Monday, August 17, 2020

The New improved Jota (Bean and Sauerkraut Stew), with vegan option

I first tried to make jota in early 2012. That was the year I took my deep dive into Slovenian cooking. I had never heard of this iconic bean and sauerkraut stew and I was eager to experiment. The version I made was pleasant but mild. And very white: sauerkraut, small white beans, white potatoes, and  a dollop of yogurt. The monochromatic color scheme was broken only by the sprinkle of parsley on top. I never got around to trying it again.

Jota, with white beans, 2012
Now, eight years later, I have made jota for the second time. And I am a believer! It was wonderful. Comforting and zesty. It was a success mostly due to the limitations created by cooking in confinement.

The first big difference: Apache beans, which I had recently discovered work well as a substitute for borlotti or Roman beans in pašta fižol. In fact, if it weren't for that big bag of dried beans sitting in the pantry, I probably wouldn't have given jota another chance. I don't know what made the difference, the switch from white to red beans, or the fact that the beans were cooked from scratch this time. Probably both!

Apache Beans
Another challenge: Jota is traditionally cooked with bits of bacon (my choice last time) or smoked meat. Although we did have some smoked sausage on hand, it was a Louisiana-style andouille. I was concerned that the assertive Cajun spices would overwhelm the more subtle Slovenian-ness of this traditional dish, so I decided to make the sausage separately and serve it on the side.

Oh-oh! Without really planning to, I had backed into making vegan jota! Now I was really facing a challenge. But a little online research revealed that my first recipe (from a non-Slovenian source) had been a particularly mild version, compared to the other approaches I was discovering. So I upped the garlic and added three new ingredients: tomato paste, paprika, and a touch of liquid smoke, the suggestion of a Slovenian vegetarian blogger.

These changes, growing out of a time of adversity, made all the difference. Even without the sausage, this version of jota was a winner. I can't wait to make it again!

Update: A month later (just after writing this post!) I was inspired to do it again, with one small change: Instead of sweet paprika, I used the hot smoked paprika I had recently bought. That created some added zest and it also eliminated the need for liquid smoke.

Jota, or Slovenian Bean and Sauerkraut Stew

1 cup dried borlotti, Roman, or Apache beans
2-3 medium potatoes (about 10 ounces cooked)
16 ounces sauerkraut
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cubed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste (or catsup, in a pinch)
2-3 teaspoons paprika (sweet or smoked *)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups potato water or other liquid
(Optional: 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke, unless you use smoked paprika!)
Parsley to garnish

* To compensate for the absence of meat, consider using smoked paprika (preferred) or liquid smoke (which also works)

If desired: Smoked meat or sausage can be served on the side
If desired: Yogurt or sour cream (or a dairy-free alternative) to garnish

Prepare beans in the usual way:  Soak overnight, simmer until tender, and drain. You should have about 2-1/2 cups of cooked beans. (Yes, you can substitute 2 cans of beans, although I don't recommend it!)

Cube the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Save the water. Drain sauerkraut if you want a milder dish. (I didn't!)

Heat olive oil in a large pot and cook onions until softened. Add garlic, sprinkle with flour, and cook for several more minutes, stirring constantly until mixture turns golden. (Yes, you are making a roux, just like the Cajuns!) Add a little water to this mixture and stir to make a sauce. Add the tomato paste, the remaining seasonings, the sauerkraut, and additional liquid as needed. Simmer the mixture for 10-15 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and beans and simmer for 20 more minutes. At the end, taste the seasonings and adjust.

To serve, garnish with parsley,  plus yogurt or sour cream if desired. Sausage or other meat can be served alongside.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Pašta Fižol with Apache Beans

I was starting to stock our pandemic pantry with hefty bags of dried beans. Garbanzos and black beans were easy to find online. My husband hinted that I might want to find some of the beans I had used in my Slovenian recipes. White beans, perhaps?

But my thoughts immediately went to another variety, the speckled red-and-white beans known as Roman or borlotti beans.

