Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Week 42: A Journey to Serbia

As I began researching Serbian cuisine, I quickly recognized several dishes that I had previously read about and cooked from other countries during this year’s global journey.  I immediately looked at a map, because I must confess that I could not remember Serbia's exact location.  Landlocked by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania (controversially though…Albania borders the disputed Kosovo region), this country is surrounded by rich culinary traditions.  I recognized the dobos torte from my Hungarian journey, baklava and moussaka from Greece, paprikas from Hungary, kanafeh from Palestine, syriniki from Russia, and burek from Tunisia.  Most of these influences can be traced to Serbia’s rule under the Ottoman Empire.  The good news is that I enjoyed all of these dishes, so I was anxious to try other popular dishes within the Serbian culture.

The main course in Serbia is always a meat dish.  National dishes include pljeskavica (hamburger steak), cevapcici (grilled links of ground meat served with onions, sour cream, minced red pepper and salt in a flatbread), and sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat).  Serbia is famous for its pork products, so much so that many have attained protected designation of origin status, such as Sunka (Serbian Smoked Ham), Uzice (Serbian Bacon), and Cvarci (Serbian Pork Rinds).  In addition to these smoked and cured meats, Serbians also produce many types of sausages, which can be traced to influences from Hungary and Austria.  Not surprisingly, barbeques are very popular in this meat-centric culture.  Pickled foods, such as sauerkraut and pickled peppers, are often found in Serbian cuisine, which as a matter of balance makes perfect sense as they would serve as great accompaniments to these rich meat dishes. 

Bread is the most important component of a Serbian meal.  Traditionally, house guests are greeted with bread and salt, and some people even believe that throwing away bread is sinful.  The breads range from large country-style loaves of soda bread to pita bread to deep fried doughs.  In keeping with the theme of baking, pies and pastries are also popular in Serbian culture.  Many pastries are similar to what we Americans know more familiarly as Greek, Turkish, or Middle Eastern because of their extensive use of phyllo dough.  In addition, numerous tortes similar to Hungary’s Dobos Torte appear in Serbian cuisine.  Because dairy products are both abundant and popular in Serbia, many desserts incorporate cheese fillings, such as palachinke (thin crepe-like pancakes stuffed with cheese and jam) and gibanica (a pastry dish of phyllo, fruit, and cheese layers). 

With a limited amount of time for cooking this week, I set out to touch on as many key elements of the cuisine as possible in only a few dishes.  I incorporated grilled meats, pickles, bread, pastry, and dairy products into one Serbian Meal.

Saturday’s Prep:  Cesnica (Christmas Soda Bread) and Grilled Pickled Peppers

Because bread serves such an important role in Serbian cuisine, I chose to make a fresh loaf of bread with cultural significance.  Cesnica (also chesnic or chesnitsa) is a country-style yeast bread served during the Christmas Holidays.  It is also referred to more commonly as Christmas Bread or Money Bread.  The recipes vary by family and also according to date.  Christmas serves as one of the holiest days in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and devout Serbians abstain from meat, dairy and eggs during the 40 days leading up to Christmas.  During this time period, a basic cesnica made with only water, yeast, flour, salt and shortening is served.  During the Christmas feast, a more flavorful cesnica made with eggs and butter may be served, and some families even serve a sweet version studded with raisins and nuts.  No matter which version a family makes, the baked loaf always includes a hidden silver coin.  The bread is torn, never sliced, and tradition holds that whomever gets the coin will be lucky during the next year.  

For this week’s project, I made a basic cesnica with eggs and butter, and I was surprised at what a big, beautiful loaf of bread I had.  The inside was light and fluffy, and the exterior had perfect crisp edges.  Other than dealing with the extremely sticky dough, it was a simple bread to make.  As with most basic yeast breads, it just took time.

In Planet BBQ, Steven Raichlen writes about Grilled Pickled Peppers as typical side items to be included in a grilled meal.  Until I read the recipe, I thought it meant that pickled peppers were to be grilled.  Instead, grilled peppers are pickled.  (So, really it is Pickled Grilled Peppers, right?)  He describes them as long, slender peppers and recommends using horn or banana peppers for authentically Serbian preparations.  At the market, I only found cubanelles, so I opted to use them.  (Raichlen notes that milder peppers like cubanelles are used in neighboring countries, such as Croatia.)  I grilled the peppers until the skin began to blister.  Then, I put them in a pickling jar with garlic cloves, and I covered them in a mixture of white vinegar, salt, and sugar.  I left them in the refrigerator overnight to pickle for Sunday night’s dinner.

Sunday Night’s Dinner:  Grilled Pork Roulade (rolovani punjeni raznjici), Grilled Pickled Peppers (ardei copti), Serbian-style Coleslaw, Grilled Cesnica, and Gibanica

pork roulades
grilled pickled peppers
oil and vinegar coleslaw
When I read the recipe for Raichlen’s rolovani punjeni raznijici, I knew it was the Serbian meat dish for our dinner as it incorporates most of the traditionally Serbian elements:  pork tenderloin wrapped around cheese, cornichon, and onion…and then wrapped in bacon.  Plus, it sounded amazing, and I knew the hubs would be happy to fire up the charcoal grill for this meal.  Each roulade is small as the size of the pork tenderloin is only two inches by three inches.  I used edam cheese, because I read that it was similar to typical Serbian cheese.  The final dish was rich and delicious, and tasted exactly as you might imagine it. 

For side items, I served the Grilled Pickled Peppers and an oil and vinegar dressed Serbian coleslaw.  Cabbage is such a major component of Eastern European cuisine that I felt like I had to include it somewhere in the meal.  Both the peppers and the coleslaw provided a nice balance to the meal as their cool, crunchy, and tart profiles offered the perfect counterpoint to the rich, smoky pork roulades.  Since I still had half of that big loaf of cesnica leftover, I cut a few thick slices, and we grilled it to enjoy with dinner, as well.


For dessert, I made gibanica layered with phyllo sheets, an apricot filling, raspberry preserves, and a cheese filling.  I liked this dessert, because it was not overly sweet.  While the separate flavors of the three fillings were discernible, together they complemented each other by offering sweet, tart, and creamy profiles to the dish.

I must admit that I was not confident that this week would yield many great dishes when I began this Serbian journey, but when I finished these dishes, I found myself wondering if I had shortchanged Serbia.  After I finally began to understand the culture and the convergence of the Ottoman influences with those of Hungary and other Balkan states, I stumbled upon some interesting dishes that we really enjoyed.  Every country's cuisine offers some interesting flavors and dishes...sometimes it just takes a little longer to find those gems.

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