Monday, July 30, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 21: Rižota with Mlinci and Coleslaw

Rižota (Risotto)
Mlinci (Baked Noodles)

It was early June, almost half way into my year of Slovenian cooking.  I had started to worry that I might be running out of new recipes to try, at least if I confined myself to my three vintage cookbooks.

At first, I overlooked the recipes for Slovenian-style risotto, or rižota.  Each one of the cookbooks had a version.  Sometimes the meat mixture varied, but otherwise they were all fairly similar.  Not too exciting, I thought.  They seemed like simplified, less rich versions of the classic Italian dish.  None of that slow stirring so that the rice gradually absorbed the liquid.

But I decided to give rižota a try.  I stuck pretty closely to the version offered by the Progressive Slovene Women of America.  I substituted beef for veal and used a little less pork.  I upped the tomatoes slightly and, as usual, substituted olive oil for fat or lard. Naturally, I used frozen peas instead of canned.  (Maybe I'll try fresh next time.)  When it came to the rice, I used the long grain variety we had on hand.  Short grain, like arborio, is usually recommended for risotto.

1 lb. beef stew meat
1/2 lb. pork stew meat
2 large onions, diced (1 red, 1 white)
olive oil, about 2 T.
1 c. canned diced tomatoes and juice
8 oz fresh mushrooms, white and crimini, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
water as needed
3/4 c. raw rice
1 c. green peas, frozen
parmesan cheese, grated, if desired

In large skillet, brown onions in oil. Add meats, brown about 20 minutes.  Add seasonings and tomatoes, simmer 20 minutes, adding water as needed.  Add sliced mushrooms and simmer until meat is  tender, 20-40 minutes, stirring.  When meat is tender, sprinkle with rice and add 1 c. water.  Cover and from this point on do not stir.  Check periodically, adding water as needed, and shaking pan to prevent sticking.  Top with frozen peas for the last 10 minutes of cooking.  Rice will take 15-20 minutes in all to cook.  Sprinkle with parmesan cheese, if desired.

We topped the rižota with freshly grated parmesan cheese and served it with coleslaw and some crunchy mlinci saved from last week's dinner.

The verdict:  A winner.  This dish was rich and flavorful.  Nothing I would have guessed from reading the simple, mildly seasoned recipe.  My inclusion of brown crimini mushrooms probably offered a flavor boost.

Overall, this was one more reminder that there is more than meets the eye, where Slovenian cooking is concerned.

Roast Duck: A Fine Partner for Mlinci

Roast duck was the entree for my Week 20 dinner.   But to my mind, it was mostly a vehicle for the mlinci, those intriguing baked noodles that turned out so much better than I imagined.

I decided on duck rather than chicken because it seemed more exotic.  I had never actually roasted a duck before.  In case you are in the same boat, here is how I did it.

There is nothing especially Slovenian about this way of roasting a duck.  I consulted a few standard American cookbooks to come up with this.  The main issue, as I understand it, is getting rid of some of the fat without letting the meat dry out.

A 5 lb duckling, fresh and organic
salt and pepper
other seasoning of choice

To prepare: Remove giblets.  Rinse, dry, and cut off excess fat.  Cut slits in the skin, at regular intervals, all over the duck.  Use a small sharp knife blade held just under the surface of the skin, and parallel to it. Coat the duck inside and out with a mixture of salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you desire.  (I used a Mediterranean seasoning mix prepared by our local spice shop.)

Put the duck, breast side down, on a rack in a rectangular roasting pan. Pour 1 inch of hot water in the bottom of the pan.  Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees, turn over, and bake for another 30 minutes or until done.   During baking, watch the water level and add more liquid if needed by pouring over the top of the duck.  If skin gets too brown, cover with foil.  Internal temperature should reach 175 degrees.

Remove to a cutting board and let cool before carving.

Save the drippings to coat your lovely homemade mlinci.

The verdict:  This turned out pretty well.  My husband pointed out that the breast and legs require different baking times, so roasting a whole bird isn't the most practical approach.

But my feeling is that a whole roast duck is much more festive.  And it's a better partner to the mlinci.

