Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Salt-Free Lepinja (Serbian Flatbread)

Traditionally, cevapcici are served with a flatbread that resembles a thick sort of pita. It goes by various names, depending on where you are.  Serbian flatbread.  Bosnian bread. Lepinja or lepinje. Somun. Slovenians make a version called pogača.

I had already made an impromptu attempt at Balkan-style flatbread for my first cevapcici meal, early in my year of Slovenian cooking.  I just used part of the dough I'd put together for my grandmother's homemade white bread. The next time around, I resolved to use a more authentic flatbread recipe, which usually involves a simpler yeast dough and multiple risings.  I had found a good, basic recipe on Barbara Rolek's comprehensive Eastern European cooking site.

Now the time had come. But I had a new challenge: I wanted to make the bread without salt, to go along with the cevapcici for my very first Low Sodium Balkan Feast.  So I went back to the recipe I'd found and made a few changes.  For starters, I cut it in half. I skipped the salt and coated both the bowl and dough liberally with olive oil, for a little added moistness and flavor.

It turns out that salt serves two important functions in bread-making.  It adds to the taste. Perhaps more importantly, it enhances the structure of the dough by slowing down the growth of the yeast.  Without salt, bread can over-rise and collapse.  For that reason, some bakers argue that flatbreads and other small, individual breads lend themselves more readily to salt-free makeovers.  

The verdict?

Well, as you can see from the photos, the flatbread looked lovely.  It puffed up nicely. (Was it a little too high-rising?) Inside, it had the coarse, uneven texture that is typical of these breads.  The flavor?  Well, there is no getting around it: Plain white bread tastes a little flat without the salt.  But it's not bad.  And it serves as a good foil for the assertive flavors of the rest of a cevapcici feast:  Spicy, charred meat.  Tangy ajvar. Tart greek yogurt.  You don't really miss the salt.

Burger and fries? No thanks. The Balkan equivalent is so much tastier and healthier, with and especially without the salt!  To see how the two compare, go to the next post.

Salt-Free Lepinja (Serbian Flatbread)

1 package dry yeast
7 T. water, lukewarm
1/2 t. sugar
1-1/2 t. flour

3-1/2 c. flour*
about 1 c. water, lukewarm

olive oil for bowl
sesame seeds for top of bread

*original recipe calls for 1-1/2 t. salt to be mixed with flour

First, proof the yeast: In small bowl, mix water, sugar, and flour.  Sprinkle on yeast and mix well.  Let sit until mixture beings to bubble.

Put remaining flour in a large bowl.  Add the yeast sponge and enough of the 1 cup water to make a soft dough.  Mix well and place dough in well-oiled large bowl.  Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled.  (This may go faster without salt!)

When dough is doubled, punch it down, remove from bowl, and knead briefly on floured board.  Return dough to oiled bowl, cover and let rise again until doubled.

After the second rising, place dough on floured board, knead briefly, and divide into four balls.  Cover let rest for 10 minutes or a little more.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Flatten or roll each ball into a 1/2 inch thick round. Note that this is thicker than pita. Place each round on baking baking sheet lined parchment paper.  Using the dull side of a knife, make a criss-cross pattern on top of each round.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 450 degrees until flatbreads start to brown.  Lower oven to 300 degrees and bake for 10-15 minutes more.

Let cool on rack.  Best when warm or freshly made.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cevapcici and Lepinja, Low Sodium Balkan Feast # 1

Salt-Free Cevapcici
Salt-Free Lepinja (Serbian Flatbread)
Greek Yogurt
Green Salad

Low Sodium Slovenian cooking?  It sounds like an oxymoron.

Hide the salt shaker.  Forget about bacon, sausage and ham.  Sauerkraut no longer qualifies as healthy. Olives? Forget it.

What's left?  Why even bother?

Well, I wasn't about to abandon my developing passion for Slovenian and Balkan food. So there had to be a way to make it fit with our new low sodium lifestyle.

Yes, it would be challenging.  And not only because so many smoked, pickled, and preserved ethnic favorites are loaded with salt.

The other big problem?  A basic tenet of low sodium cooking is to compensate for the lack of salt by boosting other flavors, especially spices.  But traditional Slovenian food tends to be simply and mildly seasoned.

