Prvic Simple Riba sa Žara (Grilled Fish) with the Story of Two Sisters
I came to Croatia to escape the rigors of my job at the time, looking for quiet and relaxation along the Dalmatian Coast. I found it in a small coastal village of Vodice with its cobbled streets, small cafés and a beautiful view of the Adriatic Sea at every turn, I found myself returning every afternoon to a seaside café for lunch and a long afternoon sitting outside with the sun, the sea and a book.
On one of these warm, sunny afternoons I encountered the blending of a family with two culinary stories. It was a tale of two sisters; one who migrated to Prvic Island as a young bride and the other who remained at the family homestead in the city of Karlovac. All of which formed the foundation of a young child’s fascination with traditional dishes.
By the end of an incredible bowl of Brudet, fish stew, I found myself in a conversation with Luka, the restaurant owner and resident chef. Broad shouldered with an open face and ready smile for his guests, I judged him to be in his mid 60s. I was a bit off. He was 78 years old. Life on the coast suited him well.
Luka’s menu was a plenitude of traditional Croatian dishes; an anomaly given at the time the majority of restaurants in the country simply featured their region’s dishes. I wanted to know his story. How did he manage to present all of the dishes so expertly, where he had trained, why Vodice?
Luka proceeded to pour each of us a glass Slivovitz (aged plum brandy) and took a chair at my table. It was not his story, he said. His story was simple. He had a childhood of incredible food and then left to study in France, but the draw of the Adriatic Sea and his homeland brought him to Vodice. It was the story of his family that created his love for all Croatian dishes.
Thus began the tale of his two aunts, Teta Ella and Teta Ana, and the unique culinary experiences of his childhood. It began in the city of Karlovac. Generations upon generations and cousins upon cousins lived there. It was where they were born, where they were married and where they died. It simply was expected.
Then came the day at a wedding of his father’s cousin that his younger sister Ella met Alojz. A friend of a friend of a cousin, Alojz was a tall and sea weathered fisherman from the village of Sepurine on the island of Prvic. According to his father, Ella and Alojz fell head over heels in love and were determined to marry. Unfortunately, her mother and family did not quite agree with Ella’s choice. He was a simple fisherman, and it meant Ella would leave the family hometown and move to Alojz’s village, Sepurine. Ella persisted and, in the end, while she did not convince her family this was her true destiny, her mother agreed to let her marry. They did and moved to Sepurine shortly after. End of story, right? Not exactly.
By the time Ella married, Ana, the older sister, had been married to a local brew master, Vid, for several years. Much to Vid’s displeasure, Ana became the most vocal opponent to Ella and Alojz’s marriage. As Luka’s father told him, the conflict between the two sisters was one rooted in childhood where sibling feuds tend to begin. The competitive relationship that began in children’s games was now fought out in the kitchen with each sister determined to present the most flavorful and beautiful dishes at Sunday family gatherings. Luka’s father believed Ana’s opposition was based in sisterly love and lay in her understanding that once Ella moved to Sepurine, these competitive Sunday dinners would cease.
What happened next was to be expected. After Ella moved, the two sisters stopped communicating. For Luka, though, there was a rainbow in all of this. Since his father’s desire was to remain friends with both sisters, Luka spent his summers with Teta Ella and much of the remainder of the year in Teta Ana’s kitchen in Karlovac. His culinary adventures in childhood became the basis for creating the diversity of the menu in his restaurant.
The next day, Luka and I traveled by boat to the fishing village of Sepurine. Ella and Alojz had died many years before, but the village was still the same and the house he remembered from his childhood still stood. As we walked through the village, Luka told me about the culinary adventures he experienced during his visits with Teta Ella. He talked of simply grilled fish, (Riba sa žara) fish stews (Brudet) and sautéed Blitva (Swiss chard). Teta Ella became very versed in island cooking methods and ingredients.
It was her Orehnjača, nut roll, he remembered most. It was a family recipe with a rich honey walnut filling encased in dough and baked to perfection. The memory brought a smile to his face as he recalled each time she brought the long loaf of bread out of the oven and would say, “Ah, no cracks in my Orehnjača. Not like Ana’s.”
The visit to Sepurine required a counter visit to Karlovac. While Luka did not accompany me, he provided introductions to the many cousins still living in the area including Ana’s son, Ivan. My days were spent in one kitchen after the other filling myself with cabbage rolls (Sarma) and fried cabbage with noodles (Haluski) and tiny, pastry cookies (kolač) just as Ana had prepared and listening to the stories of the two sisters.
