Croatian Soparnik with Jelena Vukas

Meet Jelena Vukas; a globe-trotting Croatian copywriter from Split – a beautiful historic city on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Croatia is not an easy country for vegetarians; but Jelena told me all about what to try and when I turned my hand to Croatian cuisine it was delicious.

10710850_10152236541117820_4472560191200580321_nWhat food makes you think of home?

There are many particular dishes, but when I think of Split I think of prosciutto, fresh seafood, salty sheep’s cheese, figs, grapevines and peaches, flower honey, nuts, stews, brodets, fresh olive oil scented with lavender, smoky wood-fire pizzas, thick creamy ice-creams and anything cooked under a peka (earthenware or iron-cast bell which food is placed into, covered with and then the bell is placed in between embers to cook, bubble, release all of its juices and….you can drool now…I am).

What about the rest of Croatia, are there certain flavours that define the food?

Croats enjoy a Mediterranean diet that has been influenced by a swarm of empires that have ruled the land throughout history. We are used to slow-cooking traditional recipes that our grandmas taught us. There’s loads of fresh food, but lots of it is meat and other produce of animal origin. Think seafood, pork prosciutto and sausages, salted lamb, game, etc. Some mix of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, chard, cabbages will always be at the table though. Everything will have an abundant garlic and olive oil base. We are heavily into baking breads, cakes, dough and pastries. Veggies and meats are usually roasted in ovens, on embers or in open fires.

What’s your absolute favourite?1625705_10152236545252820_3464858352124789855_n

Just one? I love extended breakfasts and drawn out coffees while deliberating over politics and the morning paper, I love ajvar (vegetable relish made from peppers, courgette and aubergine), fresh seafood, traditional Christmas multiple-course feasts ending in sweet deserts, and roast-lamb and peka-cooked vegetables for family reunions. I suppose the easiest and most nostalgic vegetarian recipe is the chard soparnik, which originated in Croatia during the 15th century and was said to be ‘the poor man’s food.’ Wine goes with all meals, but I think soparnik tastes great with elderberry juice.

How is Croatia for vegetarians? Are there many or are they pretty rare?

They are pretty rare because they miss out on the majority of the local cuisine, which is pretty traditional. It comes as a result of culture  – it was only a few decades ago that most Croats still had some form of agricultural farm, complete with goats, sheep, chickens and cattle and went actively fishing and hunting to stockpile food.

I’m guessing that makes10437742_10152236544197820_421074124573255992_n it pretty hard to be vegetarian in Croatia then?

Most of the soups and risottos will use animal stock as base, there will be bacon in dishes that won’t even be mentioned, fish isn’t even
considered meat…it can be difficult but if you’re willing to give it a go you can make it work. There are plenty of fresh produce growers, bustling food markets filled with cheeses, fruits, nuts and legumes, there are bakeries and pizzerias (the good not the junk-food kind) on every corner, and there are vegan and vegetarian (and simply vegetarian-friendly) restaurants popping up all over the place. With a little effort, you’ll be all right. Rural areas will be a bit tougher, but the advantage there is that they’ll have a stockpile of fresh produce that you’ll be able to work with.

So what’s the absolute number one thing for a visiting veggie to try then?

Ajvar (veggie relish) is my favourite thing in the world and I’m glad I could actually find it in remote cobwebbed areas of the supermarkets in both NL and Australia! There are plenty of other things you can try: roast polenta with ajvar, cracked pepper biscuits, posna sarma without meat (cabbage rolls with rice and grains), poppy seed strudel, strudel, traditional cabbage and chard sides, plum pies, fritule (fruit doughnuts), all the local fruit (my favourites are figs, plums, grapes, peaches, citrus fruits), there’s plenty of cheese (just try them per region), fresh breads with nuts and seeds, traditional chocolate cakes (with oranges and walnuts), truffles, jacketed potatoes (washed, cut in half, drizzled in garlic, olive oil and salt and roasted), ice-creams and wood-fire anything that you can get your hands on. Just enjoy it!

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Jelena’s recipe for Soparnik went down a storm in the Forking Off house, especially combined with ajvar roasted vegetable relish. I made that too and if you’d like to try it you can find the recipe on ForkingOff.co.uk.

Soparnik is essentially two thin, circular discs of dough sandwiching swiss chard, parsley, garlic and red onion between them. You can find chard in British supermarkets, but not always – not on the day I went foraging unfortunately. I used a combination of curly kale and fresh spinach which worked really nicely instead.

For the dough I used a trusty pizza base recipe, here it is (you can use white flour instead of brown if you want, it’s down to personal preference):

Ingredients:

  • 200g White Flour
  • 150g Wholemeal Flour
  • Pinch Salt
  • 1 tsp Yeast
  • 1 ½ Tbsp Olive Oil
  • Up to 250ml Cold Water

1. Mix the flours and olive oil and add the salt and yeast.

2. Slowly add the water a bit at a time, kneading the mixture until it forms a single ball. Don’t add it all if you don’t need it all.

3. Knead the ball until it is has some elasticity; to test it, rip a piece off. If it doesn’t stretch before it breaks WP_20140910_010off then keep kneading.

4. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into a clean mixing bowl and roll the ball in it until it has a thin film across its surface.

5. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave somewhere warm and dry to prove for at least an hour, preferably two or more.

Whilst this is proving, prepare the other ingredients:

  • 3 Cloves of Garlic, Finely Diced
  • 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 Handfuls of Fresh Chopped Parsley
  • Swiss Chard/Curly Kale/Spinach
  • Pinch Salt.

1. Cut the dough ball in two and roll both out into circles as thin as possible. Grease a large round baking tray and lay one base out on it.

2. Mix the greens and parsley, 2 of the diced garlic cloves, 1 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil and a pinch of salt in a bowl and then layer the mixture evenly over the first base.

3. Lay the second disc of dough over the top of the first and roll up the edges of the bottom layer to seal it.

4. Sprinkle the last clove of diced garlic over the top with a pinch of salt and cook on 180C for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown.

5. When it’s finished, brush the last 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil on the top and serve cut into traditional diamond shapes with a bowl of ajvar relish.

For this and other recipes, visit the Forking Off website.

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Californian Corn with Justin Veruasa

Meet Justin,10656391_10203890664621186_1374932442_n a 27 year old teacher and photographer from California, USA; the place that brought you Hollywood, Google and The Beach Boys. He writes an amazing blog showcasing his photography that I recommend checking out. Justin and I met in the last weeks of my living in Thailand. Everyone else was working full-time, but I’d stopped teaching and was trying to get my things in order before I flew on, and since Justin wasn’t teaching either, we spent most of my last fortnight enjoying lazy late lunches, drinking beer in Lop Buri and cycling around Ayutthaya on decrepit old rental bikes. Justin also put up with quite a lot of agonising and a fair amount of crying from me whilst I said goodbye to everything, for which I am eternally grateful!

Famous for things like juice fasting and nutty fads like the maple syrup and cayenne pepper diet, Justin gave me his perspective on California cuisine, which was pretty delicious.

Which part of California are you from?

I am from Fullerton, a city in Orange County, California.

Is there a food that’s particular to there?

The California Burrito. It’s a carne asada burrito loaded with french fries. It’s typically not on any menu, but is almost always available at any authentic taco spot if you ask for it by name!

So what’s key to an authentic Californian meal?

In Southern California, we like our food nice and spicy, so a good salsa is key to any meal.

Tell me about your favourite dish from home. Is there a special time or place that you eat it?

Elotes! Elote is corn-on-the-cob usually sold by Mexican street vendors from a shopping cart.  They honk a horn as they’re walking down the street & when you hear the horn, you go running outside so you don’t miss them!

What you normally drink with it?

Corona or Orange Fanta.10656583_10203890642900643_1755115699_n

What’s the vegetarian situation like in California? Is it common?

They’re everywhere.

So it would be a pretty easy place for a vegetarian to travel through then?

I think it would be pretty easy to be vegetarian here. There are lots of options.

Do you think there are particular areas that it would be easier for a veggie to travel in than others?

Southern California, as a whole, is very diverse in terms of culinary offerings. There really is something for everyone here.

If I came to visit, what’s  the number 1 food and drink to try as a veggie?

That’s a tough one as I’m pretty much a carnivore. If I were to make some recommendations, I would say go to Pieology. They’re an up-and-coming pizza place where you stand in a line and select your own toppings in a similar fashion to Subway and Chipotle and they cook it for you on the spot. Aside from that, I would suggest trying to find your favorite dish from home because chances are we have a variation of it with some California flair.

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If you want to have a go at making elotes for yourself, they’re fairly straightforward and yes, they are delicious!

Ingredients:

  • Corn on the CobWP_20140907_002
  • Mayonnaise
  • Grated Parmesan
  • Pinch Chilli Powder

One thing I’ve discovered is that if you buy corn still in the leaves and then strip them back, but don’t pull them off, they make a great rustic-looking handle. Much easier than stabbing yourself trying to stick a skewer up it’s tough bottom.

  1. Grill your corn until the kernels are tender and golden.
  2. Spread it evenly with mayonnaise.
  3. Roll the corn in the grated Parmesan.
  4. Sprinkle with chilli powder.
  5. Enjoy!

For this and other great vegetarian/vegan recipes, check out the Forking Off Website.

Bulgarian Banitsa with Anna Vladeva

Ever thought about travelling somewhere new, but worried about how easy it would be to find good food as a vegetarian? Or, you’ve bought the guidebook and every recommended dish is something meaty? There must be something for you right? Well there always is and because I’m nice like that, I’ve taken it upon myself to interview people from across the globe and find out for you.

This is Anna, a writer10685286_1463346523930925_1763564291_n and translator from Varna, Bulgaria, and a fellow student on my MA Writing course. She also writes a wonderful blog about life in Varna that’s well worth checking out.

I asked Anna to look at her hometown from a vegetarian point of view and this is what she said.

What’s your hometown called and whereabouts is it?

My hometown is called Varna. It is Bulgaria’s third largest city and stands on the Black Sea coast.

Is there a particular dish that’s special to Varna?