These unusual beans were the foundation for a special soup my late mother recalled fondly from her Cleveland childhood but had trouble describing. My mother's mystery bean soup turned out to be a delicious variation of pašta fižol, in which the beans are pureed before adding the pasta--in this case, homemade square egg noodles Slovenians call bleki.

Borlotti beans are considered heirloom beans and can be hard to locate even in normal times. I did find some online--for a price. But my search pulled up another bean variety that was described as a good alternative--in the same bean family, and with a similar red-and-white pattern.They even cost less than the borlotti beans and would arrive faster.

So I decided to take a chance.  When the beans arrived, I was struck by the vivid and distinct pattern.

I also learned they had a fascinating international pedigree: Sold by a Canadian company, imported by a company in New Jersey and grown in Kyrgyzstan--from a strain of pinto beans first developed in the United States in the 1980s!

A few days later, I decided to make traditional pašta fižol, using the un-pureed recipe I had made originally. It just happened to be Trubar Day, a fitting time to celebrate my Slovenian heritage.

Naturally, I had to make a few more pandemic-required adjustments. Instead of bacon or pancetta, I used the only smoked meat we had available: Italian chicken sausage. Catsup instead of tomato paste. And store-bought Italian dried pasta, since I didn't have the time or energy for handmade bleki.

Despite the substitutions and the pasta shortcut, the dish was a success. Those Apache beans (seen in the before-and-after photos below) seemed to be a more than adequate substitute for borlotti beans. Their pretty colors were still faintly visible after cooking and the flavor was rich and slightly sweet.

I couldn't wait to use them again!

After: Apache beans, cooked

Before: Apache beans, dried

Pašta Fižol (with pandemic substitutions) 

1 lb. dried Roman beans (borlotti or cranberry beans) Apache beans, cooked
5 oz. turkey bacon or pancetta  Italian chicken sausages, 5-10 oz.
2-3 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 T. flour
2 t. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. tomato paste catsup
1 c. hot water
2 t. marjoram
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. pepper
salt to taste
2 t. vinegar
homemade bleki/square noodles  4 ounces dried Italian pasta elbows
parsley to garnish

For detailed cooking instructions, see the original post:

Monday, June 8, 2020

Buckwheat Bread with Toasted Walnuts (Ajdov Kruh)

About a month into confinement, I had the urge to take on a new Slovenian baking project. It had to be traditional--and it had to use ingredients that were close at hand.

What better choice than buckwheat bread? Ajdov kruh, in Slovene.

My only experience with using buckwheat in a yeast bread was when I baked pisani kruh, a tasty spiral of buckwheat, white and corn dough that is supposed to suggest potica.

But I had never tried to duplicate the dense round buckwheat loaves we had enjoyed on our last two trips to Slovenia. My husband and I enjoyed it as a breakfast bread, spread with jam or honey. The assertive flavor of buckwheat also paired well with cheese or sausage. And the bread remained moist for a long time.

We still had plenty of buckwheat flour, and I had finally re-stocked the white flour and yeast. We even had a few potatoes and some walnuts--optional ingredients, although many Slovenian recipes included them.

I wondered whether my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks included buckwheat bread. I found a promising recipe in Woman's Glory, although I had to make a few adjustments: A half recipe, since there were just two of us at home and no entertaining on the horizon. Instant dry yeast instead of the old-fashioned cake yeast. And I wanted to add some toasted walnuts, even though this American recipe didn't call for them.

Woman's Glory turned out to be more of a guide than a precise formula. How big is a large potato? How liquidy are "loose" mashed potatoes supposed to be? I kept having to add extra liquid--and then more flour.

But it all worked out in the end.

The bread was just as we remembered it, with a rustic look and an earthy taste. Next time I might add even more walnuts.

Happy Trubar Day!

