When traveling a sure way to connect and learn about a culture is to get in the kitchen with a local for a hands-on, crash course in traditional cooking. It’s surprising how easy it is to find yourself playing a bit role in creating a culinary masterpiece, when you merely ask.
Workaway host Dunja Sabljak invited me in her kitchen as she prepared a dizzying array of favorite dishes from her northern Croatian homeland. This area of the country, bordering Slovenia, is known for traditional recipes, best described as peasant food (Being from Alabama, we can relate. It’s the cuisine of country folk.) Heavily meat-based as opposed to the seafood-centric traditions of Croatia’s coast, menus feature a bounty of local game, fresh vegetables, and homemade pastries.
When it comes to spices, there is never a heavy hand. When used, basil, paprika, and a store-bought mix called Vegeta (which Dunja playfully refers to as “Croatia’s national spice,”) are the go-tos. And, of course, olive oil. This local specialty has a grassy, almost green flavor. I’ve said it many times…Croatian olive oil is my favorite. (I hear your collective groan, Italians friends, and I do apologize.)
But, it’s true. I would swim in Croatia’s magically delicious oil.
In Dunja’s kitchen, vegetables are picked minutes before use from an expansive garden steps from her door, cheese is made by a family friend, and recipes have been passed down for generations.
Here in the north, lunch is king especially on weekends. The mid-afternoon meal traditionally is the day’s most substantial and important.
Special note: If you have read the “kitchen” posts on this blog before, you know I like approximations. For me, cooking isn’t a science, it’s an art. Feel your way through and improvise freely. That’s how we proceeded and the results were delicious.
This rolled, baked pastry dish, often called “Croatian strudel,” was my favorite. Apparently I’m not alone. Served as an appetizer to a hungry crowd, it practically vanished.
Fresh feta cheese
Several large zucchini, peeled then shredded in food processor, drained well to avoid excess mosterior.
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350. Mix together zucchini, feta, salt, and eggs. Lay out phyllo, cover with plastic and damp towel to prevent drying out, unless you are superfast like Dunja and can spread and roll before it has a chance to get flaky. (I’m not.)
By the way, if you are a husband and/or bystander watching this process, now is not the time to ask, “Why are you using store-bought phyllo instead of making it from scratch?” No doubt, homemade dough would put the dish over the top, but for sanity’s sake, store bought is just fine. Just. Fine.
Melt a ¼ – ½ stick of butter. Brush a small amount of melted butter over the entire first sheet, then spoon and gently spread a thin layer of mixture, covering half the surface. Roll the sheet into a fairly tight log. This may take some practice because of phyllo’s delicate nature. Place roll in baking pan (slightly greased with butter or oil.) Repeat until you run out of dough, batter, or the will to live.
When the pan is full, cover the pastry with a layer of sour cream, then bake until just browned on top. Roughly 20 minutes.
It’s delicious for an afternoon snack and leftovers can’t be beat for breakfast.
A traditional preparation also includes using yellow squash instead of zucchini, cottage instead of feta, and adding a dollap of sweet cream. I am already thinking of ways to expertiment…potato and blue cheese?
A traditional recipe in the north, the simple dish has the same name as its main ingredient: mlinci.
The ingredient is like a tortilla or flatbread and can be purchased in most stores in the region or made at home. The dish is usually cooked with roasted chicken or turkey. For our lunch, we made both a meat-lovers and a vegetarian pan.
Preheat oven, if it’s not already there, let’s say 350 again.
To make from scratch: combine 2 cups flour, 1-2 eggs, and a pinch of salt to form dough, add water as needed to create the right consistency to manipulate easily without being soggy. Roll into thin rounds, place on lightly greased baking sheet, and cook until crispy, about 5 minutes each side.
While bringing a pot of water to boil, break mlinci into small pieces and place in bowl, then pour the hot water over mlinci and watch as the brittle, cracker-like bits magically transform in to what I can best describe as an egg noodle constiency.
Drain and place in baking pan.
Veggie version: Simply add spices. We used the aforementioned Vegeta, a mixture of dried onion, carrot, other veggies, and salt. Bake for about 10 minutes.
Meat version – We roasted whole chickens, separately, adding them on top of the baking mlinici pan for about the last 10 minutes of cooking over lower heat so the noodles soak up the meat juices.
You know I like to experiment, so in the future, I might add some spring onions and leeks – or whatever is available seasonally – to the delicious noodles.
When we traveled through Croatia six years ago, Matt and I fell head over heels for blitva. It’s a super simple dish, using green swiss chard, slowly sauteed with generous amounts of olive oil and garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. When you think you have added enough oil, add a bit more. Trust me.
When we’ve made this dish at home, we’ve also added in diced potatoes. It’s an incredibly filling side.
To round out lunch, we also whipped up:
Boil beets, then skin and slice. While still warm, season with olive oil, salt, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.
Homemade tomato soup with no other ingredients than super ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and pinch of salt. It’s traditional here to serve the soup with (spaghetti) noodles. When ready to eat, place a scoopful of noodles in bowl, then pour soup over it (so noodles don’t get soggy before eating.)
And, in case you are still hungry, there are a few more traditional northern Croatian specialties you should check out:
A strudel-like, cheese-centric dish, with many variations and stuffings, from savory to sweet. Comfort food to the extreme.
A beloved dish in this region. Lamb, veal or chicken is combined with vegetables and generous amounts of olive oil, then placed in a huge pot, covered and placed on hot coals in a cooking process that takes all day.
A roasted red pepper dish often called “Croatian caviar,” made from a pepper coming into perfect ripeness at this time of year. Dunja’s mom was making the dish the day we left, almost causing a change of plans. Even though I missed out on seeing the recipe firsthand, I do intend to attempt it on my own before leaving the country.
For more recipes, try this site: Honest Cooking.