Friday, November 23, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 42: Sweet Beet Soup + Potato-Spinach Dumplings (Njoki)

Sweet Beet Soup (sladka pesna juha)
Potato-Spinach Dumplings (njoki) with Gorgonzola-Gouda Sauce
Fresh Tomato Garnish

I was in the mood for some healthy, not-too-meaty Slovenian food.

I had a couple of ideas, both appealing.  One was borscht, or beet soup.  The other was gnocchi, or njoki in Slovenian.   Since I couldn't choose, I decided to make them both.

It was a labor intensive dinner.  So let's consider the beet soup first.

Months earlier, I had noticed a curious recipe in the Progressive Slovene Women's cookbook.  It was called sweet beet soup, or sladka pesna juha.   Definitely the sweet-and-sour type, with plenty of sugar and lemon juice, along with tomatoes and onions. But I didn't know what to make of the eggs.  What was this, a dessert or a soup? So I dismissed it.

But I got to thinking about borscht again, when we visited our favorite Polish restaurant and ordered their version of borscht, which we had enjoyed in the past. It was a clear red broth, with slivers of beets and large flat white beans.  The last time, it had included beef, which seemed to be missing this time.  And I was reminded that this Polish take on borscht was much more savoury than the sweet-and-sour Jewish style I knew best.

Now I was really intrigued by the myriad possibilities borscht can offer. Including that peculiar-sounding Slovenian recipe with the sugar and eggs.   And when I discovered a couple of beets in the refrigerator, that clinched it.  I had to give it a try.

Sweet Beet Soup

2 beets (½ bunch)
½ c. fresh tomatoes, cut up and seeds removed
¼ lb. beef stew meat, cut into small pieces
1-2 c. water
1 T. lemon juice
dash salt
2 T. sugar
1 egg, beaten

Cook the beets, using whatever method you choose.  When they are done, peel them and cut into strips or cubes.

(I used the microwave.  I put the whole beets in a covered dish with ¼ cup water.  I cooked them on high for 12-15 minutes, stopping every 5 minutes to turn.)

Combine the cut-up beets, water, tomatoes, onion, and beef in water.  Simmer 3o minutes.  Add lemon juice, sugar and salt.  Simmer 30 minutes more.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Beat egg in a separate dish.  Add a little hot soup gradually, stirring to prevent curdling.  Add to the pot of soup.  Do not allow to boil.

I had many misgivings, but this beet soup was a delicious surprise.

My husband loved it.  He thought it was among my best dishes so far.  “This is in the top twelve!” he said.

I was convinced it would be too sweet.  But it wasn't.  And it was just the right amount of beef.

The egg was the real puzzler. Because of my doubts,  I had cut the egg down to half of what the original recipe called for.  I wouldn't have wanted more, but in this quantity the egg worked out just fine.  The egg flavor was not overpowering, and it lightened the broth to a delicate pink.  It didn't seem too different from adding sour cream, a common way to serve Jewish-style borscht.

So why the eggs instead of sour cream?   My husband and I can think of only one reason: to avoid combining dairy and meat, in order to observe Jewish dietary laws.  But that would not be an issue in Slovenia, where the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

So the recipe remains a puzzle.  But there is no doubt: This sweet beet soup was a winner!

For that matter, so was the rest of the dinner.  To see the the recipe for those delcicious njoki, go here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lost Kosovo Kugel and the Politics of Food

Slovenian American cooks were practical.  They didn't waste food.

In that spirit, I decided to put together a dessert for my Week 41 Dinner, using leftovers.

The leftover in question:  An opened box of chocolate-covered matzo. Languishing in my pantry since Passover.  Six months old.  Begging to be used.

Granted, the key element in this dessert did not exactly qualify as Slovenian.

Chocolate-covered matzo is a Passover novelty, probably designed with Jewish children in mind. It is an amusing way of circumventing the austerity of unleavened bread, without violating the dietary laws.

For six months, a box of the stuff had been sitting in our pantry. It had quite a pedigree.

According to the package, the matzo itself had been baked in Israel.  The dark chocolate mint coating was added in New Jersey.  I purchased it in California, just before Passover. I planned to send it to our journalist son in Kosovo, along with some homemade mandelbrot.

But the package never arrived in Kosovo.

Eventually, the lost package re-appeared on our doorstep, looking much the worse for wear.

Inside, my homemade Passover mandelbrot had survived intact. But when when I opened up the commercially made box of chocolate matzo, it was a sorry sight.

Unfortunately, I had failed to address the package properly.  I should have sent it “via Albania” or with the address written like this: Pristina (Kosovo), Serbia.

Kosovo as an independent country still has a murky status, at least in some quarters.  So the package was intercepted in Serbia, where the post office folks sent it back to California, with a stamp that referred to "an unexpected situation.”

It gives “the politics of food” a whole new meaning.

Meanwhile, I had a box of matzo crumbs and minty dark chocolate flakes. But I hated to throw it away.  So there it sat, growing stale in a drawer.

