Friday, December 4, 2009

Week #14 Croatian

Croatian for Thanksgiving? I'm not much of a traditionalist, so I say, "Why not?" [Check last Thanksgiving's blog entry and you'll find that we enjoyed a Southern feast of pork ribs smoked in the backyard, with collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, ambrosia....the whole shebang....with some Australian friends who'd never had the food of our home territory.]

Once again Himself and I invited over some friends who, like us, are transplants to Los Angeles and don't have family here to celebrate with. Since I couldn't find any Croatian restaurants around town while planning my 52 Cuisines project, I knew this cuisine would be a good one to cook at home. Plus I have a couple of good Croatian cookbooks, one of which was written by a colleague who lived in Croatia for a year and learned everything she could about its food while she was there. She has the on-the-ground experience I crave and hope to gain someday. Croatia is pretty close to the top of the list that Himself and I keep of the places we'd like to visit.

This cuisine has some diverse influences. Because Croatia lies just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, the landscape, architecture and food are quite similar. But because it was a part of the Eastern Bloc for a few decades, things developed differently for there. The food may be Mediterranean, but quite a few of the cooking techniques and touches are Hungarian. Prowling through these Croatian cookbooks I see a lot of dishes I recognize from our recent Hungarian foray, including goulash, paprikas and strudel.

Pogacha topped with rosemary

It's not difficult to envision that leap across the Adriatic with this bread. Pogacha in Croatia is focaccia in Italy. Essentially it's a flat, leavened bread that you can split for making sandwiches, dip in olive oil or schmear with a spread. We did the latter.

The fish paté we had for an appetizer was really creamy, thanks to a combo of butter and cream cheese. You can use most any kind of fish for this--a white fish would be nice--but tuna is what I had on hand, so tuna is what I used. I also added a dash of colatura, which is sort of like liquefied anchovies, but that will just be our little secret, okay? To tame the fishiness I tossed some green olives, cornichons and sun-dried tomatoes into the processor with all the rest.

Tarana, Croatian pasta
This Croatian-style pasta is called tarana. Essentially, you make a really stiff pasta dough, grate it roughly on a box grater, spread it over a clean towel and set it out to dry for a few hours. Then you brown it in butter and cook it in some broth. Whereas the Italians love to roll and cut their pastas, the Eastern European tendency is to take the basic dough--or batter, in the case of spätzle--and employ some other means of achieving tiny noodles.

Here's the finished product. I cooked it in tomato broth with a little added tomato sauce to boost the flavor. You could make this with any broth you choose and toss in some onions while you're browning the pasta. Or you could treat it like rice and load it with meat and veggies and easily make a meal. The possibilities for this dish are limitless--and it makes it possible for you to turn out some fresh pasta even if you don't own a pasta machine.

Pasticada: No, not THAT kind of Dalmatian!

Pasticada, or Dalmatian pot roast, is a specialty of Dalmatia, the southernmost region of Croatia. It's a beef roast that's larded with smoked bacon and garlic and braised in wine with onions, carrots and celery, which is usual for boeuf bourguignon. But this includes figs and dates, which transports the dish much further east from Burgundy. It takes a little time and effort, but it's really good stuff--and it made enough for several meals to have the week after. Beef just gets better and better each time you heat it (unlike pork and chicken, but that's another blog). And while a large portion of Croatia hugs the coastline--its menu reflects a considerable amount of fish and seafood--pasticada is so beloved there that even the fishermen crave it.

The beef braised on this bed of veggies and dried fruits in a bath of well-seasoned wine. I didn't want to let a drop of that braising liquid go to waste. It's some of the richest and most flavorful I've ever made. We decided that pasticada is a dish for "the rotation," what Himself and I call our collection of favorites dishes that get made frequently at our house.

I made the accompaniments the day before, so they could benefit from an overnight stay in the fridge. Then I set them on the counter about two hours before we ate to knock off the chill. This combo of techniques helped bring some nicely developed flavor to both dishes. The Brussels sprouts bathed in a dressing that included red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey and garlic. The bean and bacon salad joined two staple foods of Croatia with a few basic ingredients--garlic, onion, red bell pepper, green onions, lemon juice and olive oil--to create a dish in which whole was greater than the sum of its parts. I could have made a meal on this item alone. I suspect that it's going into the rotation as well. However, Himself still considers Brussels sprouts a waste of space on a plate or in a tummy, so that recipe may have to languish in the book and wait for another special occasion to shine.
For dessert we had kiflice od badema, or almond crescents. These little butter and almond meal cookies are popular throughout Eastern Europe (kiflice in Croatia becomes kifli in Hungary and kipferl in Austria). To go with them I made cherry ice cream with dried, tart cherries and using Marasca, the maraschino cherry liqueur that is imported from Croatia in tall, straw-covered bottles that remind me of the Chianti bottles I used to love making into cheap candle holders (and that's ma-ra-SKEE-no, which is a wonderful cherry, not to be confused with those weird red things you find at the grocery and in the bottom of any of a number of sweet cocktails).

It's instructive to cook some of these cuisines at home, because researching the dishes, finding the ingredients--if there are any unusual ones--and doing the work myself brings a different understanding to the meal. Still, it's valuable to eat in restaurants owned and run by those who grew up with those cuisines and who have brought their food traditions with them. Both ways of exploring a cuisine have value, just in entirely different ways.

And sharing the meal is a great way to enjoy the experience, too. We were grateful that our friends were game for a non-traditional Thanksgiving with us. Anna and Kevin were troopers. So were Chris, Robin and their son Ethan. All came and gave themselves over to the experience. I don't think anyone was scarred for life by the lack of the standard Thanksgiving fare.

Well, maybe six-year-old Ethan wasn't quite up for the challenge, but to his credit, he gave it the ol' college try. He spotted our Mousetrap game as soon as he walked in the door and stashed the knowledge of its presence away for after dinner use. By dessert, while he was picking those frozen cherries out of his ice cream, he'd begun to formulate a plan. Pretty soon we were all gathered around the coffee table, playing Mousetrap and making it a Thanksgiving to remember.

Some people are better at Mousetrap than others. Way to rub it in, Ethan & Robin!
So, a Thanksgiving of Croatian food and Mousetrap rather than turkey and football? Sounds like a winner to me. Hmmm, what to have NEXT Thanksgiving...?


Ink Gorilla said...

It's not that brussels sprouts are BAD... it's just that everything else was so GOOD!!

Hungry Passport said...

Heya Ink Gorilla (yep, everybody, that's Himself), I'm going to take that as a compliment.