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A Proud Polack Passes Away.

Monday night my uncle Roy (he married Dad’s sister Mary Ann) passed away from a massive stroke.  I haven’t posted anything about him until now because I’ve spent the last week trying to come up with some kind of summery of his life.  Do I take the outdoors angle where he loved to fish and hunt?  His seemingly endless tall-tales that he loved to tell?  The grocery store that he and Mary Ann, used to own about eight miles from Mom and Dad’s?  That he put new meaning behind the the phrase “proud Polack?”  Or do I start with his growing up near Mom?  After attending his wake Thursday night, I’ve decided to go with a short blurb of each of those because he was all those things and more.  Since I like to be difficult, I’m going to start at the end with the wake since that’s the beginning of my making sense of Uncle Roy’s life.

Roy Jurek, 1931-2012

Like I said earlier, I went to the wake on Thursday night.  The wake was held in Pierz and our current job is in Eagan, with a quick stop at our apartment for a 5 second shower and a change of clothes (which strangely enough was on the way).  For those not familiar with the layout of Minnesota, the trip from Eagan to Pierz goes roughly “Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Venezuela, Africa, Beirut, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and then Switzerland…” (thank you Eddie Izzard).  Which translates into about 2.5 hours with no traffic.  So I was figuring on taking off from work at 3 to be up there around 6-ish.  But, there was rush-hour and construction going on and really no way around either of them.  So that meant my 2.5 hour journey turned into almost 4 hours worth of travel.  Really it was the construction that got me.  It took literally an hour to go less than 2 miles to get through the construction zone.  Why am I telling you about my woes?  I just wanted to illustrate what I went through just to say one last farewell to my uncle.  On the way I did make a very quick stop to see Grandma Bert (I was practically driving by her place, also, it was in order not to get yelled at).  I did managed to get up to Pierz for about 45 minutes of the wake.  The first person that I ran into was Roy and Mary Ann’s youngest, Dan.  We chatted for a bit and then I sought out Mary Ann.  She was doing very well, all things considered.  Tired, but doing well.  After that I made the rounds with my relation and caught up on life and shared Roy stories.  The real lynch pin for putting things into perspective was reading through the eulogy printed with funeral information.  Here are a few of the excerpts that I found very appropriate and a bit amusing:

“Roy was the second son of a second generation Polish immigrants and farmers . . . with his 10 brothers and sisters, he learned early the values of hard work, integrity, family, church and one-liners.”

“In 1957, he caught an unsuspecting neighbor taking gravel from his family farm and ten months later . . . he married the gravel hunter, Mary Ann”

“Roy enjoyed catching and not releasing sunnies, napping on deer stands, and boasting (about) his self-proclaimed command of the Polish language.”

I have no idea if the stealing gravel story is true because it sounds like something that Mary Ann would do, but also something that Roy would say to pull your leg.  Along those lines, here is one of my favorite tall tales told at Czeck get-together quite a few years ago.  Roy was telling a bunch of the younger kids that when he was growing up how poor they were.  They could only afford one bullet and his dad told him to go out and get some food for supper.  Roy was walking through the woods and he happened to see three turkeys sitting on a wooden fence.  He noticed that they were all sitting with some of their toes in a crack in the top rail.  Roy being the brilliant man he was, he shot the rail and pinched their toes so they couldn’t fly away.  He just walked up and bopped them on their heads and his family ate well for a week.  This story may not be verbatim, but you get the idea of the stories that he would tell.

Tall tales aside, you could always ask Roy about his last hunting or fishing trip.  It seemed like he was always either going on one or just getting back from one.  Once again, some were more believable than others.  You could count on Roy and Gary (another uncle) sitting in a corner at every family get together BS-ing about something or another, and usually fishing was involved at some point.  When Roy was young, he even helped out on Grandma and Grandpa’s farm when Mom’s folks would go up north for their own fishing trips.  Roy was just that kind of guy.

