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Monday, September 12, 2016

Simple Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

Although there are still a few weeks of summer left on the calendar, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are gone.  I won't be taking any more vacations in 2016.  I won't have the time to be browsing markets for hours.  I won't have many evenings free to prepare a fresh meal every night of the week.  September brings new commitments and more activity.  I'll be back to dance classes and play rehearsals (or at least play production duties).  The short days and increased darkness will give me less energy to put into elaborate meals.

I continue to be grateful I made the decision to buy a slow cooker this year.  In the past my evenings away from home meant more takeout and more restaurant meals.  Now I can prepare home cooked meals even when I'm out of the house.  As theater production season is already here and dance classes start next week, I'm already dusting that baby off and working on new recipes to make in it.

The onslaught of pumpkin may be on its way and the roads leading north are already clogged with apple pickers, but I'm still dreaming of summer barbecues. I want juicy cheeseburgers and ribs slathered in sauce.  I want my chicken to be shredded into bits and slathered in sauce so it goes down that much easier.

My craving for summer grilling and barbecue is one that stays unsatisfied all summer long.   My readers out there know my pain.  I live in an apartment.  I have no yard to place a grill or a smoker. I can only lust after my friends posting online photos of their grilled meals on Instagram or the endless articles about summer grilling in the food magazines I read.

I have a few options if I want to pretend to grill.  I have a grill pan.  I have an electric grill.  I also have that slow cooker.  My slow cooker will cook meats in that low-and-slow mode so I can pull them apart and slather them in barbecue sauce.

I experimented with using balsamic vinegar for my acid element and molasses for the sweet.  I wanted to see how the sweetness balsamic vinegar changed the flavor profile.


The major flaw in the sandwiches was overcooking.  These should not have been cooked more than 4-6 hours, but I am away from home much longer than that.  Even with all the sauce on them, the meat was dry.  I shouldn't cook chicken in the slow cooker when I'm going to be at work all day.  Chicken, even with the skin and bones on, can't be cooked 9 hours at a time.

The other flaw was the molasses.  It overpowered the balsamic and had a slight bitter edge.  If I make these again, I would either cut back on the molasses, or use brown sugar.

I use bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts because they have more flavor than the boneless and skinless variety.  Some cooks might worry removing the bone is too much work, but the meat pulls away from the bones easily after several hours in the slow cooker.

My side dish was sweet and sour coleslaw with apples.  I mixed pre-made coleslaw mix with lime juice, thinly sliced granny smith apple, and honey.  

This recipe makes 4 moderate sized sandwiches.  You can add more chicken to the recipe, but you probably won't need to make too much additional sauce unless you are cooking more than 4 pieces of chicken at a time.

Slow Cooker Balsamic Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbl molasses
  • 1 Tbl soy sauce
  • 2 Tbl tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 4 sturdy rolls
Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper.  In a large frying pan, brown them well on both sides.

Mix together vinegar, molasses, soy sauce, tomato paste, paprika, and garlic.  Slather the sauce all over the chicken and place in slow cooker.  Cook on low 4-6 hours.

Remove from slow cooker and remove the skin.  Use forks to pull the meat off the bone and shred.  Serve on rolls with coleslaw.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Czech Out This Delicious Food City

Ha ha ha.  I'm just so funny. As if that weren't the most obvious pun in the universe.

Now that I got the pun bit out of the way, let me go about my usual business of boring readers to tears with an endless food travelogue.

Prague is the most unique city I have ever visited.  I don't think I have ever seen a more visually stunning city.  Even Paris doesn't compare.  Prague doesn't just contain UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  When I first arrived in Prague I felt the endless grand facades, the winding streets, and massive crowds were too intimidating to ever be able to feel relaxed and comfortable, but the place worked its magic on me and by the end of Day 2, I felt able to walk the streets with confidence.

If you would like to see my non-food photos, I have archived them here.  (If you want to know what you are looking at, click the comment link and you will see my explanations of the photos.)

What is the food like in Prague?  I can describe it in five words:  meat, carbs, gravy, carbs, and meat.  I can also use five words to describe the beverages:  beer, beer, beer, beer, and beer.  The Czech Republic is the second fattest country in Europe (UK is first).  They don't care much for vegetables (although they work wonders with cabbage) and beer is the cheapest beverage you can drink (and they drink a lot of it).  Prague has an excellent public transportation system, but I got around mostly by walking because my body was just begging to get rid of some of those calories.   

I suppose I stayed too much within the Tourist Comfort Zone because in all the restaurants I went into, I had the luxury of English menus and English speaking staff.  What I found most interesting was even tourists from other countries who spoke a variety of other languages, would speak English when talking to the Czechs.

So let's talk a bit about what I ate.  What were my daily meals like?

Day 1:  I arrived in Prague at lunch time, exhausted from the red-eye flight, but eager to start exploring.  The whole family stayed in the beautiful Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) in the historic Old Town Square Hotel.   Kevin and I  wanted to stay close to "home" for our first day so we looked at the local sites.  We explored St. Nicholas church and wandered a few side streets. When hunger took over our curiosity, we ended up at an open air restaurant on the square called Kotleta.  It was a scorching hot day and the restaurant had plenty of canopies and also sat next to  a shady park.


