baby Ruth, you can imagine the dish.  The slightly crunchy, smoky jalapeño envelopes the gooey caramel peanut crunch of the Baby Ruth.  Heck, the whole thing is a bit of an assault on the senses.  The sweetness of the candy is the first flavor to hit your tongue but eventually gives way to the tang of the pepper and, if the cook missed a few veins of capsaicin, the spice.  The ones we had were just spicy enough to register on the palate but not over power the dish.  Delicious and really, really interesting culinary fodder for conversation.

I also got to enjoy a proper bubble tea while we were there.  The stuff my folks made was loads better than what I tried to make a few months ago.

Yeah, it’s a creative kitchen there in Fredericksburg.  It’s no wonder that when I was a little kid and people asked what my favorite food was I said ‘artichokes.’

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Garlic

We’re working hard this week to sit down to dinners together as a family with Little NH and get her introduced to some new foods. Our time in Texas yielded no progress on this front save for a new love for anything chocolate and Blue Bell ice cream. We thought that by doing more meals around the table with her, we could introduce some new items. For the most part, it has been a success. She’s added a handful of new dishes.

That being said, Brussels sprouts were not one of them. Heck, we do know the limits of some things and didn’t even seriously try. We offered but didn’t push it.  As a matter of fact, I had to convince my wife to clean her plate and not try to pawn her last few sprouts off on me. “Set a good example for your daughter,” I said. I’m sure she wanted to kick me under the table – hard.

At any rate, I loved the darn things. They were really easy to make, full of flavor and a great “winter green” compliment to an Emmanthaler-stuffed pork chop and mashed potatoes. I just washed and halved them, sautéed them on the flat side in olive oil and a couple cloves of garlic until they had caramelized and then threw in a few drops of water to steam as the pork chops finished up.

Mrs. NH had actually requested to try them so I was probably way off base to give her a hard time. Little NH helped me make them so maybe there’s even hope for her the next time, too. I just hope no one kicks me under the table.

Fuel City Tacos – Dallas, TX

Texas always holds its fair share of surprises and this trip was no different.   When a post-concert request for tacos turned into a detour to the “other side of town,” the surprise was well worth the trip.  When I requested tacos in the first place, I was expecting something like Taco Cabana.  What I got, thanks to a good friend, were Fuel City Tacos.

Yeah, the name confused me as well.  I mean, it sounds like a gas station.  That’s because it is.  It’s literally a hole in the wall of a gas station (complete with bars on late-night visits).  They serve Beef Fajita, Chicken Fajita, Pastor, Picadillo and Barbacoa tacos with plenty of options including corn or flour tortillas.  The Barbacoa came highly recommended so I got three.  Words cannot do these Mexican vessels of delight justice.  Fluffy soft, double-wrapped in corn tortilla, the barbacoa sits nestled under a blanket of onions, lime and cilantro.  On the side you get a red and a green sauce and I ended up using both liberally.  As the juice ran down my arm (and I fought to keep it off my buddy’s car interior), I was transported to a place one rarely gets to visit.   The place in your head where you know you are having some of the best food you will ever eat.  Fuel City Tacos are the best tacos I have ever had.  Ever.

Buoyed by this late night visit, I took the family on a “fuel stop” to Fuel City Tacos on our way out of Big D.  This time, our friends had recommended we looked for the “Corn Lady” in front, under an umbrella-topped cart.  She was described as serving some of the best corn you’ve ever had.  I took the bait and got the corn.  It was big kernel corn with a super-concentrated hot sauce, what looked like Chihuahua cheese and maybe mayo.  The picture makes it look like kind of a mess but the dish that she served up in the styrofoam cup was excellent.  The corn was just the right tenderness and the mix of other ingredients (I ordered mine “gringo” mild and am glad I did) served as the perfect foil to the sweetness of the corn.  That followed up by another five barbacoa tacos and we were ready to hit the road down to Austin.