I don’t remember the exact year, but when I was pretty young, Roy and Mary Ann bought a small convenience store in a town about eight miles from the farm.  It was a great place to pick up odds and ends that you forgot to get on the regular grocery trips.  Plus they rented movies and even for awhile they rented out Super Nintendo systems.  My best memories of that place was when us kids talked Mom or Dad into letting us have a dollar to buy candy.  Seriously, if you want to teach your kids about frugality and math, only let them have a dollar and two minutes in a candy store.  We could stretch that dollar so far it filled a #4 bag.  We got very good and min/maxing quality and quantity in a time crunch, i.e. Mom or Dad standing over us telling us to hurry up.

Roy loved to throw in a Polish phrase or two randomly into a conversation.  Never understood a word he said.  I have a feeling that is part of why Roy kept doing it.  It was like his own personal joke.  Keeping with his playful nature, Roy also loved to give anyone a hard time about not being Polish.  Gary (a Swede) and Roy loved to throw jabs at each other about their respective ethnicities.  When I was in high school, we had an exchange student, David, from Spain (I think), that was staying with the extended family of one of the in-laws.  That Christmas, they came to the Czeck get-together and Roy was being nice and talking to him.  Of course one part of the conversation that I over heard was Roy asking David if he was Catholic.  I don’t remember what David’s answer was, but the next thing I know was that Roy was talking about how the Pope was Polish and how Roy was Polish, so the Pope was just like Roy.  Strange, I just realized the direction of the comparison.  Egotistical, yes; funny, hell yes; and just like Roy.

So this one is for you Roy: Na zdrowie!

Who is General Tso anyway?

The short answer is “I dunno.”  This is because the origin of the actual dish is lost in the murkiness of the 20th Century.  Assuming, like most claims that it is directly connected with General Zuo Zongtang (anglicized as Tso Tsung-t’ang) is pretty much a falsehood.  No one (at least according to a quick Google search) in China makes this dish.  Some come kind of close, but they do not have a sweet aspect to them.  I think it is telling that in General Tso’s hometown of Xiangyin, in the Hunan Provence, they are unfamiliar with the dish.  What does have the ring of truth to it is the origin story with Chef Peng Jia.  He was a chef that fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war.  In 1973 he moved to New York and opened a Hunan cuisine restaurant there.  He started off cooking traditional recipes and then began modifying them to suit the tastes of everyone who was not familiar with the flavor profile.  Which at the time was pretty much everyone since his was one of the first Hunan restaurants in the country.  There is even a claim that Henry Kissinger was a fan of this dish and had it regularly when he was in New York.  The long answer summarized is that it is an Americanized version of a Hunan dish which is, at best, named after a Qing dynasty general and civil servant.

Since the time of is mysterious origins it has become a staple of Hunan-style Chinese restaurants everywhere.  It is a dish that is so popular and simple enough that I use it to judge the quality of whatever Chinese restaurant that I’m in.  (I do the same thing with Reubens).  I finally took the time to scour through the internet and find a recipe that sounded like it had potential.  Being an Americanized dish, my Chinese cookbook resources were never any help.  I finally found one that sounded good and only called for ingredients that I had on hand.  (Seriously, how many people have potato flour in their cupboards?).

This recipe is from Siam Oriental Restaurant (that’s all the info the generic site gave me).  My notes on the ingredients are in parentheses.

