Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My First Albanian Dinner: Potato-Cabbage Borscht and Vegetable Byrek

Albanian Potato-Cabbage Borscht  (Supë borsh me patate e lakër)
Albanian Pie with Vegetables   (Byrek Shqipëtar me perime)
Greek Yogurt and Ajvar
Green Salad
Cabbage Slaw

My first serious cooking after our return from Europe wasn't Slovenian. It was Albanian.

The final stretch of our three-week journey had left a deep impression. We had spent four days in Kosovo, where most people are ethnic Albanian. On a day trip into Albania itself, we enjoyed an extraordinary meal at a Slow Food "farm-to-table" restaurant near a remote mountain village. It was a short but intense time that left me dreaming of mountains and minarets, once we had returned to California. I also missed the family we had left behind in Kosovo: our journalist son and the lovely young woman I could now consider my daughter-in-law.

Even before the trip, I had been curious to experiment with some Albanian cooking, but I hadn't found many resources in English. Now I had more determination--and some time on my hands, since my husband was off visiting his father in Florida for a few days. I resolved to welcome him back with a home-cooked Albanian meal.

After some serious online searching, I found some good resources. The best seemed to be The Frosina Information Network, a Boston-based Albanian cultural organization.  In fact, many of the recipes scattered around the web seemed to be "borrowed" from their recipe section.

I found two recipes that looked promising.  The first was an Albanian-style borscht. The second was a vegetable burek that sounded something like zeljanica, a spinach-cheese pie I had prepared last Christmas.  I already had most of the ingredients on hand.

The recipes below follow Frosina's versions closely.  Along with making half-recipes, I also made a few substitutions, as noted. To see the originals (and for other Albanian recipes) do visit their website.

For the results, read on.

Albanian Potato-Cabbage Borscht  (Supë borsh me patate e lakër)

1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 T. oil
1 carrot, chopped
1-1/2 stalks celery, chopped
1 T. flour
1 T. catsup (my substitute for tomato sauce)
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 lb. cabbage, chopped (I used red cabbage)
1-2 T. vinegar, to taste
1/2 lb. potatoes, chopped
1 small beet root, diced into cubes
pepper and salt (I used salt-free seasoning mix) to taste

Brown onions in oil. Add carrots and celery and continue to brown. Add flour and brown, then add catsup or tomato sauce and a little broth, continuing to stir so sauce remains smooth.  Cover and simmer on low heat, then add the rest of broth. Bring to a boil. Add beet and cook 15 minutes. Add potatoes and cook 20 more minutes, or until all vegetables are soft. Add pepper, salt or salt-free seasonings, and (if desired) more vinegar to taste. Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream.

Albanian Pie with Vegetables   (Byrek Shqipëtar me perime)

1/2 cup (or less) olive oil
about 12 oz. prepared filo dough (I used whole wheat), thawed if frozen.

For filling:

12 oz. fresh spinach or other greens (I used kale)
1/2 cup feta cheese, diced
1/4 cup green onions, sliced
1 egg, beaten
pepper and salt (I used salt-free seasoning mix)

First, a word about the greens. The Frosina recipe suggests spinach, but I had read elsewhere that other varieties of greens can be used. Since I had a bag of cut, rinsed kale on hand, I decided to use that.

So, to make filling:  Greens should be rinsed well, trimmed, and chopped.  If salt is not a concern, sprinkle the prepared fresh greens with salt and mix well by hand.  (I skipped the salt.) Add remaining filling ingredients and set aside.

Brush an 8 or 9 inch round baking pan with oil. Begin layering filo leaves, two at a time, brushing with oil before adding the next layer. Let leaves extend over edge of pan, in a sort of "fan" pattern. Continue until half the filo is used. Spread filling on top. Cover filling with the remaining pastry leaves.  Roll up the overhanging edges to cover the top.  Brush top with oil.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.
Let cool before cutting.  Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream.

The verdict?

The soup was delicious, with a beet flavor that was less dominant than in the typical borscht. Instead, the brown roux and vinegar gave this Albanian version a subtle, intriguing tang. We both found it a refreshing change.

We also liked the vegetable byrek, which was heavier on the greens and lighter on the cheese and eggs  than the zeljanica I had made at Christmas. The fresh kale, especially without the addition of salt, gave the filling a tough, assertive quality that I thought could use a little softening, although my husband didn't mind it.  The next time, I will probably steam the kale first or go back to using spinach.