Incredibly, one story in particular was repeated in each kitchen and brought laughter every time. It seems when Ana would remove her Orehnjača from the oven, she would say “Ah, just a small crack down the side. Ella would never know.”
My return to Vodice and Luca’s restaurant brought a conclusion to the sisters’ stories. Did they ever begin to talk to each other again? At Luka’s wedding, his father invited both and each felt they needed to attend as the “favorite” aunt. Luka refused to dance with either of them until they hugged and sat together. By the end of the evening, the two were inseparable. From then on, for as many years as was possible, Ana spent summers in Sepurine and Ella spent several months in the spring and fall in Karlovac.
The remainder of my trip, much to my delight, was spent with Luka learning how to make all of the dishes of his childhood including the prized Orehnjača. I have continued to make Orehnjača through the years. Sometimes they are Ana’s and sometimes they are Ella’s.
In creating this Experience, it was not a lack of recipes but rather how to select a few dishes from all of those shared with me by Luka and his family. I believe the final selection demonstrates the breadth of culinary diversity in Croatia from the coast to the inland regions.
As appetizers, we begin with Tetak Aloiz’s Brudet (Fish Stew) with Saffron Polenta Shards taking your guests to the Dalmatian Coast to experience a simple, fresh fish and seafood stew complemented with shards of crispy, fragrant polenta shards flavored with saffron threads. Moving inland, Ana’s Sarma Bites replicates a dish shared with me by Ana’s granddaughter. Stuffed cabbage is topped with a tomato sauce but served in a small bite appetizer format.
The entrée presents simple grilled fish as prepared for generations on the Dalmatian Coast, Prvic Simple Riba sa Žara (Grilled Fish). A deviation from the traditional is the use of fish fillets rather than whole fish. Moving to the use of fillet accomplishes two goals; to ensure your guests can easily consume their entrée without bones or skin and to avoid a negative reaction to a fantastic dish from the one guest who is adverse to a fish staring at them from their plate.
The side dish, Vodice Blitva (Swiss Chard) with Rosemary Portobello Mushroom Sauce, is traditionally served along side Riba sa Žara. However, here the swiss chard and potatoes are separated into distinct flavor tiers and a rich mushroom sauce provides a creamy topping to pull the flavors together.
For dessert, kolač cookies become a tiered foundation for Baka’s Kitchen Kolač Cakes. Flaky pastry cookies are topped with apricot and almond fillings, assembled into a tiered cake and topped with almond flavored whipped cream and ground almonds.
Of course, served with the entrée, is a slice of traditional orehnjača. Karlovac Orehnjača (Croatian Nut Roll) replicates the nut roll Luka served to his guests in the tradition of Ella and Ana.
The playlist for this dinner is features modern Croatian artists such as Jelena Rozga, Vigor and Severina rather than traditional music. How could I possibly create music, though, without providing a nod to Ella, Al, Ana, Vid, Luka and all members of this fabulous family. Tucked in the middle of the play list is a song which deviates a bit from the rest. It is by Pavao Karlovic. Enough said.
This simply prepared dish is reminiscent of the grilled fish Luka served daily in his restaurant which was based on the preparation method used by his Teta Ella to serve whatever fish his Tetak Aloiz would bring from the day’s fishing expedition.
Traditionally, the fish is prepared whole. In this version, grouper fillets provide a solid, firm fish for ease in preparation and in presentation. Grouper, a sweet, deep-water white fish, is available from online sources such as Move Butter if not found at your local seafood store. Its firm flesh easily withstands the heat and process of grilling.
Dressing the fish is traditional to the Dalmatian Coast with a simple olive oil brush, fresh rosemary sprigs and sea salt. Rather than lay the fish directly on the grill, the fish is loosely wrapped inside a sheet of foil with the rosemary. Then numerous holes are punched through the bottom to allow the flames to heat the foil and produce the desired browning.
A non-traditional addition is the Orange Fig Chutney. Created by combining the sweetness of mandarin oranges and mission fig preserves, such as Turkish Fig Jam and the simple addition of shallots sautéed in habanero olive oil.It adds an incredible flavor tier burst to the simple fish. The chutney may be prepared ahead and easily serves as a relish to other dishes.
