Location: Southern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula
Population: 7.1 million
Geography: A mix of plains and mountains with a coastline on the Black Sea
Signature flavours: Beef, lamb, sirene cheese, paprika, bell pepper, phyllo
Before I even started searching for Bulgarian recipes, Eric was hinting at what he would make if he’d been assigned Bulgaria. Apparently a dish he tried at a Bulgarian restaurant in Poland once really left an impression on him, but he wouldn’t tell me what the dish was. Once I began building my menu, the recipe that popped up again and again whenever Bulgarian cuisine was being discussed was shopska salad. This, it turned out, was what Eric had been hoping to enjoy, so his face lit up when he saw a big bowl of the stuff in the centre of the table at dinnertime. Once I had settled on shopska, I chose a more substantial dish to accompany, and then narrowed down the dessert options (there were so many mouthwatering choices to pick from).
Shopska Salad: The staple salad of Bulgaria, shopska contains tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, and a feta-like cheese.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
Moussaka: A casserole of ground beef (I used soy beef), onion, paprika, potato, and tomato, topped with an egg and milk sauce.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Apple and Walnut Banitsa: This flaky dessert is made with phyllo pastry filled with shredded apple, crushed walnuts, and cinnamon. There are a plethora of different banitsa fillings, the most traditional of which is an egg and cheese variety.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
The Shopping List
I got everything I needed at our local supermarket for this assignment — no ingredient hunting this time. Shopska salad should be made with the feta-like Bulgarian sirene cheese. It is pretty widely available in Toronto, but at nearly $20 a container, I just couldn’t justify the expenditure. I went with Greek feta instead (I’m really sorry, Bulgaria — I know your cheese is a thing of its own and I promise to make shopska with it one day).
This may have been one of my easiest assignments in terms of cooking. The salad came together in five minutes. The moussaka was also pretty easy to throw together and since it baked for 40 minutes, I could work on other things during that time. The banitsa was the most difficult dish, mainly because phyllo is just such fiddly stuff. With some very gentle handling, I managed to put the dessert together for baking by the time the moussaka was finishing up.
The shopska salad was tangy and refreshing. I love feta, and this salad is loaded with it. Between the cheese, the sweet bell pepper, the bite of the raw onion, and the cool cucumber, it was a crowd-pleaser (well, a crowd of two).
The moussaka turned out a little drier than I expected, owing, I believe, to my use of soy beef instead of lamb or beef. Still, it was really good, and Eric and I both had two servings. Bulgarian moussaka trades potato for eggplant, making this dish a carb-lover’s delight. The meat is well spiced with paprika, which came through with each bite.
The banitsa was perhaps the star of the evening. That phyllo crisped up perfectly to a golden brown tube full of soft, cinnamon-y apple and chunks of crunchy walnuts. With so many other varieties of banitsa out there, I plan on making more with the leftover phyllo in our freezer.