All in all, my first outing with Albanian cooking felt like a success!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mlinci Magic, Direct from the Ljubljana Farmers' Market!

I was in an odd state when we returned home to California after three weeks in Europe.

I felt suspended between two worlds. I kept dreaming of faraway landscapes. The beautiful Adriatic coast. Remote settlements in the Dolenjska hills where my Slovenian ancestors once lived. Limestone caves in the karst. Castles and bridges in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital. The jagged vitality of Kosovo.  Steeples and minarets. The harsh and mysterious mountains of Northern Albania. And all the welcoming people we met along the way.

The food and wine were also memorable, but they were a backdrop to the deeper journey.

Still, I was glad to have brought back a few edible souvenirs. Sea salt from Piran. Domači prijatelj (Slovenian biscotti) from the big modern Maxi Market a blocks from our studio apartment in Ljubljana, where we spent a week. From the apartment, it was just a few more blocks to the daily farmers' market near Ljubljana's old town. We consumed most of our purchases, but I did end up with two market mementos to bring home: a half-eaten bag of honey cookies and a big package of mlinci.

Mlinci (m'LEEN-tse) is an unusual food, at least by American standards, although it is a staple in Slovenia and northern Croatia. It is a sort of  egg noodle/cracker hybrid: first baked into a large flatbread and later reconstituted by soaking. I had made it from scratch exactly two years earlier, in July of 2012, as a foundation for a stuffing-like side dish to accompany roast duck.  At that time, I had to rely on photos and recipes as a guide, so I was excited to spot a package of the real thing at one of the stalls at the Ljubljana farmers' market.

A closer look (and a taste) showed me where I had gone astray. The genuine Ljubljana mlinci was far more thin and delicate than the sturdy rounds I had created in my Berkeley kitchen.  According to the directions that came with my purchase, only a very short soak was needed. Suggestions for a variety of sweet and savory preparations were included.

A few days after we returned home, I decided it was time to break out the mlinci, with my husband doing the honors.  I suggested that he roast a chicken and explained how to soak the mlinci and then toss them in the pan juices.  He added a few twists of his own, onions and mushrooms, and created a tasty side dish that was even better than my own first attempt.

I had also read that unsoftened mlinci could be broken up and (in the words of the cooking site) "crashed into the soup." So, a few days later, I made soup from the leftover chicken carcass and added a garnish of mlinci. It was an easy and tasty addition.

I kept thinking about a sweet mlinci dish. The instructions had suggested a few possible additions, along with sugar.  Curd cheese and marmalade. Poppy seeds and nuts. Fruits. It sounded like a promising breakfast dish.  

This week, I finally gave it a try. The first time, just for myself, I layered soaked and drained mlinci bits with orange marmalade, fresh strawberries and farmer cheese.  Not bad.  It tasted like a sweet Jewish noodle kugel.  Or--a closer parallel--sweet matzo kugel. 

On the weekend, feeling more confident, I decided to make a breakfast dish to share with my husband.  This time around, I used blueberry preserves along with the farmer cheese and strawberries, and I popped the finished mixture into the microwave for a quick warming.  With a little Greek yogurt on the side, it was a lovely and elegant weekend brunch dish that reminded me of deconstructed blintzes.

At this rate,  I will soon face a new challenge: replenishing the mlinci when the current supply runs out! 

Sweet Mlinci

mlinci, purchased or homemade
curd cheese or farmer cheese
marmalade or preserves
strawberries or other fresh fruit, cut up and sweetened if desired
Greek yogurt or sour cream for serving

Break mlinci into bite-sized pieces and soak in very hot water until softened. With thin mlinci, this may take just a few minutes. Drain in a colander or sieve. Prepare berries or other fruit and sweeten with a little sugar, syrup, or preserves if desired. In a serving bowl, make several layers of  mlinci, cheese, marmalade or preserves, and fruit. Tastes especially good (like blintzes!) if warmed up before serving.  Garnish with yogurt or sour cream.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Back Home Again; Still Unpacking

Klobasa Shop in Ljubljana, Slovenia

I have been back home in California for a month.  And I am still unpacking.

The suitcases are emptied but I am still sorting out photos, memories, and impressions from the trip.  It was magical in ways I had not imagined.  From Venice to Slovenia to Kosovo. Visits to ancestral villagea. A day trip to the mountains of northern Albania.  At the end, celebrating the welcome news of a family engagement.  Dizzying and a little disorienting.

