Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Slovenian DInner Week 14: Meat Polenta, a Very Odd Ball

Meat Polenta in Seasoned (Non-Italian) Tomato Sauce
Organic Whole Wheat Spaghetti
Green Salad

This Meat Polenta recipe had been on my mind for some time.  It struck me as both odd and easy to make.  I wasn't quite sure how it would taste.

Months ago, I had spotted it in the "International" section of the Progressive Slovene Women of America's cookbook.  So I had no idea what its origins might be.

The name, Meat Polenta, seemed misleading.  A quick reading made it clear that these were meatballs with cornmeal, served in a tomato sauce.  Quite a lot of cornmeal, compared to the proportion of breadcrumbs or rice in a typical meatball recipe.  The original recipe called for 1/2 cup of cornmeal to 3/4 cup (yes, cup!) of ground beef or veal, the equivalent of 6 ounces of meat.  And the directions suggested that the mixture should be "kneaded until spongy."  What was this, a bread dumpling or a meatball?

I doubled the recipe and increased the proportion of meat slightly, just to be on the safe side.  I also gave myself free rein with the sauce suggestion ("3 cups tomato pulp, seasoned to taste.")  And instead of the "rice, noodles, or dumplings" suggested by the Progressive Slovene Women, I used organic whole wheat spaghetti.

1 lb ground beef
1 c. cornmeal
2 eggs
2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1 t. paprika
 3 T. onion, minced

Mix all the ingredients.  You can knead if you like, but don't expect it to be spongy!
Form into small balls, which I took to mean about the size of a walnut.

Simmer for 45 minutes in about 3 cups of "seasoned tomato pulp" or whatever sauce you might care to use.  Here is my version:

(Non-Italian Tomato Sauce)

28 oz. crushed organic tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 t. marjoram
1 t. paprika
pinch of sugar
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 T. fresh parsley
splash of mosto (Italian grape must flavoring)
water, if needed.

Brown the onion and garlic in a little olive oil.  Add the rest of the ingredients.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes, adjust seasonings, and add the meatballs.  The sauce became pretty thick, so I added some water.

The verdict?  Mixed.

The sauce was a success.  It was quick and easy.  And it felt good to know that  I have now mastered the art of making an impromptu tomato sauce that does NOT taste Italian, which had tended to be my default approach to seasoning.  It would go well, I think, with any number of Central European and Balkan dishes.

The meat polenta itself was another matter.  Those meatballs looked quite nice, as you can see from the top photo.

But they were hard and dry. And odd.  Those little grains of cornmeal were very much in evidence, as you can see from the close up below.

It is hard to know what to make of this recipe.  What was the intention?

Perhap I should have used ground meat with more fat.  Or maybe the meatballs were too small or cooked for too long.  On the other hand, I did use a slightly higher proportion of meat, so the end result should have been even less "corny" than the original.

Only now, more than a month later, does another possibility occur to me.

Perhaps "corn meal" meant cooked cornmeal mush.  Polenta.

Ahh.  Polenta meant one of the ingredients, not the finished product.

Maybe I'll try this again.

But not for awhile.

Update in November: Go here for the new, improved version!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Goulash on the Road: Sandra's Restaurant in Florida

We spent spring break in Florida, visiting family.  So there would be no home cooked Slovenian meal that week.  I hoped to find  the next best thing: A restaurant that might offer something close to Slovenian fare, when Tuesday came around.

But I had my doubts.  This wasn't New York City, where last month we had enjoyed a wonderful Fat Tuesday lunch at Balkanika.

We were in Punta Gorda, a small city on Florida's southwest coast.  It is a pleasant, low key vacation spot with a resident population that is mostly white and over sixty.  We had eaten at some nice area restaurants over the years, mostly casual seafood places.  But the town is not a hotspot for ethnic dining.

On Tuesday, we were on our own until dinner time.   So we set out from our charming waterfront motel, a funky 1950s-style resort, and headed into downtown Punta Gorda.


"I don't suppose we'll find a Balkan restaurant here," I said.  Maybe we would find a Greek or Middle Eastern place, but that also seemed unlikely.

My husband was the one who spotted it: a sign for a German restaurant.

