Another birthday meal, another out-of-order meal thanks to a name change! (Last year’s was eSwatini.) Until earlier this year, this southern Balkan country was known to the United Nations by the beastly name of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with the equally beastly acronym FYROM, and inexplicably alphabetized not under F or R or M, but rather T, for The. For over two decades, this nation went by this ungainly name because Greece asserts that the historical region of Macedonia is mostly within its borders, and Greece also threatened to block any admission to other international organizations such as the EU until the issue was resolved. Finally, 27 years after Yugoslavia dissolved, both sides begrudgingly agreed that North Macedonia would be acceptable, and the most pusillanimous name in the UN was finally gone. With this jump from T to N, we had to do the meal posthaste!
And how fortunate we were to celebrate this country’s food with a birthday crowd. It’s a really great cuisine, featuring the fresher, Ottoman-influenced side of Slavic food, with just enough sour cream and pork to make it sing. And to top it off, it’s a country with a lot of great wine.
So many good friends at this one! Melia, Liz, Breesa, Jason, Ezra, Laura H, Patrick, Katia, Annie, Laura K, Jen, Chad, Levi, Julie, Deena, Denise, Jeff, Scott, Jen, Craig, and Mike all made it a rollicking good time.
Slatko | Thin jam | Recipe
There’s a very specific hospitality tradition in Macedonia: upon arrival, you’re offered a spoon, a bowl of jam, and a glass of water. You take exactly one bite of jam, sip the water, and put the spoon in the water glass.
While there’s a number of appropriate fruits for making this jam, it was the height of cherry season. One stand at the farmers markets had two different sour cherry varieties, so instead of the very French Montmorency, I chose the one with the Eastern European-sounding name, and indeed the Balaton cherry is from Hungary. The only hard part was pitting all those damn little cherries; after that it was just a matter of making a syrup, dunking the fruit in, and putting it in jars.
And it turned out well! The tradition was fun, and the jam was so tasty that it was a struggle not to double-dip. I made too much syrup relative to the volume of cherries, but no worries, since the remaining syrup is now awesome in other things — in fact, I’m gonna try making a Shirley Temple with it.
Shopska salata | Country salad | Recipe
With a variation here or there, this is the salad of this whole region. It’s so simple, and so hard to improve upon; its success rests entirely on the quality of the ingredients. Unfortunately this year hasn’t been great for tomatoes so we didn’t get quite the intensity from them that really good ones would have offered, but the excellent Bulgarian feta sure did help.
Pogača | Soft dinner bread | Recipe
Pretend you’re saying this word after having mouth surgery and you’ll see it actually comes from “focaccia!” While they are different shapes, what they have in common is a rich, oily dough that makes for a softer crumb. This recipe has sour cream, butter, milk, oil, and egg, so it’s a very rich dough. Counterintuitively, all those ingredients make it really easy to work with, just a single short rise. The bread turned out pretty nicely, especially accompanied with the spreads which, amazingly, were imported from Macedonia! (No, I didn’t make them myself, I couldn’t bring myself to buy $4/pound bell peppers to roast and cook down.)
Tavče gravče | Baked beans | Recipe
This modest casserole is widely acknowledged as the national dish. The outline is super simple: soak and cook big white beans until firm-tender, separately sauté onions, mix and add paprika, and bake. So with such a simple recipe, as with the salad, quality ingredients matter, which is why I was so bummed when the lima beans practically crumbled apart when I soaked them. Thankfully, I had planned to make the beans a day early, so I had one more chance to find better beans — and I practically squealed when I found artisan giant Greek beans at World Foods.
I picked and chose a few bits of flair from other recipes, in particular throwing in some mint sprigs, which turned out to really make the dish sing. Make sure you have good, fresh, flavorful paprika, because that’s the predominant flavor of the dish. In the end, these quality expensive ($9 for a 14 oz bag!) beans plumped up beautifully, and the dish had lovely subtle flavors throughout.
Pastrmka | Trout | Recipe
Although it’s landlocked, North Macedonia has a strong fish tradition thanks to its lakes. In particular, the trout of Lake Ohrid is prized, and while it’s prepared in several ways, this one felt pretty distinctive. I was pretty excited to see what would happen if you stuffed a salmonid with both farmers cheese and sour cream, and you know what, it turned out pretty darn well. The foil was useful for holding in the filling during poaching, and then flesh flaked straight off the bones. A novel way to prepare fish!
Pastrmajlija | “Pizza” | Recipe
As far as I can tell, it’s coincidence that this dish’s name is so similar to the prior. In fact, it comes from the same word as “pastrami,” because this flatbread was originally studded with preserved sheep meat. Now it’s done with paprika-marinated pork, and it’s just as simple and delicious as it looks. Well, I lied, there’s a secret ingredient: lard, painted all over the dough, giving it a gloss and porkiness in every bite. Since none of us could figure out how to pronounce it, we ended up calling it “meatza,” and except for the one slice that our dog Reba ate off the floor, we polished it off.
Ravanija | Syrup-soaked semolina cake | Recipe
With several dishes above that sing with simplicity, I was hoping that a similarly straightforward ingredient list would yield some magic. Alas, this really ended up tasting like a fairly bland cake soaked with sugar syrup. I put a bit of cinnamon in the syrup and even that didn’t come through. Oh well!