Despite the Czech food reputation, there were salads on the menu.  I chose one with arugula, baked goat cheese on toast, prosciutto, asparagus, strawberries and walnuts.  The dressing seemed to be made out of pureed strawberries.  The worst part was the abundance of walnuts.  There were almost enough to trigger my allergies.  Other than the heavy strawberry flavor, it wasn't too different from similar salads back home.  I was happy to have found something light after the long flight.

Kevin took a different extreme and ordered the schnitzel.  It came with a side of butter with some mashed potatoes underneath.

In the evening Kevin and I met up with the rest of the family for dinner. We had no reservations anywhere that night, so we wandered around a bit until we found a restaurant that would easily accommodate my stepmother's scooter.  We found a place called U Dominikana, a restaurant in a former Dominican monastery.
The staff was pleasant (contrary to the typical Czech reputation) and the restaurant had a beautiful garden room in the back. 

I had a typical Czech dish that night called Svickova, which is beef sirloin in cream sauce with bread dumplings.  The dumplings I had at Dominikana were different from the dumplings I had on subsequent nights.  These dumplings reminded me of balls of Thanksgiving stuffing.

I had to have dessert of course.  This brownie was to die for.  It was dense and chocolatey and the sour cherry compote on top complemented it perfectly.

After this meal I was ready to say goodnight to Prague and see what adventures lay in wait for the next day.

Day 2:  We went out for a family breakfast Sunday morning.  My brother found a place near the Kafka memorial called Pastacaffe.  We went to an Italian restaurant for a Czech breakfast.

This was a small, but airy and sunny spot serving mostly Italian food.  They had a special going on for lunch and dinner where if you ordered spaghetti amatriciana, they would make a donation to the earthquake relief fund in honor of the devastated Italian city of Amatrice. 

 It was breakfast time, so I stuck with something more traditional. 

This was their version of Eggs Florentine.  This had spinach, tomato, egg, sausage, and grilled bread.  I wasn't sure what to expect with the sausage, but it was the most unique part of the dish.  I can't explain the flavor, but it was not like any other sausage I have ever eaten.

Kevin and I spent the next few hours exploring the Jewish quarter.  After visiting three synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery, we realized we had used up much of our afternoon and needed some nourishment.  We ended our tour right where we started by the Kafka statue and the Pastacaffe.  We decided to have lunch across the street at a place called Nostress.  Was that meant to be read as No Stress?  I never bothered to ask.

We sat at a sunny table near the window.  I ordered a rice noodle salad with green mango, cucumber, and chicken.  It was perfect after that heavy breakfast.



Did someone say something about heavy meals?  Let's talk about dinner.

My brother found a restaurant called U Pinksau (so proud of his discovery he posed in front of it with my nephew).  This place dates back to 1843 and was the first restaurant to serve Pilsner in Prague. Now Pilsner Urquell is the most popular beer in Prague.

We sat in the outdoor garden.  Many restaurants in Prague have little to no air conditioning, so sitting outside is a better bet in hot weather.  The drawback to outdoor spaces is the lack of smoking regulations in Prague.  It's not illegal in smoke indoors, although restaurants in tourist areas tend to be voluntarily nonsmoking.  Unfortunately, that doesn't apply to outdoor spaces.  I wasn't feeling too well at the end of the meal because the smoke around me got too heavy.

You wouldn't believe how big the servings of pilsner are in Prague.  This photo can't do it justice.

I stayed away from the beer and drank wine with a pork neck accompanied by braised white cabbage and potato pancakes.  I don't know what the kitchen does to make this cabbage so creamy.  It had just enough sour taste to it and complemented the salty, ham-like, pork neck well.

I would have loved to have tried the ubiquitous pork knuckle instead of a neck, but the pork knuckle servings are huge in every restaurant.  I am known for a big appetite, but even I have my limits.

We didn't stay here for dessert.  Kevin and I returned to Old Town Square and had sundaes at a cafe near our hotel.  This one was coffee ice cream with Baileys.  It's fun to hang out at the square at night.  There is plenty of interesting people watching and someone is always playing live music.


Day 3:  Room service breakfast are included at our hotel, so we took advantage that this particular morning.  We spent most of the day on a tour of Prague Castle.  It was late afternoon by the time it was over and we really just wanted a snack to tide us over before what was likely to be another heavy dinner.

We found a small pastry shop and had some pastry and cappuccino.  This little cake looked far better than it tasted.  The cheese layer and the crust were both dry and crumbly.


Dinner that night was at the magnificent Municipal Building in their basement restaurant Plzenska.


The interior recalls the Art Nouveau period with it's decor.  The overall feel is 19th century kitsch.  The food is thoroughly traditional without apology.  The menu is written in multiple languages, which feels a bit touristy, but I was a tourist after all.

I started with duck.  Traditional bread dumplings as well as potato pancakes accompanied it.  There was also some of that tasty cabbage beneath.

