I thought I’d change it up a bit and do some country specific food writing and cooking.
Hugging the Adriatic Sea with its multitude of small islands is Croatia where life, culture and nutrition is dominated by fish and seafood. In fact, it is said that the folk of Croatia are born with a net or rod in hand. There’s also a Mediterranean influence on Croatia’s coastal cooking with grilled seafood and a variety of fish and seafood inspired stews often cooked in, or with, olive oil and green, vibrant herbs. Moving inland, away from the coast, there is more of a lean towards lamb and pork dishes and the famous cabbage roles; fermented cabbage leaves stuffed with a rice and meat filling, usually served with mashed potato.
An integral part of cooking on the Dalmatian coast is the peka, a large baking dish with a dome shaped lid. The dish cooked in the peka is known by the same name and is characterised by the use of meat and a variety of vegetables, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs and baked until perfect. It’s the steam created under the dome that helps to cook and impart flavour to the dish that Croatians rave about – and I reckon I’d be raving about it too.
Produce and Flavours
There is great diversity in the regions of Croatia ranging from the Dalmatian coast through to the hills, mountains and forests of inland areas. This of course means that there is an array of wonderful produce bringing lots of variety to their local food.
Starting with the coastline that traverses north to south there is the abundance fish and seafood. Locals are masters of combining shellfish and shrimps with local vegetables to produce wonderfully fresh, simple and tasty stews. Grilling is an important cooking method in Croatian culinary culture and you’ll find dishes such as Ribana žaru, or fish grilled with olive oil, a staple in these coastal regions. One of the most iconic dishes is crni rižot, or black risotto. This dish is an intense experience of seafood as not only is it overflowing with the delights of the local catch, the rice is blackened with either squid or cuttlefish ink which gives a taste of the sea.
In the region southwest of the central part of Croatia, known as Gorski Kotar and Lika, there are undulating hills, pastures and forests. From the pastures come spring lambs, well-fed pigs and a host of cattle-related dairy products, in particular cheese. There are often road-side vendors selling their home-made cheese from the boot of their car, and it said to be some of the best cheese in Croatia. This region is also renowned for brandied fruit – the fruit of which is sourced from the forests – and sauerkraut, spit roasts, and stews.
The eastern part of Croatia, mainly Slavonia and Baranja, is bordered by Hungary and as such there is a Hungarian influence to the food of this region with many dishes from here flavoured with the popular spice, paprika. It’s therefore not surprising that one of the area’s most iconic dishes is čobanac, or goulash flavoured with bay leaves and paprika. Other paprika influenced food includes peppers stuffed with meat and rice, and fish stews. The region boasts really fertile land and so fruit, vineyards and grains are its main product as is the breeding of cattle and pigs. Dried bacon and sausages, and the famous kulen, a paprika spiced sausage, are on most dinner tables, in particularly served with ajvar, a red-pepper based tapenade (here is the recipe for ajvar that I made a while ago).
Istria is probably the most diverse region as it encompasses both coastal and inland cuisine. Istria is a large peninsular in the northern part of the Adriatic that boasts luscious green land giving rise to produce such as Istrian prosciutto, sheep’s milk cheese, truffles, ox and of course being surrounded by the sea, fish. A lot of the cooking is done under the peka and one dish in particular is home to the region; baked red scorpionfish stew. Buzara sauce is also a well-known and loved speciality, normally served with pasta and scampi, crabs, scallops, mussels or oysters . The base of the sauce is onion, garlic, tomatoes, white wine and parsley, and is heavily influenced by Italian cuisine. Seriously, tell me you’re not hungry?
Some Cracking Little Dishes
Continental Croatia has probably the greatest diversity in its food range so it’s a good one to start with. Firstly, there is a classic known as Sarma, a dish that bursts with flavour. It’s made of ground meat rolled in fermented cabbage leaves and usually served with an incredibly creamy mashed potato. A variation of this dish is krvavice which is blood sausage wrapped in fermented cabbage leaves.
