Recipes from Albania

The first thing I think about when eating and drinking in Gjirokaster is Turkish coffee.  I’ve never really been much of a coffee drinker.  I learned to drink the brew while in Morocco when it was one part coffee and three parts hot milk.  It was kind of like hot chocolate.  If it’s black coffee, I still can’t do it.  But if you add wonderful cream flavorings like vanilla, hazelnut, or crème brule, a lot of steamed milk, or top it with whipped cream and caramel, I love a cup of dessert coffee.  None of this is Turkish coffee, please.

Turkish coffee is strong.  It’s thick.  There is a sludge of coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup.  Fortunately, you aren’t expected to drink the sludge.  Still, I cannot honestly say I like the stuff.  Not one little bit!  But, I can honestly say that I’ve had a lot of it in Albania just to be polite.  That’s how my mother raised me.

Haxhi, my Albanian host, made some coffee for me while I drew the sketch for my mural in their living room.  It was so strong.  Vita, his wife, takes great pride in how well Haxhi prepares their coffee.  Well, the effort was appreciated but the taste wasn’t.  However, much to my surprise, I managed to drink his coffee without gagging.  It wasn’t until after I finished it that I learned why.  Vita made a sound that was Albania’s answer to a French “oh, la, la!”  She cried that out when she learned Haxhi put four, count ‘em, four spoons of sugar in my coffee. That much sugar can make anything taste good.

Vita, on the other hand, is simply a wonderful chef.  There is no bad food prepared in her kitchen.  Most guests in their bed and breakfast are only served breakfast.  I, however, am part of the family.  I, quite fortunately, ate my meals in their home.  When other guests asked me where to eat in town, I never had a clue.

In the past, Vita gave me a few of her secret recipes, but I first had to swear never to share them.  So, those secrets remain in my unskilled possession. Whenever I’ve tried to replicate her dishes, I’ve failed miserably.  I never asked her for the recipe that inspired me on this trip.  I gave the recipe my best shot after a little research.  At first glance you might think, “What is so special about meatballs?”  Well, I’ve always enjoyed them with spaghetti and tomato sauce. However, in Vita’s kitchen, they were prepared for a cheese soup.  It was a little bit of Albanian heaven in my mouth.

Meatballs and Cheese Soup
Gjirokastra, Albania

Meatballs and Cheese Soup

1 small onion
3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs flour
1 1/2 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cup cream 
3/4 cup grated Cheddar
1/2 cup parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Dice up the onion, without crying if possible, and sauté that little rascal in butter for 5 to 7 minutes.  Blend in the flour and then add the chicken stock and cream.  Cook all of this until it is thick.  And, speaking of thick, don’t think about things that will clog your arteries.  After a little taste of heaven, this recipe could just possibly help send you there a little quicker.  Now, at this point, do I need to talk about cheese?  Yep, stir it in until it is all melted.

(I really don’t think Vita used sharp Cheddar.  I don’t know what she used because I didn’t want to pry away any secrets.  It was yellow cheese, although Feta is so deliciously used around the region.)

The final goodies to add are the shredded parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and those meatballs.

 Albanian Meatballs     
1 pound ground meat
1 medium onion, diced
1 garlic clove minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 Tbs chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste  
2 eggs
2 slices stale bread
1 cup flour
oil for frying
2 Tbs Feta chopped
Grab a large mixing bowl.  Now, I suggest a beautiful ceramic bowl from Morocco because that’s what I have in my kitchen.  Anyway, in whatever you have, mix the meat (which could be lamb if you are in Albania), onion, garlic, spices, and herbs all together.  Think your hands are messy?  You’re just getting started.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix them into the meat.

This recipe has more mess for your hands.  Fill another bowl with water.  Plop that stale bread in it and let it soak for a minute.  Then, squeeze all the water out of the bread, break it into little pieces, and mix it in with the meat.

Now, here’s the trick for a successful mixture.  It should not be too sticky.  The mix should not stick to your fingers, but it should be sticky enough to form the meat balls.  If it appears to be too wet, add some more bread to the bowl and mix it up again.