Ingredients (Sauce):

  • 1/2 C Cornstarch
  • 1/4 C Water
  • 1 1/2 tsp Garlic, minced (I used 3 1/2 tsp)
  • 1 1/2 tsp Ginger, minced (I used a thumb-sized piece)
  • 3/4 C Sugar
  • 1/2 C Soy Sauce
  • 1/4 C White Vinegar
  • 1/4 C White Wine
  • 1 1/2 C Chicken Broth, hot

Ingredients (Meat):

  • 3 lbs Chicken, deboned and cut into large chunks (can use either light or dark meat)
  • 1/4 C Soy Sauce
  • 1 tsp Pepper
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 C Cornstarch
  • Veggie Oil for deep-frying
  • 2 C Green Onions (1 bunch ~ 1/2 C)
  • 16 small dried Hot Peppers (I used 6 and very coarsely chopped them)

Mix the half cup of cornstarch with the water.  Add the garlic, ginger, sugar, half cup of soy sauce, vinegar, wine, and chicken broth.  Stir until the sugar dissolves and refrigerate until needed.  Next, in a separate bowl mix the chicken, quarter cup of soy sauce, and pepper.  Stir in the egg.  Add the cup of cornstarch and mix until the pieces are coated evenly.  Add a cup of veggie oil to help separate the pieces.  Deep fry the chicken in batches at 350 F degrees until crispy.  Drain on some paper towels.  Place a small amount of oil in a large skillet and heat until the pan is hot.  Add the onions and peppers and stir-fry briefly.  Stir the sauce and add to the skillet.  Place the chicken in the sauce and cook until the sauce thickens.  Serve with rice.

I had clumping issues when I mixed the cornstarch in with the chicken.  A better option may be to spread out the chicken on a baking sheet and dust it that way or just to simply grab each piece separately and bread it by itself.  On the whole, a decent recipe, but I think the next time I do this I’ll follow one of the other recipes that I found.  It just seemed like the flavor could have some more depth to it.

I forgot to take pictures while I was cooking, so all I have is one shot of the leftovers.

An interesting side note is the cornstarch and water slurry that is made in the first step is a non-Newtonian fluid.  More specifically, it is one type of non-Newtonian fluid called a dilatant.  Normal fluids have a constant coefficient of viscosity (or a constant rate at how the liquid wants to flow).  For example, water has a low viscosity which means it wants to flow easily while honey has a high viscosity and is very sluggish while moving.  In a dilatant the more stress you put on it, the more viscous it becomes.  So in plain english  this means that the cornstarch slurry will flow on its own if not agitated.  But if you try and stir it vigorously, it becomes “thicker” and harder to stir.  Another way of looking at it is that it starts to act more like a solid instead of a liquid.  For a very cool demonstration I defer to Adam and Jamie of MythBusters fame:

Days gone by . . .

Our lives are currently up in the air because our future plans decided to take a hard left turn in the last month.  So we’ve been exploring different possibilities.  One of which was moving back to Decorah, IA, where we first met.  Through various discussions, we decided against this and are planning on staying in the Twin Cities for the foreseeable future.  But these discussions had me reminiscing about when we lived down south.  Below is a list of some of the highlights of one small town in the “good corner of Iowa”.

A very regular stop from when I first moved down there was Oneota Food Co-op.  As I explained to people more than once, this way I got at least one healthy meal per week.  As true as that may have been, I also made it a regular stop because the food was really, really good.  This was almost entirely due to one cook there, Ruthie, but I’ll get to her in a bit.  The Co-op was also my go-to place for anything that the normal grocery store didn’t carry.  Which for 99% of my very early experiments this was a great place for supplies.  A few years ago they moved into a larger space and overall it was a very good idea.  However (and there always is one, isn’t there?), I miss the smaller, more intimate feel the old store had.  Of course along with the new store and new merchandise they had a bunch of new hires which completely diluted the pool of people I knew which didn’t help the coziness factor.  Still a great place, but like everything else it changes.  Not good or bad, just it’s different from what it used to be.

A welcoming sign.

