Saturday, March 24, 2012

Balkanika Restaurant, NYC: Burek = Mardi Gras Comfort Food

Cheese Burek, Balkanika Restaurant, NYC

It was Tuesday, my designated Slovenian cooking day.  It also happened to be February 21.  Mardi Gras.

But there would be no home cooking this week.  My husband and I were in the middle of a trip back east, visiting family in New York before we continued on to Rhode Island.

We were feeling miserable and slightly queasy.  Both of us fighting off the flu.  Walking the streets of Manhattan, dragging our bags behind us, in a damp, bone-chilling cold we no longer knew how to face.   On our way to my cousin's apartment on the Upper West Side, after spending several days with family on Long Island.

It was past lunch time.  We were definitely in need of some comfort food.

We passed a New Orleans style restaurant.  A fitting choice, perhaps.  But we had just hosted a Louisiana-themed party back home, to celebrate the launch of Zydeco Nation, a new radio documentary about our music community in California.  I didn't think this Manhattan restaurant could top my husband's offerings for the event, which included his trademark muffaletas, along with red beans and rice.

Then I spotted another possibility across the street.  Balkanika, a wine bar and restaurant.  That sounded promising.  We hurried over to take a look.

Balkanika Restaurant made a tantalizing promise:  Balkan and Mediterranean food in the heart of Hell's Kitchen.  They even included Slovenia in the long list of cuisines we could sample.

Inside, we found a comfortable, woody restaurant with a long bar in back.  Not too crowded, since we had managed to arrive after the weekday lunch crowd.

The menu was dazzling and varied.  Too many choices, for diners in our weakend state. We spotted  the lunch special:  a glass of wine, a starter, and an entree for just $14.   Hard to beat that anywhere, much less in Manhattan.

I didn't notice anything designated as Slovenian on the menu, although I saw a couple of dishes I had made recently: stuffed cabbage and stuffed peppers.  There were any number of exotic choices from Turkey, Albania, and Bosnia.  But I immediately zeroed in on the burek, one of the restaurant's signature offerings.

Burek, a savory phyllo-wrapped pastry, is found all over the Balkans and the Middle East.  The origins are probably Turkish.  There are endless variations in the spelling, the filling, and the shape.  The one constant is deliciousness.  In the months before I began my Slovenian cooking project, I had been experimenting with making it myself, with store-bought phyllo.

As usual, we decided to share.  I chose the cheese burek.  My husband picked out four selections for his meze platter. We each ordered the bean soup with beef to start.

It was just what the doctor ordered.  The soup was soothing and hearty. The cheese burek, in a traditional coiled shape I hadn't tried before, was mild and just tangy enough, with a filling of ricotta and feta cheese. It was served with a cup of thin, sharp homemade yogurt alongside.

The assorted meze provided a nice counterpoint, with some unusual selections.  The green fava bean spread, with the characteristic bitter edge, would have been tantalizing, if not for our slightly "iffy" stomaches.  We really enjoyed that pinkish paprika walnut spread. The whole wheat pita was a welcome addition.

And the glass of wine was good medicine, too.

Highly recommended, if you find yourself in Manhattan and in need of unique and satisfying comfort food with a Balkan flair.

After we returned to California, I discovered the restaurant's website, complete with a detailed menu. I also checked out some review sites, and learned that New Yorkers share my enthusiasm for Balkanika.  See, for example, Zagat and Balkanika on Urbanspoon

Meze Platter, Balkanika Restaurant, NYC

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 7: Stuffed Pepper Odyssey

Stuffed Peppers (Nadevana Paprika)
Braised Broccoli and Kohlrabi

I grew up eating stuffed peppers, but I had no idea this might be a Slovenian dish, until I found recipes in all three of my vintage cookbooks.   I'd thought of it as Tex-Mex, probably because my mother referred to the meat-rice filling as Spanish rice.

I continued to wonder if it might be an American dish, until a conversation at last week's Pust dinner at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco.  I'd been describing my new cooking venture to one of the men there.  He listened with interest when I mentioned the first dish I'd tackled, stuffed cabbage.  Back home in Slovenia,  he said, it was even more common for their family to have stuffed peppers.  So now I knew for sure: this dish was legitimate!

