Category Archives: Lithuanian food

Lithuanian Vacation: What We Ate

Let’s take a little break from castles and talk about food. Generally speaking, Lithuanian fare can be divided into the following food groups:

  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Pork/bacon
  • Beet root
  • Cabbage
  • Dumplings (meat, fruit, mushroom, or cheese filled)
  • Crepes with cottage cheese, mushroom, or chicken filling

Take any combination of the above ingredients, boil them, fry them, bake them, sautée them or immerse them in a broth, garnish them with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, dill, fried onions and sour cream, and you have yourself a Lithuanian meal.

Give a Lithuanian a potato, and he will turn it into a square meal faster than you can say, “Nešiok sveikas kol pamesi.” Potatoes are a huge staple of the Lithuanian diet and therefore ubiquitous in our cooking. Pancakes, dumplings, casseroles, sausages – you name it, we can make it out of a potato.

vedarai

Potato Sausage (V?darai)

Kugelis (Potato Casserole)

Kugelis (Potato Casserole). Find my recipe for it here.

One thing Lithuanians love to do is stuff things with meat filling. I have already introduced you to kold?nai  dumplings that are usually filled with either meat or mushrooms and often served with fried onions, bacon and sour cream – but it’s also important to mention kibinai, the larger, baked cousins of kold?nai, which were introduced to us by the Karaim warriors of Crimea who settled in Lithuania during the 1300s to serve as the security detail for Grand Duke Vytautas. We ate meat and mushroom-filled kibinai in the town of Trakai (more on that in another post) and they were delicious.

kibinai_edited-1

Kibinai

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Lithuania’s national food “cepelinai” in the meat-stuffed food category. Cepelinai (literally, “zeppelins”) are gigantic potato dumplings with meat filling, served with  sautéed onions, bacon bits, and sour cream. In my family we call them “gut bombs,” and if you follow this link, you’ll see why.

Lithuanians have a fondness for cold soups, but the favorite of these by far is cold beet soup (“šaltibarš?iai) made with buttermilk, grated beetroot, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, and served with – you got it – fried potatoes. I make this soup at home often in the summertime, but it was really fun to be able to order it in each and every restaurant we visited in Lithuania, like it’s a normal thing.

saltibarsciai forto dvaras

P-Dawg, enjoying cold beet soup al fresco

forto dvaras menu

The Menu

Now let’s talk about pigs. Lithuanians love a fried pork chop just as much as the next guy, and we also have a soft spot for kebobs (another gift from the East). But what really gets our blood flowing is seeing how many different parts of the pork are edible and in what strangely satisfying ways they can be prepared.

To wit, pork bits encased in cold gelatin (“šaltiena” or “košeliena”), served with horseradish, vinegar dill dressing, and potatoes:

saltiena

Šaltiena/Košeliena

You could also throw some diced carrots into this, as my grandmother used to, and make it a square meal. It tastes a lot like what you would expect pork bits encased in salted gelatin to taste like, but some people really love it. My grandmother used to prepare a sanitized version of this with chicken, but I think you’re really supposed to make it with pork and leave some gristle in for good measure.

Next up, pig ears:

pigs ears

Pig ears (on the right) and assorted charcuterie

Can’t say that I loved these. They were . . . kind of crunchy.

We ate a lot of skilandis, which is a sausage made of garlic flavored minced meat and bacon, using pig’s stomach as casement. In the photo below, the skilandis is on the bottom and the item above it is chicken gizzards.

Gizzards and Skilandis

Apparently, chicken gizzards are a popular snack in Lithuania, and they are often eaten while drinking beer. Like bar peanuts, but chewy.

For the most part while in Lithuania, we stuck to restaurants that served traditional Lithuanian fare (and to my aunt’s excellent home cooking.) But Lithuania has come a long, long way since Soviet times and, especially in big cities like Vilnius, you can eat everything from sushi to pizza. One night we went to a trendy little restaurant, Lauro Lapas, where I had Baltic cod with local chanterelles, fennel, and sweet potato. The service there was great and the food was delicious.

lauro lapas

Husband and daughter at Lauro Lapas 

In closing, I must mention fried garlic bread sticks. Made from dark rye bread, rubbed with copious amounts of garlic, and deep fried, they, like gizzards, are traditional bar fare. I don’t have a good photo of pure, unbasterdized garlic breadsticks, but here is a plate of cheese covered ones we had at a Vilnius microbrewery one night:

cesnakine duona

Fried cheese covered breadsticks

One thing I noticed about eating out in Lithuania was how fresh and full of flavor everything was, even the salads we ordered in chain restaurants. All the vegetables were locally grown and the meat locally raised, and you could most definitely tell the difference.

