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Epicurious Adventures

"Everything’s better with butter"

If you happen to have, say, a second edition Mastering the Art of French Cooking lying around on your bookshelf, as I do, you quickly realize that Julia Child was into butter. “Everything’s better with butter,” is almost a Julia quote, but the sentiment is correct nonetheless. I love butter, too.

Growing up in the U.S. Midwest, the maiden was always in our refrigerator. Salted or unsalted. None of that fake oil spread, vegan-soy schmear crap that clogs up the modern grocery store shelves ever crossed our home’s threshold. Why the Indian maiden to sell butter? I have no idea. All I know is that the design was created in the 1950’s by an Ojibwe artist.

In Praise of the Döner Kebab

A few days ago I read some rather uncharitable words about one of my favorite Viennese street foods from an ex-pat living here, and I was thus inspired to sing the praises of the lowly Döner Kebab. Or, if you prefer, Shawarma, Gyros, Tacos al Pastor, Sufflaqe, Tarna, or Dyuner.

What is the Döner Kebab? Literally, the Turkish words translate to “Turning Roast.” In its most elegant form, the rotating spit of lamb looks something like this. Anna Grace and I savored this treat in Istanbul many times over last summer. And personally, to me a well prepared Döner sandwich is darned close to haute street cuisine.

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I’ll Never Forget My First Time

People. I’m talking about pumpkin pie.

Tomorrow is the oh-so American celebration of Thanksgiving. Growing up in an Eastern European household we ate roast turkey and stuffing, of course, but desserts were mostly Polish: poppy seed cakes, jam-filled cookies, and my great aunt Helene’s fruitcake. As a married couple, Whole Foods always came through with perfectly baked pumpkin and apple pies, ideal for discerning guests and also leaving me more time to play in the kitchen with the real food.

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Aristocratic Eats in the Imperial City

In the US the answer to the question of, “What are we doing for dinner?” was never, “Let’s go out for Austrian food!” But for a cafe or (maybe) two in Georgetown, there are no Austrian restaurants in the DC area. Why, I do not know.  The country’s cuisine is welcoming to even an armchair epicurean.

Leberkäse. Don’t call it SPAM.

This ubiquitous snack contains neither liver (Leber) nor cheese (Käse). So why the name?  Linguists posit that leberkäse is from the Middle High German* word lab or laib (clotted or loaf) and the Slavic root word quas (feast).   Whatever its etymology, this “clotted feast” or “loaf feast” is everywhere in Vienna, and throughout most of Austria and Bavaria as well. Street vendors and grocery stores sell leberkäse on semmel rolls for the quick snacker or harried commuter; and I spy the thick slices and fine-sliced wurst in the grocery trolleys of moms with children, single persons, and pretty much everyone in between, including my trolley.

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Better than Streetfood at Schwedenplatz

Back in DC Tony and I rarely met for lunch; we worked in offices in different states not easily connected by public transportation, or by car.  I think we met for lunch twice in 20 years, maybe.  Here, though, we meet regularly, weather permitting, for street noodles and people watching at Schwedenplatz (Swedish Plaza), a main transport hub along the Donau, so named by Austria in 1919 in gratitude for the help of the Swedish people after WWI.

This week, however, we spiced up our street noodles and people watching (pun intended) at the Thai Festival on the Prater grounds.  The Thai Embassy is hosting a weeklong event celebrating 60 years of friendly Thai-Austrian relations, and who can resist Thai food?

 

Thai Airlines was attracting visitors with its beautifully decorated pavilion full of glossy travel brochures. Hmm, Anna Grace did ask to where we might travel next summer…

I was not the only one taking photos.

Exotic impressions of Thailand filled the small Prater park, from carved fruits and vegetables, to market stalls and grocery stands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thai Embassy tempted festival goers with its cuisine, the main purpose of our visit. Lunch was a shared spicy papaya salad, made to order and oh-so-spicy(!), an equally spicy plate of larb gai, a ground chicken salad, and a couple of cold Singhas. Mmm. Mmm.

 

 

No lotus and red bean drink for us, though. We’re not fans.

Snacks to go, brown sugar glazed dried fish. An acquired, and addicting, taste.

People watching was top-rate, as well. The festival runs through Sunday, so there’s still time to enjoy authentic spicy food in Vienna. After Sunday, we’ll save a spot on the bench at Schwedenplatz for you.

 

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A Late Summer’s Feast

This is what I have been doing over the last 36 hours. Eating.

Wednesday Evening. Crispy Pork Knuckle with Sauerkraut, Ham and Potato Gratin, and Apfel Strudel. And much Austrian red wine. Tony and I were at a social function where I could not exactly take photos of the food without perhaps embarrassing the US, but that’s why the Internet exists.