Slovenian Dinner Week 20: Roast Duck and Mlinci

Mlinci (Baked Noodles)
Roast Duck
Red Cabbage with Apples
Red Pepper and Tomato Salad

This was another dinner where the side dish became the main event.

Mlinci (m'LEEN-tsee), also known as baked noodles, seemed like an intriguing but improbable dish.  I had to give it a try.

I first heard about mlinci when The Professor, a Facebook friend who lives in Slovenia, posted a photo of a festive St. Martin's Day dinner he'd just prepared: A roast duck, accompanied by a strange sort of dumpling or noodle called mlinci.

Months later, I came across a recipe for mlinci/baked noodles in the Progressive Slovene Women's cookbook.  I found a few other recipes through an Internet search.  It's a simple dish.  A noodle dough, rolled into thin rounds and baked, then cooled and broken into bits.

To serve, the bits are moistened with boiling water or dropped into soup. Presto! Instant noodles.  Or dumplings.  Or something.  Often mixed or fried with the drippings from roast poultry or meat.  I couldn't quite picture it.  An unleavened flatbread or cracker, soaked in liquid.  What was the point?

Suddenly, I realized this wasn't so odd.  It reminded me of the way they serve matzo for breakfast in my husband's family.  Moistened and salted, then wrapped in a napkin, to make it a little more bread-like. Or like matzo farfel, nothing more than bits of broken matzo, another staple in Jewish cooking, especially for Passover.  Or, for that matter, those little oyster crackers we used to drop into soup when I was a child.

Some recipes, like the Progressive Slovene Women's, use yeast.  But most don't.  So I followed the unleavened approach:


2 eggs
1/2 t. salt
1 c. flour
Milk, if needed (but I didn't need any)

Mix the above ingredients, as though making standard egg noodles.  (With my finger still in a splint, I used a food processor.)   Since the eggs were extra large, I didn't need any milk.  In fact, I had to add some extra flour.

Let dough rest 30 minutes, covered.  Divide into four pieces.  Roll each one into a thin disk. (Note: thinner than what photos here suggest!  See update at the end of this post.) Prick.  Bake on ungreased baking sheet at 350 degrees.  Turn over when dough begins to brown.  The finished product should look brown and blistered, like a giant cracker.  It will be much firmer that matzo. Remove from oven and cool on rack.

Meanwhile, I had roasted a nice duck.  Nothing fancy, but I've posted the recipe here.

To prepare the mlinci:

Break rounds into pieces.  (I used two rounds.)   Put in glass or ceramic bowl.  Cover with boiling salted water.  Let sit until soft, 5-15 minutes, depending on thickness of mlinci. Drain. Add to drippings left in pan from the roast duck and stir to mix. Put back in bowl. You can put bowl back in oven to keep warm, while someone carves the duck.

The verdict?  This unlikely dish was luscious!  Sinfully rich, of course, with the duck fat and crackly bits mixed in.  Something like stuffing, something like Yorkshire pudding.  But better.  A perfect special occasion accompaniment to roast fowl or meat.

Oh, and those unused rounds of mlinci kept well.  They made a nice replacement for croutons in salad and served as a crunchy bread substitute in next week's dinner.

Update:  In July of 2014, I purchased ready-made mlinci at the source: a vendor in the Ljubljana Farmers' Market!  Having seen (and cooked with) the real thing, I now know that mlinci should be much thinner than my photos here suggest.  I have also developed a delicious sweet mlinci dish for breakfast or brunch.  To read about it, go here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 19: Roast Sauerkraut to Knock Your Socks Off

Roast Sauerkraut
Grilled Kielbasa (a klobase substitute, in a pinch!)

My husband had picked up a jar of organic sauerkraut at a local market.  So I decided to make it the centerpiece of this week's dinner.

I had enjoyed the sauerkraut many times at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco.  I'd even been the official sauerkraut server in the buffet line at a recent dinner.  It was always rich and brown, and it appeared to be oven-baked.  I wondered if there was a special trick to it.

My vintage cookbooks had plenty of references to sausage and pork dishes served with sauerkraut, boiled or roasted.  But not one of them bothered to give a recipe.  It was probably one of those things a Slovenian cook just knew.

