Mother firmly believed that each member of the family should contribute to the household chores. While she attacked the majority of the monotonous, routine, everyday tasks by herself, she assigned cameo roles to all of us. Father was in charge of lugging home huge sacks of flour and sugar, cartons of oil, and flats of eggs (the “lugging” part was mostly done in his Fiat 1300, later Renault 4 – only in the past few years have I seen him reluctantly leaving his beloved car in front the house and actually walking to the store or the post office).
His duties also included procuring vast amounts of animal protein. Nothing can send Serbian adults off to sleep with a smile on their lips better than two box-freezers filled with neatly stacked packages of meat. At any time, we had half of a young cow, a couple of pigs, twenty or so chickens, and a few turkeys chilling out in our deluxe, climate controlled animal sanctuary. Occasionally in spring, a lamb would appear in the yard, tethered to the metal frame of the rectangular carpet-beating contraption which adorns every Serbian yard. We knew better than to love him, pet him, squeeze him, and call him George. The hunting expeditions provided pheasant, quail, and rabbits. Friends going fishing would drop some extra wild trout for Fridays’ lent. No, we did not lack in the meat department.
As for us kids, our duties were light, although we certainly envisioned ourselves as modern-time Cinderellas, having to clean our room, set and clear the table, and the most abominable of all, shine Father’s shoes (we would form an assembly line where one of us scrubbed the dirt off with a bristley hard brush, the next spread the shoe polish with a small, soft brush – and, yes, there was one for black, and one for the brown shoes – and the last polished to a mirror-like shine).
In addition, as each of us turned four, our chores included shopping. There were no heavy trafficked streets to cross, and the store where we bought a loaf of freshly baked bread and a glass bottle of yogurt was just around the corner from the house. Crossing our street and turning around the other corner, would take us to the kiosk which sold newspapers. With only our eyes visible above the display, we would ask for the Ekspres Politika for Deda-Ljubo, and make our way home, dragging the canvas bag with the leather handles, trying not to break the glass nor squish the bread. Drudgery, I am telling you!
After we started school and became experienced walkers and street-crossers, we would be entrusted with buying the phyllo dough. Two Albanian brothers made, stretched, and sold the dough in a store the size of a telephone booth right across the embankment that protected our town from floods. While I abhorred shopping for bread, yogurt, and newspapers, I could not wait to visit the Phyllo-men, as we called them. Inside the little stall it was always warm, and the smell of the dough was intoxicating. Peppered with flour, dressed in immaculate white shirt, pants, and apron, one of the brothers would smile and offer us a torn piece of the raw dough to munch on while he wrapped in cellophane 500gr of the thin baklava phyllo, or one kilogram of the slightly thicker (if you can even call phyllo thick) dough for various “pitas” (cheese, meat, sorrel, or spinach). I would linger, resisting leaving the cozy and comforting cocoon, only to be whipped by the cruel north winds of late November, or greeted by the steady murmur of raindrops pelting me from a lead-grey sky.
I was already living in the U.S. when Mother told me the Phyllo-men had left the town during the ugly wars that forever changed the map of South-Eastern Europe. Every time I go back, I look at the spot across the embankment, hoping to steal a glimpse of those flour-covered arms tossing the sheets of phyllo in the air, or catch the scent of fresh dough carried on a random tendril of the wind.
There are other people making phyllo in our town. They make it using machines and sell it at the supermarkets. The sheets are uniform and too regular, wrapped in commercially sealed plastic. Until last summer, Mother still made baklavas, and pitas, and bureks, and strudels, but gone is the warmth and the smell of the tiny kiosk. Gone is the love that our Albanian neighbors poured into the dough with their skilled hands, rendering something no machine can offer.
Not too long ago my friend Dorothy from Shockingly Delicious asked me if I would like a box of produce from Cut ‘n Clean Greens . I buy spinach in bulk and raid my friend’s garden for Swiss chard a few times a week, so it did not take a lot of arm-twisting to for me to say yes. The UPS guy showed up at my door with a huge box containing everything from organic kale to spinach, to beet greens, to Swiss Chard, and all the combinations imaginable. Even though I have to admit to being a food hoarder, I was overwhelmed at the amount of leafy green vegetables that camped in my fridge and immediately started thinking of various ways to use them.
One of the first things that came to mind was a strudel. In the Balkans, we make it with sorrel or spinach, but I knew that beet greens or chard would be equally delicious. I went to our local Persian store and returned with commercially made phyllo dough neatly wrapped in plastic, square and perfectly uniform as only a machine can render. Like Mother, I will have to put some extra love into the strudel, hoping to compensate for what those skilled, Albanian hands could do that machines never will.
PHYLLO DOUGH AND GREENS STRUDEL (ZELJANICA)
I have changed the ingredients from the original recipe as “kajmak” is not available in the U.S. Cream cheese and sour cream make up for it adequately, if not ideally. Also, in the Balkans, this dish is called “pita” or “burek”, depending who you talk to. But whatever you call it, it’s a delightful light dinner or supper, accompanied best by a glass of cold milk, Balkan-style yogurt, or a frosty mug of beer.
- 1 lb fresh spinach, sorrel, beet greens, or chard
- 3 large eggs
- 8 oz cottage cheese or a combination of cottage cheese and crumbled feta
- ½ cup sour cream
- 2 Tbsp cream cheese
- ¾ cup milk
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 1 lb (500gr) phyllo dough
- ¼ cup sunflower oil
- 1/4 cup water
A day ahead defrost your phyllo dough in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Lightly grease a 13×9 pan with sunflower or vegetable oil.
Mix the oil and water in a small bowl.
Heat a large pot filled with water over high heat. When it boils, add your greens and blanch for 1 minute, until wilted and vibrant green. Remove immediately to a strainer (positioned above another pot) and let cool. When sufficiently cool, squeeze the excess liquid and cut into smaller pieces.
Place the greens into a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients, except for the phyllo dough, oil, and water. Mix to combine. Lay one sheet of dough to cover the bottom of the pan with the other half hanging over the edge. Place another sheet on the top with the other half hanging over the other edge. Sprinkle with the oil and water mix.
Lightly scrunch up a sheet of dough and place on one side of the pan. Scoop a few tablespoons of filling on top. Repeat for two more sheets, scrunching and adding the filling. Sprinkle with some oil/water mix. Continue laying the scrunched sheets until they are all gone. Cover with the overlapping pieces of phyllo and sprinkle with the remaining oil and water.
Place in the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Remove and let cool in the pan. Cut into squares and serve with cold milk, plain yogurt, or beer.
A year ago: Shrimp and Scallops Creole