For a week after our return, I woke up each morning and thought I was in Albania. The end of the trip must have made an impression, since the first new recipes I attempted were Albanian.

We never had a bad meal.  Hotel breakfasts, airport cafeterias, farmers markets, street vendors, and destination restaurants.  Always good.  Sometimes memorable.   But not the most important part, although I will be writing more about food.  As soon as I finish unpacking.

In the Mountains of Northern Albania

Sunday, July 6, 2014

American Slovenian Nut Horns for Graduation Day; On To Slovenia!

This is the second installment of my cookie "show-and-tell" for my Slovenian language class in late May.

I was the only beginner when I joined the ongoing language class at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall in January. Five months later, I was still playing catch-up. I knew the end-of-term presentation would be a challenge, because some of it had to be done in Slovenian. I felt like a third grader as I tried to use simple, halting language to tell a complicated story: how my maternal heritage was almost erased and then recovered. A few ethnic cookies on the side might help.

The first cookie, buckwheat thumbprints, was something I had made once before. For my second offering, I decided to try something new: American Slovenian nut horns, a fitting choice, considering the source, a 1970s cookbook compiled by a Slovenian class in Willard, Wisconsin.

Kuharice iz Willarda (Cooking from Willard) offered two virtually identical recipes for American Slovenian nut horns. It was a familiar cookie/pastry hybrid, with a rich dough wrapped around a nut filling. I had seen similar recipes, sometimes referred to as "rogljički" in European sources. The American touch in this version seemed to be cottage cheese in the dough rather than cream cheese or sour cream.

The recipe reminded me of rugelach, a Jewish favorite I had made many times. In fact, I consulted some of those recipes, which offered more detailed suggestions for shaping.

The recipe below follows the original Willard version, with my modifications noted. Cinnamon in the filling is well within Slovenian tradition.  The chocolate chips?  Probably more at home in the American Jewish kitchen.

To find out how the recipe and the presentation turned out, read on!

American Slovenian Nut Horns (rogljički)

1 c. butter
1 c. small curd cottage cheese
2-1/2 c. flour
1 t. salt (I omitted)

1 c. ground walnuts
1 c. sugar
milk to moisten
cinnamon to taste, if desired (my addition)

(Another filling option: A sprinkle of chocolate chips!)

For filling: Grind nuts. (Use an old-fashioned hand grinder, if possible!) Mix with sugar, cinnamon if using, and enough milk to moisten. (I ended up with a thick paste.)

For pastry: Cream butter and cottage cheese. Add flour (mixed with salt if using) and combine with pasty cutter or cut in with knives. Knead lightly until smooth.

To shape: Divide dough in half. Roll each half into a circle and cut into 12 wedges.  Put 1 teaspoon of filling at end of each wedge and roll up. (Filling goes on wide end of wedge. Roll from wide end to the point!) Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Let cool. Makes 24 nut horns.

Another approach to filling and shaping, from a Jewish rugelach recipe: Divide dough into three portions and roll each into a circle.  Before cutting, spread or pat on the filling over the entire surface, except for a small circle in the middle.  (This uncovered circle in the middle will keep the filling from oozing out after shaping.) Cut each circle into 16 wedges. Roll up, shape and bake as above.  Makes 48 smaller nut horns.

The result?  Delicious!

I had my doubts about the cottage cheese, but the pastry turned out light and crisp. The simple walnut filling was wonderful, thanks to the old school hand grinder and the touch of cinnamon.  I might even try it with the family potica recipe. The chocolate chips were fine for variety's sake, but I preferred the original plain walnut filling.

My Jewish husband could see the resemblance to rugelach, but he thought these Slovenian nut horns  had a distinctive quality of their own.

Both cookies, the buckwheat thumbprints and the nut horns, were well-received in my Slovenian class. I did get some ribbing from a couple of the men, when our teacher Mia announced at the start of class that I had brought cookies to share, during the break later in the evening.

"Oh...cookies!  Well, now we already know we'll like your presentation!"

We all laughed.  I started to relax.

Time to begin.  The title slide flashed on the screen.

"My Slovenian Roots: Lost And Found."

Another slide.  My family tree.  I took a deep breath and said the words in Slovenian: Družinsko drevo.