Burek are hugely popular and come from a family of pastries consisting of meat, cheese or vegetable fillings parcelled in flaky phyllo pastry; iconic throughout the Balkan nations. I made this during the World Cup 2014 project – check out the recipe.
Zagorski štrukli is popular throughout continental Croatia; it’s a dough that is filled mainly with cheese. The filled dough is boiled, brushed with melted butter and then baked in the oven until the tops are browned; a perfect snack, although they are quite filling. Regarding cheese, the most popular in Croatia is paški sir, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk originating from the island of Pag in the sourthern region of the country.
Brodet is a classic stew that is jam-packed with fish and seafood, sometimes including eel. It’s great accompanied with soft polenta which soaks up those fantastic fresh stew flavours. Then there is šporki makaruli, or dirty macaroni, which is a traditional dish of pasta and meat sauce and associated with Dubrovnik and the celebration of Saint Blaise.
And finally there is the wonderful dish of Skradinski Rizot or Skradin Risotto which is an absolute labour of love as it can take up to 12 hours to prepare. The risotto is traditionally cooked over an open fire by the men-folk, as is traditional in Croatia when open fires are used for cooking. The recipe of the risotto varies but the basis is to cook onions very slowly and then add a shoulder of veal and some stock and cook for a few hours until really tender. Only then is the rice added. It is renowned as being one of Croatia’s most loved and favourite dishes.
I hope you enjoyed that little culinary tour of Croatia.
Today’s Little Treat
It was a really hard decision to choose a dish from such an immense range of wonderful food. However, I love any chance to cook with seafood and so here you have this amazing black risotto with squid and lemon – a celebration of the Adriatic.
Squid and Lemon Black Risotto Croatian StylePrint
- ■ 500g cleaned squid | Approximately 3 medium tubes.
- ■ 2 tbsp. olive oil |
- ■ 15g butter |
- ■ 1 brown onion | Finely chopped.
- ■ 2 cloves garlic | Finely chopped.
- ■ 300g Arborio rice |
- ■ 150ml white wine | A dry light wine is preferable, such as sauvignon blanc.
- ■ 10g squid or cuttlefish ink | Can be bought in sachets or extracted from a whole squid.
- ■ 1 lemon - zest of | Grated.
- ■ 1 lemon - juice of |
- ■ 2 tbsp. fresh parsley | Finely chopped.
- ■ 600ml fume (fish stock) | Or use vegetable stock.
Take a cleaned squid tube, cut it down one side and open it flat. With a sharp knife score the squid on one side in a criss-cross pattern, without cutting through the squid. Now slice across the squid to form 1cm wide strips. Cut the strips in half and repeat for the other tubes.
In a small pan heat the stock to just below boiling point.
Heat a large heavy based frying pan until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and, in batches of about 10 pieces, quickly fry the squid until cooked and starting to curl. This should take no more than 30 seconds per batch. Add the other tablespoon of olive oil as required and repeat for the rest of the squid. Quickly cooking the squid like this will ensure it is tender. If you try an cook too much squid in one go the heat of the pan reduces and the squid can become tough.
Set all the squid aside. On a medium heat add the butter to the same frying pan (it has the flavour of the squid in it) and when sizzling add the chopped onion and garlic, stirring frequently. When soft, but not browned, turn the heat to high and add the rice. Stir frequently for 1-2 minutes until the rice is coated in butter and onion and is beginning to toast. You’ll see a slight coloration of the rice and smell a lovely nutty aroma. Now add the white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, squid ink and a couple of pinches of sea salt. Stir well and when the liquid has reduced to a thick paste add the hot fish stock and stir. Over a medium heat leave the pan until the liquid starts to boil. Now stir frequently as the rice starts to absorb the liquid. The rice is cooked when it has absorbed all the liquid, is soft to the bite and the grains can still be separated i.e. not mushy. If the rice is still not quite cooked when all the liquid has been absorbed then add a touch of hot water to the pan and cook until the rice is perfect. Turn off the heat, add the chopped parsley and two thirds of the cooked squid and let the risotto sit for one minute. Serve garnished with the remaining squid and a little more chopped parsley. Look how wonderful that deep intense black colour is. Enjoy.