18 July 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: A Hrvatska Cookout

There's been a lot of eating out in Croatia - and a lot of squid. So, we thought it was time to cook for ourselves and our guests - but we just couldn't pull ourselves away from the little cephalopods. Utilizing the barbecue in the backyard of our rental apartment, we decided to grill up some squid and pair them with another Croatian staple, blitva (swiss chard). To put our own spin on things, we decided to stuff the squid with cous-cous and brighten up the blitva a little.
We bought our squid uncleaned from a surly lady at the Opatija fish market. She offered to clean them for us, but didn't seem enthusiastic about doing it, so we decided to give it a try ourselves. It's not a difficult process, but it can be messy and gooey - also, it takes a little while.
There are three things that need to be done when cleaning squid. First, remove the edible tentacles from the base. You can cut them off just below the eyes, or just above where they meet at the head. Make sure to push out the beak from inside the little ring of flesh. Second, pull the head and guts out from inside the tube of meat that hangs behind the eyes. This is also easy: just grab the eyes and pull everything from inside the body. A spoon helps here, to get the last of the gunk from the tip. Third, make an incision at the base of the back, and pull out the backbone. This is difficult to explain, but easy to feel. The backbone is a clear, quill-shaped thing that looks like a plastic leaf. It comes out easily, and is very fun to look at and ponder. Make sure to rinse the rest of the squid well and scrape off as many of the little bumps on the tentacles as you can.
If you buy your squid in America, it's unlikely that you'll have to deal with any of this.
After washing the squid very well, dry them off and toss them in a bowl with olive oil, lemon juice and a little salt, to flavor and tenderize them before cooking.
We grilled the squid over very hot coals for about three minutes per side, until the meat began to firm up and acquire a slight translucence. The skin, in contrast with the flesh underneath it, should char and darken - where it was once almost clear, it should become more solid looking while the body lightens and plumps a little. The cooked squid looks more like a champaign flute than a deflated balloon.
The stuffing could be anything: risotto, ham and cheese (very popular here - my brother Luke had it), rice, polenta... even regular stovetop stuffing, if you want. We used a spicy, saffron broth cous-cous, mostly because it was so easy and quick. We loaded the cooking liquid with olive oil, saffron, red pepper flakes, chili powder, parsley, garlic and sauteed onion.
Aside from cous-cous's fast cooking time, its texture really made it a nice fit. The best way to approach stuffing is: spoon the grain in with one hand and pack it in with the other. Use the thumb and middle finger of your non-spooning hand to pop the squid open just a little and the index finger to press your filling down. We pressed the bottom of the slippery things into the bottom of the pan to keep them upright as we worked. When we cut the protein on our plates, each ring was filled in with our cous-cous, making for a nice, complex, compact bite of food.
Blitva is a very traditional side dish here and we've had our fair share, which made us more excited to make it. Blitva is the Croatian word for swiss chard (or "mangold," as it is translated on many English menus), but really defines its most common preparation: swiss chard, potato, olive oil and garlic. Cooked down into more of a mash it makes a wonderful dairyless alternative to creamed spinach, but we were craving something a little fresher and lighter for our cookout. So, we used equal parts red potatoes (with skin) and carrot, red onion and forewent the garlic - as it was already incorporated into our main course.
The greens should be trimmed, but the leaves shouldn't be completely removed from their stem. It gives the final product a nice crunch and juicy bitterness. Cut them into strips and rinse well. The starches were cubed and boiled together until just tender. It's important to refrain from overcooking, as you want them to stand apart in the final dish as opposed to blend together. Strain, salt and set them aside to let cool. Then, coat the bottom of the pot or pan with olive oil and add in your swiss chard and red onion. Keep it on low heat and cover. Turn the chard over often to make sure the entirety of it steams uniformly enough and, when you have the consistency you want, add in your potato and carrots, salt, pepper and a spicy paprika. A few stirs and you're ready to take it off the heat and let cool. Everything you're working with will lose its color and really break down texture-wise if you overdo it. Better to err on the undercooked side.
It wouldn't be a true Hrvatska grill plate without čevapčiči, minced meat sausages, which look, smell and taste like breakfast sausages and were easily found at the grocery store. We grilled them as they came - a sheet of connected rods - and only cut them apart after cooking. Just today, we saw an English translation of čevapčiči that read "grilled Hamburger sticks," which is about right. The squid should be eaten before cooling down, it only gets chewier as it sits longer. As soon as our plates were filled, they were devoured. So, we apologize for not having a more artful shot.

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