Thursday, February 28, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 47: Stuffed Cabbage Low Carb Makeover: Beef-Cauliflower Filling

Stuffed Cabbage Makeover: Beef-Cauliflower Filling
Green Salad

Stuffed cabbage was the first dish I tackled, back in January of 2012, when I launched my year of Slovenian cooking.  I was happy with the result. The next time, I planned to make the filling more highly seasoned—and to cook the cabbage rolls on a bed of sauerkraut.

Suddenly, it was December. My year of ethnic cooking was in the home stretch, and I still hadn’t gotten around to trying stuffed cabbage again.  But now I had another agenda:  how to do healthy makeovers.

For a healthy version of stuffed cabbage, I figured on skipping the pork and using just beef. But what to do about the added starch in the filling?  I could substitute buckwheat for the rice, as I’d done with my stuffed peppers makeover. But this time I wanted to go even lower carb.

So I did an Internet search and discovered a fascinating alternative to rice: finely diced cauliflower.  I found plenty of examples, including two or three recipes for meat fillings with cauliflower instead of the usual rice or bread crumbs.  What an intriguing idea! I already knew that pureed cauliflower worked well as a mashed potato substitute, but I'd never come across the idea of using it in place of rice.

The recipes I found used used raw cauliflower, chopped or grated, in the meat filling.  I figured I would go one better.  I would brown the cauliflower bits with the onions and garlic, to reduce some of the moisture and make it harder and more rice-like.

I made a few other changes in my original stuffed cabbage recipe. To make the filling spicier,  I increased the onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika.   I decided to skip the fresh mint and the spoonful of crushed tomatoes. As planned, I used sauerkraut instead of cabbage to line the pan.   Finally, I decided to make the dish in the oven instead of on top of  the stove.

For the result, read on.

Stuffed Cabbage Makeover with Beef-Cauliflower Filling

1 c. onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. olive oil
1 c. cauliflower florets, finely chopped
2 t. salt
1 t. pepper
1-1/2 t. paprika
1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped

1-1/2 lb.ground beef
1 egg, beaten

1 large head green cabbage

beef broth and crushed tomatoes, mixed, to make about 3 cups of liquid
salt and pepper to taste

For filling:  Brown onion and garlic in oil.  Add cauliflower florets and brown, then add seasonings, parsley and mix.  Let cool.  Mix in beef and egg.

For cabbage: Cut out core of cabbage.  Cover in hot water and boil for about 5 minutes.  Drain and separate leaves.

To make the rolls:  Cut out the tough rib of each cabbage leaf.  Place a portion of meat on the leaf.  Roll up securely, envelope style.  Secure with toothpicks.

Put a layer of sauerkraut in the bottom of large greased oven-proof dish.  Put cabbage rolls on top, packing tightly.  Add liquid, almost to cover.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 1 hour.

The verdict:  Pretty good.  The filling was still a little mild.  Next time, I will go back to using tomatoes and maybe the mint, as I did originally.  And I might add some seasoning to the  tomato sauce, too. No, cauliflower does not provide the same firm texture as using rice—or for, that matter, buckwheat groats.  But it is a viable alternative when you are cutting carbs.

Who says Slovenian food can't be healthy?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 46: Polenta Meatball Makeover

Meat Polenta II: Polenta Meatballs with Tomato Mushroom Sauce
Whole Wheat Spaghetti
Green Salad

The last Tuesday in November was shaping up to be a busy day.  An appointment in the morning, volunteer tutoring in the afternoon.  And I was in the final stretch of a month-long writing project.

So I needed to find a dinner entree that was easy and, if possible, make-ahead. Once again, I figured that the best solution was a makeover of a dish I had tried earlier in the year.

Meatballs seemed like the perfect choice.

I had three candidates.  The most successful were the caraway meatballs I had made back in June.  In July, I had tried an odd one, called uštipci, from The Yugoslav Cookbook, that I didn't feel like repeating.  Those solid, fatty squares of uncooked bacon mixed in with the ground beef never did cook properly.