Well, why not?   I figured we could expect to find standard German American fare. Maybe bratwurst and sauerkraut, at least.

Sandra's Restaurant went far beyond that.  It promised Authentic German and European Food--and it did not disappoint.

Inside, we discovered an inviting space, with a bar in front and then the airy dining area, complete with a fireplace.  On the wall, an article from a local newspaper provided some background.  Sandra's had opened just four months earlier.  The owners were a young German couple who had previously operated a catering business in Germany.

At the very back, there was even a mini-grocery.  I inspected the packaged German foods, lined up on a counter.  I got a good laugh when I spotted the bread dumplings, in individual boiling bags.  They looked very much like my homemade version, though undoubtedly faster to prepare.

Sandra's menu offered an impressive array of foods, along with helpful descriptions of each dish, including the country of origin.  Along with traditional German fare, many other European cuisines were represented.  Italian. French.  Swiss.  Spanish. Greek.

Austrian and Hungarian.

Bingo! Slovenia's neighbors. Close enough.

I zeroed in on the perfect choice.  Hungarian goulash with spaetzle.  I wondered how it would compare to my Slovenian version, which I'd made with beef and sauerkraut.

That goulash was delicious: Tender cubes of beef and pork in a just-right paprika and tomato sauce.  The contrast of the two meats added interest.  It was less tangy, of course, without the sauerkraut.  I might try it this way myself, the next time I make goulash.

Those thick yellow spaetzle reminded me of rezanci, the homemade egg noodles I'd served with chicken paprikash.  At the time, I thought they were a little too thick.  This confirmed it!

My husband had a tasty fish sandwich, which featured fried pangasius.  He ordered a side of sauerkraut, so I got to sample that, along with a sip of his dark Austrian ale. Both were good, although the German sauerkraut was a little sweeter than what I had tasted at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall.

I had spotted the perfect choice for dessert:  Apple strudel.  My grandmother used to make it, and I keep planning to tackle it myself.  It would have been the perfect finale to the meal.

But we were too full.  Maybe next time.

Sandra's Restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida.  Recommended, especially if you like authentic German food.

Here is the website:

And Sandra's does seem to be gaining a following,  judging from reviews in places like this: Sandra's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 13 : Cevapcici Encore, Fit for Company

Cevapcici Encore (a spicy beef-lamb version)
Pita Bread
Cucumber, Zucchini and Yogurt Salad

It was a busy Tuesday in early April.  I was finishing up the final edits on my Slovenian cooking article for Kosovo 2.0.   And this week I had a special cooking challenge. A few days earlier, we'd learned about a couple of out-of-town visitors, who were due to arrive sometime tonight.

In other words: Dinner guests, on my Slovenian cooking day.  For the first time.

So far, my ethnic cooking had been a private experiment.  I didn't want to miss a week, but  I wasn't sure I was ready to share it with outsiders.

I thought back to a little pep talk I'd read in my vintage copy of Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, at the beginning of the "potica" chapter.

"If  your potica is made correctly in every respect," the authors wrote, "you should not hesitate to offer it to your American friends."  In their own experience, they added, potica had "always been well received."

Last year, when I first read those words, I laughed.  I felt sorry for those insecure cookbook authors, afraid that their ethnic heritage might be dismissed by "real" Americans.  How sad that the leaders of the Slovenian Women's Union even sounded anxious about Slovenia's most delectable dish.

But now I wasn't laughing.

Three months into my cooking project, something had changed.  Now I felt an unexpected kinship to those 1950s homemakers.  Just like them, I felt protective (and a little insecure) when I thought about sharing our Slovenian food with outsiders.

I had developed a feeling of pride and ownership for this culture that I barely knew before.

What to make? The recipe had to be reliable, tasty, a bit unusual, but not too odd.  I wanted to make something that would please our guests, an old friend and his teenage daughter, who were considering a college admission offer she had just received from UC-Berkeley.

Yesterday, I  had figured it out: Cevapcici.  It had been a real success, when I made it the first time, a month ago.

My husband was surprised.  "Are you allowed to repeat the same dish?"

At first, I thought he was teasing me.  But he was serious.

I assured him that it would be all right.  I would just change the ingredients a little.  I had already planned on experimenting with the meat mixture and the seasonings.  And a Facebook friend from Slovenia, when he viewed the photo I had posted, suggested that the shape needed to be a little longer and skinnier.

