Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chicken Stew, Slovenian-Style and Salt-Free

"Obara?"  Mia's eyes twinkled. "That means you can put anything in it!"

I was in my favorite spot at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall: the small upstairs library, hanging out with Mia, who is originally from Slovenia.  She is a warm, charming woman who retired a few years ago from her position as a university librarian.  Mia always seems amused by my ethnic cooking adventures.  She even recalled my disaster with žganci and had brought back some buckwheat flour from her most recent trip to Slovenia, just in case that was the source of my problem.

So now I had it on good authority:  The Slovenian stew known as obrara or ajmoht really is an "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" dish.  That was a good description of my most recent version.  It had to be salt-free, so I tried to boost the flavor with as many additions as possible, without departing too much from tradition.

Obara or ajmoht can vary, depending on the meat used and the assortment of vegetables added.  The distinctive element, at least to the American palate, is a certain Slovenian tang, thanks to a brown roux and sometimes a tart addition like lemon zest, wine, or vinegar.

It all started with my mother's recollection of a childhood dish she called "aye-macht," a sort of roux-thickened veal soup.  For my first attempt at recreating the dish, Chicken Ajmoht I, I used a simple recipe from the Progressive Slovene Women of America.  I also tried to make žganci as an accompaniment, but the little dumplings ended up as buckwheat polenta.

For my next attempt, Chicken Ajmoht II, I consulted a couple of additional sources, The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe and Slovenian Cookery.  That's when I started adding wine.

This time around, I had my newest cookbook to consider, Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia.  I also had a sous-chef, since my husband volunteered to do the actual cooking.

For the result, read on.

Chicken Stew, Slovenian-Style and Salt-Free (chicken ajmoht or obara)

2 whole boneless chicken breasts (skin on), cut up
olive oil to brown chicken
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. flour
1 c. white wine
2  ribs celery, chopped
1 leek, bulb and a bit of green, soaked well and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and  sliced
1/2 c. cauliflower florets
2 potatoes, peeled and cut up
water to  cover
peel of 1 lemon, grated
1 T. fresh marjoram, minced
1 T. fresh thyme, minced
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
4 T. fresh parsley, minced
pepper to taste
optional: no-salt seasoning (or salt) to taste

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large deep skillet. Brown chicken and set aside.  Add onion and garlic and brown.  Now make a roux: Add 1 T. butter, 2 T. olive oil, and 2 T. flour and cook until brown.  Add wine and celery, leek and carrots.  Add water to cover.  Add lemon and seasonings. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  Add potatoes and simmer until tender.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Sprinkle with additional parsley and serve.

The verdict?  The mixture of flavors was delicious. My husband had a generous hand with the wine, which gave the dish a particular zest.  He did leave the chicken in larger chunks than I might have, and there seemed to be less liquid than in my previous versions.  But you can easily adjust for a saucier dish.  All in all, another LoSoSlo winner!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Bograč, Spicy and Salt-Free Goulash Soup

Bograč, Slovenia's spicy goulash soup, seemed like a good candidate for a low-sodium makeover.  I had made it twice before, with slightly different seasoning variations each time.

To compensate for the lack of salt, I figured I'd better season to the max, this time around. I used the complete array of vegetables and flavorings from the two previous versions, but increased the quantities.  I did this the easy way: by cutting down on the meat and keeping everything else constant.

For the recipe and the verdict, read on.


Bograč, Spicy and Salt-Free Goulash Soup

1/2 lb. beef stew meat, cubed
1/2 lb. pork stew meat, cubed
1 large onion, sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, soaked and prepared as directed
1 green pepper, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced
1 t. caraway seed
1 T. paprika (half hot, half smoked)
2 t. fresh marjoram
black pepper to taste
small hot pepper, a few slices, minced (optional)
1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced
½ c. crushed tomatoes
1 lb. potatoes, cut in chunks
water to cover
1/4 c. red wine
olive oil

Before beginning, prepare dried mushrooms as instructed on package, or use these directions: Soak in warm water until softened. Drain, cover with fresh water, and simmer until tender.    

Brown onion in olive oil, using a large pot or Dutch oven. Add garlic and continue to brown. Remove to another bowl. Add meats to oil left in pot and brown. Add the peppers and spices and continue to brown. Return onion and garlic to the pot. Add re-hydrated dried mushrooms (with or without cooking liquid), crushed tomatoes and enough water to cover. Simmer until meat is tender and almost done. Add potatoes and wine and simmer another hour. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with additional parsley.

The verdict:  Delicious!  The first night, we served the bograč with cooked greens alongside.  The second night, my husband also made some cooked kasha.  The earthy flavor went particularly well with the spicy goulash.

This version did come out more like a thick stew than a soup.  That can be adjusted easily by adding more water, or even some extra wine!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Curd Cheese Pancakes, Russian-style

My obsession with curd cheese and farmer cheese was still going strong.

The latest twist: We had just picked up some authentic tvarog at a Russian grocery in San Francisco.  It turned out to be very much like the version made by Belfiore, a small cheese-making company based in Berkeley, my home town.

I knew the perfect way to use that cheese. Pancakes.

A few months earlier, my Cajun band had a gig at a local farmers' market. During the break, I discovered a Russian Jewish vendor with a variety of traditional homemade delicacies for sale. My favorites were the cheese pancakes, or syrniki in Russian. They were unlike any cottage cheese pancakes I had tried before: sweet, thick and substantial. More like cheese patties.

There are many recipes available for pancakes made with cottage cheese or sometimes ricotta. These pancakes have long been a popular high-protein dish for dieters, since they are typically heavy on the cheese and egg, with just a little flour.

But the Russian take on the dish was new to me.  I searched out a number of recipes for cheese pancakes and discovered that many Eastern and Central European groups make them. But not the Slovenians. The closest I could find were boiled cheese dumplings. (Slovenian "cheese pancakes" turned out to be blintzes.)

So I decided to stick to recipes for Russian cheese pancakes.  I ended up with a variation of a recipe I found on an NPR site, which they had adapted from a Russian chef.  I worked out a single serving adaptation.

The NPR recipe is here.

For my version, along with the verdict, read on.

Curd Cheese Pancakes, Russian-Style

To make one generous serving:

1/2 cup farmer cheese (Russian-style is best), curd cheese, or ricotta
1 egg
1 T. sugar
1-2 T. flour
a few drops of vanilla
squeeze of lemon juice
(optional: pinch of baking soda, regular or low sodium)

Mix all the ingredients together.   Heat oil or butter in a skillet.   Drop batter by rounded tablespoons into skillet.  When brown on one side, turn.  Serve with honey or syrup, yogurt, and fresh fruit.

The verdict?  Very tasty.   The recipe made a generous serving, which I managed to finish with no leftovers. I didn't miss the salt at all.

It was not quite what I remembered from the Russian vendor at the farmers' market. I suspect the Russian man used a larger proportion of cheese relative to the egg and flour.

The next time, I'll make a larger recipe and experiment with the proportions.   I may also try my hand at making homemade farmer cheese that duplicates that Russian tang!

Update: A year-and-a-half later, I finally perfected this dish--and I discovered a recipe for syrniki in one of my vintage Slovenian cookbooks! To read about it, go here.