Monday, January 19, 2009

grubtrotting: Croatia report

Sunday evening we had our first grubtrotting dinner, and it was proclaimed a success. Dan, Sandy, and Sharon came over so it turned into a small dinner party of seven. I spent several hours in the kitchen and was not disappointed with the way anything turned out. Tracey and the boys and I all did some cultural, geographical, and historical research as well, and each had a small presentation after dinner. We then had a good discussion about those topics. It turns out that our friend Bob's sister is married to the former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and then Croatia, that Nathaniel's friend's mother's side of the family is Croatian, and that Tracey used to work with a Croatian and sees his wife now and then. I did not know that I had so much expertise so readily available! We got all our information from the web and the encyclopedia. I think I'll have more to say about that in another blog entry.

The menu, reproduced above, was a somewhat random assortment. Croatian cuisine is regionally specialized, which is unsurprising given its geographic diversity and history as a cultural crossroads. The menu is not very representative, nor was it designed with any particular eye toward thematic integrity or gastronomical sensibility. That said, it worked out just fine. If I did Croatia a second time I'd probably lean toward seafood dishes.

Appetizers were assorted and mostly consisted of small items I found at the Balkan Market. The sausage, mackerel, and (processed) cheese spread were all Croatian items. The peppers were of Macedonian origin. I really liked the hot fefferoni peppers when consumed with something else, like bread and cheese. They are a bit zippy for a solo snack.

I made the pogacha bread, following this recipe, despite it being labeled as Serbian. I understand the bread to be widely consumed across the region. Pogacha recipes vary quite a bit. I wanted to make a flat one. I shaped it very clumsily so it was of varied thickness and not stunningly beautiful in form, however it was lovely once cut and very tasty. I used butter instead of margarine and 1% milk because that's what I had on hand.

The braised lamb, a dish from the Slavonija region in the east, was very good. I used a boneless leg instead of shoulder. There is an error of some kind in the recipe: the ingredients call for tarragon and in the instructions refer to vinegar. I eventually decided that the vinegar must have been mistakenly substituted for tarragon by the typist. Certainly it turned out to be quite delicious with tarragon.

The spaetzle recipe was from the same source. I probably should have looked around for other recipes once I decided to make it in order to acquaint myself with the possibilities and techniques. The dough was thin and extremely sticky, even after I used additional flour. It was difficult to pull off bits after it had been sliced into strips, and I don't think it turned out quite right. It tasted fine, though. I buttered it and tossed it with breadcrumbs, and it went nicely with the sauce of the lamb.

Blitva called for Vegeta, which is what led me to the Balkan Market in the first place. It is a simple side dish consisting of boiled chard and potato, and is apparently popular across the country. I understand that Vegeta is enormously popular, too. I don't know that I'm a big fan. To me the dominant flavor and mouthfeel are nearly identical to every dry seasoning packet (regardless of indicated flavor) that comes with instant ramen noodles or soup. A "universal food seasoning" is a sad shortcut, and its most significant components are surely salt and MSG. And I loathe dried carrots.

The pickled cabbage was a vacuum-packed whole head from the Balkan Market. It was powerful and had a better texture than shredded stuff from a jar.

Dessert, the cheese-filled crepes, was excellent. It used the farmer cheese I made on Saturday. I used a touch more sugar in the filling (perhaps 3/8 cup total) and served them with powdered sugar for anyone who wanted a sprinkle. They were a wonderful not-too-sweet dessert.

The 2006 Dingac Plavac red (Plavac Mali grape) and 2004 Kastelet white (grape varieties unspecified) wines were from the Dalmatia region via the Balkan Market. I was surprised to see a five year old white wine. They were fine, and unlike anything I'd had before, though nothing I'd seek out again. The Plavac Mali grapes have an interesting history, though. The Karlovacko beer was a serviceable mild lager. I forgot to open the Maraska cherry wine.

Isaac presented a list of English words and phrases and how to say them in Croatian. Nathaniel gave a rundown on sports and leisure activities. Tracey covered all sorts of geographical and demographic details. I talked about the history of the Balkan Peninsula, Yugoslavia, and Croatia, the concept of Balkanization, and why the cuisine of a country the size of the state of Virginia is so varied.

So, for our first attempt at what I hope will become a family tradition, I was quite pleased. It's a lot of work but we're all looking forward to the next one.

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