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Dining With the Dead: Lithuanian Christmas Eve Traditions

Šližikai (Poppyseed Biscuits)

The traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner is called “K??ios” (Koo-chos) and it’s one of the most important holidays of the year. Like most Christian holidays, it used to be a pagan feast marking the winter solstice and as such, it was fraught with ritual and superstition. The main focus was always family unity and so it was paramount that, come hell or high water, every member return to the ancestral home for the K??ios meal.

And when the Lithuanians said “everybody,” they meant everybody. My people believed that the souls of dead ancestors returned to be with their loved ones on Christmas Eve night. According to some accounts, before the meal began, the head of the household would quite literally open the front door to invite the ethereal posse inside. If a family member had died in the preceding year, a place would be set for them at the table. In one region of Lithuania, a glass of mead or beer was also set for the dead person and I mention this only because my family swears up and down that K??ios is supposed to be a non-alcoholic meal.

Beet Salad

K??ios was also a night dedicated to forecasting and soothsaying, and a main obsession seems to have been divining one’s future in fortune and love. Various games were played and rituals were performed to ensure a good crop and healthy animals, not the least of which involved tying a chicken and a rooster together by their tails and seeing which one dragged the other one where.

My family celebrates K??ios, but like most Lithuanians nowadays, we stick with more basic traditions like twelve cold, meatless dishes (e.g., smoked eel and salmon, pickled herring, marinated mushrooms, beet salad, cranberry pudding, poppyseed biscuits in poppyseed milk). We still pass the plotkel? wafer around from the oldest to the youngest member of the family until everyone has broken from everyone else’s bread. One year we gazed for fortunes in hot melted wax and hid straws under the tablecloth which were later pulled to forecast who would have the longest life.

Dead Ancestor

Now that Vija and Jonas are approaching the age of reason, it’s becoming increasingly important to me to drive these traditions home so that many years from now, when they’re sitting down to Beef Wellington with a nice Rhone red for Christmas Eve dinner, they’ll be overcome with guilt at the sight of my disapproving specter materializing before them and say, “Screw it! Let’s just have cold marinated fish and Vernors.”

To this end, I went online to research some of the more interesting K??ios traditions we could incorporate into our meal this year.

Here are the ones that won’t be making the cut:

  • “On this day stroke the cows, so that they will be fat and have no pustules.”
  • “If you want your horses to be good-looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses.”
  • “Young men and women, wishing to find out who will be their mate, when casting lots take two candles, a towel and a mirror to an uninhabited house. The candles are lit and placed near the mirror. Wiping moisture from the mirror with the towel, they would see their future mate. Worthy of attention in magic rituals’ execution is total nudity.”
  • “After supper, the girl should climb up into the attic, undress and walk three times around the chimney, then in total darkness she will see the young man she will marry. “

Merry Christmas, everybody! May your horses be good-looking and your cows fat with no pustules!

Source: http://ausis.gf.vu.lt/eka/customs/christmas.html

Images courtesy of Google Images.

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How to Make Farmer’s Cheese Like Your Grandmother Did

I was never very interested in farmer’s cheese when my grandmother used to make it. I have these memories of her standing over the stainless steel sink in her tiny yellow kitchen with the gold flecked Formica counters and pouring a steaming hot mixture through a cheesecloth while beads of sweat popped up on her creased and weary brow. What with all the stirring and the . . . uh . . . pressing? and the . . . I wasn’t really sure what-all, it seemed like too big of a production for a Thoroughly Modern Millie like me.

It took me almost thirty-eight years to work up an interest in making this Lithuanian country staple, and I only learned because one of my blog readers (who I finally met at camp last week!) showed me how. (But let it be written and let it be said, when I gushed to my mom about it, she said, “I could have told you that.”)

It took about thirty minutes, we did it in an un-air conditioned camp kitchen, and I didn’t even work up a sweat (but probably only because I stood around taking pictures while R?ta worked.) We ate it later that evening on black bread with honey and it was out of this world. So I’ve taken it upon myself to transcribe the lessons I learned from Lithuanian Jedi Cheesemaster R?ta (Roo-tah) and present them to you in an easy to read and visually stunning format here.