The Slovenian government's tourist website had a recipe for roast sauerkraut that looked intriguing.  The seasonings (caraway seeds, juniper berries, and white wine) sounded lovely.  But the recipe seemed pretty heavy on meat and fat. About four ounces each of bacon and ham, plus four tablespoons of zaseka, a bacon-and-lard mix, for less than eight ounces of sauerkraut!

So I skipped the ham and forgot about trying to duplicate the zaseka.  To boost the flavor, I added an onion.  For the seasonings, I had to guess at the quantities.

So here is what I came up with:

1 large onion, diced
4 oz. thick bacon, cut up (I used Applewood)
8 oz 16 oz (2+ cups) good quality sauerkraut, drained
5 juniper berries
1 t. caraway seeds
1/2 t. peppercorns, whole
1/4 c. white wine
olive oil

Brown bacon and onion in heavy frying pan, adding a little olive oil if needed.  Add sauerkraut and continue to brown.  Add remaining ingredients and cook for a few minutes.  Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt if needed.  Put sauerkraut in an earthenware dish and bake in 350 degree oven for 30-60 minutes, or until sufficiently browned.

While I watched over the sauerkraut, my husband grilled up some sausage on the trusty Le Creuset grill.  We didn't have any Slovenian klobase on hand, so we used the next best thing.  Polish kielbasa.

Since you never can have too much cabbage, at least in a Slovenian meal, we added some coleslaw to round out the dinner:

The verdict:  The best sauerkraut I have ever had, with a robust, complex flavor that you have to taste to appreciate.  And it was plenty rich, even with my trimmed-down approach.  Next time, I might even add a little more sauerkraut.  (And I would probably crack those peppercorns.)

Slovenia might have the world's best take on sauerkraut.  It could even rival potica as the national dish.

2022 UPDATE:  No wonder I noted that the dish was so rich I could have used more sauerkraut! I may have miscalculated and used too little the first time. A one pound container of sauerkraut comes out to 2 cups. The correction is noted above. This time, I topped the sauerkraut with a tasty local garlic chicken sausage and baked it all in the same pan. Still delicious and even easier! 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Slovenian DInner Week 18: Meat Pita and the Politics of Burek

Meat Pita
Red Cabbage Slaw

It was a happy surprise to come across a dish called Meat Pita, or meat pie, in the American Slovene Club's cookbook Our Favorite Recipes.

This was no American-style beef pot pie.  The foundation was a plain dough, stretched until it was tissue thin,  then layered and buttered.   In other words, homemade phyllo, encasing a savory filling.

This sure sounded like burek, or something close to it. It reminded me of a Serbian dish, cheese gibanica or pita, I'd made the previous December.

In recent times, burek has become a popular street food in Slovenia.  But the dish is usually associated with Balkan communities to the south and east, lands that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.  So I was a little surprised to find it in a Slovenian American cookbook from the 1950s.

In the previous week, I'd had a hankering for burek, maybe because I'd been working on my article for Kosovo 2.0.  But I wasn't sure it qualified as sufficiently Slovenian for my cooking project.

Recently, scholars in Slovenia seem to have been grappling with a similar question.

Some Slovenian academics have argued that "authentic" Slovenian cookbooks shouldn't include burek recipes.  Others point to traditional Slovenian foods, like strudel and gibanica, that also use a paper-thin stretched dough.  So why should burek be considered an "outsider" food, as though there is something inherently un-Slovenian about it?

In some Slovenian circles, the burek has become part of an ugly ethnic stereotype of  "undesirable" immigrant populations from Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.   One scholar has has even coined a new term for this narrow attitude: Burekalism, modeled on Edward Said's notion of Orientalism.  It refers to an insular Slovenian view of the alien Balkan Other, who comes from the more "primitive" lands to the south and east.

Is this a serious argument, or is it tongue-in-cheek?  I'm not entirely sure.

But I'm not trying to be a food purist.  Politics aside, it seems clear that a burek-like dish was already known to Slovenian American home cooks in the early 1950s.  So that's enough for me!