 I had traditional Czech pancakes for dessert with plenty of ice cream and creme anglaise.

We also had an accordion player serenading us throughout the night.  I never saw a more cheerful guys.  He had a massive (but genuine) smile plastered on his face the whole night.  We should all love our jobs so much.

Day 4 - Our final full day in Prague was our best food day of them all.  We took a food tour with a company that specializes in Prague food tours. 

This was the one day where we spent time outside the main tourist area.  This tour took us through the neighborhood of Karlin.  During the communist era this area was mostly industrial and housed both the factories and the workers.  It remained a working class neighborhood after the revolution, but a flood in the early part of the century forced the neighborhood to rebuild and revitalize.  Now it is becoming something of a hipster area.  

We had to wait a few minutes for our guide to meet us at the subway station, so I decided to have some ice cream to tide me over.

The tour took us through 4 different types of restaurants and different types of meals.  Some were traditional and some reflected the future of Czech cuisine.

We started at a bakery called  Simply Good.  Here we sampled traditional Czech breakfast pastries.  We had a blueberry kolache and puff pastry with lemon curd.

That's our guide Leona in the pink shirt.  She was awesome.  She was not just informative about the food, but she had extensive knowledge of the history and culture and was able to answer all of our stupid questions and give us a lot of background to the places we went and the foods we ate along with the stories behind them.


The second stop took us away from the traditional and into the emerging locavore movement.  We went to a restaurant called Eska.   If traditional Czech food is all about carbs and meat, this meal truly deviated from tradition because there was no meat.  


The decor is made from reclaimed items and they have an open kitchen - rare in Prague.

We started with a kefir dip and sesame crackers.  There were all kinds of nuts and flowers and I don't know what else on top.
Next we had fermented red wheat with roasted celery root, raisins, and walnuts.  The celeriac was the most obvious flavor here.


The third dish was a potato roasted in ash surrounded with more kefir dried egg yolk, and smoked fish.  I pushed the fish bits aside and enjoyed the rest of the dish.
This meal is nothing I would have ordered if I were on my own, but I enjoyed it.  I'm glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone and tasted some dishes that were truly new to me.

Our next stop was Lokal Hamburk.  Lokal is a small beer hall chain throughout the city.  The one in Karlin is named after Hamburg because it is near the river port that starts the major route to Hamburg.  The decor playfully imitates the communist era. 

The theme for this stop was traditional beer snacks.  Our first dish was steak tartare.  In France this is a high end dish.  In Prague you eat it with your beer.  It is mixed with pickles and egg and a bunch of other stuff and it's so delicious I could have eaten the whole pile of it.  You rub garlic on the little toasts provided and spread the beef over it.


We also had nakladany hermelin - pickled Camembert cheese.  It sounds bizarre, but it was delicious.

Finally we had Prague ham that you eat on bread spread with a mixture of whipped cream and horseradish.  During our walks around the square I saw many street vendors roasting ham on spits and it gave me a huge ham craving.  Unfortunately once I finally tasted Prague ham, I didn't think it was anything special.  This was the weakest dish of the day.


Our final stop on the tour was a small cafe called Maso a Kobliha, which literally means Meat and Doughnuts.  The owner also owns a butcher shop, so the restaurant is a way to make use of his product.  I'm not sure how the doughnuts came into play, but I won't complain.


Oddly enough, we didn't have meat.  We had more cheese.  This was a huge hunk of fried cheese on a bun with tartar sauce.  I don't know how I managed to eat it after attacking the bar snacks.

We finished with the doughnuts.  This was a delicious pastry stuffed with homemade vanilla custard.   I don't think a better custard doughnut than this exists anywhere.

Beverages were included in the tour and we had a few traditional and non-traditional options at each stop.  At the bakery we were offered coffee, but I stuck with iced tea (bottled).  At Eska they had Czech wine.  I drank a white.  I decided to alternate the alcoholic beverages, so at Lokal I had a raspberry soda.  At Meat and Doughnuts, I went for hard cider.

What I found interesting about Czech soft drinks is that every non-soda option is called "lemonade" whether it contains lemons or not.  The raspberry drink I had was lemonade.  The ginger soda my niece drank with her doughnut was lemonade.  If it's not Coke, it's lemonade.

I still wonder how I was able to eat dinner that night after all of this food.  I knew I had to make the effort because it was my last night in Prague and I still hadn't tried all the Czech dishes I wanted to.

We stayed in Old Town Square and at a restaurant Leona had recommended call Mincovna.  Mincovna means mint and the building once housed a mint.  The decor consists of giant replicas of old coins.

I decided to try the Czech version of goulash.  There were dumplings of course.  There are always dumplings.  I was so full and tired I barely remember it.  I'm sure it was good because it it had been bad, I would have remembered that.  The dumpling were less bread-like here.


 I didn't order dessert.  Someone did.  I took a photo, but I don't remember what it was.


Our trip was brief.  We flew back to New York the next day.  It was worth the long journey.   I would have liked a few more meals and seen a few more sights, but I'm happy to have had this experience.

Now I need to go to the gym!