Let’s tie those aprons around our healthy Midwestern middles and begin!

You probably already have everything you need to make this cheese right in your very own ice box:

  • A gallon of whole or 2% milk
  • A half gallon of buttermilk
  • About a half cup of water

That’s it. Plus a cheesecloth and maybe some salt and caraway seeds, if you wish. I’ll talk about the cheesecloth in a minute.

First, pour just enough water to cover the bottom of a large stockpot. This will help prevent the milk from burning when you turn up the heat.

Here is my new friend and mentor Ruta, pouring some water into the pot

Next, pour in the gallon of milk you got from your icebox and turn the burner to about medium high.

Then hitch up your stockings and stand next to the oven for 20-30 minutes with hand on your hip stirring, stirring, stirring. Don’t even think about looking away from the stockpot to check your email or play a round of Angry Birds, do you understand? You want the milk to reach a point just before boiling. IF THE MILK BOILS, IT’S TOO LATE, and I’m not coming over there to help you scrub your mangled pot. The more quickly you can get the milk to the point of almost boiling, the more flavorful the cheese will be.

How do you know the milk is about to boil? It’s gonna start foaming, like the tide on the Baltic when Egl?, Žal?i? Karalien? (Egl?, Queen of Serpents) called out the special chant needed to summon her evil serpent husband after a brief and closely monitored visit with her family so that he could escort her back to the underwater digs where she was being held captive since adolescence.

Here is a rendering on the wall of our camp mess hall of the evil serpent after Egl?’s brother’s chopped him up:

Actually, he still looks kind of alive. And what’s up with the autonomous hatchet there in the middle? Funny, I never noticed that when we were painting this mural back in the 80s as kids. It looks like one of the brothers (there are always three of them) might have cut and run. Or some kid painted a bloody hatchet and said, “to hell with the guy.”

Once the milk has thickened up, is foaming mightily, and looks like it’s just about to boil, turn off the heat and pour in your half gallon of buttermilk. Then stir, stir, stir.

After awhile, the mixture will start to look like this:

Congratulations! You just made cottage cheese.

No, really. You can refrigerate and eat it if you want. But if you give up now, you will never be able to experience the hearty delicacy that is farmer’s cheese.

Next comes the part where I almost walked out of my lesson because R?ta started talking about sewing up your own cheesecloth. See, she doesn’t recommend using actual cheesecloth, but rather a thick canvas bag, like the kind that corn meal or whole wheat flour comes in straight from the mill. You can’t buy it at Target. You probably have to go to Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods), the mill, or a farmer. But that’s not the part that had me worried.

She said you have to wash the empty sack, cut it at the seams, and sew it into a triangular shaped pouch.

I KNOW

You can do it! Don’t give up.

(I bet you could even just staple it together. But shhhhh!)

Okay, now take your pouch and carefully, very carefully, pour the hot cottage cheese mixture into the bag. Please don’t scald yourself. R?ta held the cheese cloth bag open with a little rubber circle thingie they make to keep potato chips fresh while she scooped the mixture in with a ladle. I would recommend doing this, or asking your husband to hold the bag open with his bare hands while you pour. The liquid that seeps out through the bottom of the bag is called “whey.” Get it? Curds and whey? I was as astonished as you are right now.

This is the point when, if you wish, you can add salt and/or caraway seeds to taste.

You are almost done and it’s only been like twenty minutes! Even though doesn’t it seem like this blog post just keeps going on and on?

Okay, now tie the pouch tightly off at the top and set it on a cutting board.

Makeshift Cheese Press

Next, put another cutting board on top of it, fill your stockpot all the way up with cold water, and set it on top of the whole shebang. If you have a cheese press, you can use that, but you don’t really need one. The point is to squeeze as much water out of the cheese mixture as possible and set it.

The more water you press out, the denser and drier your cheese will be. You might want to check it after a few minutes and load it up with weight again. If you leave it on the moist side, the consistency will just be a little different. But you probably don’t want to leave it dripping wet.

After it’s pressed, let it sit on the cutting board for a few hours until it’s . . . uh . . . done. My friend R?ta said you don’t even have to refrigerate it, so when you get salmonella, you can blame it on her. We made our cheese at about 2:30 and it was ready to eat at 10:00 pm.

It’s best with jam or honey on a slice of hearty rye or black bread. Lithuanians eat it this way for breakfast or as a bed time snack.

Skanaus!

(Please check the comments because if I missed any steps, I’m hoping Ruta will chime in to correct me and add her two cents.)