So that's what I did.    I mixed lamb with beef instead of pork, this time around.  And I increased the spices.

For more background about cevapcici and my first version of the dish, go to my earlier post, here.

Here is the new "fit for company" encore version:

1 lb. ground beef
1 lb ground lamb
3 cloves garlic
1 T. parsley, chopped
2 T. paprika
2 t. salt
1 t. black pepper
1 t. baking soda, dissolved in 1/4 c. hot water

Mix all the ingredients together.  Let rest in refrigerator for 2-3 hours.  Shape into skinny fingers, like a digit.   Let sit in refrigerator, if you have time.

Once again, my husband did a beautiful job with the his Le Creuset stovetop griddle:

We served the cevapcici with the store-bought pita, ajvar, coleslaw, and a nice salad of cucumber, zucchini, sour cream, and yogurt.

This verdict? Delicious!  I liked the increased spices.  The cevapcici did seem a little drier this time, maybe because I used lean ground beef instead of pork.  Or perhaps they cooked faster, because of the thinner shape.   Overall, my second attempt at cevapcici seemed closer to the dish's Serbian-Bosnian origins.

Our guests didn't arrive until late at night.  They were very happy to have such tasty and exotic leftovers!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Slovenian Roots Quest in Kosovo

No, I am not currently in Kosovo.  Neither is Trent, our black cat.

But I am delighted to say that my Slovenian cooking story has found its way there, thanks to the young journalists who edit Kosovo 2.0, a multimedia website and print magazine that emerged a couple of years ago.

It feels like coming full circle, to write about my Slovenian roots quest for a Balkan audience.  Kosovo, like Slovenia, is a small nation that was once part of the former Yugoslavia. And it's pretty exciting to see my words in English, Albanian, and Serbian.

I have a post up in the Kosovo 2.0 website blog today.  It's called "A Culinary Homecoming."   The longer version of the article, complete with recipes and photos, will be in the upcoming issue of the print magazine, available in about a week.  It's a beautiful, glossy (sometimes edgy) publication.  I feel proud to have a spot in it.

In the photo above, you can see our cat Trent looking over the last issue, which had "Corruption" as the theme.  I think he's impatient for the next installment.

A Slovenian saying about cats in the kitchen provided the opening for my blog post.  It struck me as the perfect metaphor for my family's ambivalence about our ethnic heritage.

In Slovenian, it goes like this:  Hoditi kot mačka okrog vrele kaše.

The literal translation is "to walk like a cat around boiling porridge." In other words, to pussy foot around.  Or to beat around the bush.

To read the rest of the essay, go here:

Since it's Tuesday, I have to figure out what to cook for my weekly Slovenian Dinner.  I'm tempted to make one of those dishes that originated from points farther to the the south and the east.   Maybe a nice pita or burek. . .

Monday, May 7, 2012

Bleki, Slovenia's Favorite Noodle

Bleki are nothing more than homemade pasta or egg noodles, cut into square or rectangular shapes.

I discovered bleki in the course of tracking down my grandmother's Mystery Soup, which turned out to be the Slovenian take on pasta fazool, or pasta and bean soup.  But evidently the pasta had the starring role, at least in my mother's family, since she referred to the soup simply as "black-eh."

In fact, bleki have an oddly exalted status in Slovenian cooking.  An entry on the official Slovenian Tourist Board website describes this "simple dish"  as a "special treat." Bleki were associated with special occasions in rural life, like finishing up the harvest or picking grapes.  A recent cookbook by a Slovenian academician and cooking expert describes it as a "high dish," often served with a cream sauce and pancetta.

To make the bleki for the pašta fažul, I used the dough I had used in the previous week's rezanci.  It's a simple recipe:

2 eggs
1 1/4 c. flour
1/4 t. salt

Mix and knead, adding a little water if needed.  Cover and let rest 15 minutes.  Roll out thinly.

Here is where plain old noodles become bleki:  Cut the dough into squares or rectangles.  I aimed for  2 cm x 3 cm rectangles, but if you look at the photo below, you will see that those shapes varied in size.

