Burnt Zombie Hand Meatloaf with Mashed Potato Ghosts

It’s that frightful time again: time to cast some nasty spells, and to eat, drink, and be scary. No, silly, not PMS… although yes, in our household all of the above applies during that week of the month too: If I don’t have enough wine and chocolate on hand, it has the potential to not turn out pretty and someone might even get hurt. But this time I’m talking about Halloween – the creepy and excessively orange fall holiday that’s quickly approaching.

When you think about it, all of us desperate (house)wives should just love Halloween – it’s the one time when you don’t need to feel ashamed of your less than stellar housekeeping skills and can proudly display all the cobwebs creeping from the corners of your house, and there is no need to bother with make-up when going out either, because if you dig out some holey old hat and jam it on three day old hair, you can pretend you’re going as an old witch for Halloween, and all the zits, red splotches, and dark circles are part of the character you just spent an hour to create.

Despite all of the obvious advantages and years of living in the jack-o-lantern loving land, I admit Halloween still hasn’t quite grown on me. I’m not exactly sure why… maybe because if I’m to be honest I don’t really enjoy random strangers coming up to my door? Or perhaps it’s the fact that I am way too easily startled and literally jump up and yell when Mr. Photographer as much as says “honey, I’m home” behind my back? I really and truly don’t need any moving blinking skeletons lurking around the corner! And it probably doesn’t help that I’m well over the trick-or-treating age and can’t collect candy door to door anymore 🙂 (Mother’s confession: I used to secretly steal couple of chocolates from the boys’ baskets, hide in the pantry and binge on them on Halloween night – but hey, I didn’t want my offspring to end up with cavities or become obese at a young age, plus, I more than deserved some chocolate after dealing with them on their Halloween sugar high!)

Anyway, I might not be too keen on Halloween, but I still love my kitchen playground, and Halloween without a doubt offers wonderful opportunities to play, so I’ve resolved to make peace with it. Last year we made these  Halloween eyeballs that turned out so realistic that the boys refused to touch them and poor Mr. Photographer had to eat them all. Such sacrifice on his part, all that sweet and creamy panna cotta… but what a guy wouldn’t do to make his wife happy 🙂 This time I wanted something equally gruesome, and at the end I’ve decided to try my hand at the burnt zombie hand meatloaf. I’ve never been one to follow recipes closely, and am more of a “a little bit of this and a pinch of that” kind of person, and even though I think of myself as more of a baker than cook, cooking actually lets you to play more compared to baking. If you forget to add baking soda or some other leavening when making a cake, your cake will probably be more brick-y than cake-y. But in cooking it doesn’t really matter if you use one or two teaspoons of oregano, or if you omit it altogether. So I was happy to play cook for a change, and as you can see, I had too much fun! I planned to get a gelatin hand mold from Amazon, but of course forgot about it until it was too late. I had to improvise, and a basic cleaning glove came to the rescue. The meatloaf was gently poached and then baked in the oven with some cheese on top to give the hand that halloweenish burnt skin look. I tried to make it as realistic as I could, complete with the purple onion nails and white onion bone sticking out. I also whipped up some mashed potatoes and piped them into bootiful little ghosts – and dinner was served. I wasn’t sure if my men would declare it yum or yuck… but they were happily ripping off the fingers one by one, stuffing their faces and making repulsive jokes the way only teenagers can.

So if you happen to have a pound of hamburger in your freezer, give this eerie meatloaf a try. It’s terrifyingly easy to make, and finger-licking delicious – a perfect candidate for a fright night dinner!

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Burnt Zombie Hand Meatloaf with Mashed Potato Ghosts

For the meatloaf:
  • a little over 1 lb. (450 g) ground beef
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 strips bacon, diced
  • 2 slices bread, ground up
  • handful of parmesan, grated
  • handful of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • extra cheddar cheese (for the meatloaf skin)
  • red onion (for nails)
  • a glove
For the blood curling red sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 fresh chilli pepper, minced
  • 425 g (15 oz.) can of small white beans
  • 425 g (15 oz.) can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup (250 ml) beef/chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
  • salt & pepper to taste
For mashed potato ghosts:
  • 1 kg (2 lbs.) yellow potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • up to ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 egg yolks
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • small can of sliced black olives