Then there was an intriguing dish called meat polenta, from the Progressive Slovene Women, one of my most trustworthy sources.  They were made from a paprika-spiced mixture of beef and cornmeal.   Quite a lot of cornmeal: a full cup added to a pound of meat. The finished product turned out dry and granular, because the uncooked cornmeal didn't soften.

Only afterward did it occur to me: Maybe "cornmeal" meant cooked polenta. If I made this dish again, I resolved to try it that way.

So perhaps this was the time.

I did some Internet research to see if I could find any other meatballs made with cooked cornmeal.  Mostly, I found Mexican meatballs, with small quantities of dry cornmeal added.  So maybe this meat polenta recipe wasn't even Slovenian.

But then I found something: A Slovenian meatball called mavželj. It sounded like one of those traditional novelties that isn’t made much anymore.  For good reason, since it starts with a pig's head.

To make mavželj, you start out by boiling the pig’s head and scraping off the meat. A few other organ meats are added, like the brains and lungs.  Then the meat is chopped, seasoned, and mixed with polenta. Seasonings can include onion and garlic, salt and pepper, cinnamon and bay leaf, according to the modern Slovenian master chef Janez Bogataj.  (His recipe seems to be mostly polenta.)  The mixture is shaped into balls and wrapped in pig’s caul, then baked.

So this dish wasn’t the product of some Slovenian American cook’s imagination.   It was simplified and sanitized, perhaps, but the chopped meat-polenta combination, heavy on the polenta, seemed to be well grounded in Slovenian tradition.

Well, I wasn't about to go shopping for a pig's head, much less a pig's caul!

I decided to stick closely to my original meat polenta recipe, but with cooked cornmeal, rather than dry.  Much as I was tempted to do a meat makeover, this was not the time for more turkey leftovers.  I would stick with a beef-pork mix, with a little more onion. The simple tomato sauce had been good the first time, but since we had some fresh mushrooms I decided to add those.  And this time I would bake rather than simmer the meatballs.

For the result, read on.

Meat Polenta II: Polenta Meatballs


1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork
1 cup cooked polenta
2 eggs
2 t. salt
1-2 t. pepper
1 t. paprika
4-5 T. minced onion, browned in olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced


26 oz. organic diced tomatoes
1 small onion, browned in olive oil
2 c. sliced fresh mushrooms, white and crimini mixed
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t. paprika
1 t. marjoram
salt and pepper
pinch of sugar
4 T. parsley, chopped
splash of wine or mosto

For sauce:  Brown diced onion well in olive oil. Add sliced mushrooms and garlic clove.  Add remaining ingredients and simmer for thirty minutes.

For the cooked polenta, prepare according to package directions.  I used the quick-cooking variety, which called for 4 tablespoons polenta stirred into 1 cup of boiling salted water, then cooked and stirred for about three minutes until thick. Let cool slightly.

To make the meatballs: Combine cooked, cooled polenta with remaining filling ingredients.  Knead until well combined. Form into 12 small balls. Mixture may be loose.

To bake: Put a little sauce in bottom of medium rectangular dish.  Place meatballs in dish.  Add more sauce.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 1 hour.

Serve over spaghetti or noodles.  Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese.

My heart sank when I saw yellow polenta oozing out of the meatballs, after they had been in the oven for awhile. But I poured more sauce on top.

The verdict: Amazingly, it all worked out.  The meatballs were tasty, even if the fat and some of the polenta did leach into the sauce. And there were none of those hard cornmeal granules, this time around.

As we were eating, my husband and I got into a long discussion about caul.   I had seen photos of caul-wrapped foods in a couple of my  European cookbooks. It looks liked a spidery white net. But what was it, exactly?

I thought it was similar to a traditional sausage casing. Part of the intestine. My husband thought it was related to the placenta, a sort of film or veil than can cover a baby mammal at birth. He'd heard about this from watching Jacques Pépin on television.

Turns out out we were both right.  Not the most pleasant of dinner conversations!

Still, the dinner was a success.

“There is something about the flavor,” my husband said. “I could smell it when I was up on the roof, cleaning the gutters.”  (We'd had heavy rains that night.)