In those mid-1950s recipes, the seasoning did seem a little bland, just salt and pepper. Some online searching turned up a few Slovenian recipes with paprika and garlic, so I felt I could justify that addition.  I drew from all those sources to come up with a final recipe for stuffed peppers with tomato sauce.

But first, it was off to the big produce market around the corner to buy some peppers. This time, I took my camera.  Once again,  I was seeing our familiar neighborhood market with fresh eyes.  I felt enchanted by the beautiful shapes and jewel-like colors of the vegetables:

I picked out an assortment of organic peppers:  red, green, yellow and orange.  And then, just for fun, I picked up a handful of baby peppers:

Back in my kitchen,  I admired my wares.  I arranged those bright, shiny peppers in a glass bowl:

Then, my imagination took over.  I arranged them as a pepper family.  Papa, beaming at Mama beside him, with the baby peppers gathered in front.

Enough whimsy!  Time to get to work on dinner.

1 1/2 lb. ground meat (turkey, pork, and beef mix)
1 large onion, chopped (1 c.)
1 large clove garlic
1 t. paprika
1/4 c. rice, parboiled
1 egg
1 t.salt
1 t. pepper
olive oil for browning

28 oz. can ground peeled organic tomatoes
14.5 oz. can organic diced fire roasted tomatoes
1 t. paprika
2 t. brown sugar
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
remaining 1/4 c. onion/garlic mix

4 large peppers, assorted (1 red, 1 green, 1 yellow, 1 orange)

For filling: Brown chopped onion and garlic in a little olive oil and reserve 1/4 c. of mixture for sauce.  Parboil rice in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Drain. Mix meats, seasonings, egg.  Add onion/garlic mix and rice.

For sauce: Mix all ingredients together and simmer for 15 minutes.

Stem peppers, cut in half lengthwise, remove seeds and membrane.  Rinse and drain. (You might want to parboil, although I didn't.)

Put a little sauce in bottom of oiled rectangular baking pan. Divide filling among pepper halves. Pour sauce over peppers.  (You will have sauce left over.) Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until tender, adding sauce or other liquid if needed.

The verdict: A very tasty filling and sauce, and not at all like Spanish rice.  The dish was suffused with the flavor of Central Europe and the Balkans.  The peppers were a little on the firm side, although the bright colors were preserved.  Next time, I might parboil the peppers, cover them completely in the sauce, or try the stovetop simmering method used in one of the cookbooks.

Update:  Eight months later, I did a makeover:  I parboiled the peppers and created a healthy turkey-kasha filling.  It was even better!  It's here, if you'd like to take a look.

Before Baking

Stuffed Pepper, Coleslaw, and Broccoli 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mardi Gras, Slovenian Style: Blood Sausage, Potica, and Polka

I discovered the Slovenian community in San Francisco almost by accident. It might not have happened at all, if I didn't play the Cajun accordion.

One night in February of 2005, my Cajun band was playing at a little club outside San Francisco. It was Mardi Gras season, so we were dressed up for the occasion, in masks and beads.

Some dancer friends told us about an event called a "Pust" at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco the following weekend. It was Slovenian Mardi Gras, they'd heard. A festive dinner and a polka band. They suggested my fiddler husband and I might like to join them.

Slovenian Mardi Gras? That was complete news to me. I had noticed the Slovenian Hall, a solid square building with a big "for rent" sign clearly visible from the highway, whenever we drove into San Francisco. But I had no idea it was still in operation. I figured it was one of those abandoned ethnic clubs, now just a banquet hall for hire.

My husband and I agreed to meet our friends there. We were too late to get into the dinner, but they let us in for the polka dance. It was a yearly event, we learned, put on as a fundraiser by the Slovene National Benefit Society (SNPJ), one of those old-style ethnic insurance organizations.

We discovered quite a scene. A couple hundred people had just finished dinner and were waiting for the polka band to start playing in the big room with the stage. Our friends led us into a smaller room off to the side, where some accordionists were jamming. It looked like an old-style European tavern, with paintings of Alpine vistas and rural life on the wall. We ordered a drink and soaked it all in. Once the dance started, I even let my friend talk me into dancing a polka.

(Update: Here's a great video of a more recent Pust accordion jam at the bar.)

