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 wonderfully flavored 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 coffee.  None of this is Turkish coffee.

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
Cheese Soup      
.......... 1 small onion   1 1/2 cup cream  
  3 Tbs butter   3/4 cup grated sharp Cheddar  
  3 Tbs flour   1/2 cup parsley  
  1 1/2 cup chicken stock   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   salt and pepper to taste  
  1 medium onion, diced   2 eggs  
  1 garlic clove minced   2 slices stale bread  
  1 tsp dried oregano   1 cup flour  
  1 Tbs chopped fresh mint   oil for frying  
  1/4 cup chopped parsley   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!

Copyright 2014 by Phillip Martin. All rights reserved.