I love food and I love to cook. But for those of us who, “Live to Eat,” grocery shopping and menu planning in Vienna could be its own reality show, with winners determined by how well they can ad lib a planned menu using fewer than three different grocers and when half of their desired ingredients are not available. I will admit that this renders me weary at times.
My disdain for grocery shopping in Vienna is well documented. Where we lived in the U.S., at least, speciality ingredients could be easily found in one place, more or less, and pretty much around the clock. Here, of course, not so much, so flexibility is key. Unless I have time or interest in spending a half-day flitting around the city between stores and markets, each time I plan a non-Austrian menu (roughly 7 days out of 7 each week) I have to be prepared to ad lib a menu on the spot based on what may or (more likely) may not be available.
Let’s say we’re in the mood for Pho, an Asian bone-broth based soup with herbs, vegetables, and beef. The signature Pho herb, Thai Basil is not available in the mainstream grocery, so an extra stop is required at a specialty asian market. But not on Mondays, because the shipments either haven’t arrived, or the shelves have not yet been stocked. Therefore, Pho is either on the menu for Tuesday or I take my chances later in the week that the basil will still be fresh, if even available. The oxtail is a crapshoot, as well. The Turkish market at which I am guaranteed to find oxtail does not carry Thai Basil so it’s at least a two market adventure at this point. Bok Choy is the leafy green component of the soup, and Mung Bean Sprouts are the essential “crunch;” the asian markets will carry both, but in portions sized to feed an evening’s worth of restaurant patrons. On rare occasion these items will pop up at the mainstream grocer near my house, but the route to and from on public is too convoluted to take that chance, and we all know I loathe driving my car in Vienna almost as much as I loathe grocery shopping. So, if a Pho dinner comes to fruition, the preparations are executed with surgical precision, the sacrifice being that a good portion of the produce ends up in compost.
Lemongrass, oddly enough, has long been a semi-regular in the ex-pat district grocers, along with pre-packaged salad with edible flowers. Just this weekend I spied a brand-new display for Ghee at the regular market, too. I would love to survey Viennese persons to ask if and what they’re doing with Lemongrass and clarified Indian butter. And pre-packaged salads with edible flowers.
Even “typical” Austrian groceries might not be available on a given day. The regular market near our house offers Stelze (roasted pork knuckle) on special each Thursday. Except, one stands zero chance of procuring said item after around noon, as they have all been sold. What is that all about?
But enough complaining about First World Problems. I am up to every culinary challenge Vienna throws at me, and with the exception of Kolbasa (straight away I head to the Czech Republic; Vienna can not make a Kolbasa to save itself), I am proud of my epicurean accomplishments.
First up, Black Bean, Jalapeño and Oaxacan cheese Empanadas with Roasted Corn Salsa. This was an easy two-market achievement: the regular grocer one day had a rare offer of Jalapeños, so I hoarded every package and plotted a trip to the Mexican grocer for Oaxacan cheese and dried black beans the following day. To the victor go the spoils. Ole!
I have been putting my Biochemistry degree through its paces here, no doubt. The Mexican grocer offers Blue Corn Tortillas and dried Ancho chilies; and the regular grocer offers pre-cooked potatoes (“Oma’s Look of Disdain” is gratis with every package) that can easily be mashed and flavored with Jalapeños and Cheddar, stuffed into the soft tortillas, and fried until gloriously crispy. Soaking and pureeing the dried chilies with other yummy stuff produced the dipping sauce. Fusion Cuisine!
Another ingenious use of the pre-cooked potatoes. When mashed and mixed with flour and the ample dill available in this country, Dill Waffles and Smoked Salmon is what’s for breakfast.
Paprikas and Parsley are as abundant as tap water here. Hence the no-brainer breakfast, sliced (pre-cooked) potatoes sauteed with paprikas and a package of chopped bacon. America calls it, “Hash;” the Austrians call it Gröstl.
