August 10, 2010

Vegetarian Staying Sane in Croatia: Soparnik, Croatian Swiss Chard Pie

I was having yet another plate of grilled vegetables. Well, grilled vegetables in Croatia make a definite treat as the dish is invariably made from freshly picked wonderfully tasty vegetables. Only that I had nothing else to choose from the meat-n-fish loaded menus of the Croatian eateries. Well, pasta, pizza and risotto were also good but the fact that bugged me a bit was that I came to Croatia and not Italy.

Making Soparnik, Swiss Chard Pie from Croatia
I have this bold idea that every cuisine in the world has some vegetarian tradition and I am really keen to explore it while traveling to a given country. So for me it is not about surviving as a vegetarian traveler but about taking the best of what the local cuisine has got to offer for a vegetable-eater. The idea sounds very reasonable if you think of it: people have always cultivated plants anywhere from the above-the-clouds Himalayas with the modest crops of potatoes and wheat to the warm Mediterranean blessed with the vegetarian outburst in the gardens and fields. Also, vegetarian food is usually the cheapest to grow and make so while the festive meals of many regions tend to be meat-based there must be lots of vegetarian options for the daily fare. So thought I when coming to Croatia. I got even more excited when I visited a few local farmer's markets that looked like a merry celebration of anything that grows. And with all that I ended up miserably -  eating my grilled vegetables at the restaurants as their greatest tribute to the Croatian vegetarian cooking. Their silent message was kind of "Go to India if you are so vegetarian, you know". I have surrendered and started practicing raw eating - given the ripe peaches, the heat and me being on the move all the time I have quite enjoyed it.

Eventually I have come across a person that gave me hope and brought into life vegetarian foundations of the traditional and contemporary Croatian cooking for me. As I was looking through the scarce hits as I googled for "cooking classes in Croatia" I found a website of family-run guesthouse Villa Pape in the vicinity of Trogir, a small Romanesque town protected by the UNESCO . The website was promising: they spoke of cooking traditions from the various regions of Croatia which they were happy to share through the regular meals, degustations and cooking classes. I called Ira, the host, and she said she cooks lots of vegetarian food and would be happy to host and teach me. This was the only reservation that I made during my no-plans-no-reservations trip: I was only happy to twist the dates in my initial itinerary just to get a free room at theirs. My "follow your nose not your itinerary" approach has proved serendipidic as I found out later on.

The reception of the villa is a spacious airy room housing the kitchen and the dining hall and Ira jokingly says that she is lucky to be meeting all those interesting people from around the world at her own kitchen. There is a magic to this place - maybe it is Ira's tasty food, maybe it is the yoga and reiki that she practices and that form the peaceful aura in the house, maybe it is a well-thought through planning of the house and its interiors by Boris, Ira's husband, maybe it is the incredible hospitality of them both. The combination of the reasons has made the place my safe gastronomic heaven in Croatia. As we spoke with Ira, I found out that generally healthy eating movement is rather strong in Croatia: there is a big fuss about the macrobiotic food; there is a vegetarian society and there is a big following of a a renown author George Mateljian, Croat by origin who has written a truly encyclopedic book on the world healthiest food. I ended up spending hours at Ira's kitchen: discussing  a recipe of a new treat she made for breakfast that day (she makes it a point to include in the regular breakfast she serves to her guests every morning at least one homemade treat), watching her cook, getting messy with the dough-making myself, noting down recipes and ideas, drinking wonderful wine from the wine-producing areas around, eating what's been cooked, listening to the stories and narrating mine. I've observed this binding effect that cooking has on people last time we made Ukrainian dumplings with my colleagues at the office - it seems that cooking always creates enough space for a conversation, cooperation and sharing. Ira says, "Women are used to sharing recipes with their sisters, mothers, neighbors and friends. We have been doing it for ages". In this spirit of sharing I am happy to pass this recipe to my readers.

Soparnik Recipe

Traditional Croatian Swiss chard pie with a crunchy top is light, easy to make and a definite vegetarian treat craved for by many locals. 
Recipe courtesy of Ira Degmecic-Rakic
Making Soparnik, Swiss Chard Pie from Croatia
Ingredients:

For the filo dough:
500 g unbleached flour
1 tsp salt
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil
water of room temperature

For the filling:

1 kg Swiss chard (can be replaced with spinach)
2 large onions, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
salt
white pepper

Method:

  1. Make the dough: Put the flour into a large bowl and mix in the salt. Start adding water while continuously mixing the dough with a wooden spatula; add the oil. Once ingredients start sticking together start kneading with your hands. Knead this dough really well until you come up with into a smooth texture that does not stick.
  2. Make the filo sheets: Divide the filo dough into two equal parts. Sprinkle some flour on the clean table surface and start rolling the first part: your target is a 2 mm thick sheet of somewhat round shape. There is a procedure to help the rolling: from time to time you can lift the dough with the tops of your two fists facing each other and gently rotate the dough by turning the thumb of the right fist apart and pulling the dough with the left fist - kind of a knitting motion.  Alter this procedure with the rolling until you come up with the target thickness. Spread the cotton towels on the table and transfer the rolled dough on them. Stretch lightly to thin the edges that they tend to remain thicker. Repeat with the second part of the dough. Leave to dry for at least one hour. 
  3. Prepare the filling: Preheat the oven to 200 C. Wash the Swiss chard and chop. Cook in salty water for 2 minutes  to remove the excess acidity, drain and leave to cool. When cooled completely drain as much of water as possible by squeezing the leaves with your  hands and place. In a large bowl mix the cooked drained Swiss chard, chopped onion and garlic. Add little bot more salt and pepper than you would usually do - the filling needs to be rather spicy.
  4. Making Soparnik, Swiss Chard Pie from Croatia
  5. Make the pie: Oil a large baking tray with low sides. Cut about 1.5 sm of the thicker edges of the both sheets of the rolled dough and place one sheet of the rolled filo dough on the tray. Transfer the filling and evenly spread on the dough sheet leaving some 3-5 sm of the edges free. Now roll inside the remaining edges as if closing the pie. Cover the pie with the upper sheet and bend in its edges under the pie carefully. Now press the edges tightly to make sure the pie is well sealed - you end up with a round parcel.
Making Soparnik, Swiss Chard Pie from Croatia
 
6. Bake the pie: Bake for 30 minutes. Once done take soparnik out of the oven and spread some olive oil on it with a paper tissue. Serve warm or room temperature.
Making Soparnik, Swiss Chard Pie from Croatia

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