Buckwheat Bread (Ajdov Kruh)

1-1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large potato, boiled and mashed
 reserved potato water

2-1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1-1/2 cups white flour (I substituted a little whole wheat flour)
dash of salt
3/4 cup reserved potato water and/or milk
1 egg

walnuts, toasted and chopped

Combine buckwheat flour and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Boil cut-up potato in salted water until soft. Drain the cooking liquid and set aside. Mash the potato, adding enough reserved liquid to make about 3/4 cup of "loose" mashed potatoes. Pour the warm potato mixture over buckwheat flour  and mix to make a soft dough, adding more reserved liquid as needed. Let stand for an hour.

Combine white flour, sugar, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Warm reserved potato water (or milk) and mix in egg. Add buckwheat dough and as much egg-liquid mixture as needed to the white flour to make a soft dough. Knead well--and don't be surprised if you need to add more white flour.

Form dough into ball and place in floured bowl. Cover and let rise for 1-1/2 hours. Punch down, divide into one or two portions. Knead in walnuts and form into rounds. Cut cross on top. Cover and let rise for about 45 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 50-60 minutes.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Buckwheat Cookies for Hard Times

Those Easter eggs with natural dyes were not my first nod to my Slovenian heritage during this time of cooking in confinement. Before that, I had made an impromptu batch of cookies that I consider Slovenian in spirit, because their defining feature is the generous use of buckwheat.

I had gotten the urge to bake after we had been sheltering in place for two weeks. We were running low on white flour--a staple that I discovered had become scarcer than toilet paper. I finally placed an order on Amazon for the best option I could find: a ten pound bag of Italian 00 flour, which wouldn't arrive for several weeks.

My husband was convinced we must have extra flour somewhere. He hinted that it might be illuminating if I went through all those bags of flour and grain in the freezer, the fridge, and the pantry, to see what we really had.

So that became my morning project. I pulled everything out and lined those bags up alphabetically. They formed a line that snaked around most of our available counter space!

It was an embarrassment of riches--and I do mean embarrassing!

There were seventeen varieties of flour and related grains, in multiple bags, lined up from A to W. Almond Flour to Wheat Flour. And in between, some novelty items I used once or twice and forget about (brown rice, coconut, gluten-free, soy) and some familiar staples (buckwheat, corn, oats, rye.)

The wheat flour was a category in itself. We had semolina, whole wheat flour, and organic pastry flour. But the back-up supply of all-purpose flour was not quite what my husband had predicted. It turned out to be the remains of one small bag.

What we did have was plenty of buckwheat.Three different bags of buckwheat flour, bought in bulk from the corner market, along with a rather odd product (at least to our taste) called creamy buckwheat cereal, described as cracked raw buckwheat by the manufacturer.

So I decided to make buckwheat cookies, since that would preserve our dwindling supply of white flour and take advantage of the generous supply of buckwheat.

I didn't consult a recipe. I had finally figured out the proper way of adapting the Slovenian recipe for ajdovčki (buckwheat-nut thumbprint cookies) and I had made those rich little morsels a number of time. I now had the general idea of how to make a part-buckwheat cookie.

So I just tossed together what seemed like a standard plain cookie recipe, working from memory and experience, and using what was close at hand. (I wasn't in the mood for any more kitchen searches!) When I couldn't find our cinnamon, I substituted an Indian spice mix. We didn't have any fresh walnuts, but I had discovered a small bag in the freezer that contained the cinnamon/sugar/ground walnut mixture that was left over from my holiday potica baking. Brown sugar, because that's all we had. And I decided to throw in a little of that cracked buckwheat cereal. Rum, because it always helps. And on top, some white chocolate chips, since I wouldn't be using cocoa.

Those cookies turned out to be pretty good. Compared to the buckwheat thrumbprints, they were plainer, but with a stronger buckwheat flavor, since I used a half-and-half mix of flours. A little sweeter, but less rich, with fewer nuts and less oil than the butter used in the earlier recipe. No chocolatey flavor.