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Method:
  1. To make the Zombie hand: In a big bowl, mix all the ingredients for the meatloaf. Season to taste and combine well. Pack the mixture tightly into the glove, making sure there are no air bubbles. Close up the top of the glove with a rubber band or string and place the filled glove into a Ziploc bag. Poach the meatloaf in boiling water for 30 minutes.
  2. While the meatloaf is cooking, prepare the red sauce: Sauté the onion in olive oil for couple of minutes until softened. Add in all the remaining ingredients except beans and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally,  until the mixture thickens to your liking. Mix in the beans and combine. Season to taste.
  3. When the 30 minutes are up, carefully remove the meatloaf hand from the water and let it cool completely still in the glove. Transfer the glove into a baking pan and cutting away pieces of glove with scissors, carefully remove the meatloaf. (I didn’t need to, but if a finger falls off, you should be able to re-attach it with a toothpick). Preheat the oven to 350 °F (176 °C).  Pour the red sauce around the meatloaf in the pan. Brush some of the sauce on the meatloaf and sprinkle the meatloaf generously with cheddar cheese. Cut out the nails from the red onion and place them on fingers. Bake the meatloaf for about 30 minutes, until the cheese melts and forms a nice crust. (I covered the nails with aluminum foil at the end, and placed the meatloaf under a grill for couple of minutes. If you do this, watch the meatloaf closely so it doesn’t burn. 1 – 2 minutes should be enough.)
  4. For the mashed potato ghosts, cook the potatoes in salted water until soft. With a potato masher, mash them up with butter and sour cream. (Add the sour cream gradually, and don’t overdo it – you need the mixture to be pretty thick so that the ghosts will stand up when piped onto the baking pan. The original recipe actually called for milk, so I used it, and then had trouble to keep my ghosts upright 🙂
  5. Form the ghosts: Butter a baking pan or line it with parchment. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (176 °C).  Transfer the potato mixture into a big Ziploc bag, cut off one corner, and form small conic mounds onto the parchment. Using sliced olives and peppercorns, create faces on your ghosts. Bake the ghosts for about 10 – 15 minutes, until they firm up and turn nice golden brown on top. If they’re not browning enough, put them under the grill as well for a minute.
  6. Put the zombie hand onto a serving plate, arrange a couple of potato ghosts around, lovingly invite your family to the dinner table, and watch them freak out 😀

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Gluten-free Potato Lefse (Bezlepkové zemiakové lokše)

Despite the uber-positive and uplifting post I was going for last week I have to confess the holiday craziness caught up with me after all. I was so determined not to succumb to the shopping/cleaning/wrapping insanity this year and most of all to preserve peace among our little tribe… but unfortunately I only partially succeeded. No, I didn’t join the ranks of last-minute shoppers ramming into each other in the crowded lit up shopping malls, and the Lord knows my bathrooms could still use a good scrub down. But I have to say the peace preservation part proved to be a little tricky. Even without squirreling needless stuff to wrap and with a strong resolve not to run circles with the vacuum there is always lots that still needs to be done this time of year. Add to it loads of mixed Christmas emotions and yearning to hug all the people close to my heart that are far away, and you’ve got a pot that’s ready to boil over any minute.

I think holidays are just hard – for the kids who live for weeks in anticipation of the magical Christmas moment, as well as for mothers who want so desperately to make the magic happen for those around them. (Fathers are somehow exempt from this pre-holiday pressure it seems.) The days leading to Christmas morning feel just like an amusement park train ride. The train, i.e. Mother is slowly and painfully climbing uphill: cooking the elaborate four-course menu (because it’s traditional, and keeping traditions alive is important!); wrapping cookies to share with the neighbors (what, you want to tell me being on good terms with neighbors isn’t?!); mailing out last-minute holiday cards (wishing everybody love and peace she would give her right arm for); plus doing all the ordinary stuff like laundry and bills (because neither can be put on hold and both just keep piling up, as if they didn’t know it’s Christmas time, darn it!). While stirring and whipping, Mother – the huffing and puffing amusement park Locomotive is already thinking about what needs to be scrubbed or washed or folded or mixed in where. And in the back of her mind looms this huge exclamation mark: Whatever spills/burns/doesn’t go according to the plan, please just keep keeping on. And whatever it takes, don’t yell, do you hear me? For Pete’s sake, just don’t start yapping at anybody. You know Christmas is supposed to be magical! Do you want to be the one that kills the Christmas magic? Huh? See, I didn’t think so!