Interestingly, on that drive south, I was overcome by an incredible sense of well-being.  Part of it was the fact that I had just spent several days with my bro, his family, and some of the best friends anyone could ever hope for.  The other part was the fact that Texas, in general, felt like pulling on a worn pair of jeans and Mr. Rogers sweater after a long day in a suit and shiny leather shoes.  Everything makes sense in Texas.  Even the fact that the best tacos in the state can be found at a gas station.

Olive Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies

It’s about 25 degrees in Prague today.  I spent yesterday chopping wood and wrestling rabid Grizzly Bears so today, I did what any self-respecting bachelor stuck inside with nothing important to do would – I made cookies.  I’ve never made cookies before.  Well, at least not cookies that weren’t slice and bake.  But I had been eyeing this recipe for months, subtly dropping hints to my wife to execute it.  She didn’t.  So, I took the bull by the horns and did it myself.  Well, I’m glad I did.  The recipe was easy and the finished product was a crispy-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside cookie marvel as good as any I have eaten.  Of course, the recipe came from one of the best food blogs on the web – “Crepes of Wrath.”  Compounding the greatness of the recipe was the fact that I was all mixed, baked and cleaned up in under an hour.

Now I have three dozen awesome chocolate chip cookies sitting in the kitchen.  A bunch will go into the freezer but a bunch more will go right where they belong – into my big bachelor belly.

Parmesan Cream and Rosemary Pepper Crackers

“Cracker heads and angels in your heart come together, yeah.” – The Cult

I guess I’m a cracker head.  I love making these things.  All I have to do is open up a box of something Nabisco and I am inspired to make these crackers.  They taste like a cracker should taste.  All crackers in boxes taste like breakfast cereal or cardboard to me these days.  My daughter asks for Wheat Thins at breakfast for goodness sake.  Is there any disputing my claim that they taste like cereal?

So, I decided to have about my third go at making these crackers.  They’re incredibly easy and the recipe will mold to just about any liquid added to the right amount of flour.  The original recipe has an olive oil and water mixture.  I modified it and added 100% cream as my liquid and they came out perfectly – again.  They do take some time and a bit of persistence to make, however.

In a quest to find a weekend father-daughter project in the kitchen, I tried to make these with Little NH.  Unfortunately, by the time we got started, she was in the middle of an intense post Fruit Loop sugar crash and she flailed out of the room yelling, “No, no, NOOOOOO!” as soon as I added the cream to the flour in batch number one.  No matter.  I persevered, adding copious amounts of grated Parmesan and rolling them onto the jelly roll pan with a pint glass.  I scored them with a pastry scraper, topped them with a little extra grated cheese and baked the heck out of them.  Batch number two, I used ground up fresh rosemary and cracked pepper – chimp simple.

I have to imagine these are better for you than crackers in a box.  There are no artificial ingredients and what’s a cup of whipping cream compared to a list of things on the side of a Nabisco box that I don’t have in my kitchen?  Because, you know, cream is good for you.  Well, much better than a belly full of Fruit Loops.

Bubble Tea

About a year ago, my folks came to Prague.  They carried with them a small Ziploc of tapioca pearls – to be used in bubble tea.  At the time I had no real idea what bubble tea was except for the fact that whenever it got brought in conversation with my folks, they seemed visibly excited.  I mean, really excited.

Fast forward about a year and there I was, boiling the tapioca pearls and then storing them in simple syrup just like the directions I found online said I should.  I looked for an online recipe that would include tea and some sort of booze.  I figured, if the tapioca and the tea didn’t do it for me and Mrs. NH, a little shot of something would.  For the purpose of this maiden batch of bubble tea, our poison of choice was Kahlua.   We mixed that up with some tea of some sort from my wife’s “cupboard of too many teabags” and added the pearls and a bit of the simple syrup.

It was interesting.  I think that’s what I said, “Hmmm, interesting.”  My brow was surely furrowed.  Maybe bubble tea is one of those “you had to be there” things.

