It’s not often that other people open up their houses to you, invite you in and then cook a three-course meal thoroughly-prepared with much dedication and labor. So when the occasion occurs, I’m overcome with gratitude and touched by the gesture of hospitality.
Remember Jorge, my Croatia-born colleague who has been living in Argentina for most of his life? He’d brought some Andean Locro and smoked pork ribs to the office last year where we were treated to a new culinary experience. He was the guy with multiple names – Jorge, George, Juri, Jure – it was one and the same person.
Out of pure generosity, Jorge invited a couple of us over to his place last Friday, to enjoy the start of the weekend over home-cooked authentic Croatian food, deep conversations and very good Argentine Malbec wine.
Julia Child, the legendary American chef who revolutionized cooking in America, and author of “The Art of Mastering French Cooking”, once said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”
I’m right with Julia on that, and I believe that simple ingredients, together with plenty of dedication while cooking can create some of the best meals ever.
However, I’ll have to say that there are exceptions to the rule – such as this case, where Jorge prepared an incredible feast last weekend, with burek as the starter, djuvec for the main course, and a dessert of baklava.
Don’t be fooled by the names of these dishes – while their names are short, preparation for these isn’t quite so easy. Among these three dishes, the only one I’d heard of before is baklava, and I’d tried it at a Greek Canteen.
Jorge lives in San Telmo, a historical neighbourhood in Buenos Aires which attracts many tourists. Captured in a black and white photo, the plaza Dorrego in San Telmo used to look like this (and still does).
Sitting in Jorge’s living room, whose dark wood parquet floor hinted at its history – one which goes all the way back to the times of the Second World War, in the 1940s – we began our culinary tour and got more than just a taste of Croatia.
OUR CULINARY JOURNEY
Burek is a type of tart made of thin, flaky phyllo pastry, and according to Wikipedia, was most probably invented in what is now Modern Turkey, in the Anatolian Provinces of the Ottoman Empire in its early era, to become a popular element of Ottoman cuisine. A burek may be prepared in a large pan and cut into portions after baking, or as individual pastries. The top of the burek is often sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Meet Jorge, our host for the night – in this picture he was using a towel to explain how he folded the phyllo pastry to prepare the burek.
To give us options to choose from, Jorge had prepared two distinct flavors for us to try.
Both flavors were uniquely Mediterranean; one leaning more towards to a Greek-inspired palate – with crumbled feta cheese and fresh mint leaves; the other with a greater tendency towards Italian flavors, in my opinion – stuffed full with plump olives, tomatoes and bacon.
While both types of burek were delicious in their own right, I found myself enjoying the Italian-flavored one a little more – I’ve always been a fan of the tastes of Italy, and anything that vaguely reminds me of the boot-shaped country which holds my heart captive is definitely a thumbs-up.
After the very filling appetizer (mind you, we were only five and had finished almost three-quarters of the burek), we were served djuvec, the main course. It was presented in a beautiful brown clay pot filled with pieces of pork loin and assorted vegetables, all mixed with a base of long-grain white rice cooked in homemade vegetable stock, and stewed over low heat in the oven.
Jorge stressed over and over again that the magic of djuvec lay in the vegetable stock; made with roughly chopped, fresh vegetables (including onions, carrots, leek and some others) boiled over low heat for a couple of hours, producing a delicious, rich flavor that those cube stocks cannot imitate.
We were officially stuffed by the time we were done, and we hadn’t even reached dessert yet – the one dish I’d been so excited for when Jorge had first invited us for dinner.
Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. According to Wikipedia, it is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire, and those of Central and Southwest Asia. While I’m not one for overly-sweet foods, baklava is quite delicious, in very small amounts. The fillings of baklava may vary on the chef, and in Jorge’s case, he spared no expense in buying the finest ingredients from the San Telmo market – there were walnuts, raisins, dried figs, a bit of apples and Marraschino cherries, all drizzled in a thick, rich syrup made of honey, lemon juice, ginger and vanilla bean.
Eating just a small piece was more than enough – not because it wasn’t good, it was in fact really exotic, but there was only so much we could eat.
And so, while our stomachs rested, conversation flowed; about the history of Argentina, entropy and various other topics, amidst sips of red wine and gusts of the crisp autumn night’s breeze.
There is a saying in Argentina – “Panza llena, Corazon contento” – which means that a full stomach results in a contented heart.
In this case, we were more than contented. A dinner had brought us on a virtual tour through the Middle East and south of Europe. We’d been honored by the valuable company of Jorge, an extremely knowledgeable man, whose knowledge had been amassed through hours of reading and a mind constantly craving to learn new things.
We left, our stomachs full, hearts contented, and minds enriched.
Thank you Jorge for the incredibly amazing meal and your very warm hospitality!