Four 6 – 7 ounce firm white fish fillets such as Move Butter’s Wild Strawberry Grouper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
24 – 30 sprigs fresh rosemary, about 2-3 inches long
½ T sea salt
½ t black pepper, fresh ground
Orange Fig Chutney
1 t habanero olive oil
1 T butter, unsalted
1 T shallots, chopped fine
1 mandarin orange
3 T fig jam or preserves such as Move Butter’s Turkish Fig Jam
¼ t kosher salt
Peel orange and separate into segments. Slice orange peel into think strips. Reserve 4 segments. Rough chop remaining segments.
Add olive oil and butter to a medium sauce pan over medium high heat. Add shallots and orange peel. Sauté until shallots soften, about 5 minutes.
Add chopped orange segments. Sauté to release juices, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in jam and salt. Stir to combine. Place in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat grill to medium high heat. Using 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, brush both sides of the fish fillets. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.
Tear 4 sheets foil large enough to cover the fillets. Evenly divide the remaining 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil between the 4 sheets. Evenly divide half of the rosemary sprigs between the 4 sheets.
Lay fillet atop the rosemary sprigs. Evenly divide the remaining rosemary sprigs between the fillets.
Wrap the foil sides up around the fillets, but do not seal.
Turn packets over and using a sharp knife, poke numerous over the entire bottom of the packet.
Place fish packets on grill with holes downward. Grill over medium high heat for 7-10 minutes until bottom rosemary sprigs begin to blacken. Open packet completely and turn fish. Grill an additional 5-7 minutes until fish flakes easily and is browned.
Place one fillet on each of 4 serving plates. Evenly divide the Orange Fig Chutney between the plates and place one reserved orange segment atop the chutney on each plate.
While in Vodice, each afternoon Luka would create a version of this drink for me to sip while he enjoyed his glass of Slivovitz. Consisting of orange juice, a liqueur, simple syrup and Slivovitz, it truly was the perfect cocktail for an afternoon by the water. Definitely use aged Slivovitz, such as Jelinek Gold Slivovitz 10 Year, for any Slivovitz cocktail. The age does decrease some of the harshness and increases the sweetness.
Evenings in Vodice were especially memorable. The water, the night air and the strings of lights over the tables combined to create a lasting impression of the Dalmatian Coast. I would linger over a plate of kolač pastries along side a rich, creamy café latte while enjoying the sounds of the sea.
This memory eventually led to the inspiration behind An Evening in Vodice Café Latte Martini.
This martini combines the dark depth of a cup of coffee, with the smooth deliciousness of heavy cream and the sweetness of Slivovitz. Adding a few dashes of orange bitters brightens the martini at the finish.
Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey Rouge, 2010
From the Mercurey, Burgundy, region of France, it has a cool, ripe and airy nose that has background notes of earth and underbrush. The delicious middle weight flavors are supported by mature tannins that are fine-grained making this an excellent red wine to pair with the boldness of the appetizers, the lightness of the grilled fish and the heat of the chutney.
Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos, 2013
For those guests who insist on a white wine, this wine has a rich, almost buttery character. The freshness of flavor balances with both entrees and appetizers.
Karlovacko Croatian Lager
How could you do a Croatian Dining Experience without this classic Croatian beer. Crisp and light bodied lager offers a slightly sweet maltiness on the palate.
A fantastic medium bodied porter to pair with flavorful fish stews and chutneys. With a malty aroma, it pour dark with a thick foamy head.
Prepared in the simple methods of generations of Dalmatian Coast fishermen, this traditional three fish plus mussels and shrimp stew is fresh and bright. Here it is served with polenta shards flavored with aromatic saffron threads.
Inspired by the cookies served along side cups of latte at Luka’s restaurant. Flakey pastry cookie rectangles tiered with apricot and almond fillings. Topped with almond flavored whipped cream and freshly ground almonds plus cookie shards.
Traditionally served beside grilled fish in Croatia, this version separates the flavors into three tiers. Crispy potato cakes topped with sautéed Swiss chard and finished with a creamy mushroom sauce.
Bread dough encasing a honey walnut filling, it provides the perfect sweet balance to a savory entrée. The dilemma with Orehnječa is whether to categorize it as dessert or a side. Luka and his family served it as a side so for this experience, it is a side but under recipes, it is located with the desserts.