Croatia is a country that is both beautiful and humbling in equal measure. It is known amongst the Contiki crowd as an island-hopping destination but, as with any tourist hotspot, it is many of the lesser-known areas that are the most breath-taking. Miranda has been twice and is just waiting for the chance to take Ash for his first visit. On her first trip, it was the small island of Vela Luka rather than party central Hvar that had the most appeal, and touring the inland areas that still showed evidence of the not-so-distant war was a sobering reminder that there is so much more to this nation than the 18-30s experience. More recently, the little bay near her Dubrovnik apartment provided a week’s worth of secluded early morning swims in an area that the hordes of cruise ship day-trippers wouldn’t have gone anywhere near.
But this blog is about food, not waxing lyrical about Adriatic countries. Due to the amount of coastline and islands, our first thought relating to Croatian cuisine was seafood. Crni rizot, or cuttlefish risotto, was a known delicacy, but we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to get hold of any cuttlefish ink. After further research, we came across the seafood-rich brudet, the Croatian equivalent of the French bouillabaisse, or fish stew. Full of all sorts of aquatic bounty, this was a traditional Croatian dish that definitely ticked the ‘seafood’ box. It’s easy to make, because you can mix up the different types of fish as much as you like. There were many different variations of this recipe online, but we decided to go with the one from The Life She Made.
(While cooking, we snacked on some Croatian sugared delicacies that Miranda brought back last summer: dried figs, candied orange peel and sugared peanuts. Surprisingly, they’d actually lasted all this time! Yum!)
1kg firm-fleshed white fish (we used a mixture of pollock, monkfish and conger eel), cut into large chunks or cutlets
500g prawns, legs removed but head and shell intact
500g mussels, debearded
20 cloves garlic, crushed (yes, twenty! It’s actually not that garlicky, surprisingly)
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
100ml white wine
500ml fish stock
Handful of cherry tomatoes
1. Blitz the garlic, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil in a food processor (reserve a couple of cloves of garlic and a little bit of parsley for later). Mix in a large bowl with the prepared seafood, tossing together so that every piece is covered with the marinade. Cover with cling film and put in the fridge for a few hours.
2. When it’s time to cook, add some olive oil to a large, hot pan and fry the onion and reserved garlic for a few minutes, until translucent.
3. Add the can of tomatoes and wine. Bring to the boil and simmer until reduced somewhat (original recipe said by half but our pan didn’t really allow for that).
4. Add the white fish along with the fish stock and salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes without stirring (crucial!), but shake the pan every now and again to prevent the fish from sticking.
5. Add the prawns, mussels and cherry tomatoes and boil rapidly for another 5-7 minutes, continuing to shake the pan when necessary.
6. Serve with soft polenta (to make this, boil 4 parts salted water to 1 part polenta – when the water is boiling, slowly add the polenta whilst whisking, and keep whisking for the couple of minutes it takes until it’s ready. Add butter if desired).
Ash decided that polenta wasn’t enough and he wanted some bread as well, so some last-minute research into Croatian bread commenced. Because Croatia was once a republic of Yugoslavia, it’s difficult to determine the exact origin of the recipe we found for lepinja (triple-raised soft baked flatbread), but either way, it went nicely with our brudet. Strictly speaking, it really wasn’t a flatbread either, but never mind. This recipe is from European Cuisines.
300g strong bread flour (we used half white, half wholemeal)
2 sachets fast action dried yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt (way too much. Needs to be cut back, at least by half)
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Combine all ingredients (we used a food processor) and knead well. Put the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film and set aside in a warm place to rise for an hour.
2. When risen, punch down, cover again, and leave to rise for another hour.
3. After this, flour a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead the dough again briefly, then divide into three portions. Form these pieces into balls, flour them lightly, then allow them to rest for 5-10 minutes.
4. Flatten the balls of dough to about half an inch thick, place on a floured baking sheet and allow to rise again for about 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 210C whilst doing so.
5. Bake for 6 minutes at 210C, then lower the heat to 150C and bake for another 10-12 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and let them rest wrapped in a tea towel for 10 minutes to let the crust soften (no idea whether this is actually necessary!).
The verdict? The brudet was nice, but we were a little disappointed that the sauce was still quite runny and thin even after reducing for a while. The polenta was a learning experience as we started cooking it far too early, so it was well on its way to solidifying before it actually made it onto the plate, but it was definitely a quick, easy and tasty side dish. The bread was lovely, but far too salty (as mentioned above), so we would make it again but significantly reduce the quantity of salt.
The final element of our Croatian meal was some Sljivovica (plum brandy) that came back in Miranda’s suitcase last year. There’s a reason it’s still sitting on our shelf (let’s just say there’s no evidence of plums but just a hint of rocket fuel), but if we were ever going to drink it, it was tonight. The advice on Serious Eats was to chill it and put some crystallised ginger in the bottom of the glass, which we did, and it may have helped slightly, but my word – you know you’re alive when this stuff burns its way down your throat!
The next country on our list is Serbia. Due to both countries’ presence in former Yugoslavia, Serbian cuisine appears to be very similar to Croatia’s – so we are looking forward to seeing what we can find!