Saturday, November 27, 2010

Croatian Carbs


It didn’t take long, of course, for me to get to food. I don’t want to spend too much time early on talking about the lesser Croatian issues, like history, politics, landscapes, culture, and such; instead I want to proceed to the essentials. I’ll have quite a few blogs on food, but here I’d like to mention a couple of goodies that especially impressed us. Today it’s about some favorite and interesting carbs.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind about food here, it’s that Croatia is at a crossroads of so many cultures and histories, and so many of them seem to find their way to your plate, sometimes in subtle forms, sometimes not. So, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia as major examples, have some have some sway on food here. On occasion there’s even a taste of Greece and Turkey from one direction and Germany and friends from the other. And although the country not very large, food can vary by region, depending at least partially on the neighbors. What you find in Istria may be somewhat different than in Slavonia. The bottom line is that the influences are many and so Croatian cuisine has many sides.

OK, let’s start with štrukli. If you want a comparison, the closest thing to štrukli is a cheese blintz. But the ones we had at Nokturno—a fun local restaurant ( –were far richer than any blintz I have ever had. They were amazing. Lucia and I went over there on a Sunday with Jess Kuntz and we somehow misunderstood what we were about to get, so we ended up with three fairly large pieces each. We ate it all, and then didn’t eat anything for the rest of the day! The pic you see here grabbed from the web looks exactly like what we got, except for the glob of topping. The filling is comprised of various combinations of ‘farmers cheese’, ‘baker’s cheese’, and sour cream, although I’ve seen ricotta and even feta mentioned. I have no idea what combination of cheeses we got on this occasion, but it was extremely rich and very good, with a calorie and fat content that would not be approved by Doc Meyerson. Finally, bread crumbs cooked in butter may be sprinkled over the top, which is what we got, as if that rich touch is needed. Štrukli is basically a Croatian dish, certainly more so than the other foods I mention here. In fact sometimes it’s called Zagorske štrukle, which refers to its origins in Zagorje, that is, in the general region from Zagreb to the Slovenian border. I have no idea if people take the time to make it at home, but you find it often in restaurants. This is great stuff!
At another end of the scale is Mlinci, which is very simple in form. Mlinci can be found in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia, but it may be most popular here in Croatia; don’t quote me on that one. It’s a kind of pasta that is thin, hard, and flat when you get it, it usually comes in square sheets, and it’s very inexpensive. You break it up into pieces, so it’s usually shaped irregularly once it’s in your dish. Sometimes it’s referred to as ‘noodle’ and when we were in Slovenia (Ljubljana) we saw it named ‘pasta tatters’. We haven’t seen it in restaurants but it is on shelves in a variety of places. Sometimes you can buy it at Konzum (the local ‘super market’ found everywhere here in Zagreb—but don’t think LARGE super market ala the U.S.). The best place to get it is at the pasta shops (stalls), especially in the underground part of Dolac, which is our very large and very nice market place.

Mlinci is usually cooked—softened up is more like it—in a matter of seconds in hot water, nearly always less than a minute, and then it’s plopped into a dish that has plenty of sauce or juices, which it helps to absorb. I gather that quite often it’s dropped in alongside a roasting duck, piece of pork, or turkey. Rumor has it that the indefatigable Larry Moneta would eat chunks of it right of the sheet, but I’m not sure if I can trust a vegan. Check out the two pics from home. Lucia poured the juices from the roast chicken over the mlinci, which of course was fantastic, especially when accompanied by a fine Dalmatian wine.

Then there’s the palachinka . Sometimes we see the palachinka called a pancake or crepe, but somehow(don’t ask), it’s a bit different. You see them once in a while in restaurants and maybe a bit more often in the little food stalls/shops that you find everywhere, but I sense they are more often than not a home-based food. You find them throughout the Balkans (google it!) and as you proceed north into the rest of Eastern Europe you’ll find a similar dish with similar names. They are cooked flat in a pan, are soft, not especially sweet (OK, they are similar to a crepe) and then are served with jam, nutella, or other sweets. Here’s two pics of a fantastic batch made by Amela (and mostly ably assisted by Jess and Liz), which was then inhaled by all the Fulbrighters at the Zonn abode. Those puppies would be good anytime, maybe with kava i mlieko in the morning or with čaj i mlieko in the eve.

OK, that’s enough. Given that I’m on carbs, I should talk about bread (one of the first words you learn here is kruh), which is amazing in variety, quality and freshness, but I’ll save that for later.

Laku noć (good night)!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dobar Dan!

Dobar Dan!

This first blog entry is necessarily brief, because—being an old dog learning new tricks—I am not one hundred percent sure that when I push the button my entry will not be winging through some kind of ether space, far away from intended sources.

That said, I gather that the first blurb should state the basics that answer the immortal words of David Byrne, ‘well, how did I get here?’ To begin, I am a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas, where I have been since 2004. That in itself doesn’t justify a blog, but being a Fulbright Scholar for the year in Zagreb, Croatia might. At least that’s what my friend Velvet says, and she took the time to do so during her sojourn in Slovenia; in essence, she has shamed me into trying. And Amela, one of my amazingly bright and interesting young Fulbright colleagues here in Croatia, has a nice blog, so why not let the old dog try? And, of course, my different-generation stories will likely have different emphases than those young pups.

The title of my blog says ‘Leo’, but as those of you who know me appreciate, I don’t go anywhere for very long without Lucia, so this is actually a collective tale for the most part. We arrived in Zagreb September 1 of this year after an eight day stopover in Prague and will be here until the summer of 2011. I am associated with American Studies in the Department of English at the University of Zagreb, or as most of you know it, ‘Odsjek za anglistiku , Filozofski fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu, there on Ivana Lučića. Uh, more on the language later.

We were most fortunate to land a very nice and spacious apartment before we arrived, which makes us the fourth generation Fulbrighter to be in this place. Our new friends in Austin, Ted and Christine Huston, were invaluably helpful in the process. If we were in the U.S., we’d be on the fourth floor, but in Zagreb, we are on the third. Regardless, it’s the top floor, gets plenty of sunlight when the stuff is around, has wi-fi, Jacuzzi, a nice guest room upstairs, and it’s only 86 steps to our door from the street, or so the Hustons and the Monetas of Durham claim.

I am attaching a couple of pics of our place less for information purposes than to see if this thing works.

Finally, I must give the perfunctory statement that the opinions of this blog are my own and not those of the Fulbright Commission or the State Department, and any and all errors belong to Lucia.