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Kugelis: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner of Champions

You’ve probably been wondering what kind of food Lithuanians like to eat, and the answer to that question is potatoes, bacon, and sour cream.

One of my favorite Lithuanian recipes which incorporates all three of these ingredients is “kugelis*” – a hearty potato casserole that can be served as a side dish or main meal.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to make on a weekend afternoon because it requires a bit of time and elbow grease, but it’s the ultimate in comfort food and I guarantee it will pay off in the end.

Alrighty then! Let’s put on our kerchiefs, roll up our sleeves, and get to work!

First, pre-heat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. If you live in a place where they use Celsius, (like Lithuania), consider moving to the U.S.A. We also have Costco and buffalo wings.

While the oven is pre-heating, invite your friend V over for dinner and ask her to peel and grate five pounds of potatoes (preferably Idaho or Yukon Gold) using the fine side of a box-type grater.

Try not to hold your potato in a creepy way.

Don’t even think about using powdered potatoes or frozen hash browns. I know you didn’t take my advice about using fresh organic ginger root for the Happiness Tea, but this time you better follow directions or you’ll regret it.  The only shortcut I will allow is for you to run those hard-to-grate potato end pieces through a KitchenAid mixer attachment. We are not making knuckle casserole here. You will also need to grate one whole onion into the mix, and I will permit you to do this using the KitchenAid, as well.

I’m reasonable like that.

Potato Vortex

It’s going to take your friend V awhile to peel and grate those potatoes and the last thing you want is for them to oxidize and turn an ugly hammer and sickle gray in the meantime, so after they’ve been peeled, keep the potatoes submerged in a bowl of cool water and as you’re grating them, either finely crush several (four or five) vitamin C tablets into the bowl or periodically squeeze generous amounts of lemon juice in and stir.

While the potatoes are being grated, dice and sauté about 3/4 pounds of bacon until it’s crispy/chewy, but not burned. I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but you’re going to have to reserve the fat. When the potatoes and one small onion have been grated, mix in the bacon and the reserved bacon fat.

You can do it.

Next, beat up four eggs, 3/4 stick of melted butter, 3 tsp. kosher salt, and one cup buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, you can substitute regular milk mixed with one teaspoon of lemon juice, just let it sit for a few minutes so the magical chemical reaction that turns it into buttermilk can occur) and add it to the potato/onion/bacon mixture. Stir to combine.

Pour the whole shebang into a well greased 9×13 casserole dish, like so:

. . . And bake at 350° for at least 90 minutes, or until golden brown. (A toothpick or wooden skewer, when inserted into the middle, should come out clean.)

While the kugelis is baking, dice a small onion and sauté it with a pat of butter. When the onion is translucent, add the remaining 1/4 pound of – you guessed it! – diced bacon, and cook it until it’s chewy/crispy. This will be your topping. If you are a heart patient or an ascetic, you can drain the fat, just know that I will be over here in Cleveland judging away.

Once it’s totally baked (snort, snort, chuckle, chuckle), allow the kugelis to cool for about 15 minutes, then cut into hearty pieces and serve topped with the sauteed onion/bacon mixture and a cup dollop of sour cream. I would show you a picture of this step, but by the time I remembered to document it, the evidence had been eaten, and it was delicious.

We served our kugelis with a pinot noir and salad of greens, roasted beets, sliced pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola with a lemon vinaigrette. But you could also very easily eat it with a beer wearing pajamas in front of the TV.

It’s really, really good, and the leftovers are phenomenal fried up in sticks for breakfast the next day. (This is what is actually meant by the term, “Breakfast of Champions.”)

 

Here’s the list of ingredients:

  • 5 lbs. potatoes, peeled and grated (Okay, fine. You can grind them with a food processor, but I will deduct points)
  • 2 medium onions (one grated, and a smaller one diced for the topping)
  • 1 lb. bacon, fried and crumbled (3/4 for the kugelis, 1/4 for the topping)
  • 3/4 stick of butter, melted
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk (can substitute plain milk with 1 teaspoon lemon juice mixed in)
  • 3 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 lemon, quartered (to be used as needed to squeeze into potato mixture to prevent oxidization) or 4-5 finely crushed vitamin C tablets
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste for the sauteed bacon-onion topping
  • Sour cream

* Kugelis is not to be confused with the always popular Jewish “kugel,” which is often made with noodles and tends to be on the sweet side.

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