Croatia had far more success in my kitchen than they did on the soccer field on Sunday. After this past weekend, I have seen so many World Cup games, that I can barely keep up with all the triumphs and disappointments. However, as I did pick Croatia vs. Japan as my World Cup dinner game, I paid especially close attention. The game was a draw; not just a draw, but a scoreless draw. Not only that, but both teams missed out when they had easy chances to score—Croatia on a penalty kick, and Japan on an opportunity that only required them to tap the ball into the net. So, I was left with a dilemma. There are no tie breakers in the World Cup, and I was not in the mood to devise an Eastern European twist on the dragon roll. I had to make a decision, so I went with Croatia, based on the fact that Mike and I are pretty familiar with sushi, but do not have a clue what the Croats put in their bento boxes.
The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is on the Adriatic across from Italy. Croatians in this region eat a lot of seafood dishes, many prepared with an Italian inflection. This would not do for Mike and me. One of the objectives of cooking World Cup Dinners is to expand our knowledge of world cuisines, and Croatian shrimp scampi, a popular dish in Dalmatia, just does not fit the bill. We wanted to travel east of Zagreb where the cuisine is influenced by the Austro-Hungarian palate. We settled on Punjene Palacinke, or meat-stuffed crepes, with hopes of being transported to the dark reaches of Eastern Europe. What we got was a hearty, yet healthy dish with a fluffy souffled yogurt topping.
Before I continue with the method for Croatian savory crepes, I just have to pause and say that my husband is the most patient, kind and generous crepe-flipper in the whole wide world. He’s got skills.
Crepe-making is a genius technique to know. All you do is mix up a simple batter and cook the thin pancakes until just crisp around the edges and beginning to brown. Soon you’ll have a stack of slightly sweet wrappers for any wonderful filling you can dream up. You can make sweet breakfast crepes filled with strawberries and mascarpone cheese, or savory ones with sautéed spinach, mushrooms and fontina. They would be great for a brunch or party where you put out a stack of warm crepes and three or four different fillings and garnishes so guests can make their own. For the palacinke, Mike’s crepes got the enchilada treatment: stuffed with a meaty filling, rolled up and baked. First, I chopped and sautéed one large yellow onion, then added one pound of lean ground beef to the skillet. When the meat had browned, I added a large can of diced tomatoes, and about 1 tsp. each of marjoram, thyme and oregano. Of course, you would also season every ingredient with salt and pepper as you go. I simmered the beef mixture for about 10 minutes so as much liquid as possible would evaporate. I still had to cover the skillet with a lid and tip it over the sink to drain the excess fat from the beef to avoid watery crepes. I tossed a handful of chopped parsley into the beef mixture for some color, as well.
While I made the topping, Mike stuffed the crepes, rolled them up and nestled them into two baking dishes:
Now for the best part, in my opinion: the yogurt topping. I separated two eggs into two large bowls. I beat the whites with a hand mixer until stiff peaks formed and set them aside. To the yolks, I added 1 ¼ cups thick Greek-style yogurt. I have recently discovered that there really is not an acceptable substitute for Greek yogurt, although I have never tried draining regular yogurt as is sometimes suggested. I recommend finding the real thing for this recipe (our Whole Foods had several different brands). I also added about ¼ tsp. salt and ½ tsp. nutmeg. The recipe called for ½ cup of parmesan cheese which naturally, we were out of. We did however have leftover nubs of some interesting cheeses from an antipasto platter we made recently. I added some pungent, firm goat cheese that was hard enough to grate as well as another firm cheese that was in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Using these strongly flavored, high quality cheeses absolutely made a difference in the finished dish. They added a distinct layer of flavor that was a sharp counterpoint to the nutmeg and complemented the tangy yogurt. I gently folded the beaten egg whites into the yolk-yogurt mixture, poured my beautifully aerated topping over the stuffed crepes, and baked for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. You can tell it is done when the yogurt has puffed up and is beginning to brown around the edges.
I will admit that this dish has multiple steps, but they are all pretty simple, especially if you live with a world-class crepe flipper. The original recipe came from www.gourmet.gr, an English website that I happened upon with lots of useful information about Mediterranean food. It does not give a method for the crepes, so we used a basic recipe from Betty Crocker. Just discovering a type of dish or a technique that you have never tried before is so refreshing—and it’s all thanks to the Croatian team even though they did not manage to seal the deal against Japan. At least we won.
The next game is Tuesday’s match between Germany and Ecuador. Two worthy competitors; two totally disparate cuisines…who will win?!