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Category Archives: Culinary Hopscotch

Stove-Slaving in St. Petersburg for Stroganoff & Kotlety

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Today, our journey took us into the depths of St. Petersburg on the metro, and out of the historical city centre. Exiting the metro, we’d find architecture that triggered immediate ideas of Communism; we had ascended into the projects. Real estate prices here, however, fetch surprisingly high tariffs, and we still are at a loss for an answer as to how people pay to live in this city. It is incredibly expensive.

The food, on the other hand, is quite simple. Russian cuisine is hearty to a point of insulation, and it reminds me a lot of the cuisine I had in Poland earlier this winter. In fact, some of the words are even the same, however, their translations couldn’t be farther apart. Take “pierogi” for example. During our city tour the other day, our driver, Alex, took Brady and I to a traditional Russian “fast food” restaurant for pierogi. We walked in, approached the counter, and looked around for the tender dumplings of various fillings, only to find exquisite golden pastries bursting with sweet and savory insides. Lost in translation? Apparently. Russian pierogis have nothing to do with the dumplings you’d find in Polish milk bars and in the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s. They are bonafide pastries filled with everything from salmon to apricot jam. And quite good. But I digress. The cooking class is why you are reading.

Brady (or Buh-rian, depending on who you ask) and I jumped on the metro this morning and made our way far out of the city centre. You wouldn’t believe how deep these metros are here. A picture wouldn’t even do it justice (and we tried), and if that wasn’t enough, we descended to find just a row of metal doors with people hanging about. Where were the trains? Behind the doors, of course. We entered the train, the doors slammed shut with a resounding clunk, and we were not getting out. Russian suicide prevention, or something else? We wouldn’t find out, but this was unlike any metro either of us had ever seen. The train skated along the tracks briskly, and after about 40 minutes, we arrived at our stop, the 2nd to last on the line. 

The plan was to meet our host there at the exit, but as we waited and waited, we both questioned why I hadn’t been more judicious in getting a description of this woman, or giving her ours. Clearly, we stood out; Brady, looking like a proper English gent in his camel overcoat, and me with flat boots and round eyes taking it all in. Everyone was staring. Suddenly, from nowhere, Polina appeared. 
An unforeseen incident with her electricity forced us to her mom’s apartment around the corner where the three of us met her mom and Jack, the English Spaniel. Polina and I were about to be up to our elbows in Beef Stroganoff and Turkey Kotlety, so we got straight to work. Neither of these dishes required any special cooking equipment though, only time. The three of us had a chat before we got started regarding the American interpretation of Beef Stroganoff versus the Russian one. Being that it was invented by a chef in this city, I can without a doubt say, we’ve got it all wrong.

I didn’t see a can of mushroom soup anywhere today, nor did I see a mushroom for that matter. Egg noodles need not apply, as they’re not even a part of this dish. Our stroganoff included hand-pounded and sliced meet, an onion, olive oil, a bit of sour cream (save it people), Russian herbs (which Polina so graciously sent us home with), and salt and pepper. C’est tout. The dish truly could not have been easier and I can imagine having it on a cold winter’s night, assuming we actually have a winter this year. Based on current reports, it sounds like a long-shot. We boiled off some potatoes for a mash on the side, and there, my friends, you have the real Beef Stroganoff. Where we ever came up with this concoction over noodles is beyond me. 

Next to our Beef Stroganoff and potatoes were massive patties called Kotlety. We ground the meat by hand, and passed all the other ingredients (garlic, carrot, onion, and a bit of white bread) through the meat grinder as well. Cinchy. Before forming the mixture into patties under water, we added in an additional Russian dried herb and salt and pepper, and then sauteed them in frying pans until they were golden brown. This was truly winter fare, and perfect for the flurries falling outside the window.

At the conclusion of our cooking, Brady, Polina and I sat down to a lovely lunch, and talked about all things everything. Polina has Russian citizenship, but was born in London so she’s a British national above all else. We each shared our interpretation of St. Petersburg, discussed immigration in our countries, pondered what living in the Soviet time must have been like, and laughed about how Russians can’t queue or drive for shit. She regaled us with some hilarious stories about being pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road here (they drove over from London, and she drives on the opposite side in her car), and it was a really fun afternoon. 

If you’re headed to Russia and fear the food, don’t worry. It’s really nothing more than meat and potatoes, just like my Irish ancestors noshed on in a similar effort to keep warm in blustery times. The cooking digs today were a real indication of what Soviet Era Russia must have looked like. From the austere apartment buildings with unfinished concrete hallways and stairwells, and the metro experience from start to finish, we were whisked away from European Russia and transported to decades of yesteryear. I’m realizing more and more that traveling through the lens of cooking is a fantastic way to move between countries. Fantastic and different. Really.

