My definition of the Balkan Peninsula includes the countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. I know, I know, that’s a lot of countries, each with long and rich cultural and culinary histories, how can I just lump them all together? Well, the answer is, I have to fit everything into 80 regions somehow, and honestly, when I was researching, there were a whole lot of stuffed capsicums and bean dishes going on everywhere that didn’t differ much between regions. Perhaps the differences are just too subtle for my sensibilities? Well, the good thing about this project is that I call the shots and if you disagree, you aren’t invited to dinner. Simple! The Balkans was the first area of Europe in which humans practised agriculture, having spread from the Middle East. This region is commonly known as the crossroad of cultures, where the Latin and Greek elements of the Roman Empire intersected, as well as Islam and Christianity. As such, the cuisine has an incredible fusion of ingredients and flavours from different parts of Europe and the Middle East, creating an identity of its very own.
Punjena paprika, meaning stuffed capsicums, is a dish known over broad expanses of Europe under different names. I’m not sure why it’s so popular – perhaps the perfect one-per-person size of capsicums, as well as their bright colours, hollow interiors and structural stability has repeatedly drawn cooks to stuff them over the centuries. I used three different colours of capsicums, because I love the bright happy contrast they provide. I found out recently that the three capsicum colours are actually just different stages of ripeness of the same type of capsicum – green being least ripe, yellow medium and red most. This makes perfect sense when you think about it – green capsicums being least sweet and red most, and also why the yellow ones are often the most expensive, as they would be the hardest to catch at the right colour. Stuffed capsicums were always my Dad’s favourite meal that my Mum would make, so we ate them quite a lot growing up, particularly in winter when they would be especially warming. I stuffed my capsicums with a mixture of pork and beef mince, rice, raw egg to bind and spices such as paprika, onion, garlic and dried herbs. I stuffed the mixture into the hollowed-out capsicums and then placed their little lids back on top before packing them into a saucepan with tomato puree to cook slowly.
Cevapi and ajvar
Cevapi are hand-formed sausages without casing made with a mixture of minced meat (often beef and pork), and spiced with garlic, onion and paprika. This dish is thought to have originated in Serbia, but is now served in restaurants and as street food all over the Balkans. Cevapi reminds me of the Middle Eastern minced meat kabobs grilled on long flat metal skewers, although I’m not sure if or how one may have influenced the other. I think I prefer Cevapi for the sheer convenience of not having to fret over casings like other sausages, and not having to mess around with the terribly tricky skewer system. The ethos behind the dish seems to be definitely “rustic” – form rough sausage shapes with your hands, then grill/fry them and eat. Wonderful. I served the cevapi on flatbread with sour cream and ajvar. Ajvar is a sauce that is also wide-spread across the Balkans, made primarily of blended roast capsicum. Also included in the puree is roast eggplant, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and parsley. Depending on how hot the capsicum variety is, and whether you add extra chilli, ajvar can be made very mild and sweet all the way to extremely spicy. Purportedly in Serbia this dish is called a Serbian salad, which makes me less eager to visit Serbia for fear of experiencing a true salad drought. It is also commonly compared to caviar, called “vegetable caviar” or the like. In fact, the name ajvar actually originates from the Turkish word for caviar, perhaps because of the resemblance to the salty taste and bright red colour. This is a pretty easy and very delicious spread to made, but only if you are in possession of a food processor… I served my cevapi and ajvar on flatbread with sour cream and parsley – mouth watering!
Börek are phyllo-dough pastries found throughout Eastern Europe. They can take the form of a whole large filled pastry, or alternatively small individual pastries. I really liked the aesthetic of the spiral börek, which seems to be particularly common in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, so decided on that one. Although börek can be filled with anything, including meat, potatoes, cheese or a mixture of any of these, I elected to fill mine with cheese. I used a strong goat’s feta, flavoured with plenty of parsley and pepper. I also tried to make my own phyllo, and quickly understood why even pastry chefs often admit to buying their phyllo pre-made. After making the Indonesian roti, I was perhaps a little overconfident. Avid blog readers might remember that my rotis were very successful, and that I made them by soaking dough in oil and then stretching it very very thin, folding it on top of itself and frying to made deliciously light and crispy layers. Phyllo is the same concept, but is not pre-soaked in oil, so it’s devilishly hard to stretch out to the paper-thin consistency necessary without tearing the dough. I managed a fair approximation, and then rolled up the filling like a long worm in a sleeping bag, then curled it around into a spiral. The filling and dough were delicious, but still a little thick and dense for having all the layers on top of each other. I think it would have been lighter and crispier if I’d used store-bought phyllo – oh well, lesson learned! Perhaps it would be possible to do it at home with a pasta maker? I sprinkled nigella seeds on top, which are most famous in Australia for adorning Turkish bread, and have a great nutty flavour. I think this is a simple way to make an interesting-looking pie, because the assembly itself is pretty fool proof, and it would be super quick and easy with pre-made dough!
Selsko meso, tavche gravche and shopska salad
Selsko meso is a pork and mushroom stew, typically cooked in a clay pot. I made mine by frying pieces of pork loin, onion, capsicums and tomatoes, then adding lots of chopped mushrooms, wine and some paprika near the end. I served it with a big dollop of cream cheese, and all of the flavours were wonderful together. It’s common to add other pieces of smoked meat, or beef meatballs to this dish, but I felt like the less-is-more attitude was great for letting the more subtle mushroom and wine flavours come through. Tavche gravche is one of my favourite dish names so far. I have absolutely no idea how it’s pronounced, or whether the two words actually rhyme, but it sounds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s primarily a Macedonian dish, with a base of white beans, flavoured with onion, garlic, capsicum, paprika, chilli and coriander. The mixture is baked in the oven, and offers a great new variation on the classic “baked beans” that I am familiar with. In particular, these beans taste fairly different because they don’t have a tomato base, and the addition of chilli gives a great kick. I’m a big fan of chilli for breakfast to really get you raring for the day ahead, so I think this would be great to share at a family brunch! Shopska salad is another dish served throughout the Balkans, but it purportedly originated in Bulgaria. It’s made by mixing chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicum, onion, white cheese and parsley, dressed in red wine vinegar and olive oil. It was a lovely fresh accompaniment to the meat and bean stews, and nicely rounded off the meal.