By Mary Ann Ebner
A savory aroma met me at my front door and led the way to our kitchen as a spicy blend of sweet and sour promised the evening’s menu included no regular fare. But before any tasting, a cross-cultural lesson was in order. My personal chef-for-a-day, working away, wanted to adjust the temperature on an oven that looked completely foreign to her. She opened the oven to reveal a stout clay pot filled with a hearty mix of ingredients smothered in paprika. Sound more like fiction than fact?
Far from illusion — a Bulgarian houseguest, Elena — surprised my family with Bulgarian home cooking. She traveled to New York, her first trip across an ocean, to see her son receive his undergraduate degree in computer science. Elena’s family called our place home for a week while they toured the region and attended graduation activities. We encourage guests to make themselves at home, and visitors who take over the cooking receive an open invitation to return.
As for the Bulgarians, a group of five, they thanked us with the evening meal prepared by Elena, who hails from the southern part of the country. We learned that any self-respecting Bulgarian begins a proper dinner with the hard stuff — shots — and they procured a bottle of kicky Bulgarian plum brandy from who knows where … the airport, Manhattan, their luggage? Sometimes, it’s best not to ask. It was an “our house is your house” kind of week.
Once we polished off the shots — not quite the full bottle — eating commenced with a tossing-at-the-table of the classic Bulgarian starter, the shopska salad. Elena had gathered the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers in the Hudson Valley, and she must have smuggled in a few pounds of Bulgarian white cheese, a briny feta-type that arguably makes the salad. Dressed with a little sunflower oil, this Eastern European mix of fresh raw vegetables and cheese may be a starter back in Bulgaria, but it could have easily headlined here as a satiable dinner on its own.
Along with the shopska salad, the large clay pot, the guvech, doing real work in the oven throughout the afternoon, made its way to the table. This slow-roasting casserole of sorts contained a dish called kapama, a traditional meal of meats, rice and sauerkraut prepared in layers. As if that weren’t enough to experience the flavors of the Balkans, we sampled a puffy serving of phyllo dough stuffed with more Bulgarian cheese. Elena’s family calls the dish banica (ba–neet-za), a typical Bulgarian pastry, cut in squares, triangles, or shaped in a spiral. Again, Bulgarian white cheese was the cornerstone ingredient.
Beacon Pantry, a purveyor of specialty foods and fine cheese as well as a resource in helping the community learn about cheese through its classes and events, classifies Bulgarian white cheese in the fresh category. These cheeses, including chevre, mozzarella, paneer, feta and ricotta are fresh milk cheeses to be enjoyed soon after purchase and once opened.
“Feta is a fresh cheese,” Beacon Pantry owner Stacey Penlon said. “The milk is cooked but it’s not then aged and pressed and the cheeses have a shorter shelf life. With Greek and Bulgarian feta made with sheep’s or goat’s milk, it tends to be quite expensive. Sheep’s milk is the fattiest of the common milk types but its cheeses are rich and luscious and it goes a long way.”
The creamy texture of feta makes a lush addition to mealtime. If you’re up for an Eastern European change of pace with cheese, ask an expert to help track it down.
“We buy cheese shipped from cheesemakers all the time,” Penlon said. “As long as it’s a reputable cheese store, they should handle it properly.”
For those who want to try making their own cheese, Beacon Pantry (beaconpantry.com) will offer a class in making fresh cheese (mozzarella and ricotta) in August. Finding tangy, salty Bulgarian white cheese (also called sirene cheese), tastes worth the trouble of searching. Similar brined white cheese made with sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk will work in the recipes shared here as fine substitutions.
15 sheets phyllo dough
3 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated or crumbled
¾ cups butter
1 cup carbonated water
(optional: beaten egg, spinach, green onions to stack in cheese layer)
Butter bottom and sides of 9×13-inch baking dish. Melt butter.
Layer 3 dough sheets in dish. Drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling twice. Cover top layer with cheese. Add 3 more dough sheets and drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling. Pour carbonated water evenly over top layer.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden.
4 to 5 medium tomatoes, largely diced
2 cucumbers, peeled, and diced
2 sweet red peppers, chopped
1 medium red onion, diced
1 bunch green onions, diced
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup sunflower or olive oil
2 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated
(optional: green peppers, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives)
Mix prepared vegetables in large bowl. Add sunflower or olive oil and coat thoroughly. Fold in parsley. Layer salad mixture onto platter or serving bowl.
Before serving, pile a mound of grated white cheese over vegetables. Mix at the table.