Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bread Dumplings, Slovenia's Answer to Matzo Balls?

Bread Dumplings with Beef Goulash

I didn't get around to making the bread dumplings for Slovenian Dinner Week 4 until the next day.  But there was still plenty of beef goulash left for another dinner.

I had a dim memory of tasting bread dumplings, although I never made them myself. I found similar recipes in all three of my vintage cookbooks and came up with a sort of combination version.  It sounded like a Slovenian take on matzo balls, a traditional Jewish favorite I discovered when I met my husband.

For the bread, I bought a day-old French loaf from the bakery around the corner.  I substituted nonfat Greek yogurt for sour cream.

1/2 loaf stale bread
1/4 c. milk
2 T. butter
2 eggs
1/2 c. nonfat Greek yogurt
2 T. fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Cube the bread and place in a large bowl.  Warm milk and butter and pour over the bread.  In a smaller bowl beat the eggs, yogurt, and seasonings and add to the bread.  Mix all together.

Mold the mixture into balls with floured hands.

If you can, that is.

The mixture I had created was so loose it would have run through my fingers.  My problem, I suspected, was that I hadn't weighed the loaf of bread.  It was probably smaller than the standard one pound loaf of sandwich bread the cookbook authors had in mind.  And it probably wasn't dry enough to absorb the liquids.  And maybe the yogurt wasn't as dense as sour cream.

No problem.  Luckily we had some matzo meal on hand.  I added a few tablespoons until the batter/dough was stiff enough to mold.

It was still pretty soft, but I managed to shape a dozen golfball-sized dumplings.  I set them in a pan sprinkled with flour.

The instructions said to let the dumplings sit for a half hour.  So I figured it would be fine to make them in the morning and refrigerate until dinner time.

By evening, the dumplings had firmed up nicely.  Time for  the final step:   I boiled up a pot of salted water and dropped them in.  I let them boil until they felt firm, about 10-15 minutes,  drained them, and served them with the goulash (which was even better the second night.)

The verdict:  Pretty good.  Maybe a little denser than I would have liked.  A fine accompaniment to goulash or, for that matter, any sort of stew.  Like so much of Slovenian cooking, it was simple food for people who learned to make do with what they had.

Next time, I'll measure the bread and dry it out in the oven if it's not stale enough.  And maybe stick with sour cream.

I thought the bread dumplings were reminiscent of  matzo balls.  My husband, who is more expert in Jewish cooking than I am, wasn't quite as struck by the resemblance, but he liked it just the same.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 4: Beef Goulash with Bread Two Ways

Beef Goulash (golaž) with Sauerkraut
Garlic Bread or Bread Dumplings
Green Salad

After last week's misadventures with žganci, a more sensible person would have been done with buckwheat. But I decided to the start the day with a quick little invention of my own, healthy buckwheat šmoren.

Fortified with buckwheat, I began my search for a dinner recipe.  Maybe something a little less exotic than last week's chicken ajmoht.  Goulash seemed like a perfect choice.
I found versions in all three of my vintage cookbooks, but some of them struck me as a little bland.  I wanted something with more bite than a traditional American beef stew, so I did  a little mix-and-match with the recipes to come up with the tastiest possible version.

1 onion, chopped
1 red pepper (my substitution for green pepper)
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 T. fresh parsley, chopped
1.2 lb. beef stew meat
1 T. paprika
1 t. salt
a pinch of cayenne
1 t. ground caraway seed
1 T. flour
16 oz sauerkraut, rinsed and drained (or not!)
water as needed

Saute the first four ingredients in a little olive oil.  Add meat.  Cover and simmer.  Add the spices and flour, stir to combine, and cook for about 10 minutes.  Add the sauerkraut and  enough water to achieve a stew-like consistency.  Cover and cook until meat is tender, about 1 hour.

The result:  A familiar dish, easy to prepare, and  with more tang than the typical goulash.  It seemed like the simple, mild-mannered cousin to  bigos, Polish hunter's stew. The sauerkraut flavor did seem  pronounced,  and I wondered whether I should have used less.  (Some recipes use none at all.)  My husband, on the other hand, thought we could have used more.

I had planned to serve the goulash with bread dumplings, a dish I had never tried, but I ran out of time.   So my husband threw together some garlic bread,  along with  the green salad.

We had plenty of goulash left over,  so I figured I would get another chance to make those dumplings the following night.

And, as I expected, the goulash tasted even better the next day!

(For a second take on goulash with sauerkraut, go here.  And for an even spicier dish, known as goulash soup or  bograč, go here.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Buckwheat Breakfast Crumbles: Slovenian Fusion

It was Tuesday morning, time for breakfast, when I had a sudden brainstorm. There was half a bag of buckwheat flour in the cupboard, left over from last Tuesday's near-disaster with the žganci.  Why not whip up a batch of šmoren, substituting buckwheat flour for wheat?