It still isn’t time to wash your hands.  Roll the meat into one inch meat balls and then roll them around in some flour.  When that is complete, yes, you may wash your hands.  Next, fry them up in a pan with about ½ inch of olive oil.  It should take three to four minutes, turning the sides until they are evenly cooked.

Optional thinking: I saw a recipe that called for Feta cheese inside the meatballs.  Mmmmmm!  However, since you’re putting those meatballs in a cheese soup, I’m going to say that Feta might just a little over the top.  Perhaps you’d like to include it if you’re making spaghetti with tomato sauce. Mmmmmm, again!

In my search for something delicious - and Albanian - I turned to one of my students in the mural project.  Melita was hands-down the best artist I met on this trip to Albania.  The day I met her, she had a prize-winning painting in a local art competition.  Of course, I instantly liked her.

As far as food goes, Melita liked Sarma.  Now, I'd never heard of that before, but an online search revealed it's a treat throughout the former Ottoman Empire (including much of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, and Northern Africa). There are variations where you roll all kinds of goodies into grape leaves, white cabbage, Swiss chard, or collard greens.  If you stuff the leaves, then it would be dolma.  If all of this makes perfect sense to you, you're way better in the kitchen than me.
Melita's Sarma
Gjirokastra, Albania

40 - 50 grape leaves
1 large onion
3 Tbs olive oil
1/2 cup of rice
salt and pepper to taste
dill, one bunch
parsley, 1/2 cup
mint, 1/4 cup 
juice of one lemon (but ......keep a few wedges)
1 tomato   
1 Tbs tomato paste 
1 lb. minced beef or lamb
2 cups water or chicken ......stock 
dab of butter
Melita obviously knows what she is doing in the kitchen. Her recipe didn't have all the portions and guidance I need in the kitchen.  So, I combined her recipe with additional help online.  (How did we ever do anything before computers?)

There are special instructions about the grape leaves that I never would have thought about.  Cut off the stems from all the leaves, all the way up to and just past where the stalk joins the leaf.  Then, if there are any leaves that are spoiled for some reason, place them in the bottom of a cooking pot.  If some of those leaves end up sticking to the pot, then none of the really good rolls will be ruined.  Place the good leaves in another pot.  Melita specifically said you don't want the same sides touching.  So, place one leaf face down, the next one face up and then continue alternating.  Cover the leaves with boiling water and soak them for ten to fifteen minutes.  After that, rinse the leaves with cold water.

Once the leaves are prepared, set them aside.

Place the rice in salted hot water.  Set it aside for 25 minutes.

Now, it's time to focus on the filling.  Finely chop up the onion.  If you can do it without crying, please tell me the secret.  I always have tears.  Sauté the onion up with the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and any collection of herbs and spices that meets your needs.  That list could include dill, parsley, and mint in any amount you find in your kitchen.

Remove from heat and add the rice (drained), lemon juice, tomato paste, diced tomato, and ground or minced meat.  Now, Melita's recipe didn't include a tomato, tomato paste, or meat of any kind.  But, I think they would be good additions.

The fun begins.  Well, it'll probably be fun after you get the hang of things.  It's time to roll the goodies in the grape leaves. Place a leaf on your work surface - face down, backside up. Add one or two tablespoons of the meat mixture where the stem was trimmed off.  Fold the left side of the leaf over the mixture. Then, fold the right side of the leaf over the mixture.  Finally, roll up the leaf as neatly and tightly as possible.  Place the grape leaf roll in the cooking pot with those extra leaves at the bottom.  Keep the seams down, placing the rolls right next to each other.  Keep going until you've rolled all your leaves.

When all the leaves are rolled and placed, put any extra leaves on top of the rolls.  Pour in two cups of water or chicken stock as well as a dab of butter.  On top of all that, place a heat-proof dish over the rolls to keep them pressed down and in position. Turn on medium heat, waiting ever so patiently for that pot to boil. When you see bubbles, lower the heat and continue cooking for about 45 minutes so the rice and meat can completely cook, the leaves become tender, and the water (or chicken stock) can be absorbed.

If it doesn't already sound simply amazing, garnish the rolls with lemon wedges, and serve your sarma up with yogurt and homemade bread.