Two of the community projects that I got involved in were the Puppet Project and Edible Alien Theatre.  The Puppet Project came about as a brain-child of one of my then bosses.  She was always involved in musical theater and did at least a workshop (possibly more, but I don’t remember) with a group here in the Cities called In the Heart of the Beast.  Heart of the Beast does puppet theater and parades with puppets of all kinds and sizes.  What we did was build a bunch of backpack mounted puppets for the annual parade.  That was a yearly occurrence for awhile and a huge hit with everyone.  Around the same time a different project got started.  This was the Edible Alien Theatre.  The idea was centered around dinner theater.  A little song and dance to go with a really good meal.  I was involved in various capacities with the first six years.  I was everything from backstage help to a troll to a cross-dressing cabaret girl (true story).  You may ask why I would put myself into embarrassing situations like this.  The truth is two-fold.  It was 20% because I missed my theater days from high school.  The other 80% was Ruthie’s cooking.  Oh, I should mention that Ruth was half of the brains for EAT (again, more on Ruthie later).  I’ve been called a food-whore many times in the past.  And, well, it’s true.  I will do anything given the proper food incentive.

I'm the troll on the left. And yes, that is the hostess under the sheet that we kidnapped for the show.

Again, me on the left. Not one of my better drag outfits. I look better in a slinky black dress.

One of the interesting people that I met through Edible Alien Theatre was David Cavagnaro.  He let us use his house one year for the show.  David is an amazing photographer who specializes in nature and garden photography.  He is well known for his shots and for good reason.  He has the dedication to find heirloom varieties of various vegetables, plant them, nurture them to beautiful fruition, and then finally arrange them and take breathtaking photos.  Total respect for him and his work.

Carrots are only middle-ish on my favorite veggies list, but this picture makes me want to eat lots of them.

And finally onto one of my longer standing food crushes.  Ruth is a self-taught cook (and rightfully proud of it) and a good ol’ Iowegian country gal.  I’m sure I first ran into her cooking at the co-op, but what I really remember is her catering the second StoryPeople Christmas party that I went to.  In each bite you could taste the love and passion she poured into the dishes.  I know that it’s a very over-used phrase, but I’m not using it flippantly.  Each little nibble was an excursion into the realm of food-gasm.  I’m not too proud of it, but I did eat myself stupid that night.  The copious amount of good wine probably didn’t help matters either.  Yes, it was a night of culinary hedonism.  This theme was repeated for quite a number of years and in quite of a number of places.  One of my favorite memories of Ruth is when she was cooking fried rice at the co-op.  The back entrance led through the amazingly tiny kitchen.  It was so small that having a cook and a dishwasher in it at the same time was ok as long as the dishwasher only leaned to grab stuff.  I’ve seen Ruth cook in this kitchen for years, but my favorite was the fried rice because it seemed like she was doing twenty different things at once.  Reaching for ingredients to throw in the wok, tossing the wok, scooping up some rice for the next batch, putting out plates to serve on, and I think you get the idea.  I realize that this is really no different than any other kitchen anywhere else during the lunch rush, but she has such a grace about her while doing this it was amazing to watch.  Also, she was more than happy to chat with you while you were waiting to grab your to-go box.  Or it could just be because the fried rice was my favorite dish of hers.  Since I’ve been several hours drive away from Ruthie’s cooking, I was extremely pleased to see that she started her own webpage called AWEsome Cookery!  She developed a gluten sensitivity around the time that I left Iowa, so she is an excellent resource for really good gluten-free dishes.  Oh, Ruthie, how I miss thee.

I couldn't find a decent image of Ruth, so I went with the next best thing: her fried rice!

To finish things off, a quick shout-out to my StoryPeople People.  Thanks for the best job ever!

This is a two piece sculpture that I designed while working at StoryPeople. Never a big seller, but I like it.

My favorite roast chicken plus a couple of new side dishes

This happened around a month ago, so the details are a bit sketchy in my brain.  I know someone came over and ate with us, I recently went grocery shopping, and I needed to use the chicken because it wouldn’t fit in the freezer anymore.  Other than that, make up whatever back story you want.  It probably will be more interesting than what really happened.  Just for the record, I’m not excluding the possibility of a ninja attack.  They’re sneaky like that.