So we went back the next year—for the Pust dinner, as well as the dance. By now, I had learned more about the Slovenian-style Mardi Gras. It bore a striking resemblance to Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana. Not in New Orleans, with those big parades. But more like the country celebrations of the Cajuns and Creoles in the rural communities of Southwest Louisiana. Traditionally, Cajun Mardi Gras is a male scene. Masked men in costumes, heavily lubricated with alcohol, travel around on horseback or in trucks to the neighboring homes and farms. They sing, dance, play music, raise a ruckus, and beg for contributions to the communal gumbo pot.

In Slovenia, I learned, there are rowdy parades of folks dressed up as wild shaggy creatures called kurenti, who do much the same thing. It's Carnival, the one day in the year when everything is turned on its head and the usual rules don't apply. Just like in Louisiana, there seems to be an unsettling mix of menace and good times. These two rural cultures had much in common.

Kurenti, from Wikipedia 

Here's a video of kurenti on parade in Slovenia, from the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum.
And one more, with whips and accordion music.

Now look at this clip of Cajun Mardi Gras, from a well known Louisiana documentary filmmaker.

They could be cousins!

I showed up for our first Pust dinner with high hopes. Maybe there would be wild revelry. But it didn't happen. Just a big, sit-down banquet dinner. Not even a slice of potica. And then a polka band. I wasn't even sure most of the people there were Slovenian.

But it takes time to explore a new community. We went back a few years later, for a wine festival, and discovered the cultural heart of the Slovenian Hall: The Educational and Dramatic Club Slovenia, who had organized the event. There were songs and priestly blessings, all in Slovenian. We met some delightful people, including many born in Slovenia. I was hooked.

We soon became regulars at the Slovenian Hall. And we attended many more events. We helped out in the kitchen. At one event, I was a server in the buffet line and learned a shocking truth: some Slovenians dislike sauerkraut!

As I started to notice the food at these events, I reached a few other conclusions: Festive meals were very heavy on meat, especially pork. Pork roast,  barbecued ribs,  Slovenian sausages, and sometimes chicken appeared often. Potatoes, cabbage, and sauerkraut were the usual side dishes. There was always a green salad, in a tart vinaigrette dressing. And there was always plenty of alcohol: Wine and mixed drinks for sale at the bar. Carafes of red and white wine at the long banquet tables.

Another shock: Dessert didn't always mean potica. Unless, of course, it was a potluck, when there would always be the chance to sample and compare different versions. Eventually, I found enough  courage to bring my own potica to a potluck, and was greatly relieved when it passed muster.

This year's Pust Dinner included roast pork loin, beans, tasty fried potatoes, and sauerkraut, served family style at long buffet tables. But the centerpiece came a little later in the meal.

Blood sausage is a traditional dish at Pust. A small group of people at the Slovenian Hall get together every year to prepare it. At a recent event, an older man who heads up the operation told us that the tradition might be ending this year,  because they couldn't find younger people to continue it. He tried to recruit my husband, who had to decline because the big sausage-making operation happens during the work week.

Blood sausage, I have to admit, holds little appeal for me. When it is offered, I will dutifully sample a piece. It is dark, starchy, and slightly sweet. f you look at recipes, you will discover why.  

Here's the ingredient list for Krvave Klobase from the Progressive Slovene Women of America:

1 medium pork head
1 veal lung
4 T. salt
1 1/2 T pepper
1 t. cinnamon
2 T. marjoram
1/2 t. cloves
2 lbs. parboiled rice
1 quart pork blood

The best part of this year's Pust dinner came at the end. It was potica, with a particularly intriguing filling I had never tasted before. It included nuts, but the flavor and texture seemed different. It had a strong taste of lemon.

Later on, I met the young woman from Fontana whose family had catered the event. She seemed pleased when I complimented her on the potica. She recited a long list of ingredients, which included lemon and vanilla. So I had guessed right. Not quite like the traditional version of potica my family makes, but tasty just the same.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 6: A Traditional Sauerkraut and Bean Soup


Vipavska Čorba or Jota (Sauerkraut, Bean and Bacon Soup)
Braised Dandelion Greens with Peas
Green Salad
Whole Wheat Walnut Bread

I discovered the recipe for Vipavska Corba, or Slovenian Sauerkraut Soup, on a witty and erudite blog called The Austerity Kitchen.   The blogger, a young English professor and cultural historian, makes good on her promise to "bring you the best simple, savory fare history has to offer."  She had found the recipe in A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others, written in the 1960s.