One final recipe that will never appear on the prepared potato package. On accident one day at the grocery I grabbed a box of something called, “Kartoffelteig,” which, I think, is just fancy dried potatoes. The photo on the box displayed a round “Potatoball” stuffed with fruit that didn’t look at all appealing. (Why would anyone stuff a potato flour ball with fruit, right?) No worries, though. Anna Grace and I pimped out the potato ball mix into Indian-spiced fritters, and whipped together a Methi curry to go with from my arsenal of spices. Problem solved, and bonus points for roasting the stray can of chick peas in the pantry with curry spice as the accent!
Paneer Bhurji, an anticipated breakfast in the house on the day following my visit to a specialty market that is
steps from the crowded and smelly U6 a bit off the beaten path, but sells the product. Crumbled and fried Paneer (Indian cottage cheese) with whatever crunchy veggies are in the house, and warmed Chapati on the side. There are products labeled, “Pita” and, “Naan” at the regular market; we have tried them and we are not fooled.
Balaleet is another “Fusion Cuisine” breakfast we love. Austrians seem to like tiny vermicelli noodles broken into bits, but I have yet to figure out how it is they prepare them. My solution is to cook the broken noodles with cardamon, butter, and sugar, and serve it as breakfast a al Emirati style. Quail egg tiny noodles are particularly luscious.
“Do we eat anything American-normal for breakfast?,” you may wonder? Not really. There are rounded, seeded doughy items called bagels here, but they are bagels only in name. I have, though, toasted and chopped them into a breakfast casserole with French herbs, creme, and Gruyere. What passes for English Muffins here is not worth further conversation, either.
Flexibility is key, remember? This is, Ma Yi Shang Shu, or, “Ants Climbing a Tree.” It is a Sichaun dish of ground pork cooked in a fermented black bean paste. The butcher at the regular grocery simply was not in the mood to grind pork for me one day (I am not kidding!), and the closest “specialty market” was out of fermented black bean paste. I charged ahead with the available ground chicken and a homemade concoction of Sriracha and Hoisin. The ground chicken “ants” didn’t quite climb the glass noodles “tree” but I did create a fiery and tasty dish that is in our menu rotation.
“Mantu,” the Euro-Asian dumpling with origins from somewhere along the ancient Silk Road. Dumpling wrappers from Specialty Market 1; Ground Lamb from Market 2; and the remaining ingredients from Market 3. Considerable effort required for this dish, but the raves from the family have kept in on the menu.
Sometimes special items appear at the regular grocer without warning and cast the evening’s menu aside. The rare appearance of Baby Artichokes one day compelled me (with my trolley) to stand in the middle of the grocery lane (it’s protocol for the chattering Omas, so, no problem) and frantically scroll the culinary news feeds on my iPhone for inspiration. Presenting…Pear and Taleggio Ravioli with Grilled Baby Artichokes. Pecorino cheese supposed to be in the filling, but, well…beggars can not be choosers.
I am always happy to prepare local foods, when I am in the mood to scramble my plans. At a market one summer day, a vendor offered sweet, red, apricots, so I made time to create hand pies that were loved by all.
My confidence in menu manipulation has grown tremendously; there’s little I am not willing to try. Last week or so the regular grocery began to feature wild game (deer and boar), so I dug out one of my Servus magazines (the German-language mashup of Martha Stewart and Real Simple) and made Deer Ragu. My first ever wild game dinner! The family loved it.
I love, love Styrian Backhendl, chicken that is soaked in buttermilk and double battered before frying. My first attempt was a huge success, though the cooktop was a little worse for the wear after all that frying.
Finally, Plachutta, one of Vienna’s premier restaurants for all-foods-Imperial, offers its recipe for Wiener Schnitzel on their website, and one day a couple of months ago I was feeling brave. The handmade Schnitzel may be Oma-approved, but I did “cheat” with store-purchased Erdapfelsalat. Someday, perhaps, the Erdapfelsalat, too , might get Oma’s seal of approval.