I would make this impromptu recipe again--but without the addition of the buckwheat cereal nuggets. Those little crunchy bits were much in evidence--and as time went on, they must have absorbed moisture from the rest of the cookie, because they had turned into rocks after a week in a storage tin. My husband reminded me that this was not an opportune moment for a cracked tooth.

These were hard but tasty cookies for hard times.

Buckwheat Cookies for Hard Times

1 cup white flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
ground ginger
garam masala mix (or just use cinnamon)
1/4 cup buckwheat cereal (cracked ground buckwheat--optional!)
1/3 cup ground walnut/sugar/cinnamon mix (leftover from potica--optional!)
1/2 cup oil
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1-2 Tablespoons rum (or more to moisten)

optional: white or dark chocolate chips to decorate

Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the remaining (wet) ingredients together. Add the dry ingredients and stir until combined. If mixture is too dry, add a little more rum.
Form into walnut-sized balls, which will flatten slightly if you press a chocolate chip on top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Cooking in Confinement; Eggs to Welcome Spring

Where did the time go?

Easter and Passover have come and gone and I still haven't posted some of the dishes I prepared over the Christmas holidays. (Was my last post really on December 25?)

Here in California, we have been sheltering in place for just over five weeks. The day before the order went out, my husband and I finished up the last of the Christmas potica at a bittersweet "last supper"shared with our friend Natasha from my Slovenian class. It will probably be many months before we can welcome another guest to our table.

We are becoming accustomed to cooking in confinement. Making do with whatever is at hand. It is far from austere. I know how fortunate we are compared to so many other people. I feel grateful every day. But it is not the same.

Like those festive hard-cooked eggs I first made for Easter (and Passover) in 2016 and finally wrote about the following year. Before that, I had never colored eggs with onion skins or any other natural dye. And I had never heard about creating intricate patterns by attaching small leaves to the eggs before boiling.

(For detailed instruction, see the original post, here.)

This simple folk art is practiced in Slovenia, as well as other communities in Europe. I discovered that this style of decoration was also a tradition in some of  the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish communities where my husband's ancestors once lived.

I was already in the habit of making a traditional Passover dish of the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews: Huevos Haminados, or long-cooked eggs, in which eggs are boiled or baked for hours with onions and onion skins, to create color as well as an intriguing change in flavor and texture.

So I had come to look forward to drawing on all these traditions to create beautiful eggs that had a place in the two springtime holidays that are part of our family histories.

Easter: Pirhi & Potica
Passover: Huevos Haminados & Matzo

But this year, things were different. I had to work with what was on hand, since we were trying to rely on online ordering rather than shopping for groceries in person.

At first, we had only brown eggs available and just a small handful of onion skins to color them, so there wasn't much point in trying to create those lovely patterns. I boiled just four eggs, and I added some coffee grounds to try to deepen the color.

Then another grocery order arrived and we had white eggs. But the refrigerator held just a small sliver of onion. Now I could try to create patterns, but I had to come up with another dye. I still had some of the home-dried orange marigold tea a friend in Slovenia had given me during our recent visit in the fall. As I watched the eggs boiling away, the color looked too pale, so I added some turmeric.

As you can see in the photo at the top of the page, my eggs turned out more muted this year. Tan and pale yellow, rather than the deep burnished russet color of past years--or the new golden hue I was hoping to create. Our celebrations were muted as well. A virtual Passover seder with old friends in Chicago, and a Zoom meeting on Easter Sunday with my siblings.

But at their core, the eggs still had that same distinctive look and taste: a creamy texture, a brownish hue, a tangy nut-like flavor. However imperfect, they could still speak to me of family and tradition, of love and memory, and of survival and hope.

Belated holiday greetings, and happy springtime, from our house to yours.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Medenjaki: Slovenian Honey Spice Cookies for the Holidays


On our recent trip to Slovenia, bees and honey seemed to be everywhere. My husband and I saw old-fashioned beehives displayed in museums. We sampled honey in the Central Market. And we had the great pleasure of meeting the beekeeper father of my chef friend Mateja. (You'll be hearing about her amazing restaurant in a future post!)

