You learn quickly that history and how it’s told is an especially sensitive matter in the Balkans. It reminded me of traveling in places like El Salvador and Chile. People wanted to make sure that we knew their side of the story.
It’s impossible to start with the headlines you might be vaguely familiar with from the ’90s. You want to talk Tito? Milošević? Yugoslavia? Fine. But you have to eat your veggies first––2,000-plus years of Balkan history. Even when I said I was interested in learning more about Yugoslavia and its downfall in the late 20th century, the response was, “Okay, so 500 years after Christ…” referring to when Slavic tribes first started moving into the Balkans. That’s as early as anyone was willing to start the story.
If we’re going to start that far back, I better grab a snack.
Südtirol. Alto Adige. South Tyrol. It’s a border region of Europe that confuses and makes complete sense. You don’t know if you should say “Danke” or “grazie” to show appreciation for a meal, but it all comes together when you dive into the history.
But I first dove into the region by the rails, grabbing a morning high-speed train from Berlin to Munich where we transferred to an Austrian line that runs through Innsbruck and down to Bologna. I’d ridden it before to Verona, taking note of the Dolomites outside of my window and vowing to return.
And so I did, this time spending most of my time in Brixen / Bressanone before an overnight in Bozen / Bolzano––the capital of South Tyrol.
A trail race conveniently scheduled after the first month of training for the 2021 Berlin Marathon called us down to the Dolomites. I signed up for and ran the Ladinia Trail 29-kilometer race with nearly 2,000 meters of climbing––the most I’d ever done on my own two feet. But before and after the race, there was plenty to see and do in town.
Jewish Bibimbap. I know what you’re thinking. It sounds a little gimmicky and I can understand that. But I want you to know that this came from a place of appreciation of bibimbap and the heritage foods I like to make.
The idea came to me after my fridge started loading up on leftovers from the big Ashkenazi Jewish meals I was whipping up in my kitchen. What to do with all of those leftovers? Sure, I could just heat them up and eat them. But there wasn’t always enough for a full meal.
Potato kugel. When I first started exploring heritage foods, I was intrigued by this one. There was a familiarity to it, like recognizing an old friend on the street in passing.
I think I used a @toriavey recipe the first time I made it. I know I’ve referred to @leah.koenig and @gefilteria since. What I remember with absolute certainty is how that first crunchy bite sent me back to my childhood, at the table in my grandparents’ condo. I fell in love again with this dish and it started me off on a road of rediscovering these heritage shtetl foods that have since become the focus of my cooking. Not only have they become the focus of my cooking, but they actually made me care about it. No more scrambled egg brinner for me! I can competently make some things now.
For this specific potato kugel, I added some shredded zucchini and just enough shredded carrot so you know it’s there but it’s not hogging the show like an overly ambitious improv theater kid. I also added sweet and smoked paprika because these spices run through my veins. (Should probably see a doctor about that.)
I’m not a salad guy. Usually when someone suggests I have a salad, I’m offended. Do I look like cattle? Do I look like I enjoy grazing? Give me people feed, please.
Then, one day, I was flipping through Jake Cohen’s Jew-ish cookbook. I came across a beautiful-looking dish in the salad section.
“What’s this?” I ask my wife, Melanie.
This was not the salad that I’ve come to associated with instant rage. This was a salad without the leafy greens, focusing instead on fresh veggies, like tomatoes and cucumber, alongside stale bread. This was a panzanella––a Tuscan chopped salad.
YASSAS! Welcome to my wife’s recipe for vegetarian pastitsio.
Marrying into a Greek-American family is like signing up for a new language course.
“Hey, koúkla, bring me my pantoúfles so I can whip up some loukoumades to go with the moussaka and the avgolemono before Yiayia gets here!”
I didn’t mind because it introduced me to what I think is one of the most underappreciated cuisines in western civilization––Greek cuisine. Above all, it introduced me to pastitsio––a pasta dish with ground meat topped with bechamel sauce.
But because I don’t really eat meat anymore, my wife adapted a traditional meat-based pastitsio recipe and made it vegetarian with cinnamon-spiced lentils. It’s become one of my favorite things to eat and sous chef for. So, I wanted to share with you, especially all of my fellow Xenos out there.
Until recently I was what they call a wildly incompetent home cook. I was the guy who’d pour a bowl of cereal and call that cooking. What a catch I was!
But now I love cooking, so I want to start sharing a mix of recipes that are simple enough for anyone to try and recipes that that keep me interested in cooking.
I’m going to start with this burrito recipe, which is the recipe that got me off my ass and into the kitchen. My wife was making it 2-3 times a week. Eventually, I started chopping veggies, and then I wanted to learn how to just do it myself. Turns out, it’s pretty damn easy once you just try.
A quick note on burritos just to acknowledge where they come from… Nobody really knows for sure. But my favorite theory is that it was a street vendor named Juan Méndez in Chihuahua, Mexico who was wrapping up his food in a flour tortilla while traveling during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. What was he traveling on? A little donkey. Or, a burrito.