Friday, April 26, 2013

The Big Question: Is Slovenian Cooking Healthy?

Is Slovenian cooking healthy?

That was the big question I faced, at the beginning of the new year.  As usual, I had a few holiday pounds to lose.  Beyond that, I wondered: How much of my newfound taste for Slovenian food could I incorporate into our regular diet during the coming year?

I had already started to think (and write) about this question in the fall.

Back in November, I argued that traditional Slovenian cooking was much like other cuisines that develop in times of scarcity, when people did hard physical work. They used what was at hand and were limited to whatever was in season—or whatever they had managed to preserve.

I conceded that many elements of traditional Slovenian cooking present a challenge to the contemporary health conscious cook. The cooking is heavy on meat, especially pork. Fats are not what you could consider heart healthy: lard, cracklings, bacon fat, and butter.  And many of the favorite treats are based on white flour.  I had made them all: potica and strudel, homemade noodles and dumplings, struklji and zlikrofi.  But I had also started to do healthy makeovers.

Now, six months later, I would add a few other arguments in defense of Slovenian food.

First, whose culinary traditions are we talking about? European peasant farmers in the 19th century? The upper classes?  The Slovenian Americans who wrote my 1950s cookbooks?  Contemporary Slovenians?  Eating patterns varied and they evolved over time.

my mother's family, Cleveland, 1930s

American cookbook, 1950s 

In reality, the diet of peasant farmers was healthier than you might suppose. It revolved around whole grains and legumes: Buckwheat, millet, cornmeal, and barley.  Dried beans and lentils.  The daily bread meant whole grain, not refined white flour.  Meat was eaten sparingly, by today's standards. Fresh vegetables and fruits were highly prized. Slovenians never forgot their rural roots, in Europe or in the United States.  Even in big American cities, families kept gardens.  In the past, it was all Slow Food.  Local, natural, and unprocessed.

Another important point: Ethnic specialties were just that: Special dishes. Delicacies. Served on holidays, special occasions, and to guests.  Not daily fare.

Heavy on carbohydrates, by today's standards?  Yes.  But not inherently unhealthy.

In fact, the traditional Slovenian diet of the past was probably healthier than many other European cuisines. Consider British food. The typical Slovenian of today probably has a healthier diet than the average American, if obesity rates are any indication.

I already knew that healthy makeovers were possible. From the beginning, I had substituted olive oil for other fats and had cut down on quantities.  As the year progressed, I began to use turkey instead of red meat.  I tried low carb experiments, like cauliflower instead of rice, in stuffed cabbage, or a turkey-kasha filling in stuffed peppers.  More than half of my November and December dinners were healthy re-makes of dishes I had tried earlier in the year.

stuffed cabbage with beef-cauliflower  filling
stuffed peppers with turkey-kasha filling

Finally, many of the core ingredients and unique flavors in Slovenian cooking are quite healthy. Cabbage. Coleslaw and sauerkraut. Dandelion greens.  Green salads with light, tart dressings. Buckwheat. Pumpkin seed oil.  And seasonings like paprika, cinnamon, and marjoram are calorie-free.

My conclusion:  Slovenian cooking could be part of a healthy diet, with some modifications.

The only personal challenge I faced was limiting the carbohydrates, if I wanted to keep my weight down.  But that just meant sticking to the healthier ones: Vegetables, beans and legumes, with modest portions of whole grains. It wasn't a terrible hardship to limit breads, dumplings, noodles, and potica to special occasions.

My husband isn't as weight-challenged as I am, but he does need to watch his cholesterol and his blood pressure. Although he was a great supporter of my Slovenian cooking adventure, he did occasionally remind me that we had eaten more meat, especially pork, in the past year than in the previous decade!

So I figured we would go back to poultry as our mainstay, including all those locally-made chicken and turkey sausages we previously enjoyed.  Pork, beef, and lamb would be an occasional treat.

I thought I had covered all the bases.  But I forgot about one.


A new chapter was about to begin.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The New Year Begins: Pausing to Reflect. (When in Doubt, Think Soup!)

It was the second week in January.

New Year's Day had been celebrated.  Our sons had flown back to their respective homes.  We were back to our regular work schedules.   Life returned to normal.

My year of Slovenian cooking had come to a successful close. Fifty dinners.  So many kitchen adventures.  New family stories had emerged.  It had been quite a journey.

But I felt at a loss.  What next?

It seemed like a good time to pause and reflect on what I had learned.

It was also time for my traditional post-holiday belt tightening.  So a short break from traditional Slovenian cooking seemed in order.  Dumplings, noodles, homemade white bread, strudel, and potica wouldn't be of much help if I wanted to  get rid of the couple of extra pounds that always seem to accumulate during the holidays.

But I wasn't ready for The Austerity Kitchen.  And I wanted to carry the Slovenian spirit into the coming year, even if each week didn't bring a full-blown traditional dinner.

When in doubt, think soup.  That was one lesson I had learned from my year of Slovenian cooking.  I had just spotted a tempting recipe in Smitten Kitchen, a wildly popular cooking blog that recently evolved into a cookbook.

It was called Lentil Soup with Sausage, Chard, and Garlic.  The recipe, not to mention the photos, looked wholesome and inviting. I figured I could make it even more diet-friendly.

To reduce the fat,  I used less oil for browning and skipped the sizzling oil and garlic finish altogether.  Turkey sausage would be a healthier choice than Italian sausage.  I used the kale option instead of chard, simply because we had it on hand.  And parsley and mushrooms show up in so many Slovenian dishes, so why not add them, too?