And so the motherly locomotive groans and creaks while inching upward to the top, the high pinnacle all her efforts were oriented to: the festive dinner by the candlelight, happy smiles under the tree, and fleeting moments of sibling harmony. From there it only takes seconds till the train plummets back down to the starting station and Christmas is over. Scraps of wrapping paper are strewn all around the room, the kids can start fighting over the gifts, and Mother can finally pull the emergency brake and put her feet up. I confess I love the post-Christmas time. Since I can never properly judge how much food I’ll need, I always make about five times more we’re able to put away; our refrigerator shelves are subsequently bending under all the stuff, and I don’t have to lift a finger for three days straight. For me Christmas starts on the 25th 😉

Today I present you a snippet of our post-Christmas feast assortment. In Slovakia Christmas celebrations last three days, and on the third day – Feast of St. Stephen – folks traditionally roast a goose and serve it with braised cabbage and either yeast dumplings or these potato flatbreads that are very similar to Scandinavian lefse. I roasted a duck instead of goose, and quite successfully attempted to de-glutenize potato lefse. I already mentioned a couple of times that the dough made with gluten-free flour is usually very hard to roll out, but in this case the potatoes together with a little powdered gelatin helped it to stick together much better. Another big help in the process proved to be cast iron tortilla press. With that little gadget I simply pressed small balls of potato dough between two floured sides of a cut ziploc bag, and voila – in an instant I had these thin and uniform little flatbreads. They are smaller than both the original Scandinavian lefse and their Slovak version, but since I didn’t have to slave over them with a rolling pin and they taste just the same, I don’t care one bit. Lefse are very versatile and can be eaten savory or sweet, and you can also very easily freeze them.

Happy Post-Christmas do nothing, everybody 🙂

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Gluten-free Potato Lefse (Bezlepkové zemiakové lokše)

  • 700-750 g (about 25 oz.) cooked potatoes, cooled down & riced (See Note)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 200 g (7 oz., 1 ½ cup) all-purpose gluten-free flour
  • 2 teaspoons xanthan gum (if your flour mix contains gums already, reduce the xanthan gum to 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 teaspoon Knox powdered gelatin
  • 1 egg (about ¼ cup), beaten
  • ½ teaspoon salt (if making lefse as a savory side dish, add ¼ teaspoon salt more)

+ 1 gallon size Ziploc bag
– more gluten-free flour for flouring the Ziploc bag
– butter or duck/goose fat to coat the hot lefse

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Method:
  1. Place all the ingredients in a bowl of our stand mixer fitted with a hook. With a mixer on medium speed, combine everything together into a soft dough.
  2. Divide the potato dough into small balls, about 60 g (2 oz.) each. Cut off the top of a large Ziploc bag, and then cut it down the sides to open it up completely.
  3. Making the lefse: Heat up an ungreased non-stick pan over a medium heat. Place the open Ziploc bag into the tortilla press, so that one side covers the top and the other one covers the bottom plate. Flour the plastic lightly with all-purpose flour. Place one ball of potato dough between two layers of plastic and press it down with the handle to make a thin (2 mm) pancake that’s about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter.
  4. Carefully remove the top layer of plastic, taking care not to tear the lefse. Invert the lefse onto your left hand and peel off the bottom Ziploc layer. Place the lefse on a preheated non-stick pan and cook until browned in specks on the bottom, about 1 – 1½ minutes. Turn over and cook the other side. Remove the lefse on a plate and grease it with a bit of butter/duck fat. Dust off the flour that remained in the pan and continue making the lefse in the same way, laying them on top of each other on a plate.
  5. Serve the lefse rolled up with your favorite jam, sprinkled with powdered sugar, filled with duck liver pate as an appetizer, or as a savory side dish to accompany roasted duck and braised cabbage.
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Note:

Use either russets or yellow potatoes for the dough. The potatoes need to be very cold before ricing – it is best to cook them the night before and chill them in the refrigerator. If you don’t have a potato ricer (I don’t either), you can grate the potatoes on a small-opening side of a box grater. When you mix up the potato dough and roll the balls, it is best to try to work quickly, because the potato dough gets more and more sticky with time and it’s therefore harder to work with.

 

Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

Life is full of rules: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Don’t mix stripes and polka dots. Exercise regularly. Don’t wear socks in sandals. Never lick a steak knife. Most of the rules are there for a very good reason (the sock and sandal one especially!); but sometimes you just want to forget they exist and do things a little differently. I think that’s how the concept of breakfast for dinner came to be  – to give the responsible folk an opportunity to shake things up and bend the rules a little. Depart from the usual boring chicken and pasta and have a pancake or two instead.  Indulge. Just a bit.

Well, Slovak people took it one step further: Why  have  breakfast for dinner, when you can go straight for dessert?! Yep, you heard me. In Slovakia, you can legitimately eat dessert for dinner, and no one is going to bat an eye, much less to scold you for not eating your veggies. It’s freaking sugar addict paradise over there, I’m telling you.

