17 July 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: After-Beach Blitva (or, Lime Basil Potato Salad)

These are the kind of meals accompanied by the smell of salt water and the slanting, still-warm sunlight of high summer.  It's the kind of meal to eat in a swimsuit, with dripping hair, in a group of friends.  There is a reason to envy the people of the Balkans, who have Montenegro as a playground.  It's not the beaches - everywhere there are beaches.  It's not the sticky bars or sunburns, the mosquitos or busloads of Russians.  No, the reason to envy is the seafood; simple, charred and slicked with olive oil.
There is a part of the Adriatic seaside where grilled squid are as common as seashells, baby red snapper appear crisped by the plateful and octopus tentacles make knots on every table.  From Croatia down through Montenegro and into northern Albania, the seafood is generally the same - shrimp, cephalopod, grilled fish; all very simple, all served with not much more than a slice of lemon and a pile of blitva.
Blitva is boiled by the potful in every restaurant in the region.  Essentially, this is a dish of garlic, chard and potato, cooked together and drizzled with olive oil.  It's great, it's filling, and it can get kind of boring.  This is our second blitva July, and, after a week spent hugging the mediterranean and eating lots of seafood, we were ready to dress up the recipe a little.  Our version was made for a Montenegrin evening spent cooking out on our rental balcony, using a tiny hotplate, watching the sun set as some little sprat-like fish sputtered and sizzled in the pan.  What we wanted from a side dish was: bright and herbal flavors, a bit of a tropical feel and (really) something different.  So, here's our experiment, a potato salad with basil and lime that we've named "after beach blitva."
We experimented with blitva last summer, in the sweltering seaside resort of Opatija - there, we put it on a plate with cous-cous stuffed squid, standing around a barbecue with some family and drinking lots of strong liquor.  That time, we cooked carrot and red onion in with the standard chard and potatoes.
By rights, this latest version shouldn't be called blitva at all, because the name actually means "chard," which there is none of here.  Calling a potato salad by another name is fine, but calling something chard when it's not… well, it's a liberal definition.
Here are the familiar elements: boiled potato and garlic.
Here are our deviations: lime (juiced), celery root (chopped and raw), red onion and - the biggest transgretion - fresh basil instead of chard.  None of it was cooked, except for the little boiling potatoes, and we also mixed and served the ingredients cold, so that they'd stay fresher-tasting and snappier.  The onion and celeriac add a little texture and crunch, the basil adds flavor and greenery, the lime gives it a very bright note - what a success!
This is a recipe to futz around with, not to let lie, so here are some of our ideas for the brave: mustard would have been good added to the dressing, or some other spice, like chili paste, sambal oelek or horseradish.  Ginger could give it more flavor, and cilantro would be an easy addition.  Chili oil could be substituted for some or all of the olive oil.
As it stood, the easy play between starch, lime, garlic and basil was enough for our plates, and was cool comfort beside our fried fish and sea breeze.
Like all potato salads, the most difficult part is cleaning and cooking the potatoes, which isn't difficult at all.  We kept the skins on - the cardboard box we'd picked them out of at the market was a mix of colors.  After cooking, we let the potatoes cool to room temperature so that the basil wouldn't wilt.
For the dressing, use three ripe limes (the brighter green a lime is, the more un-ripe it is, some yellow is a good thing), olive oil and salt, plus whatever spices or other flavors you're going to add.  We mixed the garlic and chopped onion in with the oil so it would incorporate better, but otherwise kept it simple.
Here is the recipe, to be used as a base for greater things or to be followed for a simple, summery, seaside accompaniment:

After Beach Blitva or Lime Basil Potato Salad
- 1 1/2 lbs. small, boiling potatoes, well-scrubbed and cubed.
- 1 celery root, peeled and roughly matchsticked
- 1 medium-sized red onion
- 3 cups fresh basil
- 3 ripe limes
- 3/4 cups olive oil
- 2 or 3 large cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- salt

- Clean the potatoes, cut into one inch (really, about 3/4 inch) cubes, boil in salted water until tender. Drain and let cool.
- In a large bowl, mix together oil, juice from all limes, garlic, onion and some more salt.
- Add potatoes, basil and celery root, mix all ingredients well.
- Serve cool alongside simple fish, cephalopod or crustacean.
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