At home I’m seldom one to cook a dish the same way every single time I prepare it. There is usually some circumstance that calls for adaptation, such as a dearth of onions or an abundance of leftover pasta. Or, sometimes I just want something different and new, so I improvise. In any case, the food usually turns out tasty and nourishing, even when I’ve desecrated a couple of cooking traditions by mating them shamelessly. Hunger and boredom don’t worry so much about following the tradition to the letter.
It’s winter here in Croatia, so I’ve been cooking a lot of one-pot meals that stick to the ribs and warm you up from inside. One recent meal was just so, and also an example of the sort of improvisation I find wholly acceptable. I decided to make the Dalmatian favorite, pašta fažol (the recipe is on page 30 of my book, Dalmatian Cooking), but I forced it into a daring union with jota, a favorite from Istria, to Dalmatia’s north. I realize that some will find this concept challenging – or even highly offensive – but it’s not such a shocking perversion. There’s even a bit of logic to smashing these two adjacent worlds together in a bowl. I will explain.
Pašta fažol and jota have a few elements in common: pork, beans, garlic and onions. The pork is usually a ham bone or other cured and slow smoked part of the pig, and this serves as the foundation for the broth’s flavor as well as the delicious source of meat. I used the ankle bone of a Dalmatian prosciutto. They’re ridiculously cheap when you can find them here in Croatia, and if you’re lucky you can find one that still has a bit of meat on it. Mine did, and I sat and worked a salty, fatty snack out of it with a knife for a good half hour before I began cooking. Can you blame me?
Ordinarily, though, you’d probably want to leave the meat on the bone when you cook the broth. Once it has simmered long enough and the meat begins to fall away, you’ll want to pull every last delicious morsel off and set it aside for adding back into the pot later. But I had other protein plans this time. The bone went into the pot with a few cloves of garlic, a large knob of celery root, onion scraps, a large sprig of rosemary, a bay leaf and a few liters of water. I brought this to a boil, then reduced the heat and let it simmer until the broth had a good strength. I strained the liquid into a bowl and set it aside, then discarded all of the spent solids (I’ll admit to gnawing the remaining meat from the bone once it had cooled). Now onto those other plans…
I have a great little late night grocer nearby, and they carry a surprising selection of quality domestic meats. I’m hooked on their semi-dry smoked sausages. They’re just a little spicy, and bulging with large chunks of melt-in-your-mouth fat. I sliced a couple of them into thickish medallions, then fried these in a bit of olive oil with rough chopped onions and garlic. Once I’d achieved a nice color with the sausage and onions, I raised the heat until they just began to smoke, then added all of the bone broth back to the pot for a dramatic poof of steam. A few handfuls of soaked beans went in with a teaspoon of baking soda, and then I added a couple of handfuls of shredded kiseli kupus (many know this as sauerkraut). I brought this to a simmer with another bay leaf until the beans were tender, stirring and adding a little water as needed. The resulting rich soup of beans, pickled cabbage and sausage is known in Istria as jota, and it is very well loved for reasons that should be obvious. Aside from the presence of cabbage and absence of pasta, though, this was also essentially Dalmatian pašta fažol.
Here comes the part where it becomes obvious that I’m an American who likes to mess around in the kitchen, throwing caution and strict tradition to the wind.
I kept the flame on very low and added a few handfuls of spiral pasta to the pot. I simmered until these little noodles had absorbed enough delicious broth to be al dente. Then – and here’s the really crazy part – I put a ladle or two of this blasphemous concoction of concentric stews into a bowl, and liberally applied grated Parmesan cheese. How could I let such an abomination exist?
I didn’t. I made the strange food in the bowl disappear immediately. Then, racked with guilt over defiling two perfectly innocent Croatian food traditions, I hid the remainder of it in the refrigerator until the next day, when a friend was able to come and help me destroy the evidence of my crime.