Old Beehive

We returned home with plenty of honey-related souvenirs. Among them was a half-eaten package of medenjaki, the simple honey cookies we had also enjoyed on a previous trip. This popular treat is usually described as "gingerbread" in English, but the mild flavor seemed much closer to a British tea biscuit than to the much sweeter American style, in which the flavors of molasses and ginger seem to dominate. I wondered about those fancier versions of medenjaki, often shaped into hearts and elaborately decorated, that we had seen in the market and in tourist shops but had never actually tasted.

I had tried to make medenjaki five years earlier during the holiday season, but I wasn't satisfied with the results. So I decided to try again this year, a few days before the annual Christmas party at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco.

For guidance, I drew on two cooking authorities, one American and one Slovenian.

My first step was to turn to the Slovenian Union of America (formerly the Slovenian Women's Union of America), the venerable organization that put together Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, the classic mid-century cookbook that inspired my own culinary journey. Last year, the SUA also gave me the great honor of being the first recipient of their new Literary Award. (Submissions are now open for 2020!)

The SUA recipe for medenjaki, which can be viewed on the organization's website, was contributed by president Mary Lou Voelk. Her instructions are clear and detailed and her enthusiasm is contagious.

But then I discovered the Ana Roš recipe posted on the "I Feel Slovenia" tourist website, which has a whole section devoted to the country's rich tradition of beekeeping. I could not pass up a chance to try what the Slovenian government declares are "the world’s best female chef’s favourite honey biscuits." Unfortunately, this celebrity chef's recipe, while intriguing, offers minimalist instructions.

As you might expect, the Slovenian recipe is somewhat less rich than the American version (more flour and less egg, butter and sugar.) It also calls for baking soda instead of baking powder for leavening. The biggest difference, however, seems to be in the flavorings. The SUA recipe uses familiar sweet spices (cinnamon, cloves nutmeg) along with orange zest. Ana Roš, on the other hand, skips the citrus but puts together an interesting and less usual spice combination that I was eager to try: cardamom and anise, along with the familiar cinnamon and cloves. Note that neither one includes ginger!

So I created a hybrid. Somewhere in between the American and Slovenian recipes in terms of richness, with Ana Roš's intriguing flavorings and Mary Lou Voelk's clear approach to preparation and baking.

The medenjaki turned out very well: Just sweet enough and with a distinctive flavor from the spices, which sets them apart from conventional American gingerbread cookies. I am happy to report that they were well-received at the Christmas party, with nothing left at the end of the evening but an empty container. Fortunately, I had some left at home, but I suspect I'll be making another batch before the year is over!

Happy baking!

Medenjaki (Slovenian Honey Spice cookies)

1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
1 cup white sugar
1 egg
3-1/2 cups flour (approx.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon anise

Optional glaze: 1 egg white beaten with 2 teaspoons water

In a saucepan, warm up the butter and honey over medium heat until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar until dissolved. Set aside to cool. When cool, beat in the egg.

While the liquid mixture is cooling, prepare the spice mixture. If using whole spices, grind with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Combine spices in a small bowl.

Sift spice mixture, baking soda and flour into a large bowl, Pour liquid mixture into the flour mixture and stir well until dough forms a ball. Knead briefly, wrap and refrigerate for an hour or two.

To make cut-out shapes, roll to a thickness of 1/4 inch (or a little thicker if desired) and cut out. Brush with egg white glaze. If using a mold, you might want to add a little more flour. Easiest of all: shape dough  into walnut-sized balls, rolled in granulated sugar, and flatten with the bottom of a glass before baking.

Bake on lined baking sheets at 325-350 degrees for 10-17 minutes. Watch carefully. The timing will depend on the thickness of the dough and on whether you are aiming for a cake-like texture or something closer to a crisp gingersnap.

Makes a large quantity!