A peculiar thing about Varna is that indigenous residents are very few. Everyone has come to settle in this place from somewhere else (Well, two or three generations ago, but still). These people brought the food of their home places with them and still cook it, so Varna does not have a dish which is unique to the area.

Varna

What would you say are the key flavours of Bulgarian food? 

Speaking of flavours in terms of herbs and spices; the most popular are parsley (it is good in almost every summer dish and is mandatory in all fresh salads), dried savory (this is the ubiquitous winter spice, especially good with white beans and lentils), and mint (to be used fresh in spring and summer, and dried in winter). Speaking of flavours in terms of foods; there are three domineering tastes. The first one is yogurt (typically made of cow’s or sheep’s milk). According to certain quizzes, yogurt is the flavour that the Bulgarians abroad most frequently miss. For us, yogurt is more than just food: it is also medicine (has calming effect on sunburnt skin and upset tummies) and a slimming diet. Plus, it can be a comfort food when mixed with fruit preserve or biscuits, or sweetened with crystal sugar. The second dominant taste is that of white brine cheese (typically made from cow’s or sheep’s milk). You can eat it in combination with almost every other food or dish (e.g. with scrambled eggs, tomato stew, water melon, cherries, grapes, roast pepper, fried aubergine, etc. etc.). The third very Bulgarian food is tomatoes. Sliced tomatoes and brine cheese is the favourite summer combination (for breakfast or afternoon snack,10685072_1463346567264254_1898440267_n or as lunch on very hot summer days). Tomatoes (fresh in summer and canned in winter) go as a basic ingredient in almost every dish.

Tell me about your favourite Bulgarian dish and is there a special time or place that you eat it?

I’ll choose banitsa (cheese pie). You can buy ready-made cheese pie from a bakery of course, but traditionally banitsa is suggestive of home and family. In the past, banitsa was a festive dish because making banitsa from scratch was very time consuming. Today, with ready-made pastry sheets, you can bake banitsa in about 50 minutes. In spite of fast and easy modern-day preparation, banitsa preserves its aura of a special-dish. Mothers bake banitsa to pamper their children. Banitsa is charged with the symbolism of maternal love and home integrity.

What do you normally drink with it?

Banitsa is perfect with ayran (this is a yogurt-and-water drink, mixing ratios depend on how thick or thin you like your ayran. You can add salt, if you like.) You may drink fruit syrup with your banitsa too.

Are there many vegetarians in Bulgaria or are they pretty rare?

Traditionally, eating of meat has been the symbol of prosperity in Bulgaria. When we talk of food, we understand meat meals. There aren’t many people who define themselves as vegetarians (meaning the knowledge and, perhaps, the ideology that goes with the definition). But, of course, there are people who prefer meatless dishes. I would add that vegetarianism is gaining popularity in the larger places and especially among the young people who embrace the values of healthy lifestyle.

In general, how hard do you think it would be for a vegetarian to travel through Bulgaria?

Well, they won’t die of hunger, although meat dishes dominate the menus of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, they all have a meatless section. Besides, every place in Bulgaria has its permanent market place/s with heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls and small dairy shops and bakeries around. So, a kilo of tomatoes, a hunk of brine cheese, a loaf of homemade white or brown bread, and your meal is ready. This is what the average Bulgarian would eat if they happen to be away from home and won’t bother with a cooked meal.

Do you think that there are particular areas that would be harder/easier to find good vegetarian food in than others?

I think the situation is uniform thought the country: meat dishes dominate but there’s sufficient meatless food, too.

If I was going to visit, what do you think the number 1 food and drink I should try is?

That depends on the season but homemade banitsa and ayran is a must in all seasons. If its summer, then tomatoes and brine cheese. In winter; roasted pumpkin sprinkled with honey and walnut kernels and pumpkin pie. In spring, lettuce salad with radishes, green onions and boiled eggs and in autumn; vegetable hotchpotch.

Sounds delicious!

Here’s Anna’s recipe for Banitsa, it was great!

Ingredients:

  • A pack of ready-made filo pastry sheets
  • 300-400g of crushed brine cheese (the closest you can get to Bulgarian brine cheese in the average British supermarket is feta, but that worked fine for me)
  • 3-4 Tbsp Sunflower Oil
  • 3 Eggs
  • 400ml Milk

1. Grease and line a round baking tray. Cover the bottom with two or three pastry sheets. Trim them so that they fit the tray and ruffle them slightly.

2. Sprinkle with cheese and a few drops of oil and then add another layer of pastry, ruffle, sprinkle with cheese and oil.

3. Continue layering the cheese, oil and pastry until you finish the pack. The uppermost layer should be of pastry. Cut in triangles with the tip of a sharp knife.

4. Mix the eggs and milk and pour on the pastry. Let it sit for a couple of minutes so the the mix can soak into the cuts.

5. Bake in a preheated oven for 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

6. When the banitsa is done, take it out of the oven and sprinkle it lightly with cold water. Cover with a dry, clean cloth and let it rest for about 10 minutes (this is done to soften the crust). Cut in triangles and serve.

WP_20140909_010For this and other recipes, check out the Forking Off website.