I used soy milk, standard fare at our house, because that's all I had.  But it was a good match for the buckwheat, which turns out to be a particularly healthy food: high in protein, not technically a grain, and gluten free. Oil instead of butter was also an easy choice.

And there it was: Slovenian health food. Gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian. A marriage of sweet šmoren and tangy žganci.  I had finally produced those little crumbles that had eluded me last week!

My new dish even tasted good, with the earthy, slightly sharp taste of buckwheat pancakes.  I topped it with a sprinkle of  brown sugar and served it with a side of organic Italian marmalade, blueberries, and nonfat Greek yogurt.

2 eggs

6 T. soy milk
2 T. buckwheat flour

2 t. brown sugar

dash of salt (optional)

oil for pan

Mix all the ingredients together until you have a smooth crepe-like batter. Heat a frying pan with a thin film of oil. Pour in the batter. Leave it alone until the mixture starts to brown on the bottom. Then follow the usual procedure for šmoren. Take a spatula and begin to scrape, turn, and chop the mixture until you have a pan of nicely browned little crumbles.   Serves 2.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Žganci: Mysteries of Buckwheat

Žganci is one of a handful of quintessentially Slovenian dishes.  There is an entire page devoted to it on a government website:  Žganci, Always and Forever. 

But it's hard to classify.

The Progessive Slovene Women of America call it buckwheat mush (ajdovi žganci) and include it in the "Bread-Biscuits-Mush" section of Treasured Slovenian and International Recipes.  The American Slovene Club, in Our Favorite Recipes, classifies it as a potato substitute, and refer to it as buckwheat crumbles.  Woman's Glory puts it in the catch-all "Varieties" category.

The recipes left me feeling even more confused.  The ingredients were simple, just buckwheat flour and salt water, in a 1:2 ratio. My three vintage cookbooks, as well as the many recipes on the web, all offered virtually identical (and peculiar) instructions.

To make žganci, you boil the salted water and then add the buckwheat flour. Some say you add it gradually, while you slowly stir.  Others suggest you just dump it in all it once.  But they all agree on one key point:  Once the flour is added, you stop stirring.  The Progressive Slovene women shout it out: DO NOT MIX.

You let the mix boil while the flour magically turns into a giant lump.  Then you make a hole in the center of the cake of flour with the handle of a wooden spoon so the water can cook it from the inside.  The water should bubble up over the lump.  Then you cover the pan and let it cook for 15 minutes (or maybe 45?)   Finally, you pour off half the water and stir in the rest.   Pour melted butter on top.  Cover and let sit.

Most sources suggest that you pick up spoonfuls of the big buckwheat cake  and use a fork to flake off crumbles, which should be "piled fluffily"  into a bowl.

I made a small recipe: 

2 c. water 
pinch of salt
1 c. buckwheat flour

I brought the salted water to a brisk boil and slowly poured in the flour.  Then I watched and waited.  To my great surprise, the flour did start to cohere into a large brown lump: 

Boiling Buckwheat Flour
After about 5 minutes, I nudged the lump with a spoon.  It seemed fairly solid.  So I poked a hole in the center of the mass with the handle of a wooden spoon.  Now it looked like this: 

Buckwheat Volcano
As I continued to watch, I began to worry.  There wasn't enough water to cover the top of the lump.  So I added more water.  Oh-oh.  Now it stopped boiling.  I started to worry that the lump was beginning to dissolve.  What if I was left with a pot of boiling mush?

The lump still felt firm.  I gently stuck in a knife, to see if the inside was cooked.  To my horror, I discovered that the firm exterior encased a ball of raw, uncooked flour!

At that point, I panicked.  Something had gone terribly wrong.  I figured the only way to salvage this mess was to turn it into a polenta. I took a fork and beat it into submission.

To my amazement, the brown soup and the raw flour mass was easily transformed into a nice, smooth polenta!

I poured it into a dish, which my husband had greased with olive oil.  I stuck it into the oven to firm up.  topped it off with two nice thick slices of bacon, cooked to a crisp in the microwave.  It looked like this:

The Final Version: Žganci with Bacon

The verdict:  Delicious!  A dark, tangy polenta that provided a fine accompaniment to the chicken ajmoht in my third week dinner.   An added plus:  Buckwheat is high protein and gluten-free!

And when I checked back, I discovered that I had done exactly what the Progressive Slovene Women had intended.  None of those little crumbles for them.  The goal was just a nice smooth mush.
Evidently,  I had simply made a regional variation, in what's called the softer Styrian style.

