So I admit that I didn’t do a ton of research on the history of Croatia. This isn’t because I’m lazy, it’s because my story for Croatia is more personal. In 1911, Barbara and Josef Brozic made their way out of Croatia and to the US. They were only 20 years old but already had one child that had died shortly after his birth and another child in tow. The reason they left is lost with history and language barriers (Barbara never learned to speak English very well and Josef suffered from strokes when he was older that left him unable to speak clearly in any language), but we do know that they settled in Pittsburg where my grandmother was born in 1916.
Barbara and Josef were my great grandparents, Grammy and Deda for all the years that I knew them (Deda is Croatian for grandpa). At some point, Grammy and Deda relocated to Michigan, to a really nice Croatian neighborhood in Detroit. Even though Croatia didn’t exist as it’s own country back then, I always knew my family was Croatian, not Yugoslavian. I guess that should have been a clue that Yugoslavia wouldn’t last, but let’s get back to the Brozics.
We used to visit my great grandparents on holidays, we would bring a bottle of Hennessy and sit in their very uncluttered and clean living room and my sister and I would try to be quiet and good. Funny story about the Hennessy, never, not once, was the bottle opened when we arrived, it was put away in the china cabinet and out would come a bottle of cheap brandy that my parents would be forced to sip (both my parents hate cognac). Grammy would take my mom to the kitchen and would pour her an extra shot – “don’t worry, Mike doesn’t need to know” – wink, wink. My aunt was smart and threw up the first time she downed a shot with Grammy – she never had to endure the cheap booze again. Mom was not so smart – she slugged it down and was rewarded with yet another drink 🙂
This was pretty lost on me as a kid (I was around 7 when my great grandparents died, so I was really young when we were visiting). What I remember is the red glass bowl that Grammy had on her coffee table. In a house with no toys and very little color, this red bowl was a little miracle. It was filled with M&Ms! And it was a big bowl (or seemed it to me at the time). My mother would tell us to just take a couple, but while she was off drinking in the kitchen we could usually sneak a few handfuls, quite the treat.
Then there were the baked goods. Grammy could BAKE. To this day I have never been able to duplicate her skill or her recipes. Her orasnica (walnut roll) was the most amazing pastry, her kuglov (sweet bread with raisins) was the best raisin bread I’ve ever had. My mother once watched her make strudel – she rolled the dough out the length of her large dining room table until it was so thin that you could see through it. She would take all day to bake these goodies and we would devour them. Alas, her recipes have been lost over the years – they were in Croatian and we always meant to have them translated, but somehow never got around to it and all of us have moved too often, and they’ve disappeared. We do have an old cookbook of hers (in English) that must have been written by a friend of hers (as it is autographed), but I’ve tried the recipes in this book and the taste isn’t quite right – that could be my skill as a baker though, hard to tell.
So, I am a full ¼ Croatian and yet when I got to Croatia I realized that I had no idea what they eat (other than pastries of course). I’m sure Grammy cooked us dinner many times, but my child’s brain can’t remember past the sweets and my parents were too traumatized by the booze, so they were no help. So back to old fashioned Internet research. It turns out Croatians love food!
Surrounded by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and Montenegro and not far from Greece and Italy, all with rich culinary traditions, the Croats have embraced gourmet cooking and upscale ingredients. It doesn’t hurt that white truffles are native to the countryside, that’s a pretty good start to fine dining.
What Croats especially like is fresh, seasonal ingredients – so, rather than eat the same foods all the time, the menus generally change with the seasons. They love their ham, olives, cheese, and of course mushrooms. Frankly, this recipe just writes itself. Amazingly, my local Whole Foods carries a Croatian cheese called mitica paski sir, at the crazy price of $26.99/lb! I, of course, couldn’t resist. I also bought an Italian taleggio, just in case the expensive Croatian cheese didn’t work out. Turns out this was a good choice. The Croat cheese wasn’t my favorite (and the family agreed) – it was like a really sharp and nutty Parmesan and it didn’t go well with the beef or the mushrooms. So I recommend the taleggio or any other good quality cheese you like (taleggio is kind of a stinky cheese, so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea – dad gave it a pass, but he really doesn’t like cheese, let alone stinky cheese).
Because I couldn’t find a Croatian ham or salami, we tried Italian versions of both and the clear winner was prosciutto di parma. I personally am fine with substituting a cheaper American prosciutto, after all this is a burger topping so some of the subtlety of flavor is lost, but it seemed in spirit with my ancestors to go for the good stuff.
If Whole Foods carried white truffles I would have jumped at the excuse to experiment with this precious ingredient, but alas, all they could offer was truffle oil or pieces of truffle in oil – that didn’t inspire me, so I jumped over to the chanterelles. I LOVE chanterelles! They went perfectly with the prosciutto and the cheese, I only wish I had more so I could munch on some right now.
Lastly I wanted to add a seasonal element and a little brightness to balance out the heaviness of the burger. Black plums happen to be in season and I had noticed a couple of mentions of plums in Croatian recipes, so I bought way too many plums and cooked up a vat of sauce. I’ve cut the recipe down for you, but it still will make a lot. I’m not sure you can cut it down any further as the recipe relies on the flavor of the plums to develop while cooking down slowly, any fewer plums and I fear you’d end up burning the sauce before you got enough flavor. I used Zinfandel to flavor the sauce as my husband (the wine geek) informs me that some other wine geek has proven that Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski grape is the genetic ancestor of Zinfandel – no wonder Zin is my favorite red, my ancestors were probably drinking it over 100 years ago!
We served the burgers with the rest of the Zin and it was a perfect compliment. This makes for a rich and delicious burger. The salty ham and the sharp cheese with the woody mushrooms are heaven and the plum sauce gives just a hint of sweet that breaks up the richness perfectly. A great burger for a cool autumn evening or even a cold winter’s night – enjoy and tip your glass in a toast to Grammy and Deda.
1 pound ground beef (this would be a great burger to grind your own meat)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sharp paprika
½ teaspoon fresh thyme chopped
4 slices prosciutto di parma
2 teaspoons olive oil
1¾ cup chopped chanterelle mushrooms
3 ounces taleggio or other high quality cheese
Black plum sauce (recipe below)
4 brioche rolls – get a good quality roll, don’t use a standard bun, these ingredients deserve more
Mix beef with salt, paprika and thyme and form four patties. In a large skillet heat a splash of olive oil until shimmering then add the prosciutto and cook over medium heat just until heated through and lightly browned. Remove the prosciutto and set aside. In the same skillet, add a splash more olive oil then add the chanterelles and lightly salt. Cook over medium high stirring regularly until just beginning to soften.
In the meantime, cook your burgers either on the grill or on an indoor grill pan. Add the cheese to the burgers about one minute before they’re done to melt it. You can grill your buns in the same pan with a little olive oil.
Assemble the burgers – bottom bun, spinach, prosciutto, cooked patty, plum sauce and chanterelles. Then finish it off with the top bun.
Black Plum Sauce
2 Tablespoons olive oil
½ small red onion roughly chopped
4 black plums, pitted and roughly chopped
¼ cup Zinfandel red wine
½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the onions and cook until just beginning to soften. Add the plums and wine bring to a simmer then cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook for 60-90 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Taste and add vinegar if it needs it (this will depend on the sweetness of the plums). Let the sauce cool slightly then pulse in a food processor until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use (can be used cold or room temperature).
©Copyright 2011 Linda Monach