To be honest, these dumplings definitely aren’t the recipe to make when you’re in a pinch. Boiling the potatoes, pitting the fruit, and rolling the dumplings does take some time.  But the good news is they freeze really well, and since your counters are already covered in flour and there is sticky potato dough stuck behind your fingernails, you might just as well make double batch. Or if you’re crazy kitchen maniac with slightly masochistic  tendencies like me, you can open an entire production line and make sixty dumplings at once when plums are in season. And when you’re done and the dumplings are neatly stacked in Ziploc baggies in the freezer, you can pat yourself on the back and enjoy a little Martha Stewart moment: Well done, Mother, keeper of the hearth and home, well done! And then… I don’t know… about a month later, on a day when you really-truly don’t have time to squeeze cooking in,  you open the freezer and find out, astonished, that the sixty dumplings are gone. Such is the life with teenagers. (Note to self: Next time, aim for a hundred.)

Now, when I said dessert, I didn’t mean some elaborate high end kind. These dumplings are quite simple and rustic. I think of them as cousins of Italian gnocchi, just bigger and sweet. The plums enclosed in a soft potato dough are wonderfully juicy,  and the marzipan that hides in each of them cuts down the tartness and makes the humble dumpling just a little more sophisticated. And the melted butter and generous dusting of ground poppy seeds/walnuts and powdered sugar on top? What can I say – go big or go home, right?! We Slovaks sure know how to indulge. Today we go big… and tomorrow we’ll hit the gym.

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Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

(makes about 15 dumplings, depending on the size of the plums)

Potato Dough:
  • 600 g (1 lb. 5 oz.) starchy potatoes
  • Pinch salt
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) cream of wheat/wheat farina
  • 150 g (5.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch (optional)
  • 1 large egg
Filling:
  • 700 g (1 lb. 8 oz.) small fresh plums
  • 50 g (1 – 2 oz.) marzipan, diced

+ 4 tablespoons each ground poppy seeds/walnuts, powdered sugar, and melted butter

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Method:
  1. In a big pot, cook whole, unpeeled potatoes until soft. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and chill them for at least 2 hours before proceeding. (I usually cook the potatoes the night before).
  2. While the potatoes are cooling, carefully slit each plum so that you can remove the pit. Don’t cut all the way through, so that the two halves still remain together. Replace the pit with a piece of marzipan. Set the plums aside.
  3. Make the potato dough: Run the cold potatoes through a potato ricer or grate them on the smallest opening of the box grater. Transfer the potatoes to a big bowl, add all the remaining ingredients and mix, until everything comes together and forms a soft dough. (Alternatively, you can mix the dough in your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
  4. Making the dumplings: Tear off uniform portions of the dough, just big enough to cover each plum. Make sure to enclose the entire plum in the dough. Roll the dumpling between your palms to make a nice smooth ball. It’s important to work somewhat fast while making the dumplings, because the potato dough gets stickier as the time goes on. To combat the stickiness, use a little more flour/farina as needed.
  5. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. With a large spoon, one by one carefully lower about six dumplings into the water. Stir once to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot, and cook until the dumplings rise to the surface, 5 – 7 minutes, depending on the size of the dumplings.
  6. With a slotted spoon, remove the dumplings from the pot and transfer them to a big shallow pan. Brush them with a little butter so that they won’t stick together and continue cooking the remaining dumplings in the same way.
  7. Serve hot with more melted butter and a generous dusting of poppy seeds or walnuts and powdered sugar.
Note:

If you wish to freeze the dumplings for later use, flash-freeze uncooked dumplings on a tray lined with parchment paper, and when they’re frozen, transfer them to heavy-duty freezer bags. When ready to use, cook the dumplings from frozen same way you would cook fresh. They will just take a little more time to cook compared to the fresh ones. You can also freeze already cooked dumplings, just make sure to let them cool completely before flash-freezing on a tray. If I do that, I flash-freeze them on a paper tray, and when they’re frozen, I stick the entire tray into a Ziploc. Then you can either gently steam them, or just nuke them in the microwave.

To make the dumplings gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free flour mix and instead of the wheat farina, use hot rice cereal or finer cornmeal. (I haven’t been able to find fine rice cereal and usually just run the coarse-ground cereal through my Vitamix to make it finer.) The gluten-free dumplings are just a bit more sticky than the regular ones – nothing that couldn’t be helped by a little more melted butter! (I haven’t tried to freeze the gluten-free version, though.)