Let the pasta squares dry on a dishcloth for an hour.  Cook in boiling salted water until done.  Not long, in other words.  Drain and use as you will.

That's it!

Homemade noodles and pasta are delicious, no question about it.  Not to mention a little labor intensive.

So what is so special about bleki?  Just the shape?

It took me awhile to figure it out.  Yes, it has to be the shape.  Standard noodles or rezanci are quicker to make, and it is easier to create uniform sizes.  You just roll up multiple layers of dough and slice. At least that's the theory.  I had a problem with the layers of noodles sticking together.

Blecki, on the other hand, take more time and a better eye:

So far, I have use bleki just one way, in soup.  But I'm ready to branch out.  Next time, I'll try it with one of those creamy pancetta sauces.  But I'll wait for a special occasion to make bleki the centerpiece of the meal.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 12: Pašta Fižol with Bleki

Pašta Fižol with Bleki  (Pasta and Bean Soup)
Red Cabbage Slaw
Bread (if you really need it!)

Finally, I had a clearer picture of my grandmother's elusive Mystery Bean Soup.  It was a Roman bean and pasta soup, made with square noodles.  In my mother's family, the Slovenian name for those noodles, bleki, had become the name for the soup itself.

I couldn't find anything like this in my trio of vintage Slovenian American cookbooks.  But an online search turned up a handful of recipes for Slovenian pasta and bean soup, or pašta fižol.  So this looked like another recipe the Slovenians had adapted from their Italian neighbors.

I found a recipe on the official Slovenian Tourist Board website, here.  It served as a good guide, although much was left to the imagination.  The type of beans, the style of pasta, and the quantities of seasonings were unspecified.  The photo seemed to show red kidney beans and commercially made macaroni elbows.  In a delightful American blog called Soupsong, I found an almost identical recipe here,  which specified kidney beans and small pasta shapes.  It also spelled out the cooking method a little more clearly.

My first task was to find those Roman beans, also known as borlotti beans or cranberry beans.  They can be hard to track down.  But I found them in the special "heirloom bean" section of our local organic produce market in Berkeley.  Turkey bacon seemed like a good substitute for pancetta.

The pasta, of course, would be homemade bleki.  This turned out to be an easy enough task, using the same the egg noodle recipe from last week's dinner.  But I figure bleki deserves a separate post, since it was so central to this dinner!

1 lb. dried Roman beans (also known as borlotti or cranberry beans)
5 oz. turkey bacon (or, to be traditional, pancetta)
2-3 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 T. flour
2 t. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. tomato paste
1 c. hot water
2 t. marjoram
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. pepper
salt to taste
2 t. vinegar
homemade bleki/square noodles (recipe follows) or 4 oz. dried pasta
parsley to garnish

Soak the beans overnight in water to cover.  Drain, cover with fresh water, and simmer until tender, 30-60 minutes.   Do not drain.  Set aside.

In a separate pot, boil the bleki (or other pasta) in salted water until barely done.  Drain, rinse in cold water, coat with a little oil, and set aside.

In saucepan, brown turkey bacon in oil.  Add onion, fry until golden.  Stir in flour, let brown.  Remove from heat, add garlic and paprika.  Add tomato paste and hot water and stir to make a smooth sauce.

Add the sauce to the undrained beans.  Add the bleki or pasta and seasonings.  Bring to a boil, cook for about 15 minutes or until thick.  Add salt and vinegar to taste.  Garnish with parsley to serve.

The verdict?  Delicious!  And it was brought to a whole other level by the homemade bleki.

Was this really the Mystery Soup my mother recalled so fondly?   I'm not sure.   Next time, I might try making a separate brown roux with the flour and oil, and then add it.

And maybe I should have pureed the beans.  Here is the very brief bean soup recipe from another Slovenian tourist site:

"First, you puree the beans, thicken with roux, and boil home-made noodles, bleki (noodle dough squares), or other pasta."

Maybe I'll try it again that way, before I risk a "black-eh" taste test with my mother!

Update:  Using the guidelines above, I did make a final attempt to create my mother's "black-eh."
To find out how it turned out, go here!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Week 12: Mystery Bean Soup

I was hot on the trail of my grandmother's Mystery Soup.