Mexican Picnic in Paris

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There has been an idea brewing in the brains of two Americans in Paris, so we decided to perform some due diligence while we were here. A friend came in from London on Saturday who has been living there for the last year or so, and she was dying for a taste of Mexican food. Fine I thought. I had recently read a blog about a new Mexican place in Paris that had the word “authentic” attached to it on more than one occasion. We would be the judges. 
After a night out in Paris that looked more like a third-world tumbling routine, we needed a pick-me-up yesterday morning. Off we set for El Nopal near Canal St. Martin. It was a cinchy excursion on the metro, and when we hopped off, we took our chances, turned left and found the street: Rue Eugene Varlin. It was three storefronts in from the canal, and seriously the tiniest place you have ever seen.
A true Harlequin facade, we rammed ourselves inside three-men wide and we were all that would fit. We passed along our order, and the man, whose name we never even got (kicking myself right now), might have been the friendliest person ever. He shared the whole enchilada with us. He was from Monterrey, Mexico with a Columbian wife who was born in Paris, and despite an attempt to live in America and her protests about living in Paris, here they found themselves after not having been given visas in New York. He enrolled in school and learned French, and just five weeks ago opened up this veritable taco stand. And there were were standing in it.
It was en fuego. Quite literally. That’s the thing with European Mexican food. Somewhere along the line, someone got the the idea that Tex-Mex was the all the rage. Mais non. We all had a laugh about that in El Nopal when he said, “You can’t believe how many people come in and ask if I’m going to make chile con carne.” There’s a total misconception about what Mexican cuisine actually is in Europe. People think if you throw meat and tomatoes in a tortilla, voila…you have a taco or burrito. Ah hem…no. In any event, El Nopal was the  real deal with spice, verve, and a store-keeper with a personality that would make me queue there for lunch day-in and day-out in Paris provided I lived here. 
As luck would have it, we stumbled upon Mexican joint #2 today in the Latin quarter on Rue Mouffetard. We had just finished lunch, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to juxtapose two Mexican restaurants in Paris. We shared a chicken quesadilla, and for God’s sake, it was another hit. Spicy salsa and well-prepared chicken in a bonafide flour tortilla. And Coronas. We couldn’t believe it. Bon chance! 
Tomorrow, we’re off to the Champagne region of France, and I think our lunch at Jardin des Crayeres will border more on avant-garde than internationale, but we’ll see. It’s fine though. We leave for Russia on Wednesday morning, and I can only imagine what the cuisine will bring there. I don’t think we’ll be having tacos and vodka, let’s just say that. But who knows…only time will tell.

St. Petersburg Cooking Class Secured

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I’m very excited to report that I’ve secured us a cooking class in St. Petersburg, Russia. We will be cooking with an English ex-pat on Saturday, November 6th. 

While I won’t get to practice any of the Russian that I will undoubtedly learn in my upcoming class, we are hoping to take away some newfangled knowledge about Russian cuisine, and some recipes we can replicate at home. I know we will be bringing home a complimentary sack of Russian herbs. Can’t wait to see what those are! 

Stay tuned for the blog post after the class. There will likely be some cooking taking place in Paris again as well…

Sticking a Fork in It

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Some of you probably noticed a little hiccup in the blog posting over the past week. That was because of an inserted trip to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day where Irish-related shenanigans briefly took my focus away from things. But I do have some bad news for my loyal readers who have relied on my writing to entertain them during boring work days…Culinary Hopscotch is getting a fork stuck in it early. 

This journey has been incredible, but it’s also been incredibly expensive. As such, I’m going to have to go home earlier than I expected. The good news is that I can get a jumpstart on my book proposal. That was the real reason for this trip, and I definitely have enough material to set things in motion. 

Thank you again to everyone for the words of encouragement and for following along on this amazing adventure. I’ve managed to make it around Europe for close to two months solo, and I’m not even sure I’ve lost anything along the way…save a few pounds (for all of you naysayers out there).

To be continued…

What’s for Lunch in Warsaw?

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In the words of my friend and former Warsaw-dweller “PK,” ‘Polish food is usually fried and made with pork or cream.’ You might be thinking, ‘Yum! What’s the big deal?’ But I have to agree with PK on this one. Polish cuisine leaves a lot to be desired from a health perspective. But it is cold. Colder than a well-digger’s ass, in fact, so I understand their obsession with insulating ingredients.
After getting my fix of pierogis yesterday, however, I was looking for something lighter today. I’m currently sitting at A. Blikle for lunch, a cafe that dates back to 1869. It’s a Warsaw institution, and the only cafe on Nowy Swiat to survive the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 when the street was reduced to rubble. You’d think that would be an accomplishment in and of itself, but the cafe was actually forced to close when communism reared its ugly head. Lucky for us, when communism became a thing of the past in 1989, A. Blikle reopened to its former glory.

Allow me to set the scene: the background jazz music is at a perfect acoustic level, and the dark wood molding that creeps midway up the wall meets a panel of jade green that’s decorated with black and white photos of days gone by. The granite and brass tables are regal, and every one is inhabited by pairs of chatting people. The waiters, dressed in vests and bow ties, bounce from room to room bringing liquid and gustatory treats to those waiting with baited breath. It is no accident this place survived the times.

