Republic of Albania
I grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, which is home to a pretty diverse crowd, including a large Albanian population. Somehow, though, I made it to 30 years of age without ever having tasted Albanian food. Most of the Albanians I knew in Waterbury ran pizzerias, and that was the closest I ever got, which, as it turns out, was not close in any way.
Researching Albanian cuisine was not overly difficult thanks to a bevy of sources online, but establishing proportions within the recipes that I found was a challenge. I finally was able to decide on two manageable recipes: Tavë Kosi, a sort of yogurt-mock-soufflé with chunks of tenderized, seared lamb, and Fërgesë e Tiranës me speca e domate, which is basically a casserole of green peppers, tomato, egg and a kind of salted cottage cheese called gjize. So, you know, diet food.
The real trick for the Fërgesë was the gjize – my local, absurdly ethnic supermarket, which normally stocks cheeses from all over Europe and the Middle East, unfortunately did not carry this particular variety. So you know what that means.
After combining some yogurt (a major Albanian agricultural product, along with butter, eggs and cheese, for that matter) with garlic, lemon juice, salt and a little pepper, I whisked the mixture like a madman and wrapped the big, wet dollop of dairy in several layers of cheesecloth (also from the supermarket). It’s still pretty cold outside, so I had to hang it somewhere in my apartment to dry. Hmm.
I let this hang for about 4 hours (it honestly could have stood to hang a couple more…) and pretty much stood there staring at it the whole time, occasionally giving it some light squeezes. This was pretty cool. With perhaps an inordinate amount of eagerness for an adult man, I unwrapped my little experiment:
Moving forward on the Fergesë, I sauteed big bunch of green peppers, then a couple of fresh tomatoes, thickened with a quick roux and threw in the homemade cheese for a couple of minutes. As it melted down, a nicely grainy, dried-ricotta-like texture gradually appeared. I tossed all this stuff with an egg, dumped it into a casserole dish and blasted it into the oven.
While that baked, I floured, seasoned and seared some hunks of lean lamb (for the Tavë Kosi) until they got a nice crust. After draining them of fat, I transferred them to another casserole dish and got to work on the pseudo-soufflé mixture, whipping a bunch of eggs into some (more) strained yogurt, along with a little flour and a handful of long-grain rice. I slowly heated this mixture until it foamed slightly, then immediately poured it over the lamb chunks, just covering them. (Note: the original recipe [cited below] produced almost TWICE as much yogurt/soufflé mix as needed, so in my version I have adjusted the proportions accordingly.) I distributed pats of butter all over the surface of the yogurty-stuff and added the dish to the blistering oven.
Through a miracle of physics, the Tavë Kosi finished cooking first, having firmed up nicely and with a beautiful layer of browned-butter flecks all over the top.
After a bit longer, the Fërgesë finally looked set enough to remove from the oven, though in retrospect I think I needed less egg than that particular recipe called for (source below; I have adjusted this in my recipe).
So, I gotta be real here – this stuff is HEAVY. I plated myself up just a modest portion of each dish, and even then I didn’t eat for the rest of the day. Definitely substantial, farm-style cooking that will keep you full for a while.
The Fërgesë was not what I would call a stand-out dish – though if I had eaten it at maybe 9am on a Sunday morning I would have been very pleased. Comforting and subtle. But the Tavë Kosi?? Daaaaaaamn. Really delicious, tons of flavor, and a nice contrast of texture between the firm eggs and tender lamb. This could become my new mac-and-cheese.
Now you go:
1 cup of plain, unflavored yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper
Whisk all ingredients well. Gently place at the center of 4 layers of cheesecloth, then pull the corners up to form a tight bundle. Use kitchen twine to tie the top of the bundle shut, very tightly. You’ll want the incipient cheese to look like a round ball.
Hang for 4-6 hours (more = drier), preferably in a dry place. Unwrap and use.
1 lb. lean lamb, cut into 2-inch pieces (look for cuts with very little fat)
2 tbsp white rice
2 cups plain, unflavored yogurt
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/4 cup butter
salt, pepper and olive oil
Salt, pepper and lightly flour lamb pieces. Heat a tbsp olive oil in a pan and, on medium heat, brown each side well. Add 1/2 cup water, cover tightly, lower heat to low and let
simmer for 20 minutes. Drain, then arrange meat in a single layer in a flat casserole dish.
In a pot, mix yogurt, salt & pepper (to taste, start with 1 tsp of each), and beaten eggs. Sift in flour, whisk well, then add rice.
Heat mixture on low, stirring unceasingly and with great devotion, until mixture thickens and slightly foams, app. 10 minutes. Do NOT boil. Pour mixture over the meat in the casserole dish, just covering.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the top is browned and blistered and the texture is firm. Serve hot.
Fergesë e Tiranës me speca e domate
6 green bell peppers
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large tomatoes, peeled, then chopped
1/2 cup gjize
3 garlic cloves, grated
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp butter
crushed red pepper
salt to taste
Core, seed and roughly chop peppers (1-inch dice). Fry the peppers over medium-high heat until they appear browned and cooked through. Put aside to cool, reserving oil. In the same pan, saute tomatoes until they soften and begin to break down. Set aside. Heat the butter in the pan, then saute flour over low heat, whisking constantly, just until it makes a thick sauce. Add tomatoes again, along with the gjize, and cook on low heat for 5 minutes.
In a big bowl, combine peppers, flour/butter/tomato/cheese mixture, eggs, garlic, hot pepper – you get the idea, everything in a big bowl. Mix briefly, then turn mixture into a baking pan or casserole.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until well- set. If it jiggles, it ain’t done yet.
Hysa, Klementina & R. John. The Best of Albanian Cooking: Favorite Family Recipes. Hippocrene Books: New York, 1998.