What is that elusive flavor?  No cabbage in the dish tonight.  Was it simply tomatoes and paprika? Tomatoes without oregano and basil?

Central European umami or Slovenian soul, I guess.  Whatever it is, the smell and flavor are unmistakable. I had found it once again.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 45: Minestrone Makeover

Mineštra II, Minestone Makeover
Salad Nicoise

It was the third Tuesday of November.  Two days before Thanksgiving.

Not a week when I could spend a leisurely morning reading cookbooks, come up with a few options, and then stroll to the market to see what looked good.

It had to be relatively easy.  Not too heavy.  Something that could be made in advance and reheated, or started early and left to simmer.  We would be eating early, since our Cajun band had a gig.

I went back to the early months of this cooking project, to find a likely dish that I hadn’t yet made over.  There were a few contenders.  Maybe a nice soup?

Finally, I had it. Mineštra, Slovenian minestrone.  My first version of mineštra, back in June, had been delicious. Another one of those deceptively simple, familiar dishes that packs a lot of flavor.  It struck me as particularly appealing.  Soothing.  My husband had mentioned that he had just bought a can of borlotti beans, too.

That first time, I had used some chicken-apple sausage we had in the fridge.  It was a little too sweet. Next time, I resolved to use a more suitable sausage, with Italian or Mediterranean seasonings.  Or maybe Polish sausage.  Chicken or turkey, if I could find it.  And instead of rice, I would try pasta, as some recipes suggested.  Whole wheat, or even gluten free, to make it healthier.

And one more plus. We could have leftovers for a light lunch on Thanksgiving, to fill in that awkward need-to-eat-a-little-something gap before the big meal.

I couldn't resist doing a little searching in my cookbook collection.   There seemed to be a few minestrone variations: with beans (fižol), like my original version. Without beans, or Primorska style. And eclectic.

Primorska mineštra skips the beans but has some creative vegetable additions (leeks, celery root, kohlrabi, cauliflower), along with bacon.  I found virtually identical recipes on the Slovenian government website and in Slovenian Cookery, Slavko Adamlje's 1996 book.

Going beyond Slovenia, I found a couple of interesting versions in Olga Novak-Markovic’s Yugoslav Cookbook (1986.)  Istra Minestrone has pork ribs, sweet corn, young tender beans, pasta, and unspecified soup vegetables.  The Dubrovnik version has brussels sprouts, courgettes, pork and mutton, potatoes, French beans, and bacon.

I decided to keep it simple, with maybe just a few new vegetable choices, along with pasta and a spicier sausage.

When I went shopping, at  eleven in the morning, the pre-holiday shopping frenzy had already begun, with Thanksgiving just two days away.  Especially at the butcher shop, where folks were already lined up at the single checkout line.

So I decided to cross the butcher off my list and see what I could find at the cheese shop two doors down, one of my regular haunts, where they had started to carry a nice assortment of sausages.  They had nothing in the way of chicken and turkey alternatives.  But plenty of pork, which would make a Slovenian smile.  I bought a package of lightly smoked savory herb pork sausage.  Made right here in Berkeley. No antibiotics, hormones, gluten, MSG, nitrates, nitrites. All-vegetarian feeds. Couldn't go wrong with that.

The parking lot of the big produce market on the corner was like an obstacle course.  But I didn’t need much, just a potato and a couple of the vegetable alternatives I wanted to try: a leek and a single, knobby celery root. While I was there, I bought some whole wheat pasta elbows. I was ready to go.

Mineštra II, Minestrone Makeover

2 T. olive oil
1/2  large onion, chopped
1 large leek, sliced
1 large clove garlic,chopped
1/2 head red cabbage, sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
1 medium potato, unpeeled, cubed
1 celery root, peeled and cubed
1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced
1 c. chopped tomatoes with juice
10 oz. smoked pork sausage (4 or 5), sliced
2 quarts water
1 c. peas, frozen or fresh
1/2 c. whole wheat pasta elbows
1 can borlotti beans
2 t. salt or to taste
freshly ground pepper
white wine
more fresh parsley

First prepare the vegetables. To prepare the leek, cut off most of the green end.  Cut remaining bulb lengthwise and soak in water.  Rinse well to remove grit, then slice thinly and set aside.  Chop onion and garlic as usual. Slice the cabbage and carrot. Cube the potato.  Peel and cube that knobby celery root. (That was a new experience for me!)

Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven. Add onion and garlic and brown.  Add leek and continue to cook. Add cabbage and sausage and brown.  Add remaining vegetables (except for beans and peas) and water. Cover and simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning.  Toward the end, add pasta and simmer. Add peas. Stir in some white wine and top with more parsley. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

The soup was simmering, the dishes were washed, and I was giving the counters a final swipe when my husband got home from work.

“That’s definitely the smell of Central Europe,"  he said approvingly.

He was right.

What is it that creates that smell?  It is comforting, slightly musty.  Both familiar and exotic. I connect it with paprika.  But there was no paprika in this dish.  Another part of it, I think, is a sauce that includes tomatoes, but is not tomato-based. Is it a flavor defined by absence?  The surprise of tomato, without the near-ubiquitous Italian seasonings that are often the default flavor choice in American cooking? Tomato with parsley? Does it also require cabbage?

The soup simmered for a long time.  I finally turned it off, fearing that the canned beans or the pasta might disintegrate.

We served the mineštra with some salad nicoise my husband had made for the previous night’s dinner.

The verdict: It was delicious. Better with the more flavorful sausage—and more of it, too, this time.  But we could have managed with less.

I had never cooked with celery root before, although my husband informed me that he had served it grated, as part of his wonderful coleslaw creations.  Raw, it had a strong celery flavor.  Cooked, the flavor was mild and pleasant. The cubes were hard to distinguish from the potatoes—in fact, it might be a good, lower-carb potato alternative.

I noticed, when I went to take photos, that the soup looked a little monochromatic, compared to the first version.  I added more parsley.

It was only the next day that I realize what I had missed: The green peas!  So I added them. Better late than never.

Luckily, we still had enough left over to serve as a pre-dinner snack on Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 44: Healthy Sauerkraut with Potatoes and Smoked Turkey Bits

Sauerkraut with Potatoes and Smoked Turkey Bits
Green Salad

It was the second Tuesday in November.  I had a busy day ahead and hadn't given much thought to dinner.

As my husband was heading out the door, he dropped a few hints.  We had a nice jar of organic sauerkraut in the fridge. And, since he figured I would be going to the butcher shop, perhaps I could order the turkey for Thanksgiving.

Sauerkraut and turkey.  That planted a seed. And it fit right in with a question that had been on my mind, as my year of ethnic cooking was coming to a close.

Is traditional Slovenian cooking healthy?

Yes and no.

No worse, probably, than any other cuisine that evolves in times of scarcity, when people do hard physical work.  Especially in northern climates in the past, when people were limited to whatever was in season—or whatever they had managed to preserve.

That is the beauty of sauerkraut, a staple in so many Eastern European cuisines. Served fresh, cabbage is a healthy food.  But it is easily preserved through simple fermentation, rather than canning.  More and more, we are coming to recognize the health benefits of fermented foods.

But there is no denying it: Many elements of traditional Slovenian cooking make a contemporary health conscious cook cringe.  It is heavy on meat, primarily pork. The fats aren’t the healthiest: lard, cracklings, bacon fat, and butter.  And so many of the famous delicacies (potica,  homemade noodles, struklji,  zlikrofi, dumplings) are based on white flour.

But I knew that it was possible to do healthy makeovers.  I had been doing it myself.  From the beginning of my cooking project, I used olive oil in place of other fats, except for baking.  I was pretty sure that contemporary Slovenian cooks were doing the same thing. The Slow Food movement is big there.  A recent president was a vegan, for heaven’s sake!

So I started hunting around on the Internet for healthy-looking Slovenian recipes with sauerkraut. I  found the perfect example:  Potatoes with Sauerkraut and Crunched Smoked Turkey Ham, a modern adaptation of a traditional Slovenian dish.