As they say on that government website: "Any day is right for žganci!  You know, to keep you strong." 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chicken Ajmoht (chicken ragout, kurji ajmoht, obara)

This recipe is based on what the Progressive Slovene Women of America call chicken ragout.  Like true scholars, they carefully list those alternative names you see below.  My changes were minimal.  I used chicken breasts instead of a whole cut-up chicken.  I increased the vegetables and the seasonings.

We found this to be a very tasty dish, with a subtle kind of tang.  Much more to it than I expected from the simple recipe.  Next time, I might increase the seasonings and the vegetables even more.

There was one dissenting voice.  My mother.  I froze a single serving and delivered it to her the next week.  She never mentioned it, so I finally asked.

She didn't mince words.   "Not good."

Why not?

"It wasn't like a soup."

I explained that it wasn't  supposed to be a soup.  More like a ragout.  But she recalled that veal soup of her childhood.  And she didn't like the little chicken bones she discovered.  

(I'm still waiting for her verdict on the žganci!)

Chicken Ajmoht  (chicken ragout, kurji ajmoht, obara)

2+ lbs. chicken breasts, with bone and skin, cut up
2 T. olive oil
2 quarts water (about)
2  ribs celery, chopped
½ onion, chopped
4 T. fresh parsley, minced
1 T. fresh marjoram, minced
roux:  2 ½ T. flour, 2 ½ T  olive oil and butter mixed
salt and pepper to taste
white wine vinegar to taste

Heat oil in a dutch oven and add onion and celery.  Brown vegetables.  Add chicken and seasonings and continue to brown  Add water to cover and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes or until tender.  In a separate pan, make a roux, cooked to medium brown.  Add to the pot and stir well.  Add remaining water, white wine vinegar, and adjust seasonings.  Simmer about 15 minutes more.  Sprinkle with additional parsley.  Serve with dumplings, noodles, or (if you dare!) žganci.

A word about roux:  None of my vintage cookbooks belabor the process, because it is so fundamental.  You heat shortening of your choice ("oleo or fat" was the original in this recipe.)  Then you stir in flour and keep stirring as it browns.   We figured that the final color should be browner than a pale American cream sauce, but not quite the deep brown of a Louisiana roux.

Full disclosure:  I  put my husband in charge of making the roux.  He is locally famous for his Louisiana gumbo, so I knew he would do it right.

Besides, at that point in the proceedings, I needed all the help I could get.  I was elbow deep in the žganci.

Update: Almost a year later, I made a second attempt at this tasty dish, with a few more vegetables and a splash of red wine.  Curious?  Take a look at my Chicken Ajmoht II recipe! 

2022 10th Anniversary Update: Gave it a try with chicken thighs and it came our very well, with a slightly heartier flavor.

Slovenian Dinner Week 3: A Tasty Roux and a Buckwheat Volcano


Green Salad

After a couple of successful Slovenian meals, I had begun to feel confident. True, I had started out with the familiar.  Stuffed cabbage.  Jelly rolls, otherwise known as palačinke. Then, that little side trip into šmoren.  So far, so good.

It was time to branch out into less familiar territory.

Except it wasn't as unfamiliar as I thought, because it revolved around a core element in a cuisine I had come to know well.  Roux.  The foundation of Louisiana French cooking.  I'd been immersed in that culture since I fell in love with the Cajun accordion, twenty years earlier.

Roux is simple enough:  Flour browned in fat, used as a base for thickening sauce or gravy. But a Louisiana roux is something else.  Cooked long and slow, with constant stirring, it can take an hour until it turns the requisite dark brown.  Roux gives that special rich zest to Cajun and Creole favorites like gumbo, along with so many other dishes.  

There is even a popular Cajun cookbook: Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?  

But it wasn't just the Cajuns and Creoles of Louisiana who had figured out the magical powers of roux.  My Slovenian forbears were also in on the secret. Who knew?

Well, my mother knew, as it turned out.

She had started to talk about a veal soup her mother used to make.  "Aye-macht" is what she thought it was called.  When I started to browse through my vintage cookbooks, I came across something called "ajmoht."  It seemed to be a cross between a soup and a stew.  The key element was something called ajprem, or roux.  It turned up everywhere.  Stews. Vegetable dishes. Cucumber gravy. There was even a soup that seemed to be nothing but water and roux.

So I found a dish that looked easy.  A sort of chicken ragout made with roux.  Maybe a very simple version of the Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo my husband had learned to make so well. 

To accompany it, I decided to try something that was supposed to be a uniquely Slovenian dish.  It was a sort of buckwheat dumpling. Or maybe it a kind of polenta.  The preparation seemed a little. . . unusual.  So was the name, at least if you don't speak Slovenian.

Žganci.  Pronounced "zhe-gahn-see."  At least I think so.

Buckwheat volcano would be more like it.  That žganci would turn out to be my biggest challenge so far.