On Week 41, I was seized by a peculiar inspiration.  I would turn that aging chocolate matzo into an impromptu dessert.  I had in mind a sweet kugel, a traditional Jewish pudding that is made with noodles or, at Passover, with crumbled matzo.  You can crush the matzo yourself or purchase the prepared variety, called matzo farfel.

A sweet kugel is something like a dense bread pudding.  So I figured it would be easy to inprovise a recipe. How could I go wrong?

Lost Kosovo Kugel

1-¾ c. crumbled chocolate covered matzo
2 c. lowfat milk
½ c. sugar
3 eggs, beaten
pinch of salt
butter for dish

Soak the crumbled matzo in milk for 10 minutes to soften.  Stir in the sugar,  a pinch of salt,  and the beaten eggs.  Bake in a buttered 6x9 ceramic dish at 350 for 40 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

I don't know what went wrong with this.

My husband was blunt.  He did not like it.  “It takes so eggy.”

So?  It was supposed to be a sort of eggy custard.  Nothing wrong with that.

But he was right.  Something was amiss.  The kugel was watery.  The egg seemed to have coagulated in a strange way.  Maybe it was the mint flavoring.

But we dutifully ate it in small portions, over the next week.  On that final night, I agreed: it had developed a strange eggy taste.

This is one Slovenian-Jewish fusion dish that won't be repeated.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Slovenian Dinner Week 41, a Healthy Makeover: Stuffed Peppers with Turkey-Kasha Filling

Stuffed Peppers with Turkey-Kasha Filling
Fresh Cranberry Beans
Green Salad
Lost Kosovo Kugel

After my recent excursion to the FoodBuzz Blogger Festival, it was a relief to get back to the simpler, down-to-earth cooking traditions of my Slovenian American forbears.

But that foodie festival did strengthen my resolve to continue working on healthier versions of the traditional recipes I had been making.

Stuffed peppers, one of my early dishes, was a prime candidate for an overhaul. Although it was a successful Week 7 entree, those peppers had been a little too firm. I had already resolved to parboil them, and probably to leave them whole, the next time around.

Now, with an eye to a healthy makeover, I made a few more changes.  For starters, I would make an all-turkey filling, instead of the beef-pork-turkey mixture I had used before. That meant increasing the spices, as I had done in my recent attempt at healthy turkey cevapcici.  And why not substitute high-protein, flavorful kasha for the white rice?  It might not be traditional, but it would be in the Slovenian spirit.

Otherwise, I followed my original recipe, although I did add a little wine to the tomato sauce.

When I went to the market in the morning, I found a surprise: fresh cranberry beans, otherwise known as Roman or borlotti beans.  By now, the dried version had become a staple in my Slovenian kitchen.  I couldn't resist buying these tasty beans fresh, although I wasn't quite sure how to prepare them.

And for dessert, I invented something new: Lost Kosovo Kugel.  But that's a story in itself.

Stuffed Peppers with Turkey-Kasha Filling

About 8 fresh peppers, assorted colors (I used half green and half red)

1.5 lb. ground turkey
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. smoked paprika
1 c. cooked kasha (buckwheat groats)
¼ c. fresh parsley, minced
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
1 egg, beaten

For the sauce:

14 oz. can organic Italian peeled tomatoes
14 oz. can organic diced fire-roasted tomatoes
7 oz. strained Italian tomatoes
¼ c. reserved browned onion-garlic mixture
2 oz. red wine
1 t. paprika
2 t. brown sugar
1 t. salt

To prepare the peppers: Remove stem ends carefully and set aside to use as lids.  Clean out the inside of each pepper.  Parboil for 10 minutes in boiling salted water.  Drain and cool.

To cook kasha: Bring 2 cups salted water to boil.  Add 1 cup uncooked kasha.  Let simmer 10 minutes, covered.  Measure out 1 cup and save the rest.  Let cool.

To make filling: Brown onion and garlic well in olive oil.   Set ¼ cup aside to use in sauce. Mix the remaining onion-garlic mixture with the rest of filling ingredients.

To make sauce: Mix all ingredients together and simmer for about fifteen minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To assemble: Put a little tomato sauce in the bottom of a Dutch oven or other large casserole dish.  Arrange peppers inside.  Divide filling among them. (You may have some filling left over.) If you like, add the previously removed  “lid” on top of each pepper. Add more sauce, almost to cover.  Bake at 350 degrees, for 1 hour or more.  Add more sauce if needed.

stuffed peppers, before adding sauce

stuffed peppers, after baking

Fresh Cranberry Beans

Shell the beans.  Rinse and drain in a colander.  Admire the pretty pink mottling, because it will disappear once the beans are cooked!   Simmer in a pot of boiling salted water for 10-20 minutes, until tender.  Drain.  Toss with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper.

The verdict?  The stuffed peppers were delicious!  The peppers themselves benefited from parboiling and then a longer time in the oven.  We didn't miss the beef and pork in the filling at all.  The addition of kasha worked well.  It created the same dense texture as the traditional rice-meat mix, but with an intriguing hearty, smoked buckwheat flavor.

The beans were a nice, mild complement.  The flavor was even better the next day, after they had marinated in the dressing.

As for that  Kosovo Kugel, I think perhaps it should remain lost.  To learn the full story, read on!