19 June 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Gyuveche, a Catchall Casserole

At every Bulgarian mexana (tavern), someone next to us inevitably gets brought a small, glazed and painted earthenware pot full of something piping hot and seductively aromatic.  The top is removed, steam escapes and a fork digs right in, the diner puffing on each forkful to cool it down before the bite.  The pot is called a gyuveche, derived from the Turkish güveç, and the word often serves to describe any dish that is made inside.  Ordering one is like getting your own personal casserole, comfort food for one.  Making a gyuveche yourself is even more satisfying, as the general rule is 'use whatever you've got in your fridge.'  With one night left in a rental, a fridge that needed to be cleared out and pretty little gyuveche pots staring at us from our cupboard, we decided to try out this traditional Bulgarian dish.

What we wound up with closely resembles a dish called sirene po shopski , which combines cheese, egg, tomato, chili pepper and herbs.  However, there's no real point in defining it.  Gyuveche can be whatever you want it to be.  There are a few suggested guidelines that can be applied to any number of ingredient combinations.  The first is that there really should be sirene and kashkaval.  In Bulgaria, all cheese is called one of these two names which are most often translated to "white cheese" and "yellow cheese."  Sirene looks and crumbles like feta but, unlike its Greek lookalike, can be made from sheep, goat or cow.  Kashkaval is basically everything else, any and all Bulgarian cheese that resembles something from a deli counter (cheddar, muenster, swiss, emmental, etc). At the bottom of your finished product, sirene will remain fluffy, a lot like scrambled eggs.  At the top, the kashkaval will provide a melted seal.

It is a very simple casserole with no added liquid or starch needed.  The gyuveche is sometimes referred to as 'the original crock pot.'  It steams, boils and bakes its contents all at once.  The sirene goes into the pot first.  No oil.  The brined cheese exudes enough liquid when cooked that there's absolutely no way it will stick.  Whatever else you have goes on top of the sirene and then sliced kashkaval covers it all.  In the case of sirene po shopski, along with many other gyuveche meals, an egg is cracked on top.  The savory icing on your layer cake.
So, what leftovers did we have hanging around?  Eggs, tomato, hot peppers, onion, a bag of frozen peas (which we'd used to keep our groceries cool en route home) and olives stuffed with almonds.   We went out to the local shop for the kashkaval and tried to find the fresh herbs that are ever-present in Bulgarian cuisine.  Most people just go to their own backyard for herbs, so they are difficult to find in small towns.  Luckily, our rental's owner keeps a pot of thyme on the kitchen window sill.

Once you have your ingredients figured out, dice everything up to a nice forkable size.  Layer them into your gyuveche - white cheese, all non-cheese items, yellow cheese - and place in the oven, pre-heated at 375° F.  Cook for 20 minutes, then remove lid and add an egg.  Since we were making two pots, we tried cracking an egg on one and pouring a beaten egg onto the other.  The cracked egg stayed mostly separate, binding to the kashkaval.  Its yolk could then be broken and mixed in after serving.  The beaten egg seeped down and was incorporated into the whole dish.  Go with what sounds better to you.  We each had a different preference.
Once the egg is added, recover and cook for another 10 minutes (less for a runnier yolk if using the cracked egg method).
Garnish with ground black pepper and fresh herbs and wait at least a minute or two before serving.  We know it smells too good to wait, but tomatoes can be a real tongue-burner.

Our Gyuveche Recipe - Sirene po Shopski with Olives and Peas
makes two single-serving pots

Ingredients:*
1 large tomato 
3 small hot peppers 
1/2 frozen peas (defrosted) 
3/4 cup crumbled sirene (outside of Bulgaria, go with feta) 
about 3 cubic inches of kashkaval (cheddar, emmental or even mozzarella would work) 
fresh rosemary (parsley would be ideal, any herb will do) 
8 large green olives - ours were stuffed with almonds, which was a nice touch 
white onion 
black pepper 

*please don't just stick to these ingredients, have fun with it! salt is not listed because the cheese should give you a good dose. 

Method: 
- Preheat oven to 375° F. 
- Dice tomato, peppers, onion and olives. Tomato should be a little larger than the rest, about the size of a die. 
- Crumble your white cheese into the bottom of each gyuveche until you have a good base layer. 
- Add your diced vegetables, as well as your peas and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary. 
- Slice your yellow cheese and lay over the top. Allow some veggie to peak through. 
- Lid your pots, place in oven and cook for 20 minutes. 
- Put on an oven mitt and THEN uncover each pot and add in your egg by either cracking it right in or beating it and pouring it over. Cook for another 10 minutes. 
- Remove from oven and let sit for a minute or two. Garnish with black pepper, some more fresh herbs and enjoy.
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