I ducked in for the Żurek staropolski (old Polish sour soup) and the Tort “Generalski,” reportedly named after General Charles de Gaulle, a former patron of A. Blikle. The soup was light, but incredibly flavorful with slivers of kielbasa and hard-boiled eggs. The cake, on the other hand, was anything but light. A thin pastry crust laid the foundation for layers of chocolate pastry cream and cherry-soaked chocolate cake. The pale pastry dough blushed each time I pierced it with my fork from the oozing cherry juice. It was sinful, and I’m of the opinion that it was this cake that got them into trouble all those years back with the communists. It’s against the law for something to taste that good. The jury’s still out on whether or not my lunch fit into the “light” category, but that aside, I love finding places that combine classic cuisine with nostalgia and do it well. A. Blikle definitely satisfies both.

Over cups of tea and coffee, patrons licked their lips from the savory and sweet delicacies they ordered, and I looked on thinking about what this place must have been like in its true hayday. In my imagination, men were dressed in coats with tails and smoked tobacco pipes under their tophats. And the women wore furs, and had wind-swept hairstyles with red lipstick. You could sense that element of yesteryear glam. You definitely don’t need to be dressed for the opera to enjoy A. Blikle, so if you find yourself in Warsaw, and invariably on Nowy Swiat, head to #33 for an unrivaled slice of cake. You’ll be in for a little slice of history too.

A. Blikle

Next Stop: Dublin

Practicing Polish

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When a Pole flicks his/her neck, it means they want to have a drink of vodka with you. When a Pole hands you a map of Krakow and directs you to their favorite “milk bar” for pierogis, you go. I like Poland. It’s forceful from an F & B perspective, and I can get behind that.

I showed up at Pod Filarkiem on the advice of Agnieszka and Lukesz, my unbelievable hosts. This place doesn’t look like much from the outside (or inside for that matter), but with the throngs of patrons lined up, it becomes immediately obvious that’s not the point. It’s 100%, bonafide Polish, and that’s all they speak here. Some of you are likely thinking, “Kyle, you don’t speak Polish.” But for those of you who know my obsession with foreign languages, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Who cares, self. I’m sure Kyle waltzed right up and knew what to say.” If you thought the latter, well, then you’ve already earned your first demerit badge of the post.

Lucky for me, I was sent with a cheat sheet, and Agnieszka, Lukesz and I had a rather comical phonetic discussion over breakfast so I’d know how to pronounce things. I had my notes, but I was nervous. Thinking to myself, ‘This woman will never see me again,’ I took a deep breath, glanced at my pronunciations, and gave it the old college try. She seemed to know what I was saying, but as these things go, my Polish was far from perfect. I ended up with an order each of pierogi ruskie and pierogi z mięsem, and there are probably 20 in each order. Alas, my call for a “po porczi” (half order) of each fell on deaf ears, and I’m currently sitting across the table from a woman (it’s all common seating) who is staring at me like I’m Kobayashi.

The good news is, I think I finally found a place where they don’t immediately know I’m foreign, with the exception of the people at the counter. Numerous people have (presumably) asked to share my table in Polish, and I just nod with an “I don’t have a clue what the $@!# you’re talking about” look, smile, and nod, and they sit down with me to stare at my gluttonous feast.

So, pierogis…what are they? I guess the best way to describe them are like tortellonis or gyoza. It’s a fairly delicate layer of dough wrapped around fillings, in my case cheese and meat. Both orders came topped with a small pile of grilled onions, and they seem to be relaxing in a butter bath. But not too much. They’re fantastic, fresh, and affordable little dough purses that will help me shove on in Krakow until I head to the train station tonight…with my second container of pierogis. Luckily, I also misunderstood the “for here or to-go” question, and mine showed up in takeaway boxes.

I’m quickly (and thankfully) learning that native foods are the reigning champs when traveling, especially if you can get directed to a locals-only joint. If pierogis are as easy as they look to make, don’t be surprised if you find a Polish plate in front of you at my house. I’ll spare you the leftover Communist stoicism that the counter servers here have perfected, and if you’re lucky, I won’t even make you order in Polish. Na zdrowie!

Next Stop: Warsaw

Not Going Hungry in Hungary

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This post is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a restaurant review, and perhaps you’ve noticed that I haven’t wasted space on my blog waxing poetically about restaurants (and yes, I have been eating in them). That’s because I’ve yet to find one worthy of a ringing endorsement, until today…

I’m currently stuffing my face full of three courses at Stand Bistro. And including a glass of wine, the entire meal is setting me back less than 2000 HUF (roughly $10). I’m not sacrificing ambiance (in fact I’m staring directly at DIO, another Budapest institution), and the food is fresh, tasty, and most certainly, affordable. My pumpkin soup with chickpeas was silky and warm, a perfect insulator on this bitter day. And the papardelle affumicata was a bed of delicate noodles with the perfect amount of light red sauce and pancetta. On deck: an almond mascarpone mousse.

So, while I’m sorry your other two restaurants closed, thank you Chef Viktor Segal for this cataclismic and cost-effective addition to my culinary crusade. Stand Bistro is brilliant, and was well worth tracking down on Google Maps for Blackberry. This just further verifies my point that with a bit of research, you can dine substantially well for pennies on the dollar. Or Forint. Whatever I’m paying with today.