1 lb. ground meat  (I used half pork and half beef, rather than the original pork/veal mix)
1 large onion, chopped
4 T. fresh parsley, chopped (I increased the amount)
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten with
3 T. Greek yogurt (my choice) or sour cream

1 package commercially made phyllo dough (my shortcut)
2 T. melted butter
2 T. olive oil

For filling: Brown onion in oil.  Add ground meat and parsley.  Brown, stir and chop to avoid clumping. Cook until browned.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Remove from heat. Add egg and yogurt, beaten together. Cook briefly on heat until egg is cooked.  Cool.

For dough:  Buy a package of commercially prepared phyllo dough and follow package directions to defrost, if frozen.

Or, if you are feeling adventurous (I wasn't!) make your own dough:  Mix 2 c. flour, 1/2 t. salt, 2 T. oil, and  4 T. warm water.  Make dough, knead, let  rest 15 minutes.  Roll out on floured cloth, then brush with butter and "stretch slowly until tissue thin."

To assemble:  Oil a round pan or rectangular pan.  One by one, layer 4 sheets of phyllo, brushing each one with some of the butter/oil mixture.  Arrange layers as in photo below, so sheets are evenly arranged with edges draped over edge of dish.  Add filling.  Add 4 more layers, brushing each with butter/oil mixture and arranging as before.  Tuck in edges.  Brush top layer with butter/oil.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour, or until firm and top is browned.

The verdict:  Delicious, no matter where it came from!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 17: Bleki Soup at Last

Bleki Soup (Roman Bean Puree with Bleki and Pancetta)
Waldorf Salad

For months, I had been trying to figure out the thick bean soup my mother recalled from her childhood.  She referred to it as "black-eh."  I had come to think of it as our family Mystery Bean Soup.

Just like our family history, the story about this elusive soup emerged slowly.  I'd had an "ah-ha" moment when I figured out that my mother might be referring to bleki, the square noodles that are a delicacy in Slovenian cooking.  And then it turned out that the beans she recalled were actually Roman beans or borlotti, not the black beans I had imagined.

Put together Roman beans and pasta or noodles and you get pašta fižol, a tasty soup-stew.  For my Week 12 dinner, I had made a version that my husband and I enjoyed. But I suspected that it wasn't quite the soup that grandma used to make.

Finally, I read a single line on a Slovenian website that pulled it all together.  It described a traditional soup of pureed beans, thickened with roux, and accented with bleki.

Bingo! This must be it.

True, it was a concept more than a recipe. But it was enough to go on.

The Tuesday before Mother's Day, I set out to re-create my grandmother's  Bleki Soup.  I planned to follow my own recipe for pasta fizol, with one change: I would puree the beans before I added the bleki.  Assuming it turned out, I would have the perfect gift to present to my mother on Sunday.

You can find my Week 12 pasta fizol recipe here.

In addition to pureeing the beans, I made a few other changes to that earlier recipe.  Some were intentional, and some were unplanned.

Instead of the turkey bacon, this time around I used pancetta, the real thing.

To increase that tangy roux flavor,  I used browned flour instead of plain flour.  This is a trick I learned from our years of Cajun cooking.  You simply brown the flour in a dry pan, stirring constantly to prevent burning, before using it in a recipe.  This can even allow you to make a fat-free roux, if you choose.

preparations: browned flour and pancetta

I also took a couple of short cuts.

Since I was a little leery of kneading with my finger in a splint, I made the bleki dough in a food processor.

I hadn't been able to find Roman beans until the morning of my cooking project, so I had to skip the overnight soaking.  I was forced to adopt the quick method:  bringing the beans to a boil and then covering and soaking for two hours, before cooking.

I did have some anxious moments with the beans.  After a couple of hours of simmering, they were tender enough.  But I was convinced they tasted metallic.  Oh-oh.  Instead of the ceramic pot I used before, I had soaked them in a metal Dutch oven. I started to panic.  My husband thought the beans tasted fine.  But just to be on the safe side, I increased the seasonings in the soup.

Otherwise,  I followed the same steps described in the pašta fižol recipe, until it came time to mix the beans with the sauce.  At that point,  I pureed the cooked beans in the food processor, before combining them with the sauce and then adding the bleki.

We served the bleki soup with a tangy waldorf salad my husband put together.

Our verdict: We thought the soup was very tasty.  (And not at all metallic!)  But the real test was still to come.

