Monday, December 21, 2009

Czech Republic - Pork with cabbage and dumplings

My dad and stepmother were stationed in Prague in 1982. My mother and I were living in Tel Aviv at the time and I would visit my father twice a year, for the Christmas and summer holidays. The Czech Republic is now a very popular tourist destination but at the time it was a communist country called Czechoslovakia and tourists found traveling there too restrictive and intimidating.

From Tel Aviv I would fly into Vienna where my dad would pick me up and we would drive three and a half hours into Prague. Crossing the border was always interesting. We would have our car searched by sour-faced border security looking for smuggled western goods or, when we were leaving the country, Czechs trying to escape.

Despite the repressive environment, Czechoslovakia was one of my father’s favorite posts. The U.S. Embassy and its employees were housed in the 17th century Shoenborn Palace in the Mala Strana district. It had over a hundred rooms, some with thirty-foot ceilings, and three courtyards. Behind the palace was a terraced garden and orchard with pear trees. Each family had a little plot of land where they could grow fruits and vegetables. The garden extended up a hillside where, on top, rested the Glorietta, a tall structure we climbed to see the magnificent view of the city and the Royal Palace.

Except for Czech crystal, there were few consumer goods and what was available was very bad quality. But there were a few nice restaurants in walking distance from the embassy and the city had beautiful opera houses, symphony orchestras and ballets. Since the Czech government funded the arts, the tickets were only a few dollars each, which made it possible for the average Czech to go to the performances. My father doesn’t remember a time going to an opera or ballet where the theater wasn’t packed.

Prague was a popular location for Hollywood. The first week my dad and stepmother were there they were filming the Barbra Streisand movie “Yentil” Not long afterwards another film crew came in to film “Amadeus.” There were several embassy people who were in the movie as extras. After my dad and stepmother left Prague the movie “Mission Impossible” was filmed there. The embassy RSO ( the regional security officer – the same position my dad held) had a speaking part in the beginning of the movie.

For our Czech Republic dinner I made vepro-knedlo-zelo, a pork roast with dumplings and cabbage. It’s the most popular Czech dish. It was not a difficult meal to make though I was a bit jittery about making the dumplings. It turned out I had nothing to worry about. I dumped little dough shaped loaves into boiling water and I was quite proud of myself when the dumplings came out just as they should.

For the cabbage, I sliced it into pieces, blanched it and then sautéed it with onion and butter. I then seasoned the cabbage with sugar, salt and vinegar. For the pork, I simply rubbed it with garlic and caraway seeds and roasted it.

It was fun talking with my dad about the Czech Republic. He reminded me of some of our experiences there. He also corrected me on a few things. For instance, since I was fourteen, I have been telling people that to get to Czechoslovakia I flew into Frankfurt, Germany where my dad picked me up before taking me to Prague. But my dad told me I had it all wrong. I flew into Vienna. Strange. I don’t remember being in Vienna. But I do remember gorgeous Prague and Shoenborn Castle.

Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo (Pork with dumplings and cabbage)

Pork roast
Garlic cloves
Caraway seeds

For dumplings:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 white bread roll, cut into pieces
1 tsp baking powder


1 head of cabbage (red or white – I used red for color. I also heard it’s healthier)
1 onion
2 TBSP butter
1 tsp caraway seeds

Rub meat with minced garlic and salt; sprinkle with caraway seeds and roast in a 350 degree oven until tender and cooked through. It took my pork roast an hour.

For the dumplings, mix all the ingredients until combined and add the bread cubes last. The dough should be a medium consistency. Shape the dough into 2 or 3 small loaves. Dump them into a big pot of boiling water and simmer for 20 – 35 minutes. Fish them out and slice them thick. The dumplings are supposed to have a soft and bready taste.

Cut the cabbage into strips and quickly blanch in boiling water; strain. With butter or oil, sauté chopped onion and then add the cabbage strips and a teaspoon of caraway seeds. Cook until cabbage leaves are tender. You may have to add in a little more water. When the cabbage is done, season with sugar, salt and vinegar.

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