The recipe was on a blog I had seen once before. Indulging Life is the creation of a Slovenian woman named Mateja, who now lives in the United States. Her blog is stylish, beautifully photographed, and with a fair share of luscious desserts and clever food adaptations.  She would have fit right in at the recent FoodBuzz Blogger Conference I attended.

This looked like a simple dish, similar to some I had already made, and with the same sorts of substitutions: turkey and olive oil instead of pork and bacon.  It even included garlic, not always a part of traditional Slovenian cooking. I was intrigued by Mateja's suggestion that cooking potatoes in the sauerkraut pickling liquid prevents them from getting mushy. I had never thought about that.

This dish looked simple and tasty. It had an elegant presentation—and it was validating, to have a Slovenian cook doing healthy makeovers while still holding on to her traditions.

I already had a few ideas for a some tweaks I might make: Small, multicolored organic potatoes, with the skins left on.  And maybe a few juniper berries and caraway seeds, my usual addition to sauerkraut.  I’d learned about this from a recipe on the Slovenian government’s tourist website, so I know it was legit!  And probably less oil.

When I went to the butcher shop around the corner, I encountered a problem: No turkey ham, much to my surprise.  The man behind the counter suggested smoked turkey breast would work just fine.  But I thought it would be better to combine it with turkey bacon, so I bought a few thick slabs of both.

This would be an easy dish to prepare,  I thought.

And it was, except for a fight to the death with that jar of sauerkraut!  I couldn't seem to open it. Not even with that special rubber gripper, tagged with the logo of a Slovenian fraternal organization that I had picked up at a Pust celebration a few years ago.  I tried tapping the lid with a knife.  Holding it under running water. Twisting with the help of a rubber band.  Nothing worked.  I was desperate.  Finally, a brainstorm: I used a can opener to punch a hole in the top of the metal lid.  There was a whoosh as the seal broke.  By then, of course, the potatoes had practically boiled dry, so I had to add more water and start over.

No matter. It all worked out.

Below is my adaptation, roughly double the quantities in the original recipe, which is supposed to serve two. Along with the addition of juniper berries and caraway seeds, I increased the garlic.  That part was my husband’s doing.  I had asked him to chop up two cloves.

“Oh, these are small,” he said.  “I’ll do four or five.”

I couldn’t bring myself to use a half cup of olive oil, so I cut it way back.  And I used that turkey breast-plus-bacon combination instead of turkey ham, out of necessity.

Sauerkraut with Potatoes and Smoked Turkey Bits (adapted from Mateja)

1-1/2 lb. assorted fingerling or other small potatoes, unpeeled
1 quart (32 oz) prepared sauerkraut, with liquid
1 t. salt
1 t. black pepper, freshly ground
1 t. juniper berries
1 t. caraway seeds
1 lb. (2+ cups) cubed, smoked turkey breast and turkey bacon (or use turkey ham)
4 small garlic cloves,  finely minced
1/4 c. olive oil  (note: half what the original recipe called for, so increase if you like)

Wash potatoes well, leaving skins on.  Cut larger potatoes in half.  Place in large pot, add water to cover, add seasonings, and bring to a boil. Add sauerkraut with liquid, combine, bring to a boil again, then lower heat and simmer uncovered until potatoes are tender. Most of the liquid should have been absorbed or cooked off. Cover and keep warm.

Heat olive oil in large skillet.  Add turkey cubes and cook, stirring occasionally,  until they are “browned and crunchy," as Mateja says.  Add garlic for the last few minutes.

For serving: place a portion of the sauerkraut-potato mixture on each plate,  Top with a portion of the turkey cubes with that nice garlicky oil.  Enjoy!

The verdict:  Very good.  It could probably use even more smoked turkey. Or maybe it’s just that I added some of the extra sauerkraut that was left in the jar.  I'm glad that I spiced up the sauerkraut.

As for the topping:  The original version is probably even tastier, although higher in fat. Next time, I will probably try to use all turkey ham or turkey bacon, and skip the milder turkey breast.  If I am feeling Indulgent :-) I might also add more olive oil.  Using the full amount will turn the cubes into deep-fried little "crunchies," as Mateja calls them.

All in all, this is an easy, elegant, healthy version of a traditional Slovenian flavor combination.