So I cheated a little.  For my first official low sodium dinner (for short: LoSoSlo), I looked to Slovenia's southern neighbors for inspiration.  What better place to start than with spicy grilled cevapcici? The little "skinless sausages" are popular in Slovenia, throughout the Balkans, and all over Europe.  But the dish is usually described as Serbian or Bosnian.  The origins are probably Turkish.

You can read about my first experiences with cevapcici here.

Since that first attempt, I had made a half-dozen versions of cevapcici, with a variety of ground meat and spice combinations. Beef and pork, beef and lamb, and most recently all-turkey. It seemed to be a never-fail dish, perfect for entertaining.  Festive when cooked outdoors, but equally successful with our trusty Le Creuset stovetop grill pan.

A low sodium version would be easy: Leave out the salt and increase the other spices to compensate.  To lighten the meat mixture, I would use carbonated water instead of high-sodium baking soda. I tried that once, using one of my earlier recipes, and it tasted fine, if a little mild.

Then I had a brainstorm.  How about adding some liquid smoke?  A little research convinced me that this rather odd product is inoffensive.   It's just distilled essence of wood smoke. Salt free and no dangerous additives.  So that is what I did for this first full-on low sodium feast.

(Here's a great home sausage-making site, which addresses the liquid smoke and salt-free options.)

Cevapcici tastes best with ajvar, the traditional Balkan red pepper relish.  I was pleased to discover that our brand is quite low in sodium: 50 mg a tablespoon, compared to 150 mg for catsup.  (It also has more fiber and less sugar.) Greek yogurt, my usual substitute for kajmak or clotted cream, is also fairly low in sodium.

As I suspected, the biggest challenge turned out to be making a salt-free lepinja, or Serbian flatbread.  I'll save that recipe, as well as the final verdict on the entire dinner, for my next post.

Meanwhile, here is the new, improved, salt-free cevapcici recipe.

Salt-Free Cevapcici

1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground lamb
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 T. parsley, minced
1/2 t. cayenne
1-1/2 t. smoked paprika
1-1/2 t. hot paprika
1/2 t. black pepper
3 T seltzer water mixed with 1/2 t. liquid smoke

Mix all the ingredients lightly together.  If possible, refrigerate for several hours so flavor can develop.  Form into little  1 x 3 inch sausage shapes and grill outdoors or on top of the stove.  (We've had good results with our Le Creuset grill pan.) Serve with the traditional accompaniments: ajvar, Greek yogurt or kajmak, and pita or lepinja/Serbian flatbread.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Salt Free Granola with a Slovenian Flair

Is it challenging to make granola without salt?  Not especially, although you might be surprised at how much sodium is lurking in some commercial varieties.

Is granola a traditional Slovenian food?  Hardly.  Slovenians are much more inclined to eat muesli, the uncooked Swiss version of an oats-fruit-nut breakfast blend.  Granola and muesli were both developed as health foods in the late nineteenth century.  Muesli seems to have remained true to its healthy European roots, while American granola has evolved into a sweet confection that borders on crumbled cookies.

So I'll admit it: Granola was an odd choice for my first venture into low sodium cooking. But I was captivated by the description of Pomegranate Granola Fruit Chunks in Sodium Girl's Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook, Jessica Goldman Foung's guide to the low salt lifestyle we are starting to adopt at my house. (Take a look at her blog for an online version of a very similar recipe for sort-of granola bars.)

Jessica's unusual granola recipe exemplifies her approach to low sodium cooking. The key is to compensate for the absence of salt by using intense and varied flavors in unexpected ways.  In this case, the flavor surprise is the rich, deep tang of pomegranate molasses, along with grated orange rind and orange juice.

I have made four versions of Jessica's granola recipe.  I started out with a few healthy modifications, since I was aiming for a breakfast cereal rather than a sweet snack.  The original recipe calls for butter, plenty of dried fruit, and no nuts.  I substituted vegetable oil,  added some nuts, and cut down on the sugary fried fruit.  It was delicious.

The next time, I got the bright idea of introducing some special Slovenian touches: Buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin seed oil.  The next time around, I added walnuts and cinnamon.  I have experimented with different combinations of dried fruits. Once, I mistakenly used pomegranate syrup instead of molasses.  It seems to work every time.