And the next slide, with photos of poticas I had made over the years.

I read the caption in Slovenian.  Kako je moja dediščina preživela: POTICA!

How my heritage survived.  Potica.

It's the truth.  Potica was the one thread that linked the generations, past to present. Everything else, including the Slovenian language, was erased in my mother's family.

Lost and found again.

I will be taking a short break from this blog for a very good reason: I will be in Slovenia for most of the coming month.   Look for more recipes and stories in August.  

Nasvidenje!  See you soon!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The New Improved Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies, with Walnuts and Rum

Here is the updated recipe for buckwheat thumbprint cookies.  Ajdovčki, as I explained to my Slovenian language class. They are at the top left in the photo above.

I wanted to impress my classmates with these unusual cookies.  Unfortunately, my previous attempt had turned out dry and a little bland. I decided to go back to the original Slovenian recipe and follow it more closely this time.

(For the background story, and version #1, go here.)

A few changes were definitely in order. Walnuts and rum.  Nuts ground the old-fashioned way, with my newly-acquired antique hand grinder.  And closer attention to the metric conversions, which meant a little more cocoa and a smaller volume of nuts. For the spices, I used the Slovenian measure: a knife tip!  Finally, I used two new, sweeter fillings: apricot jam and lemon curd.

The result?  Delicious!  The one little problem: The lemon curd got absorbed into the cookies, so I'd recommend sticking with the jam or preserves of your choice.  

And for complete confidence: use a scale.  It's the European way. 

Ajdovčki, or Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies (with walnuts and rum, the Slovenian way!)

2/3 c. white flour
1/2 c. buckwheat flour
2/3 c. ground walnuts (90 g by weight)
5 T. cocoa
7 T. butter (1 quarter-pound stick, less 1 T.)
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1 knife tip cinnamon
1 knife tip cloves
2 T. rum
Preserves or jam of your choice for filling

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips. Mixture will be crumbly. Beat egg yolk and rum together and sprinkle over mixture. Work with hands until mixture holds together.  If necessary, add a little more rum or water until you have a stiff, dense dough.

Form dough into small balls, about the size of a walnut.  Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Make a depression in each ball with the handle of a wooden spoon, a chopstick, or your finger.

Bake at 330 degrees for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Enlarge hole with your finger and add a bit of jam.  Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 5 more minutes. Let cool.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Cookie "Show-And-Tell" for my Language Class

Remember back in grade school, when you had to do your first class presentation? Visual aids were always a good idea, in case you became tongue-tied or didn't have much to say.

That's exactly how I felt as I prepared to do a short presentation in my Slovenian language class. It was about losing and finding my heritage. A few short sentences in Slovenian. A powerpoint presentation, with some photos and my family tree.

And one more bit of "show-and-tell": some homemade Slovenian cookies.  After all, food is an important part of the story.  Not to mention the fact that my culinary skills are way ahead of my Slovenian language skills.

I decided to try something old and something new.

The old recipe?  Buckwheat thumbprint cookies, or ajdovčki.  An unusual cookie and not bad the first time around.  I thought they might have been better if I had stuck more closely to the original recipe, from a young woman blogger in Slovenia. Walnuts and rum, instead of almonds and cognac.  And maybe a touch more sugar.

So I made those few tweaks to the original recipe, and it did the trick. (Update: The new improved version is here.)

The new recipe is from my latest vintage Slovenian American cookbook: Kuharice iz Willarda, or Cooking from Willard.  It was compiled in the 1970s by a Slovenian language class in Willard, Wisconsin.  My son found the old cookbook for sale online, assumed it must be written in Slovenian, and ordered it for me as a gift.  The book turns out to be mostly in English, with a judicious smattering of Slovenian sayings and recipe titles. That made me smile.  I would have fit right in to that Slovenian class.

In that 1970s cookbook, I spotted a recipe called American Slovenian nut horns: little cookie/pastries, with a rich dough wrapped around a nut filling.  Very similar to many other Slovenian recipes I had seen before--and also to ruggelach, a Jewish favorite I had made many times.  But there was one interesting (and healthy)  difference: cottage cheese instead of the more usual cream cheese in the dough.  (Update: the nut horn recipe is posted here.)

Recipes will follow soon.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to my Slovenian homework.

Dober tek!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Great Gedempte Chicken Mystery

"Why don't you make your father's gedempte chicken?" I said to my husband.  "I'll be the scribe."