I froze a generous portion and presented it as a Mother's Day gift, when we took my mother out for a celebratory brunch on Sunday.

My mother called me up the next day.   She'd had the soup that night for dinner.

The final verdict:  It was a success!  Just what she remembered.

She did mention that her mother had made the noodles a little smaller, probably as 3/4 inch squares.  But otherwise it looked and tasted the same.

There was more to the story.

She told me that she had tried to find Roman beans, early in her marriage, to make the soup.  But just like me, she'd had trouble locating them.  Her mother used to get them at a Slovenian grocery.

I was touched and surprised by this revelation.

Once again, I was reminded that my mother had more interest in preserving her Slovenian heritage, at least in the kitchen, than I had ever realized.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 16: Djuveč, or Finger Casserole


Djuveč (Lamb, Pork and Vegetable Casserole)
Green Salad

Djuveč ("ju-vech") is found in one form or another throughout the Balkans.  But I had never heard of it until I started poring over my vintage copy of Treasured Slovenian and International Recipes, the cookbook put together by the Progressive Slovene Women of America.

The origins of the dish are probably Turkish. The Romanian version, ghivetch, is often considered a Jewish dish, one I recall seeing on menus in Israel.   It sounded like a mildly spiced version of ratatouille, although djuveč usually adds meat and a little rice to the familiar vegetable mix. 

The Progressive Slovene Women included two versions in their cookbook.  I was surprised to find one of them in the Slovenian section, since the dish probably reached Slovenia by way of Serbia. The second one, called Serbian Djuveč, was included in the International section.  At first glance, neither one struck me as unusual.  Both recipes were plain dishes with minimal seasonings, and easy to make.  

The Slovenian version specified a lamb/pork mix and spiced things up with parsley.  It also involved an initial cooking period on the stove before the casserole went into the oven.  The Serbian version, done completely in the oven, added some eggplant and a cheese topping.   

I combined the two recipes to come up with the following adaptation.

1/2 lb. pork, cubed
1/2 lb. lamb, cubed
2 small eggplants, cubed and salted
1 1/2 onions, sliced
1 green pepper, cut in strips
1 orange pepper, cut in strips
olive oil
2 potatoes, sliced
1/4 c. raw rice
small bunch parsley
salt and pepper to taste
tomatoes sliced, for top (4 small)
bread crumbs or matzo meal, for top (optional!)
parmesan or feta cheese, for top

Cube and salt the eggplants and set aside in colander to drain.

Brown meats in oil.  Add onions and peppers and brown.  Add eggplant, salt and pepper.   Add a little water.  Cook until meat is tender, adding water, a tablespoon at a time, as needed.

Oil a large rectangular glass casserole.  Layer half the meat-vegetable mixture,  half the sliced raw potatoes, salt and pepper, half the rice, and half the parsley.  Repeat layers.  

Top with sliced tomatoes and if desired, crumbs. (Omit, if you desire a gluten-free dish!)  Drizzle with olive oil.  Add some liquid.  Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until rice is tender.  Cover for part of the time.  Add liquid if mixture gets too dry.  In last 10 minutes, sprinkle with cheese.  

After I had assembled the djuveč, I paused to admire my handiwork.  This simple dish did look pretty.  I popped it in the oven and figured I had time to take a break from cooking.

Big mistake.

The djuveč was fine.  In fact, it tasted wonderful,  once we got around to eating it.

The problem was the middle finger of my left hand.    I managed to tear the tendon when I was making the bed.

So my long suffering husband arrived home to find a wife with a fingertip that drooped downward at a sickening 90 degree angle.  Or it would have, if I hadn't splinted it with a nail file.

We turned down the oven and made a quick trip to the doctor.  I returned with my finger in a splint.

"Do not remove the splint for 8 weeks, or you'll risk permanent deformity," the physician's assistant had intoned.

But what about my accordion playing, I wailed.  My Slovenian cooking project.  Not to mention the fact that I write with my left hand.

A nice glass of wine and a serving of delicious djuveč helped me set aside my worries, at least for the rest of the evening.

I couldn't resist taking the photo below and posting it on Facebook.

"Oh, oh.  Finger casserole?" one of my Facebook friends asked.

No, not a cooking injury, I explained.

But it would have made for a good story.