So, the roast chicken recipe is hands-down my favorite one that I have ever done.  I try to do it on a regular basis since I can get great birds from Mom (she raises some for butchering every year).  The recipe is from Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef, one of my first cookbook purchases way back around the turn of the century.  Also one of my favorites that I constantly turn to first for ideas.

Ingredients:

  • Chicken, whole; about 3 lbs
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1 Tbs each of Basil, Parsley, and Marjoram; mixed together (I use dried, if you use fresh go with a small handful of each and finely chop them)
  • 1/4 C Olive Oil
  • 1 Lemon; quartered
  • 4 Bay Leaves
  • 1 Tbs of Rosemary (again I use dried, go with 2 sprigs if you have fresh)

Preheat the oven and a roasting pan to 425 F degrees.  Clean up any odd bits of the chicken, i.e. pin feathers, excess fat, anything that got missed inside of the cavity, etc.  Rinse the chicken, inside and out, and pat dry.  Rub the cavity with salt.  I usually use around a couple of teaspoons.  Gently grab the skin, breast side, by the neck and separate the skin from the breast.  The easiest way to do this is to poke a couple of fingers down in between.  Just be careful not to rip the skin.  The skin is attached better between the breasts, instead of trying to separate things, I just leave it as two tunnels.  Sprinkle a couple of pinches of salt down in the tunnels, followed by most of the herb mixture and a drizzle of olive oil into each.  Stuff the cavity with the lemon, bay, and rosemary.  Tuck the wings under themselves and truss up the bird with some kitchen twine.  I won’t go into how to truss the bird because I’ve done it numerous ways and still haven’t found a method that I like and works well.  I’m assuming that it’s more user error than actual methodology.

Make a three or four shallow cuts into the thighs to help the heat penetrate (dark meat takes longer to cook than white) and rub in the remaining herb mixture you have left.  Rub the entire chicken with a little olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Remove the hot roasting pan and add a little oil.  Place the chicken on one side, breast down, and put back into the oven for five minutes.  Switch to the other side, again breast down for another five minutes.  Finally, flip the bird onto its back and cook for approximately one more hour.  When the chicken is done, let it rest for ten minutes or so.  That way the juices can absorb back into the meat instead of ending up on the cutting board.  The skin ends up nice and crispy, while the meat is juicy and flavorful.

For side dishes I adapted two recipes from the book I’m currently reading, A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  I’m only about a hundred pages into it, but so far it is a great history of food of the entire Mediterranean area.  There is plenty of emphasis on the food of the poor (which doesn’t get talked about a lot, period) as well as the over the top feasts like when we think of de Medici’s and the like.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in food history.  The first recipe I did almost verbatim from the book, the second, well, not so much.

The first recipe that I did is called Salatat al-Malfuf from Syria.  It is a pretty basic cabbage salad, but I would like to make some tweaks the next time.

Ingredients:

  • 1 small head Savoy Cabbage (about 1 lb); damaged leaves removed, cored, and shredded
  • 1/4 C Sea Salt
  • 6 Garlic Cloves; minced
  • 2 Tbs Lemon Juice
  • 6 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/4 tsp dried Mint (I didn’t use this because I didn’t have any, but I think it would be great in here)

Toss the shredded cabbage in a large bowl with the salt and let it sit for an hour.  Thoroughly wash the salt off of the cabbage by dunking it in water.  Taste a piece to make sure the salt is washed off.  Place in a clean bowl and toss with the remaining ingredients.  Serve at room temp within an hour.

I like the idea of this recipe, but letting the cabbage sit that long with that much salt wilted the hell out of it.  I think the next time I do this, I will go lighter on the salt and definitely lighter on the time it sits.  Also, I think the “dressing” of lemon juice and olive oil could be cut in half because there was a lot sitting in the bottom of the bowl when everything was eaten.

