Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Economical Epicurean Eats Her Way Through Eastern Europe

I feel a strong need to post pictures of Eastern European food before I reach that Statute of Limitations on Writing About Cuisine That I Sampled On a Vacation That Already Seems Like It Ended a Long Time Ago. Anyway, I returned fairly recently from an incredible trip to Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary. "What a fraud!" you might exclaim. "Surely no one who calls herself economical can afford to travel to Europe in the summertime." But, if you do exclaim that, you are wrong! My penny-pinching ways at home allow for the very occasional exotic vacation. Plus, Eastern Europe is dang cheap, airfare aside.

I did not have very high expectations for the cuisine, which I expected to include goulash, paprikash, and more goulash. I am a meat and potatoes girl in theory, but not in 90 degree heat. Lucky for me, there were so many other delicious things to sample. And it turns out goulash is pretty good in any season. Below, a sampling of the samples, in rather haphazard order (Blogger makes it difficult to move pictures around; also, I am technologically handicapped).

I am on the hunt for a recipe for these hazelnut shortbread Linzer-esque cookies, which can be found everywhere in Budapest. I wish I had written down the name, but it was probably something like ajdhfslofheifanofdiwodfal, with 4 umlauts and 3 other diacritical marks. Magyar is an impossible language.

Okay, when I said "delicious," I was being judicious. For some reason the Hungarians really like Unicum, even though it tastes worse than bathroom cleaner (I'm guessing).

I got into the amusing habit of ordering dishes with completely mysterious menu names (so mysterious that even the Hungarian-English dictionary couldn't help us out). One of these was the Slambuc Plate, above, at Al Foldi in Budapest. Now that I have internet access again, I know, thanks to Jamie Oliver, that Slambuc is a kind of Hungarian shepherd's pie. But to me, it was a delicious doppelganger for vomit. In fact, it reminded me of something I would throw together in attempt to use up some scraps of food that are about to turn. Homely home cooking, that's my style.

I loved the cold sour cherry soup, a Budapest specialty. I wish I had known about it when tart cherries were still in season here in the Mid-Atlantic!

In addition to mystery food, mystery drinks were another favorite thing to order in Budapest. This one is called "The Golden Girl," so of course I ordered it. Then I spilled the whole thing over the table. But the few sips I got to enjoy contained rum and pineapple juice.

Sausage and paprika are both serious business in Budapest -- no shame in that.

The picture didn't turn out well, but those two hanging bowls contain Hungarian fish stew, another staple, one that elevates the plebeian carp and catfish to a gourmet level. I didn't order it, but my friends who did liked it a lot. Might be worth reproducing at home, and it would be a very cheap way to enjoy fish.

Possibly my favorite dish of the whole trip -- and, no, it is not goulash. It's venison in whortleberry sauce, and I ordered it for the sole reason that I had never heard of a whortleberry (which has no relation to the mysterious googooberry). Wikipedia tells me it is more commonly called a bilberry and comes from the same genus as the blueberry. Huh! Anyway, whortleberry sauce and Bambi go very well together. And venison, when eaten in Hungary, is very good and very inexpensive.

Excellent pistachio-cream-cake-with-chocolate-base-kind-of-thing, a caprese salad, and the requisite espresso at a cafe, whose name I think was Cafe, near our apartment on the Buda side of Budapest. I must've consumed about 50 espressos on this ten-day adventure.

This menu translation at a roadside pizza joint south of Budapest was priceless. I ordered the Pizza Verhovina just so I could find out what a "scathing rationale" is. I never did find that out. Through inductive reasoning, we concluded at least that "trotters" are diced ham.

The Pizza Verhovina - tomato sauce, cheese, peppers, onions, diced ham, and a dash of scathing rationale. I'll just have to accept it's an ingredient that I am too feeble-minded to ever comprehend.

Unfortunately, this is the only picture I have of any f0od item from Croatia -- we spent just one night there, in the Istrian town of Rovinj on the Adriatic coast. Grapes seem to grow like ragweed around those parts, so you can tell it's a great area for wining and dining.

The alpine town of Radovjlica, Slovenia, is close to the Austrian border, and one order of wiener schnitzel could feed about 12 hungry yodelers. Also pictured here are potato croquettes and, to the left of the fries, the "Slovenian national dish," which is like a very bland kugel. FYI, if you order an iced coffee in Slovenia, you will get a milkshake that contains mostly ice cream and whipped cream, with some splashes of rum and espresso for good measure. Don't expect it to wake you up.

We all loved Bled, Slovenia, so much that it's a good thing our last meal there was a memorable one. Have you ever seen prosciutto and melon arranged more artfully?

For this same Last Slovenian Supper, I ordered the baby squid stuffed with sausage. Unbelievable!

The Slascicarna Smon bakery in Bled had the most delicious pastries. Everyone's favorite was this one -- a horn shaped roll stuffed with a nutty, brown sugary filling and doused in powdered sugar. Again, I wish I had written down the name!

That same bakery is better known for its cream cake, a Bled specialty consisting of two layers of flaky pastry and one metric butt ton of cream in between. I come from a family of almond cream pie fanatics (my people love it so much, it's known simply as AC Pie at home), and I hope they get to try this some day!

At the Gostilna Pri Planincu, where we celebrated Rachel's birthday, the birthday girl and I both ordered these meat patties, which we had no idea were the size of hatboxes till they arrived at the table. That oozing, buttery lump in the middle is a mascarpone-like cheese. Regarding my friend's cleavage, our saucy waiter said it's "quality, not quantity" that matters, but this statement seems at odds with Pri Planincu's serving sizes.

Also at the Gostilna Pri Planincu, I ordered some of the best cream of mushroom soup I had ever tasted. Actually, I think I liked it because was not that creamy at all. I definitely need to try to replicate this one at home.

Slovenia being so close to Italy, a lot of pizza was consumed on this leg of the trip. No "scathing rationale" in this pie, but prosciutto, asparagus, and fresh mozzarella are always delightful.

The pizza diet made me feel a little squishier than normal, so I ordered the "Fitness Plate" at a beachside lunch spot on Lake Bled. Salad greens topped with grilled chicken, toast, yogurt dressing and tomato slices -- I was a new woman!

Beautiful produce at the Saturday farmer's market in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital

And, oh yeah, horse meat. The horse burger was the one thing I didn't have the courage to try. Maybe next time, after a night of drinking too much Slovenian wine.


Anonymous said...

Hungarian Cookies: A reader writes about the photo:

Can't tell from the color what the filling is, but from the stuff on top, my guess is that this is a variant of "Edes orkorszem" - not properly spelled: accent over the first E, umlauts over the os. English: Sweet Bull's Eye. George Lang has a recipe in "The Cuisine of Hungary". In the recipe, the filling is apricot and the sprinkles are finely chopped almonds.
Can send the recipe if she is desperate. However there are probably Hungarian bakeries in Manhattan.

DEO said...

Great tip, thanks! I've heard good things about George Lang's cookbooks.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that I read recently that whortleberries and goo goo berries are in the same family. They are both very rare and only the most educated of "berryologists" know about them. I believe goo goo berries are a "descendant" of the whortleberry plant which was brought to the US several centuries ago.

A very berry expert!

DEO said...

Reveal yourself, Berry Expert!