Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Belly Full on Austrian National Day

 He had us at “pork belly.”

Alongside the periphery of a crowded dance floor at a friend’s wedding this past summer, we met Marc and Heather between the post-ceremony Champagne and the gourmet dinner of foods indigenous to the area: in this case fresh elk steaks and trout.  After some chitchat and musing over the food like food-folk tend to do, we learned that we all lived in the Los Angeles area and decided to get together for a meal sometime upon our return. Marc told us that he was Austrian and would love to make us his family’s traditional stuffed pork belly.

He had to be European because it isn’t often that I meet a new American friend and go from stranger to dinner guest in less than twenty minutes. But that’s what I love so much about all the people in my life who I have met from foreign countries, and all the places I have visited on non-native soils; the fact that life is customarily lived around the ritual of a good meal and more often than not that meal is shared with others.

So we bought some Austrian wines and I made a warm potato salad and we showed up to dinner high in the hills of Echo Park with our new friends and the couple whose wedding we had met at and enjoyed a proper Austrian dinner on occasion of Austrian National Day.

The star of the evening was indeed the pork belly – bought from Lindy and Grundy on Fairfax – a lesbian-owned butcher shop that sells organic and sustainable meats. It was vast and hearty and came out of the oven hugging a bread-based pillow of stuffing. Simple, unadorned and perfect, the top layer made a crispy chitlin with a layer of hot, gelatinous fat just below the surface to mingle texturally with the crunch above – all of this before the tooth of the actual meat below that was tender and moist. I had two slices it was so hard to resist and then enjoyed the condiments of pickles, apples, cherries and shredded cabbage. I would have felt less guilty if I too, had gotten, up to do some pull-ups on the bar between the door like our other diners did. But the spaetzle was calling.

I had the great pleasure of watching the creation of spaetzle through an illustrious pouring, spreading and pushing of dough through a flat pan full of holes and into a vat of boiling water. The finished product was blended with shredded cheese and a pile of savory, caramelized onions. I added a spaetzle pan to my wish list of kitchen tools, determined to include it on my other list: perfecting the making of multiple pastas for the noodle-crazed Cute Gardener.

I wanted to serve a traditional Austrian potato salad and found a good recipe for one from Wolfgang Puck. I modified it a bit since my latest foodie commitment to myself is to never follow a recipe precisely but to always think about how I can make it my own and change it up a little.

Warm Austrian-Inspired Potato Salad

6 cups of sliced fingerling potatoes
½ c. white wine vinegar
¼ cup peanut oil
1 medium sized Vidalia onion, chopped
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
3 sprigs fresh thyme
½ cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon diced green chives
2 teaspoons of fine table salt

Boil the potatoes in a pan that just covers them in water for 20-25 minutes or until tender to a fork insertion. Place the potatoes in a large salad bowl and mix with the onion and chives. In a small skillet, add the white wine vinegar, peanut oil, sugar, pepper, thyme, chicken broth and table salt. Stir together over medium heat until boiling and then remove skillet from stove, stirring while it cools. Once cool and beginning to thicken, stir it into the potato salad. Serve warm, even though it is just as good cold the next day.

At the end of the evening, our hosts graciously brought out the special selection of schnapps from Austria, bought on a recent trip overseas to plan their own wedding. This was the lovely way to top off a dessert of apple strudel in homage to a wonderful country and wonderful new friends in our own little melting pot in the city of angels. We felt sincerely privileged to sample the pear liqueur and to have two new palates in our own circle of life.

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