It was a food recollection that surfaced a few years ago.  My mother remembered a special thick bean soup my grandmother used to bring to her, in the early years of her marriage.  No one had a car, so Grandma had to take the bus to deliver it. The name sounded like "black-y" with an exaggerated Slovenian accent.

I could picture it so clearly.  My grandma on the bus, in a housedress.  Week after week, carrying a big  jar of her precious homemade soup to the young married couple.  I figured it must be a thick dark porridge, something like black bean soup.

I kept looking through my Slovenian cookbooks, but I couldn't find a soup that matched the name or the description.

"You're sure that's what it was called?"  I asked my mother.

Yes.  She kept repeating the name, with growing insistence.  Now it sounded more like "blahk-eh."

"It was made with black beans, right?"

No. I had guessed wrong.  They used Roman beans.  Big, speckled and pink.


I was wrong about one more detail.  It wasn't my sweet, long-suffering Grandma who delivered the soup.  It was my surly grandfather.  And he did it just once.

So much for the family legend. But I still wanted to find that soup.

I started plugging alternative spellings for "black-eh" into search engines, along with "soup".

Finally, I got a possible hit.  Bleki.  But it referred to a square-shaped noodle or pasta.  Sometimes served on its own, but also used in soup.

Like bean and pasta soup?  I had come across a number of recipes for that dish during my online search,  using unspecified pasta or noodles.

In Slovenian, the soup is called pašta fižol.

It was hard to believe that the mysterious "black-eh" was a variant of the familiar Italian standard known as "pasta fazool" in America.  But I checked with the source.  My mother.

"So Mom, that soup.  It was made with Roman beans.  And roux?"

"Of course.  Everything had a roux!"

"And did it also have square-shaped pasta ?  I've been reading about these Slovenian noodles called bleki. "

"Yes. That's right.  Only we pronounced it 'bleck-eh.' "

Pašta fižol with bleki.

Mystery solved.

On to figuring out  Slovenian Dinner, Week 12.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Perils of Djuveč: A Preview of Week 16

Djuveč, or Finger Casserole

"Oh-oh.  Finger casserole?"

That's what a sympathetic Facebook friend commented, just after I posted the photo from this week's Slovenian dinner.

The dish was djuveč, a tasty meat-vegetable casserole. Probably of Serbian origin.  I'll be posting the recipe soon. 

 It was the delicious centerpiece of Slovenian Dinner #16.

Once I got back from the doctor's office, that is.

For the next eight weeks,  I'll be cooking with my finger in a splint.

The short version of the story: Balkan cooking is much safer than housework!

To read the full story, follow the link below:

Finger Casserole | Blair Kilpatrick | Blog Post | Red Room

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Egg Noodles (Rezanci)

When I set out to make homemade egg noodles to go along with the chicken paprikash in my Week 11 Dinner, I felt as though I was channeling my grandmother. 

I used to watch her roll out noodle dough on the wooden table of her little kitchen in Cleveland.  She made it look so easy. I was fascinated by the tiny, even yellow filaments she created.

My three vintage cookbooks all offered multiple recipes for noodles.  The ingredients were simple: eggs, flour, salt, sometimes a bit of water.  The proportions varied a little.  As  I suspected, the secret wasn't in the ingredients.  It was all a matter of the technique.

I followed the directions of the Progressive Slovene Women.

2 eggs
1 1/4 c. flour
1/4 t. salt

Beat eggs.  Add flour and salt. Knead dough until soft and pliable, adding a bit more flour if needed.  Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.   Roll out on a floured board as thin as possible. Let dry for an hour.

Cut dough into four sections and put one piece on top of the other.  Roll up into a tight roll. Cut into 1/4 inch slices.

Unroll.  Spread noodles on towel to dry.

Cook in boiling salted water or broth for 15 minutes.  Drain, add a little oil or butter, and serve.

The verdict?  The noodles were good.  But they were a little thicker than I might have liked.  I had a problem with the dough sticking together, when I tried to cut that four layer roll.  I  had to pry the noodles apart!  Next time, I may add more flour or increase the drying time.  And I'll make sure to roll the dough thinner.

But it was worth the effort.  And I figured I'd have the chance to perfect my technique in future dinners, considering the Slovenian penchant for dumplings and noodles.