You know the kinds of things that only a personal experience can elevate to legend?  Take for example my obsession with truffles.  I’m sure many of my readers roll their eyes when they see me writing another post on this fungus.  However, the first time I ever had them was in a hill town in Italy and the mixture of the foreign flavor and beautiful surroundings is something that I’m transported to every time I take a bite of anything with truffle.  The same may be true with bubble tea as well.  If I recall correctly, my folks first tasted it while vacationing in Thailand.  I have no doubt it was a part of the experience and something they think back to every time they bite down on one of those pleasantly chewy tapioca nuggets.

Or, maybe I just made it wrong.

Was Kahlua a bad thing to mix with it?  Maybe the coffee flavor interfered too much with the tea?  Maybe I should have stuck to rum?

Time will tell.  I’m definitely going to try it again.  Maybe I’ll wait until I’m back home in TX, in the folks’ kitchen.  Maybe they’ll show me how to make it the right way.

Or, maybe I’ll just hop a plane to Thailand.  If it makes this stuff taste good, I can only imagine the Pad Thai.

A New Season in Prague

Tortilla Soup

Summer is long past here in the breadbasket of Central Europe. It has been cold and damp for what seems like months. It’s actually only been a couple weeks but the mood has changed around the NH household. My wife and I are observing the change by taking a little more time to crawl out from under the sheets in the morning and by spending much more time planning and preparing dinners. For those reasons alone, I accept the cold weather.  It allows me the chance to get really down and dirty  – in the kitchen.

As proof of this, here’s a sampling of what we’ve cooked over the past couple of weeks: Duck Empanadas, Tortilla Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Flammkuchen, Seared Foie Gras, French Onion soup, Mongolian Beef and Baked Ziti. Add on top of this the fact that we’ve been to a couple of really good restaurants on nights out of the kitchen and you end up with a really good reason to love the season.

The changes are also visible in my 2 and ½ year-old daughter. You can see her take note of the difference in the weather and surroundings outside. She’s interested in the leaves, is mastering putting on her gloves and upon my arrival after a trek from the metro,  she grasps my chilly fingertips and asks, “Was it cold, Daddy?”  (She’s less excited about the food, though. Duck empanadas and French Onion Soup for a 2-year-old? As she puts it, “No thank you, Daddy; I’m having pizza right now.”)

Winter often gets a bad rap from the NH side of the gene pool – and for good reason. In my book it pretty much ceases to be fun after December, save for the prospect of good snow for sledding and the opportunities to enjoy hot toddies in some cave-like Prague cellar bar. However, the lead-up to the full winter letdown is something to enjoy and savor.

Christmas is coming and with that, there are the Christmas markets in Europe. We’ll be hitting them with family this year and whenever those markets are concerned, the more the merrier. Then, there will be Christmas with the whole family – our first in five years (though, not everybody at once).

Inevitably, the January to February doldrums will hit. Of course, I hope to chase those blues away with the help of some new living room technology. Nothing like a fresh Windows 7 install to warm the spirit.

Happy fall, peeps, happy fall.

Sherried Duck Empanada Recipe

Duck Empanadas

After a ridiculously delicious Saturday night, I found myself in the house on a rainy, cold Sunday.  I also found myself with two duck leg/thigh combos in the fridge and a wife that blew me away by saying, “Let’s make duck empanadas.  I’ll make the dough.”  Giddyup!

A few hours later, I was cradling a puffy, golden sherried duck empanada in my hand marveling at the result of husband and wife teamwork.  In the other hand I was holding a glass of la Gitana Manzanilla.  On my face was a big, fat grin.

Here’s how it all went down…

For the Filling:

2 leg/thighs of duck (skin on)
salt and pepper
1/2 can of beer
1 diced red pepper
1 diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cup dry sherry (Not La Gitana Manzanilla!  But an oloroso would also be good in this recipe.)
1/2 cube beef bullion
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon chili powder

Season the duck with salt and pepper and pour the beer in the bottom of  a casserole.  Bake covered for 2 hours on 350°F.  Bone and shred the cooked duck and discard the skin.  Reserve the beer and duck fat juice from the casserole.  Place the shredded duck meat aside.