The recipe looked tempting and unusual.  How could you go wrong with sauerkraut, white beans, and bacon?  I even had a bag of sauerkraut left over from the goulash I'd made two weeks earlier.

So far, my cooking project had been heavy on cabbage and sauerkraut, two foods I had always enjoyed.   In fact, I had just learned a fascinating bit of family lore that might help explain it.

The previous weekend, we'd had a mini family reunion for my mother's eighty-ninth birthday.  Four generations together.   First time I'd seen my mother's younger brother in seventeen years.  When I told my uncle about my new ethnic cooking project, he started to reminisce.  Turns out my grandmother used to make sauerkraut, in a barrel or crock, with a board on top that was weighted down with a rock.

"Mom," I said, in what must have sounded like an accusation, "You never told me Grandma made sauerkraut!"

She looked surprised.  "Blair, everyone did.  You could always tell who was making sauerkraut.  The whole house smelled."  In her family, they kept the fermenting sauerkraut in the basement.

So maybe sauerkraut is in my blood.

I had just one question.  How legitimate was this soup recipe?  I couldn't find any references to it in my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks or, for that matter, on the Internet.  I didn't want to stray too far from my primary sources.

But when I looked more closely, I realized that it was a recipe for jota ("yota"), a traditional thick soup found in Slovenia and in Northern Italy.  Vipavska Čorba ("chorba") means "chowder from Vipava," a Slovenian town about fifteen miles from Trieste.  There were very similar soup recipes in my cookbooks, under a variety of names.  So I figured I was on safe ground.

I made a few changes in the original recipe.  To save time, I used canned beans instead of cooking them from scratch.  I used a thick sliced bacon instead of cubed slab bacon.  I cooked the bacon in the microwave rather than boiling and then adding it (fatty broth and all!) to the soup.  I upped the seasonings and decided to add some parsley.

And one more thing:  I had a feeling that this soup, like so many other Slovenian dishes, was meant to include a dark roux. So I browned  the flour-oil-vegetable mix before adding the rest of the ingredients, although the original recipe didn't mention this.  But I had a higher authority: My mother.

She and I had recently been discussing a different soup, something thick and dark, that she recalled from her childhood.  So far, I hadn't found a recipe that seemed to match her recollections.

"Did it have a roux?" I asked my mother.

She laughed.  "Blair, everything had a roux!"

Just like the Cajuns.  Who would have guessed?

2 cans small white beans (3 c.)
1 lb. sauerkraut
6 oz. bacon (5 strips)
1/2 lb. potatoes
1 T. flour
1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh bay leaves
fresh parsley to taste
salt and pepper to taste
yogurt for garnish

Cube the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender.  Save the water. Cook the bacon, dice, and set aside.  Drain the beans.  You might want to drain the sauerkraut for a less sharp flavor.  But I didn't.

Brown the onion and garlic in olive oil.  Sprinkle with flour and let brown.   Add a little liquid to thicken.  (Yes, this is our old familiar friend, a brown roux.) Add the beans, the potatoes and their cooking liquid, the sauerkraut, the bacon, and the bay leaves.  Add more liquid if needed.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and parsley.  Cover and cook until heated and flavors are blended.

Serve with yogurt or sour cream and a good sprinkling of parsley.

We rounded out the dinner with a hearty bread, a green salad, and braised dandelion greens with peas, courtesy of my husband.

The verdict?  Flavorful and unusual, as I expected.  A fine choice if you like sauerkraut. Next time, I might add a little white wine—preferably Slovenian, of course!

2022 Anniversary Update:  Using undrained beans and adding a little paprika and a sliced carrot or two add some flavor (and color) to this easy mild version of jota.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Caraway Cheese Tart

This was the centerpiece of my Week Five dinner.  It closely follows the recipe for Caraway Cheese Wedges in Woman's Glory: The Kitchen.  

I thought this would be just another quiche recipe, slipped into that vintage ethnic cookbook as a concession to American tastes.  But it's not.  It is a dense, savory tart that carries the flavor of Central Europe.  My guess is that it's an example of the Austrian strain in traditional Slovenian cooking.

You can certainly substitute sour cream, the original choice, for the yogurt.  The original recipe suggested using smaller tart pans,  6 inch or individual molds, instead of the 10 inch pan I used.