Thursday Lunch. I was invited to Tempo di Porcini, a mushroom feast hosted by an AIS mom with whom I wander the vineyards.  Mushroom season has begun in earnest here; sadly I live with three mushroom haters. But thankfully so does this mom, so she thoughtfully gathered six friends with whom to share the earliest of the season’s bounty, and her amazing Cucina Italiano skills, over a four course lunch.
The first course was a simple pan of porcinis sauteed in butter and tossed with sea salt. Again, I did not feel comfortable snapping photos, but after the first course (or the two glasses of Prosecco), I was regretting not having brought my camera. (Photos courtesy of The Internet)
No photos on the Internet could do justice to the second course, personal cast iron pans of fried eggs and truffle toast. Alas, though, I can not eat eggs. And the friend across the table from me could not eat bread (gluten allergy), so I made the sacrifice and ate her truffle toast.
The third course was porcini risotto. There is no appropriate language to describe the silky rice and mushrooms generously dressed with fresh parmesan that we all swooned over.
But our three hour meal was not over. The final course; that is, before dessert, was a simple pan of roasted potatoes and porcini, again tossed with olive oil and sea salt. We all took seconds, in spite of ourselves.  Our dessert was a refreshing bowl of fresh figs and peaches, and generous servings of espresso lest we all fall asleep on our host’s dining room floor.

 

Thursday Evening. Not more than 3 hours had passed before it was time to head out to a biergarten chosen by our son to celebrate his 16th birthday, one serving copious plates of meat along with the steins of beer that he is now officially able to order without us!  The boys selected platters of Austrian-style meatloaf with fried onions and mashed potatoes, while I thought I would play it safe with “Kleines Zander,” a small plate of fried Zander (similar to trout) and Kartoffelsalat (potato salad).

I should have known better. “Kleines” anything at a biergarten just meant that the plate was smaller, not the portion. I am convinced I was served the Guinness Book of World Records Zander.  It was very good that Anna Grace had had cross country practice earlier in the day and could bail me out from my epic dinner fail.

Friday Lunch.  I was at the UN for the IAEA General Meeting (well, mostly to collect swag and make a Commissary run) and so could have lunch with my darling husband at the UN cafeteria. Did I select a salad, perhaps?  No!  I went “local” with a dish of Artichokes Romana, perfectly steamed artichokes topped with chopped tomatoes, parsley, and parmesan cheese. Served with a garlic baguette, too.
Artichokes are not Austrian, of course but they are popular here, and since Rome is on the same continent as Vienna, that pretty much counts as local to me.  The dish was more than enough for two to share, yet not only did I eat all SIX of my artichokes, but I also ate the slice of pistachio cake that you see in the background.
While I am largely immune to gaining weight courtesy of my Eastern European high-metabolism ancestry, there are times when even I feel that a little “Wien Wanderung” might be a good idea, especially since my weekend calendar has both a dinner and a brunch on it. And so Clayton Theodore and I headed out to explore our favorite destination on this perfect fall afternoon.
The sunlight on the path up to the vineyards makes the point that autumn has arrived. (That, and the 4°C temperature we awoke to this morning.)
Definitely not summer clouds.
Their days are numbered, too. I’ll likely see them as sturm next weekend when we visit our local heurigen.

 

 

Happy 100th, Julia!

Boeuf Bourguignon isn’t on the menu at home tonight, but whatever we’re having will have the courage of my convictions. Bon Appetit!

Austrian Tex-Mex

Part of the fun of travel is trying the local cuisine, no?  We’re pretty good about that, having tried everything from fresh moules et frites at a seaside restaurant in Normandy to braised sheep intestines in Salzburg, to tiny shrimp-with-eyes sushi from a sushi bar in Tokyo. Now that we’re living in Austria, though, we don’t feel as rushed to make it an all Schnitzel, all the time kind of diet.  Plenty of sauerbraten in front of the fireplace kind of nights ahead of us, too, so there’s no need to overdo it in 30+ degree weather.
One Friday night at the Derag we all wanted Mexican, per our usual “Friday Mexican Night” back in the States. We had heard from friends, and experienced ourselves in the Parisian “International” grocery store aisle, that American Tex-Mex is pretty much limited to Old El Paso taco kits and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.
Thus, with great trepidation and lowered expectations we combed the aisles of the Billa, and look what we found!
The finished product was muy delicioso, we all agreed.  But I’m still glad I have a years’ supply of chili powder bobbing across the ocean in sea freight, because it doesn’t appear that the Santa Maria brand ventures beyond taco and fajita seasoning.
 (Helpful kitchen tip: a plastic colander stands in for a cheese grater in a pinch.) 

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