And here was the one serendipitous touch.  I had already started the soup when I discovered the brown lentils I thought we had had in the pantry were actually whole buckwheat groats.  I had never heard of buckwheat or kasha in soup but it was too late to turn back.  And with the addition of buckwheat, this soup would definitely qualify as Slovenian-inspired!

The verdict?  It was delicious.   Healthy and hearty.   And if not exactly traditional, it was in the Slovenian spirit.  A good start to a new year of cooking: Slovenian-inspired, but lighter and healthier.  I had no idea what was in store!

Sausage, Kale and Buckwheat Soup (a Slovenian-inspired adaptation from Smitten Kitten)

1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil, 1-2 T
2 celery stalks, sliced
2 medium carrots, sliced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2-4 links turkey sausage (or klobase!)
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne
handful of parsley
1 cup whole buckwheat groats, rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 cups water
3 to 4 cups kale, thinly sliced
grated Parmesan and more parsley to garnish

Brown the onion and garlic in olive oil.  Add celery, carrots, and mushrooms and continue to brown. Add sausage and cook a few more minutes.  Add buckwheat, parsley, bay leaves, seasonings, tomatoes, and water.   Simmer until the buckwheat is tender, 30-40 minutes.  Add kale toward the end of the cooking period.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Garnish with grated parmesan cheese and additional parsley. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 50: Spinach Cheese Pie for Christmas

Menu for Christmas Eve
Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)
Green Salad
Christmas Cookies and Eggnog

Menu for Christmas Day
Klobase with Red Pepper and Onion
Pecan-Crusted Salmon
Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)
Green Salad
Potica Three Ways
Shortbread Three Ways
. . . And Many Other Goodies!

The last Tuesday of 2012 fell on December 25th.  That meant that Christmas would be the grand finale of my year of Slovenian cooking.

It seemed like a fitting way to bring my culinary adventure to a close.

Just one problem:  All all-Slovenian Christmas dinner would have violated too many family traditions. I didn't even consider it.

Instead, I decided that Monday night, Christmas Eve, would be the official Slovenian dinner.  It was be small. Just my husband and me, our older son (a vegetarian), his girlfriend, and our younger son. They had all flown in for the holidays. For Christmas dinner, we would be joined by my mother, my brother, and another young friend.

I needed to come up with a vegetarian entree that would do double duty.  The main dish on the first night. And with enough left over for Christmas dinner, where it would share the spotlight with two other entrees:  pecan-crusted salmon (my husband's Jacques Pépin specialty) and Slovenian klobase made by San Francisco's Jelenich Brothers.

The dish had to be festive, simple, and meat-free. Something in the Slovenian spirit.

I thought immediately of filo dough.  I'd had good luck making meat pita and cheese-filled burek.  But I hadn't yet tried a Yuguslav-style spinach cheese pie.

Full disclosure: Spinach cheese pie is more closely associated with the cuisine of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But in recent years, it has become popular in Slovenia.  I even found a recipe on the Slovenian cooking site Kulinarika.

Americans tend to be most  familiar with the Greek version, spanakopita.  I'm no expert, but the Yugoslav approach seems to be a moister dish, with more dairy products in the filling and an added measure of cream or yogurt poured over the top before baking.

"Ah, that's zeljanica,"  said my younger son, the journalist.  "It means green pie."

He said it like this: zel-yan-eet-tsa.

That's what they call it in Kosovo, where he now lives and works.  It goes by a few other names in different parts of the Balkans.

Whatever you call it, this is a forgiving dish, with many variations.  I stuck pretty closely to the version I found in The Yugoslav Cookbook.  At least that was my intention.  I took a few liberties, planned and unplanned.  But it all worked out in the end.

Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)

1-1/2 pounds feta or other salty cheese, crumbled
16 ounces kajmak (clabbered cream) or labne* (a rich, strained Middle Eastern yogurt)
4 eggs, separated
9 ounces fresh spinach, finely chopped
3/4 c. milk
3/4 c. cream
salt and pepper to taste

olive oil and melted butter, mixed

1 package filo dough

* Note: Kajmak is hard to find in the United States, although you can try to make your own.  I had better luck locating some labne.  Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or sour cream, alone or in combination, would also work.

For the filling: Combine feta cheese, kajmak (or substitute), chopped spinach, and milk. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add beaten egg yolks and mix well.  Fold in beaten egg whites last.

Oil two square or rectangular baking pans.  Add 3-4 sheets of filo, brushing each with some of the oil-butter mixture.  Now you begin to alternate layers of filling with a few sheets of filo. You can keep it simple, with just a couple of layerings, or aim for more. Just be sure to end with 3-4 layers of filo on top.

Before putting the dishes in the oven, pour a little cream over the top.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until firm and brown.  Let cool slightly before cutting into squares to serve.

With the zeljanica in the oven, I pondered my missteps and considered a few lingering questions.

Should I have pre-cooked the spinach?  I had used it raw, as some recipes directed.  It is certainly easier that way.  But the recipe I had chosen as my guide, I suddenly realized, called for cooked spinach. Oh well.

Another problem:  I had mixed the cream into the filling, right along with the milk, instead of holding it out for the final step.  So I had to pour a little more cream on top.  Perhaps my filling would end up too liquid.

The verdict?

Those two zeljanica tasted as good as they looked.  Brown and crispy on top, delectable and moist inside.  A little more of a pudding texture than Greek spanakopita.  Rich and tangy, with all that feta.  Just the right amount of spinach.

A success, all of it.  The zeljanica, which reheated beautifully.  The three varieties of potica I served the next day, at our Christmas Day dinner.  The rest of the dinner.  And the company, of course.

My year of Slovenian cooking had been a success, too.

I felt sad to see it coming to an end.

What next, I wondered?

Stay tuned!