3 slices bacon, chopped
4 T. minced onion
6 eggs (5 if you use extra large)
6 T. yogurt or sour cream
1/2 t. salt
pepper to taste
1 t. caraway seed, divided
1 1/2 c. gruyere cheese, grated

Crust for a 10 inch tart pan

Line tart pan with crust.

For the filling:  Cook bacon and onion together, let cool.  (I used the microwave.)  Beat eggs, yogurt, and seasonings, using half the caraway seed.  Stir in the cheese and bacon-onion mixture.  Spread filling in tart pan. Sprinkle with rest of caraway seeds.  Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until firm.

My choice for the crust:  I like the press-in oil crust from Joy of Cooking, because it is quick, easy and healthy.  (The traditional choice would undoubtedly be richer!) These quantities will make a very thin crust for a 10 inch pan:  Mix 1 1/3 c. flour and 1/2 t. salt. With a fork, beat 1/3 c. plus 1 T. oil and 1/4 c. milk.  Stir into the flour.  Mix with fingers into crumbs.  Press into pan.

Slovenian Dinner Week 5: Caraway Cheese Tart + Rutabagas

Caraway cheese tart, with mashed rutabagas and dandelion greens salad


Mashed Rutabagas
Salad with Dandelion Greens, Romaine and Tomatoes

It was the last day in January, the first month of my new Slovenian roots project. I had actually produced four weekly meals, all of them from my vintage cookbooks.

Since this was a bonus month with five Tuesdays, I figured it might be okay to take a little break and make a dinner that was lighter on the meat and maybe not even strictly ethnic, as long as I found the recipes in my Slovenian cookbook collection.

I'd had my eye on one recipe for awhile: Caraway Cheese Wedges, from Woman's Glory: The Kitchen. It  looked so easy.  Eggs, cheese, sour cream, a little bacon, mixed and then baked together in a pie shell.  Just a variation on quiche, I figured. Probably one of those "modern" American dishes the Slovenian Women's Union decided to include in their mid-1950's cookbook.  A surprising choice, in some ways, since it predated the American quiche craze by at least ten years.

Making such a familiar American entree did feel close to cheating.  I would make up for it with the side dishes.   My mother had told me stories of her immigrant father picking dandelion greens for salad.  I browsed my cookbooks for ideas about a hot vegetable dish and discovered a couple of unusual choices: kohlrabi and rutabaga, otherwise known as yellow turnips.

Rutabagas and kohlrabi?  I had never cooked with either one and probably couldn't have picked them out of a crowd. The big produce market around the corner offered an education in knobby root vegetables. Potatoes of all shapes and sizes, beets of many hues, turnips. Then, the less familiar ones: parsnips, kohlrabi and rutabaga.  I wandered the aisles like a tourist, studying the labels and admiring the dazzling displays of fruits and vegetables.  I felt that I was seeing it all with new eyes--and appreciating it with all my senses.

I finally settled on a small bunch of rutabagas for tonight and a few kohlrabi for the next day, along with some organic dandelion greens for the salad.

There was more than met the eye to that recipe for Caraway Cheese Wedges!  I figured the tart would turn out denser than a conventional quiche.  The filling called for very little liquid, relative to the proportions of cheese and egg.  And my adaptation of the recipe, which I planned to double,  pushed it even farther in that direction.  My only substitution was to replace the liquid, sour cream, with nonfat Greek yogurt, which is basically pure protein.  And I ended up using one fewer egg than I should have.  (Along with doubling the recipe, I was trying to adjust for using extra-large size eggs.)

Despite the extra denseness, it turned out to be a delicious savory tart.  The caraway seasoning, along with the bacon and gruyere cheese, gave it a decided Central European flair.  In the recipe to follow, I've added that extra egg back in.  But if you care to leave it out, go right ahead.  The tart will be extra-dense and chewy.

The rutabagas were good, too.  A nice, light, slightly sweet alternative to mashed potatoes.  I deputized my husband, who followed the basic instructions in Woman's Glory.  Pare and cut into cubes.  Cook in boiling salted water (he tossed in a little onion, too) for twenty minutes or until tender.  Season with salt, pepper, parsley, and butter.   Mash and serve.

It was a tasty and successful end to my first month as a born-again Slovenian American cook.  To my surprise,  I still hadn't run out of recipes to try!

rutabaga and onions, boiled and unmashed

Mashed Rutabagas