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Where?

People ask me where do I come from. Often.

It must be my terrible accent that you can not hear while reading the blog. Well, I guess you can. Here on the blog, it is manifested as a not so good sentence building skill, a poor or insane choice of words in a wrong place – a result of the speedy use of the spelling corrector. I do apologize for this – and I invite you to freely lough at those mistakes that create misunderstandings and hilarious and illogical new meanings.

I still have the letter I sent to the Health Department when I was renewing the license 4 years ago in which I guarantee that I will fix the licking faucet in next seven days…

Anyway, I do not feel bad about missing some words. I have lived here for less then 5 years and I speak fluently 4 more languages. I was told by a customer the other day that I speak a perfect “American” but with a thick “British” accent… I will not comment on that.

Anyway, where do I come from: Croatia, a former part of something called Yugoslavia. Nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Ukraina (some people here tend to mix this two) or with Russia (because I have a Russian name).

Croatia is a small country settled on the Adriatic sea, between Austria and Italy, just across from Venice and north from Greece and Albania. It has only 4 million inhabitants (less than Manhattan and Bronx together for example) but has a coast so broken in thousand of peninsulas, bays and over 1200 islands that it has more beaches than the entire east coast of US. On this beaches (and hotels) we can accommodate over 10 million of tourists each year. N Nowadays that is pretty much everything we do.
But we did have a glorious history. In the past we were responsible for stopping the Muslim invasion (one of) on Europe (200 years of Croatian Ottoman War), inventing the necktie, double entry bookkeeping, the parachute, forensic medicine, the Crab Cioppino,  the zeppelin, aluminum,  Zinfandel wine, a pencil, torpedo and alternate electricity (Tesla was Croatian). Interestingly enough, the only invention of those listed above that entered the list of 100 most important inventions of all time is – the necktie.
We had champions and record keepers in almost every sport and tournament – from Wimbledon to soccer but I would not know any of them. We had famous writers, actors, musicians… But people will remember us for a gruesome war we participated and won two decades  ago. And I will not write about that.

Before defining myself as a Croatian (I do not even do that, where you are born does not define you), I would first be an Istrian – Istria is a small part of Croatia on the Adriatic sea that used to be part of Italy before Italy lost the war… Istrian people are different than the rest of Croatia. For example – I am not aware of any famous Istrian people ever, of any inventions originated from Istria, any world famous writer or musician or athlete… We never won any wars. We were actually invaded by almost everybody in the European history, from Greece, Napoleon to Hitler and Mussolini – and we never put up any fight.

What we always were – and what we still are, what defines us and describes us is – hospitality. We lived there, in our small picturesque towns, in a country nicer than Toscany, nicer than the French Riviera, for thousand of years doing nothing but welcoming tourists. The nobles of the ancient Rome build the first summer houses there – and those just got bigger and more modern over the centuries – turning into 5star hotels now. Hotels, restaurants, services for the rich and powerful of the Europe, this is where I came from, this is my background, my genes.

 

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WHAT DOES A COOK COOK WHEN HE IS COOKING FOR ANOTHER COOK (OR FOR FAMILY&FRIENDS)

In a usual week I cook f chicken Marsala or Chicken Francaise… Two gallons of white wine based sauces (yes, some of the wine I even put in the sauce!). I bake and slice at least 50 lb of Angus Sirloin, and probably some 5 whole pork loins, baked whole with herbs crust and served in mushroom sauce.

In the same time my old Polish ladies in the same kitchen cook endless trays of Pierogi, Kielbasa, Sauerkraut, Stuffed Cabbage… Tons and tons of it every week Literary tons. I process a ton of just cabbage every week.

I shouldn’t say that, but it will not come to you as a surprise – I can’t eat no chicken Marsala or Roasted Beef or Pierogi or Stuffed Cabbage any more… Although I can cook those with no effort – for me, my family or my friends – just add a bit more to the pan – I just can’t.

I had some private parties in last month or so (seems that everybody, including me, was born in March and April), I had some family and friends over – even some fellow colleagues (cooks) – and I took some pictures of the food that I prepared for us.

Here is what a cook cooks when he is cooking for himself and friends.

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Yes, that is Foie Grasse. There has to be some foie Grass on this list, this is a self indulgent, rebel, sinful list, and as such it is bound to be immoral and a bit perverse. Yes, there it is, perfectly fried goose liver in its own grease.