The second recipe is called Col-i-flor from Catalonia (the very northeast corner of Spain).  Surprisingly enough, this is a cauliflower recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lbs Potatoes; peeled and cut to the same size as the cauliflower florets
  • 10 oz Cauliflower florets (about one small head)
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 tsp White Wine Vinegar

Place the potatoes and cauliflower in a large saucepan and cover with two inches of slightly salted cold water.  Bring to a boil and cook until both are easily pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes.  Drain and transfer to a serving dish.  Mix the oil, vinegar, and salt to taste.  Pour over  the cauliflower and potatoes and mix, breaking them up a bit.  Serve immediately.

So that’s the recipe from the book.  Here’s how I did it:

  • I skipped the potatoes and just doubled up on the cauliflower because I had a very large head
  • I added a pound of fried and chopped bacon because everything is better with bacon
  • I ended up using 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar just to give it the punch I think it needed

Assuming that you just didn’t skip down to the end, here’s your reward for reading this really long post:

Well worth the effort in the kitchen.

Another year and another Czeck Fest Christmas.

Note:  This post is mostly just ramblings/reflections about my family, so feel free to skip it if you want.

Every year, Dad’s side gets together roughly a week after the new year’s to celebrate Christmas.  Dad is one of nine kids, so coordinating any reunions can be a bit tricky.  Quite a while back, they decided that non-holiday days would work out best.  When I was very young and Grandma Rose was still living on the farm, everyone would gather there for everything.  Now a days, the only time all of the Czecks gather at the farm is for the mass that is said every year for our deceased relatives.  When Grandma moved to Royalton, all of our gatherings moved with her and took place in the social room in her apartment building.  Then when she moved to assisted living, we started going to a diner in Rice.  We’ve kept going there even after she passed (except for one Christmas where we went to my aunt & uncle’s).  Sunday, we went for another Czeck Fest Reunion.

At one point I was looking around the room and mentally going over what each of my cousins, aunts, and uncles did for a living.  This was prompted by my cousin Jon bringing his girlfriend to her first family gathering.  Several of my uncles have owned grocery stores, one was high up in the meat department in a fairly large local grocery chain, and my dad took over the family farm.  A large percentage of this generation hunt, fish or both.  I have over thirty first-cousins, and I fall somewhere near the lower third in age, so there are quite a few that I barely know, much less could recognize on the street.  So this is a compilation of those that I do know what they do.  A decent portion of this generation is also involved in food in some fashion.  At least one (possibly two) of my cousins work for a food wholesaler, one owns three locally well-known high-end candy stores (http://www.thechocolateox.com/),  her brother is a sous chef out in Michigan at a five star restaurant (which I just found out he was a chef),  one of her other brothers owns a butcher shop (http://anokameats.com/), one is currently studying food science, and my little sis is taking over from dad.  A smaller, but not insignificant, portion of my cousins hunt and/or fish.  This isn’t even counting all of the cooking, smoking, sausage making, etc., that they do for fun.

All of this came as  a little bit of a shock to me for several reasons.  First, never really thought about it because it’s just what every one did.  More importantly, I never added it up in this type of category.  Although it should come as no surprise.  About six years ago, one of my distant cousins (from a different branch) compiled a genealogy of the Czecks dating back to Andreas Czech (b. 1724) in Silesia, Prussia.  I’m the 8th generation in this patrilineal line.  All of these men were either butchers or farmers.  Guess it’s in the blood.

I think that’s enough rambling for now.  As a visual treat, because I won’t share the candy, I’ll leave you with a picture of some candy that Loriese handed out.

Spendy, but it really is a party in your mouth.

Categories: family, history Tags: ,

Blast from the past

Ran across a fun article on the Huffington Post.  The New York Public Library has old menus in their collection.  Fun to look at if you are a history buff or a just a plain ol’ food nerd.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/03/photos-menus-buttolph-collection_n_1125580.html

 

Categories: history, misc Tags: