Vepřo-Knedlo-Zelo, a Czech Classic with a Twist

Vepřo-knedlo-zelo — literally “pork-dumpling-cabbage” — is Czech Republic’s national dish, but you’ve probably never heard of it. Maybe because the dish name contains one of the most difficult to pronounce letters known to mankind (the ř, affectionately called a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill in linguistics circles, is apparently shared only with the Kobon language of Papua New Guinea). 

Czech Cuisine - Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo

Or it could just be that most of the time, there’s really nothing about this dish to wax lyrical about. In many restaurants, you’re likely to receive dry slices of roasted pork, a heap of plain, soupy cabbage, and enough bread dumplings to smother you to death, even when there’s no sauce to mop up with them.

Let’s try to make things a little bit more interesting…

  • The cabbage in VKZ is usually either red cabbage or sauerkraut. Why not do both? Statistics show that recipes with more ingredients taste better. In fact, let’s toss some more ingredients in each of them: red onion, port, and orange juice for the red cabbage; parsnip and caraway for the sauerkraut. We’ll also puree some in order to vary textures a bit.
  • There are bread dumplings, and there are bread dumplings. The latter version tastes and looks better than the former, so that’s from whence I adapted my recipe. This is still heavy stuff, fit to fill cracks in your wall or supplement your kids’ stash of Play-Doh™. Frying the dumplings in the end adds some crunch and makes them less doughy. And there will be sauce!
  • To keep the pork roast moist, I wrap it in fatback, and cook it to a nice medium, 145 F. The USDA confirms that this is a safe temperature (see §318.10 here). And by covering the pan in the oven, you should collect plenty of delicious jus. Slice the roast as thinly as you can for extra tenderness.
  • I’m also including a recipe below for pork stock. It’s not strictly necessary, as you can use chicken or veal stock (even store-bought) in the cabbage recipes instead. The benefit of the pork stock is that you can reduce it to mix with butter and get some extra sauce without losing the porcine taste of the whole dish.

Pork stock
Yields about 1 qt

0.5 oz canola oil
1 lb smoked ham hock
4 oz peeled onions, large dice
2 oz peeled carrots, large dice
2 oz celery, large dice
1 parsley sprig
16 oz water

  • Over high heat, in a pressure cooker without the lid, add the oil, and brown the ham hock on all sides. Add the onions, carrots, and celery, and sauté until golden brown.
  • Add the parsley and the water, cover, and pressurize over medium heat. Cook for 1 hour, then let cool.
  • Pass the stock through a chinois, and reserve. Remove the fat once the stock is cold.

Red cabbage purée
Yields 4 servings

2 oz peeled red onion, small dice
0.75 oz butter
12 oz peeled and cored red cabbage, finely sliced
salt
pepper
1 oz orange juice
2 oz red port wine
0.75 oz pork (or chicken) stock

  • In a pan over medium heat, sauté the onion in 2/3 of the butter until translucent. Add the red cabbage, and cook for another couple minutes, stirring regularly.
  • Season with salt and pepper, then add the orange juice and port. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes.
  • In a blender, process half of the cabbage with the stock and the rest of butter. Combine with the remaining cabbage, and reserve.

Sauerkraut purée
Yields 4 servings

0.5 oz butter
2.7 oz peeled parsnip, sliced
salt
1/4 tsp caraway seeds
2.7 oz heavy cream
2.7 oz pork (or chicken) stock
5.4 oz sauerkraut

  • Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Add the parsnip, season with salt, and cook until it starts to brown.
  • Add the caraway seeds, heavy cream, and stock. Cover, and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat.
  • Transfer the mixture to a blender, and process until smooth.
  • Rinse the sauerkraut in cold water, and drain well (you should have about 3 oz left). Combine with the parsnip purée, and reserve.

Czech Cuisine - Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo

Bread dumplings
Yields 4 servings

5 oz white bread loaf, crust removed
0.5 oz bacon, brunoise
1 oz peeled onion, brunoise
1 egg
3 oz milk
0.15 oz parsley, finely chopped
salt
balck pepper, ground
1 pinch ground nutmeg

  • Cut the bread into 3/4″ cubes, and toast in a 350 F oven for about 15 minutes.
  • In a saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bacon until crispy, then add the onion, and cook until golden brown. Let cool.
  • In a bowl, combine the egg, milk, and parsley. Add the bread, bacon, and onion. Season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg, then mix well. Let rest for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.
  • Pour this bread mixture onto a clean kitchen towel, and shape into a 4.5″ long log (the diameter will be a bit less than 3″). Wrap the log in the towel, and secure both ends, as well as the middle, with butcher’s twine.
  • Bring a pot of water to a boil. Immerse the wrapped bread dumpling log, and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Take out of the water, and let cool.

Roasted pork
Yields 4 servings

4 oz pork fatback
24 oz boneless pork loin roast
1/2 tsp (3.7 g) salt
black pepper, ground
1.5 oz butter

  • Cut the fatback into large, thin slices. Wrap the fat around the roast, and tie with butcher’s twine. Season with salt on all sides .
  • In an ovenproof pan over high heat, brown the meat on all sides. Cover with a lid, and cook in a 300 F oven for about 50 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 125 F in the center. Strain the jus and reserve. Let the meat rest, covered, for 30 minutes. The internal temperature should go up to 145 F. Otherwise, put the roast back in the oven for a few more minutes.
  • In a saucepan over high heat, reduce the meat jus by about 1/3. Whisk in the butter, and reserve.
  • Proceed immediately with the assembly below.

Assembly
Yields 4 servings

bread dumpling
0.5 oz butter
roasted pork (meat and reduced jus)
sauekraut purée
red cabbage purée

  • Unwrap the bread dumpling, and cut into 4 slices. Melt half of the butter in a non-stick pan. Sauté the slices until golden brown on both sides, adding the rest of the butter when you flip them.
  • Cut the pork into very thin slices or shavings. The best way to do this is to use a meat slicer, a very sharp serrated knife, or an electric carving knife. Toss the meat slices in the meat jus.
  • Reheat the sauerkraut and red cabbage purées separately (covered plastic containers in the microwave works just fine).
  • On each plate, arrange a slice of bread dumpling and top with meat, then garnish with a spoonful of each purée.

Czech Cuisine - Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo

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