I serve it just like that, on a piece of Croissant, in a reduced Modena vinegar… – to me. But my family prefers it made into a paste, with some good sweet cognac and/or Porto, spread on a piece of toast… If you never tried it, you should, it is a taste and texture that is unlike anything else.

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Then, here is my American revelation – Corned Beef. I love American beef, it is far superior to the terrible dry, tasteless, chewy thing we cook in Europe. But to put the hardest (and the tastiest) muscle of Beef in the Brine we use for Ham – that was an idea of a genius. I just love to prepare Corned Beef, not only in March.

And just like you will never find meatballs&pasta or anything like the Italian sausage in Italy, you will surprise any European Irish with the Corned Beef. It is not much used there (nowadays they do sell it to the tourists, they just have too) and it never was. Although it was produced there since the 12th century, it was a luxurious commodity sold exclusively to the British. Irish never ate any of it – and this is why it became so popular among Irish immigrants in New York – something rare and too expensive in their home country here was so cheap and everywhere.

I shouldn’t, but I will tell you my secret of making the perfect Corned Beef. I cook it in a mixture of beer and beef broth (yes, half&half, 9 perfectly good heinekens went into that pot). I don’t like to use Guiness – to much caramel and sourness. When is fork tender I take out and bake it in a very hot oven for 15 minutes just to turn that pink outside fat into a delicious brown crust. I skip the cabbage (see the beginning of the post) and eat it with my amazing mashed potatoes (a lot – a lot – of good yellow butter).

You will notice I cook a lot with beer and wine. It is always funny when every week I buy all that cheap wine and beer at the store. They do not know I am cooking with it…Last time the clerk finally asked me:

  • Having a bunch of friends over again, right?
  • No, no, it’s all for me, – I responded absentmindedly.
  • Oh, – the clerk nodded with a smirk.No, no, no, thought panicking, I’m not an alcoholic.
  • I, I cook with it, it’s all for cooking.
  • Yes, that’s what they all say – she said with a smile, leaving me wondering if she believed me and was only joking – or not.

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Here is a picture of me cooking with beer again. Those are pork shanks, the most delicious part of the pork, really. I baked them in all that beer, 20 onions, 10 garlic heads and water and pepper cloves…. for 8 hours. When all the fat melts, when that skins turns into a purple brown thin crust and the meat gets soaked in the most wonderful and rich broth ever, then it is ready.

That what you see there is 60 lb of pork shanks, 40 pieces. 10 pigs lifetime commitment. It was barely enough for 30 hungry Polish guests. Go figure.

Good Polish Mustard. Sauerkraut. More beer.

I skim the fat from the broth that is left in a pot, I add to it some pieces of the meat, some boiled vegetables, maybe a boiled egg, a bit of vinegar – and cool it down in a bowl. Then I just thurn the bowl upside down on a plate – and you have the most fantastic jello ever (I do not like sweets too much).

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And fish, I cook so much fish for myself. Check out my cookbook somewhere on this blog – it is mostly fish. Fried on a hot hot olive oil and then covered with olives. I do not salt or season this fish – the olives have all the salt necessary. There are few tastes that go together so good like fish and olives. No other spices needed. Except the wine, of course.

Like they say in my country, fish swims three times – in the sea, in the oil and in the wine.

That last part you mix in your mouth and belly.

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busy in the kitchen

Pretty busy today in our kitchen. it is always busy in that kitchen, when i think of it… funny thing i noticed, during the week we always have at least twice more people working in the kitchen then we have customers. that is a good statistic – as far as i know only the best restaurants in the world have 2 or more people working for every guest.
But we are not one of the best restaurants in the world, any many a customer that walks in the deli will actually have a completely different experience. He will have to call for somebody to serve him, nervously make noises, open and close the fridge until someone from the kitchen comes to help him, and he will have to wait for his order, always. because we are busy as hell. busy. Busy, busy. The phone doesn’t stop ringing, the stoves are on fire, cooking and cooking tons of food. For whom? you might ask,  nervous just as our store customers.
We cook, mostly, for other restaurants. Our biggest customers are other restaurants and deli stores. What people don’t know is that almost  everywhere in a 50 miles radius where they find some good polish pierogi, crepes, kroketi, kluski, sauerkraut,  mushroom golabki, cabbage soup – it was probably made in our kitchen.

Maybe we are not making that much money like by selling directly to the customers, maybe we are not getting famous and building a name, but still, it is something to be proud of, being chosen by the cooks, chefs, themselves, making food that even after defrosting is still way way better than any cheaper, big industry products that this cooks could find.

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