Soparnik (Chard and Onion Tart)
This rustic pie originated with farm laborers in the northern reaches of the Dalmatian coast (as it was a hearty and portable lunch), but has become a favorite in Dubrovnik. Traditionally, the dough would be stretched over the top of a wine barrel, stuffed with chard (blitva), and then cooked in an outdoor oven (komin) under a layer of coal and ash. Today, it is more frequently made indoors, and it is no less delicious. This savory dish is so integral to Croatian cuisine that it has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the European Commission. Chard is a very popular green along the Croatian coast; it is most often seen in the ubiquitous side dish of cooked chard and potatoes. Chard originated in the Mediterranean (likely on the island of Sicily), and while it is often called “Swiss” chard, there is nothing Swiss about it! (Contains gluten; vegan.)
Salata od Hobotnice (Octopus Salad)
This traditional salad originated along the Dalmation coast, and is popular throughout the country now - especially on holidays and other special occasions. The combination of tender octopus with parsley, capers, green olives, tomatoes, potatoes, and lemon makes for a bright and summery salad with a classic Mediterranean vibe. Octopus has been grilled, stewed, and roasted in the Mediterranean region since ancient times, and the name derives from the Greek “októpus”, meaning “eight foot.” Fun fact for you: the plural of octopus is “octopuses.” (Contains shellfish; no gluten, no dairy.)
Juha od Rajčice (Tomato Soup with Bacon and Mozzarella Toast)
The Croatian people love their soup! It’s eaten just about every day, and often to start the main meal of the day (which is traditionally lunch). This classic soup makes the most of the bounty of tomatoes that start to emerge from home gardens and markets in August and September. There are countless variations of tomato soup in Croatia, often embellished with dumplings, noodles, or rice. In this version, we’ve garnished the soup with lardons of bacon and toasted mozzarella bread with basil for dipping. (Contains dairy, gluten.)
Crni Rižot (Squid Ink Risotto)
This distinctive risotto is on almost every tavern menu in Dubrovnik. It’s a traditional dish all along the coast, and often served as a light lunch. The black color comes from squid ink, which contributes (along with fish and octopus stocks) to the briny flavor of the dish. Unlike Italian risotto, this risotto does not contain cheese - its creaminess is due mainly to the starchiness of the Arborio rice. The richness of this dish is balanced with the bite of fresh parsley and bright lemon zest. (Contains shellfish, fish, dairy; no gluten.)
Lamb Peka (Slow-Cooked Lamb Stew)
This quintessentially Dalmatian dish of slow cooked lamb is traditionally cooked under a metal or clay dome (peka), which is then layered with coal and ash. This method of cooking is common along the Croatian coast, and many families now have outdoor ovens to use for this purpose. Meat, fish, vegetables, and bread are all prepared in this way. Lacking the outdoor oven, we’ve cooked this dish in a heavy pot to create the same blend of flavors and textures. Lamb leg is marinated overnight, and then cooked with carrots, zucchini, onion, green pepper, and sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage until it practically melts, and the flavors have all blended harmoniously. If you were visiting Dubrovnik and wanted to try peka in a restaurant or tavern, you would likely have to reserve it well in advance because of the lengthy cooking time. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Palačinke (Crêpes) with Housemade Hazelnut Chocolate Spread
This crêpe is a favorite dessert throughout Croatia. It is often filled with honey and walnuts, or with jam, but we’ve opted to fill ours with a rich housemade chocolate hazelnut spread. Nutella is a common pantry ingredient in Croatia, but this housemade version is so much more subtle - less sweet, a little nuttier, and a little bit salty, with added richness from a healthy dose of extra virgin olive oil. What could be better? (Contains gluten, dairy, hazelnuts, egg; vegetarian.)
2016 Vina Skaramuča Plavac - $17
Available at A&L Wine Castle
If there’s a region in the world with the most underrated wines, wines that seriously punch way above their weight compared to canonical French or Italian or Spanish wines, it’s Croatia. Croatian wines are virtually unknown here in the US because of the large variety of indigenous grapes (this bottle is the ONLY Croatian wine we found in AA). Croatians drink and produce an astounding amount of quality wines - in fact as of 2016 they consumed the 3rd most wine per capita in Europe (behind Portugal and France). I remember doing a wine tour on Hvar Island a few years back and instead of the usual glass tastings, it was bottle tastings! This Plavac Mali is produced in Croatia’s Pelješac peninsula, a few miles north-west of Dubrovnik. The notes of violets, black currants, strawberries and cranberries pair perfectly with the lamb peka.
Although we couldn’t find any in our area, we’d be remiss not to mention Croatia’s Malvazija, a white wine with fennel, quince, and apricot notes that would be right at home with our seafood and fresh veggie menu. A great alternative would be an Italian Pinot Grigio from Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region.
Maraska Sljivovica & Maraska Maraschino
Available at A&L Wine Castle
Aperitif, digestif, panacea for all your trials and travails, rakija is more than a spirit in Croatia, it’s a way of life. It’s available in every household, every market, every restaurant - it is the liquid embodiment of Croatian hospitality. At its most basic, rakija is just fermented and distilled juice, with plum (as in the sljivovica above), apricots, peaches, apples, pears, quince, herbs, walnuts etc - pretty much if you can juice or macerate it, you can make it into rakija.