It was Passover week, a time when traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes appear on many American tables, including ours. I was eager to document another piece of family culinary history.

I had recently written about Murray's Kreplach.  Gedempte chicken, another one of my father-in-law's recipes, seemed like the perfect follow-up.  He had learned to make both dishes by watching his mother Rose, who emigrated from her village in Poland at around the same time my grandfather left Slovenia.

Murray had introduced us to this rich chicken dish during one of our visits.  The second time he made it, my husband watched and made notes.  Back home, he reproduced it, using his father's cooking as a model.

Gedempte chicken is an unusual dish with simple ingredients.  It is a rich, onion-laden stew or fricassee with a twist: little meatballs simmering along with the pieces of chicken. The seasonings are nothing more than salt, pepper, paprika, with a touch of catsup at the end.  The key is to brown the ingredients well and then simmer slowly, so the meats and onion release their juices.  In theory, no additional liquid is need to create a thick sauce.

"Why don't you check your notes?" I suggested to my husband, before he started to cook.  I wanted to be sure we came as close as possible to his father's original version.

"Notes?" He looked puzzled.  He didn't have them. In fact, he didn't recall writing anything down.

Hmm.  I could swear we had an old envelope with a rough sort of recipe jotted down. Oh well. I suggested he call the source, Murray himself, for a quick refresher course.

When he got off the phone, my husband gave me an odd look.  "There are no meatballs."

"No meatballs?  You mean he's changed the recipe and now he leaves out the meatballs?"

"No.  He says he never used meatballs.  That's not part of the dish."

We were both baffled.  Had we imagined those little meatballs, the most distinctive element in the dish? Or perhaps my husband picked up the idea on his own and had completely broken with Jewish tradition.

It was time for some research.  My Jewish cookbooks weren't much help, but I discovered plenty of information on the Internet. "Gedempte" is a Yiddish term that means "well-cooked." I found at least a a half dozen recipes for gedempte chicken, some with meatballs and some without.

I was relieved.  The meatball variation wasn't some rogue version of gedempte chicken my husband had invented, even if the source remained hazy.

What to do?

My husband had a good solution.  He would follow his father's latest directions, with chicken only. Then he would make a separate batch of meatballs, relying on his own memory and intuition.

When it came time to eat, we did a taste test. The first night, we ate the chicken and meatballs separately. By itself, the chicken was tasty.  In fact, it reminded us of my own Slovenian-style chicken paprikash, minus the sour cream. (Dairy products in a meat or poultry dish would violate Jewish dietary laws.) The meatballs were just fine. Matzo farfel, another Passover favorite, was the perfect accompaniment.  Other good (non-Passover) options to accompany the chicken stew immediately came to mind:  buckwheat kasha, homemade egg noodles, or even some nice Slovenian mlinci!

But this was not the gedempte chicken we had come to know and love.  So, after dinner, the chicken and meatballs went into the same pot, where they mingled overnight. The next day, the flavor was even better after reheating.

Our verdict:   Gedempte chicken is great, however you make it.  But mixing in the meatballs takes the dish to a whole other level.

But why take our word for it?  Try it yourself!

Recipes follow.

For the chicken:

1-1/2 lb chicken breasts, bone in
1-3/4 lb chicken thighs
2 large onions, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. paprika
black pepper
2 T. catsup

Sprinkle paprika, pepper and salt on chicken.  Brown thighs, skin side down, in Dutch oven. Remove and brown the breasts.  The goal is to brown the skin and remove some of the fat. Remove chicken from pot.  Saute onions with additional paprika, salt, and pepper until softened. Add chicken.  Cover and simmer for several hours.  You should not need extra liquid, but if you must, add a little water or broth. Add catsup in last hour. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.

For the meatball option:

1 lb. ground beef
1/4 c. matzo meal
1 egg
black pepper
2 t. paprika
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. catsup at end

Mix beef, matzo meal, egg, and seasonings well. Form meat mixture into small balls the size of a walnut. Brown in vegetable oil in a large saucepan.  Drain off fat. Add onion and garlic.  Return meatballs to pan. Cover and simmer for several hours. You should not need extra liquid, but if you must, add a little water or broth. Add catsup in last hour. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.

The chicken and the meatballs can be served separately or combined and simmered together.  Serve with matzo farfel, buckwheat kasha, noodles, or mlinci.