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Consuming Croatia

Centuries of various empire occupations have shaped Croatian cuisine into a Mediterranean melting-pot.

Croatia—considered a part of both Central Europe and Southeastern Europe—is best described as a Mediterranean intersection of tradition, culture and gastronomy. Having been occupied and influenced by various groups over the centuries, from the Romans to the Venetians and later the Hungarians, Austrians and Italians, the country’s cuisine is a kaleidoscope of fare with the heritage of those who have occupied it.

While the Italian influence can be seen all along Croatia’s coastline, it’s most prominent in Istria, Croatia’s northernmost peninsula. Only fifty nautical miles from Venice, Istrian cuisine is infused with an unmistakable Italian flair. The most famous and popular Istrian pasta, for example, is fuzi—thin, folded squares of pasta—often served with a savory black or white truffle sauce, another huge draw in this region.

Fresh seafood is a coastal staple. Popular dishes include ligne, or grilled squid, as well as grilled octopus and local Adriatic fish accompanied by blitva, a signature Dalmatian dish of boiled potatoes and Swiss chard (mangold).

Croatia is also known for its delicious pršut i sir, or prosciutto and cheese, and is often served with bread and local olive oil—quite similar to Italian antipasti. The most famous cheese is Paški sir, a sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Pag in Northern Dalmatia. There are also many homemade or local varieties, commonly referred to as škripavac, or farmer’s cheese.

Palatschinken is the Austrian name for the thin, crêpe-like pancake common in Central and Eastern Europe; in Croatia, it is known as palačinke. Spread with various fillings, including dry cottage cheese, strawberry jam or Nutella, it’s rolled up, baked and served hot.

But the gastronomical delights don’t stop there. Wine has been a part of Croatian culture for centuries. As early as 2200 BC, Illyrian tribes started making wine in Dalmatia. The winegrowing tradition further developed through Greek colonization in 390 BC. Today, Croatians export select wines to the U.S. Notable Croatian wine distributors include Blue Danube Wine Company, Vinum USA, Oenocentric, Katharine’s Garden, Empty Glass Wine Company, Tasty Wine Company and Dalmata.

For Wine Enthusiast Croatian wine ratings and reviews, click here.

For an in-depth look into the food and wine towns of Croatia, click here.

Cottage Cheese Palačinke

For the palačinke:
4 eggs
3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup, plus 1¾ cups milk
2 cups flour
4 tablespoons melted butter
For the cottage cheese filling:
1 cup dry cottage cheese or strained small curd cottage cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg
Dash of salt
Powdered sugar, to top

To make the palačinke:
Separate the egg yolks and whites. In a small bowl, beat yolks and add sugar, salt and ½ cup milk. Gradually add flour alternately with the remaining milk and melted butter, beating or whisking until smooth. Beat the egg whites into soft peaks and fold them into the batter. In a large frying pan, heat 1 teaspoon butter over medium-low heat. Remove the pan from the heat and, using a ladle, pour just enough batter into the pan to make a thin layer. Tip the pan using circular motions to evenly coat the bottom with batter. Replace on the burner. After a few minutes, when the batter starts to brown on the bottom, take a spatula and flip over the palačinke to cook the other side. Remove to another plate and continue until all of the batter has been used.

To make the cottage cheese filling:
Add sugar, egg and a dash of salt to the cottage cheese. Mix well.

To Serve:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread each palačinke with the cottage cheese filling and roll up. Place each filled palačinke side by side in a shallow baking dish and bake for 20-30 minutes. Top with powdered sugar.

Note: Palačinke can be filled with everything from strawberry jam to Nutella. Follow the above recipe and substitute with your filling of choice.

Wine Recommendations for Cottage Cheese Palačinke: The creamy, spiced-pear fruitiness and powdered stone minerality of the Enjingi 2009 Graševina from Slavonia, Croatia, is the perfect refreshment after a few delicious bites of savory cottage cheese palačinke. Mouth-filling and rich, this wine is spicy, ripe with autumn fruit and off-dry, making it a lovely companion to the farmhouse flavors found in this recipe. A comparable alternative would be an off-dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire, France.

Wine Recommendations for Nutella Palačinke:
The beautiful and bold Saints Hills 2008 Dingač from Croatia’s Pelješac peninsula is off-dry and elegantly merges with the Nutella’s hazelnut and cocoa notes. Made from Plavac Mali grapes that have been hand-harvested, this wine—the only Michel Rolland project in Croatia—delivers flavors of dried fig, plum, sea salt-infused dark chocolate, roasted Mediterranean herb and cherry-vanilla cola. As a sweeter, more indulgent alternative, a luscious Pedro Ximénez Sherry from Spain will elevate the Nutella’s cocoa-nuttiness to new heights of decadence.

Wine Recommendations for Strawberry Jam Palačinke:
Semisweet with Acacia floral notes, fresh fruit salad and creamy mineral flavors, the Kozlović 2006 Muškat from Northern Istria, Croatia, has a refined freshness that elevates the strawberry and palačinke flavors and cleans the palate in preparation for the next delicious bite. An Italian Moscato d’Asti is an excellent and like-minded alternative for folks who like a little fizz.

Grilled Mediterranean Branzino with Blitva

For the blitva:
3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 pounds red Swiss chard (mangold), stems removed and cut into ½-inch strips
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves
Salt
Pepper

For the branzino:
2 garlic cloves, crushed and roughly chopped
4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon coarse salt
Ground black pepper to taste
2 whole Branzino, gutted and scaled, with heads left on
Lemon wedges, for garnish

To make the blitva:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the potatoes. When potatoes are almost fork tender (about 10 minutes), add the Swiss chard and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Over medium heat, heat olive oil and garlic in a sauté pan until garlic is lightly colored, then add the cooked, drained chard and potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook for an additional minute to blend the flavors.

To make the branzino:
Combine garlic, olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper and mix well. Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to 350°F and grease so the fish will not stick. Rub the grilling marinade all over the fish, inside and out. Place the fish on the grill and cook uncovered and undisturbed for approximately 5-8 minutes per side, until the skin is crispy and the meat just begins to flake. Serve with lemon wedges.

Wine Recommendations: An island dish requires an island wine, and the Krajančić 2009 Pošip Intrada from Korčula, an island located off the Croatian coast, is sunshine in a glass. As golden in color as the finest olive oil, this wine’s fig nectar, pear, dried honey and butter flavors reveal and elevate the Mediterranean character of this dish. Round and oily, the wine has just enough acidity to enhance the flavors of the fresh fish while offering a textural match to the soft, olive oil-infused potatoes and chard. An equally bright alternative is a Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany, Italy.

Wine pairings provided by Cliff Rames of Wines of Croatia.

By Kristin Vukovič www.winemag.com