Although not technically a rakija, another standout Croatian spirit is maraschino liqueur. Marasca cherries grow wild along the Dalmatian coast, especially near the city of Zadar. In the 18th century Venetian merchants (Dalmatia at the time was under the auspices of the Republic of Venice) started mass producing the liquor, gaining popularity with the European nobility. Although the most popular of the original Zadar-based brands, Luxardo, moved back to Italy post WWII, this Maraska Maraschino is still produced in Zadar.
The country of Croatia bends around Bosnia and Herzegovina like a boomerang, and while there is certainly a shared identity in Croatia that extends throughout the country, there are substantial regional differences in culture and food. The Dalmatian coastline runs for 3700 miles along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea, and at the southernmost end of the coast, just shy of neighboring Montenegro, is the city of Dubrovnik. The city (called Rugasa at the time) was built in the 7th century CE (the same time that Croatia itself was established) by refugees from the nearby Roman town of Epidaurum. Dubrovnik was ruled by the Byzantines and the Venetians, in addition to several centuries of independent self rule. Croatia has had a complicated and turbulent history, and many people associate Croatia with its fairly recent War of Independence, which lasted from 1991-1995 and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. However, the people and government of Croatia have spent a great deal of resources rebuilding the country, and most Croatians don’t like to dwell in the past, preferring instead to focus on the future.
Croatian identity is a mix of Western European and Balkan, with the northern reaches more heavily influenced by Slavic culture, and the southern coastal region having a distinctly Mediterranean culture. While Dubrovnik is most famous for its walled Old City (declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979), just beyond the walls is a dramatic coastline with rugged beaches and cliffs, secluded swimming coves, and over a thousand islands, easily accessible by boat. The Adriatic Sea is crystal clear and brilliantly blue, typically calm, and warmer than the rest of the Mediterranean Sea. The terracotta-tiled roofs, the cobbled streets adorned with flowering oleander and bougainvillea, the Baroque cathedrals, the spectacular candy-colored sunsets, the beaches, and the food (and wine!) all combine to make Dubrovnik a tourist destination for Croatians and international travelers alike. When summer rolls around, Croatians will ask each other, “Kad idete na more?” (“When are you going to the sea?”) Dubrovnik’s picturesque charm has also made it a celebrity in the film industry: it was the setting for King’s Landing in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and for the posh casino city of Canto Bight in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
A vacation in Dubrovnik would mean time spent exploring both the city and the beaches. You might ride the cable car to the top of nearby Srd Hill to look down on the red-tile roofs contrasting with the cool blue of the sea. Perhaps you’d take a day trip to the nearby wineries of the Pelješac Peninsula, or a boat trip to the island of Hvar, where groves of 1000-year-old olive trees are interspersed with lavender fields. You could take an evening stroll along the top of the Old City walls, after which you might stop for a pre-dinner drink and to watch the sunset at one of the al fresco Buža bars, which are carved into the cliff face that supports the city walls. And for dinner - which usually happens around 8 or 9pm - you would most certainly enjoy the incredible food.
Family and friends are of the utmost importance in Croatia, and food is central to every gathering. Croatia is known for its spicy olive oil, seafood, risottos, soups, and world-class wines. Most people with any amount of land - no matter how small - often have a garden, and grow produce to eat and to share. Neighbors and friends exchange olive oil, wine, preserved fruit, cheeses, cured meat, and rakija (a much-loved fruit brandy). The traditional home cooking might be considered economical - nothing is wasted, and the food usually seasonal - but the fresh ingredients and simple preparations (characteristic of all Mediterranean cuisine) make for some truly delicious Croatian dishes. As the seasons change, the ingredients available from home gardens and in the morning markets change also; some dishes are completely seasonal, while others simply swap ingredients depending on the produce available at a given time. There are an increasing number of high-end restaurants in Dubrovnik, but most of the restaurants - trendy or otherwise - serve variations of the food cooked in Croatian homes: grilled fish, sheep cheese and feta, risotto, polenta, fresh seasonal vegetables, slow cooked meats, and lots of soup!
Without further ado, idemo no more (let’s go to the sea)!
Featured Recipe: Palačinke with Hazelnut Chocolate Spread
Makes 4 crêpes and ~1.5 cups of Nutella
For the crepe batter:
120g AP Flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg, at room temperature
1.5 cups whole milk
Butter (for the pan)
A 9” non-stick skillet (with ~7” flat cooking surface)
Combine dry ingredients. Add the remaining ingredients except for the butter. Combine thoroughly with a whisk.
Rub the pan with the stick of butter until evenly coated, do this before making each crepe.
Pour ½ cup of batter into the center of the pan and move it around to spread. Cook until lightly brown on both sides using a spatula to flip it over.
Transfer to a plate and allow it to cool slightly, about 5 minutes
Add 2 tbsp of the hazelnut spread to each crepe and roll like a cigar
For the hazelnut chocolate spread:
225g blanched hazelnuts
1/2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
150g milk chocolate
¼ tsp salt
Use a food processor to pulse the hazelnuts and olive oil until it becomes a liquid paste
Melt the chocolate. Before completely melted, carefully remove from heat so as not to burn the chocolate. Stir continuously and the heat from the pan will continue melting the chocolate. Pour into the processor with the salt. Process until fully incorporated. Taste. Drizzle in a small amount of olive oil as needed for smoother consistency (but you still want it thick and spreadable. It will naturally get thinner with the heat from the fresh crepes)
Recipes Inspired By:
Amanda Marshall’s beautiful cookbook on Croatian foods throughout the seasons will have you yearning to visit!