A note about pomegranate molasses: This was the first time I used this amazing sweetener, which seems to have become everyone's secret ingredient.   It has an incomparable flavor: tangy, sweet, and slightly bitter.  Any Middle Eastern grocery should carry it, but many mainstream supermarkets also stock it. If you must, you can substitute pomegranate syrup, regular molasses, or honey.

For the latest version of this always-evolving dish, read on!

Granola, Salt Free and with a Slovenian Flair

Dry Ingredients:
2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup whole buckwheat groats, untoasted

1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup dried apricots, diced
1/2 cup dried figs or dates, diced
1/4 cup dried cranberries

Liquid mixture:
1 T. vegetable oil
1 T. pumpkin seed oil
3 T. honey
2 T. pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar
grated rind and juice of 1 orange
1 t. cinnamon

Mix the rolled oats and untoasted buckwheat groats together and spread in a 9 by 12 inch pan or cookie sheet.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until lightly browned.  Remove from the oven and reduce heat to 300 degrees.

Pour the toasted oats and buckwheat into a large mixing bowl.  Add the remaining dry ingredients and combine.

Line the cooled baking pan with parchment paper.

Heat the oils in a small pan.  Add the honey and pomegranate molasses; blend well.  Add the brown sugar, orange rind and juice, and cinnamon and mix together.  Bring mixture to a boil and cook for 2 minutes.

Pour the liquid mixture over the dry ingredients in the large bowl.  Mix well.

Spread the granola onto the lined baking pan, using your hands or a spatula to flatten. Bake at 300 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.   Turn the pan during baking.  (Watch so it doesn't overbrown!)

Let cool for at least 45 minutes or until hardened.  Break into chunks or crumbles.

Serve with fruit and yogurt.  It's also good sprinkled on ice cream or as an anytime snack.

Warning: This is addictive!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A New Challenge: Raising the Salt Alarm

Can Slovenian cooking be healthy?  In my recent thinking and writing about this knotty problem, I overlooked something.

I had forgotten the salt.

Or, to be more exact: I never forgot the salt.

I used to reach for the salt shaker before tasting my food, until my husband started nagging me about it. He had raised my consciousness, but only up to a point.  In fact, neither of us had worried too much about the issue. We eat almost no fast food and very little processed food.  We follow a healthy diet.  He does most of the cooking.

So what changed?

His blood pressure.  It tends to go up as we age, and the majority of Americans will eventually develop hypertension. He had finally crossed that line, despite more than three decades as a non-smoking runner who kept his weight down and ate a healthy diet. You can't change genetics or family history, so what was left for us to do?

Ironically, I was the one who raised the salt alarm.  I realized it was the one lifestyle change we hadn't considered.  So I started doing some research and learned that everyone seemed to be raising the salt alarm.

The suggested sodium limits for Americans recently became more stringent. The CDC's recommendations are now 2300 mg a day if you are low risk, or 1500 mg a day for everyone over 50 or with high blood pressure. That second figure, which applies to most adults, is about a third of what the average American consumes.  It is the equivalent of a half teaspoon of table salt.

I started adding up the numbers.  It is amazing how much sodium lurks in even some innocent-looking foods.  Breads and crackers.  Breakfast cereals.  Pickles and olives.

When I looked at lists of forbidden high salt foods, my Slovenian heart sank.

No more of these, if you believe the experts:


No doubt about it. This was going to be a challenge.  Much harder than reducing fat or cutting carbs.  It would have to be a whole new way of cooking and eating.

Luckily, I discovered a wonderful new guidebook: Sodium Girl's Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook, by Jessica Goldman Foung, a young San Francisco woman with an inspiring story.  She had been a college student, on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant, when she adopted a radical low sodium diet. It worked.  Today her illness is under control and she is getting considerable acclaim for her low sodium cooking blog and her just-published book.  So that put our situation in perspective.

I wasn't sure how many traditional Slovenian favorites could be transformed into low salt dishes.  But I figured I could still be inspired by some of what I had discovered.  Even if sausage and sauerkraut would take a back seat, other flavors could be carried forward.

At least I hoped so.

In that spirit, I decided to make a Slovenian-inspired granola, based on a delectable version I discovered in Sodium Girl's cookbook.   I'll be posting my recipe soon.  (Update: Here it is!)

In the meantime,  you can take a look at Sodium Girl's recipe, which began as a sort-of granola bar. It's here, on her blog.

Stay tuned for more low sodium kitchen adventures!