Sauté the pepper, garlic and onions in the oil and gradually add spices, bullion and sherry.  Let the sherry cook off and then add some more.  Add a few spoonfuls of the beer/duck fat juice for flavor.  Add shredded duck and cook until moisture is an empanada filling consistency.

For the Dough:

Have your wife find a good empanada dough recipe and then say, “Thanks for doing this!” a lot while she rolls the dough and fills the empanadas.  Oh, be helpful and turn on the oven and chill the Manzanilla.  She’ll be grateful.

Homemade Flammkuchen / Tart Flambée Recipe

Everybody that has ever visited this site knows that Mrs. NH and I are absolutely bonkers about Flammkuchen.  Well, last Saturday we had some foie gras that needed a home and a boatload of Flammkuchen toppings (recently purchased in Munich) that also needed to be used.  That, combined with friends that like to eat almost as much as we do, made the perfect impromptu party.  It also helped that the friends in question came with a nice Swiss Pinot Noir.

So, there we were.  A Saturday night after trick-or-treating, with a new recipe in hand and people in the house.  We had to get it right.  As far as I can tell we did.  It takes some work but was worth every second.  We made four pizzas for five adults and they disappeared – even with foie gras and other appetizers.  I guess we worked up quite an appetite (and thirst!) keeping up with the kids on their quest for candy.

The dough is a staple, introduced to me by Scampwalker.  However, we came up with the method for perfection on the spot.  We made the dough, flattened it and then grilled it lightly on both sides.  After that, we brought it in the house, put it on a heavily cornmealed pizza paddle, dressed it and then popped it on a pizza stone in a very hot oven.  The results were nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Awe inspiring because the turned out perfectly and awe-inspiring because we had never done them before.  In fact, I was so awe-struck that I didn’t remember to take any pictures.  Use your imagination.  [UPDATE: That’s a photo from batch a couple weeks later…]

For the Dough:

1 pkg dry yeast (or about a teaspoon of active cake yeast)
1 tsp sugar
2/3 cup warm water
1 2/3 cups flour (all-purpose or half and half with whole wheat)
3/4 tsp salt
2 tsp olive oil

Mix yeast & water to proof for 10 minutes.

Put metal blade in food processor, pour in flour and salt, and turn on machine. Pour yeast through tube and process for 45 seconds. Add oil and process another minute. Dough should ball up… if not, add a bit of flour until it does.

Let it rise for an hour in a ball (covered in a greased bowl), then cut in two to make two 10-inch pizzas, and let rise again (15 minutes or so is usually enough.  Grill the crust until golden with grill marks on each side.  Then, take of the grill and bring it in to be topped and finished in the oven.

For the Topping:

2 cups crème fraiche
2 cups chopped ham
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
ground black pepper

Sauté your onions in olive oil until translucent.  Then add the ham and pepper.  Spread the crème fraiche on the crust, then sprinkle it with the cooked onion and ham mixture all the way out to the edges.  Put on a pizza stone in a 500 degree oven until crème fraiche begins to bubble.  Slice in wedges and enjoy!

Buchtičky Se Šodó or Czech Bread Pudding

Buchtičky Se Šodó or Czech Bread Pudding

That mound of yum you see in the picture above is Czech Buchtičky se Šodó.  We were introduced to it by our friends while in the Šumava Mountains last weekend.  It is essentially bread pudding with vanilla custard and some whipped cream.  Served warm, it is an incredibly yummy dessert.  It’s also Mrs. NH’s latest dessert obsession.  I came home from work the other night to find about 3 browser windows open with different recipes for the dish.  Hopefully, my belly will benefit from her new obsession.

Did I mention that we’re gonna get fat?