Traditional pierogi with bryndza sheep cheese

Food doesn’t play just a practical role of feeding and building up our bodies. As it happens, very often we turn to it to seek comfort as well. Even though we may not always like it, food and emotions are closely intertwined, and you find this to be even more true when you live abroad. Many times I am so homesick I (could) cry, and I want nothing more than to hop on a plane right now to go hug the people I left on the other side of the world, visit familiar places, and eat the food I grew up with. But since I live in the real world, and don’t have thousands of dollars to offer to the airlines every month, what’s a girl to do? I walk into the kitchen and whip up some real Slovak food. I sit down at the table with my three Slovak men, we eat and laugh, and I feel somewhat better. Never underestimate the therapeutic potential of a good grub.

Pierogi (pirohy in Slovak) are crescent-shaped dumplings of unleavened dough, stuffed with various sweet and savory fillings. They are popular all over the Central and Eastern Europe and can be boiled, baked or even fried. The form pirohy is plural; the singular piroh is rarely used, since the meal consists of several pieces, and you’d never be able to eat just one 🙂 This savory version is filled with typical Slovak sheep cheese called bryndza, and topped with fried bacon, onion, and sour cream. It is a traditional Slovak dish,  and along with a similar dish of small gnocchi mixed with bryndza, is served in pretty much every Slovak restaurant. Finding bryndza in my neck of the woods can be somewhat of a challenge, though. Some Russian stores might carry it from time to time, but it’s not a regular thing, and since I can’t keep sheep in my backyard, I – again – had to adapt. (It seems the life of an expat is all about adapting, all the time!) Lucky for me, the crumbly and tangy bryndza is rather similar to Greek feta, which is readily available at stores around here, and when I mix in a little sour cream to make it creamier, the taste is pretty close. The dough for pierogi is pretty simple and consists of only flour, water, egg, some grated cooked potato and salt. It is rolled thin and cut into circles. The filling of bryndza, potato, and chopped dill is placed in the center, and the dough is folded over to form little crescents. The pierogi are then  boiled in salted water, drained, and topped with bacon and onion. They’re best served right away, still piping hot.

Cooking well doesn’t always mean cooking fancy, and sometimes the best eats are quite simple. A plate of pierogi is a great example of that. So please, gather some friends and cook, and then go on and indulge. Smother those babies in (full fat) sour cream, and don’t forget to fry up some bacon! Life is short, and sharing delicious food with those you love is one of its very best experiences. Because really, food isn’t just a mere fuel to keep us going. Made and shared with love, it feeds our soul.

Pierogi

 Traditional pierogi with sheep cheese

Dough for pierogi:
  • 150 g (5.5 oz.) yellow potatoes, boiled in their skin, then peeled and chilled
  • 500 g (1 lb.) all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ – 2/3 cups hot water, as needed
Filling:
  • 400 g (14 oz.) yellow potatoes, boiled in their skin, then peeled and chilled
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) bryndza or crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 – 2 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
Method:
  1. To make the dough: Grate the potatoes, or run them through a potato ricer directly into a big bowl. Add in all other ingredients for the dough except water. Gradually add hot water until the ingredients start to form a ball. Knead the dough, until it changes from rough and floury to smooth and silky. (Alternatively, you can make the dough in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
  2. To make the filling: In a food processor, combine all the ingredients to make a uniform mixture. Chill the filling while you prepare the pierogi.
  3. Divide your dough ball in half and keep one half covered while you work on the first batch. On a floured surface, roll the dough thin (1/8 – 1/10 inch, 2 – 3 mm). With a biscuit cutter or a glass, cut out small circles (I used a glass with 8cm or 3.5 inch diameter). Sprinkle more flour on the work surface as needed to keep the circles from sticking (the potato dough becomes more sticky with time). Re-roll the remaining dough to make more circles.
  4. Place about ¾ tablespoon of filling in the center of each circle, and moisten the edges with water.  Fold the circle in half to make a crescent, press the edges with a fork to seal.
  5. In the same way, make the pierogi from the other half of the dough.
  6. In a big pot bring water with a tablespoon of salt to a boil. Working in batches, add about 10 pieces of pierogi, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook the pierogi for 1 – 2 minutes until they float to the top and are tender. Remove the pierogi with a slotted spoon and brush them with butter to keep them from sticking.
  7. Serve hot with sour cream, fried bacon, and fried onions (or minced spring onions).
 Note:

Recipe makes about 45 pierogi. You can flash freeze uncooked pierogi on a baking sheet, and then keep them in a Ziploc bag to cook as needed.