“Dalmatia: Recipes from Croatia’s Mediterranean Coast.” By Ino Kuvačić. Hardie Grant Books, $40.

Seven years ago, I quit my office job, sublet my apartment and caught a flight to the Balkans for a four-month ramble with the love of my life.

One of the highlights of that trip was the two weeks we spent hopping along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast – swimming in crystal-clear turquoise water, touring medieval coastal towns and basking in unrelenting sunlight. We also found open-air markets full of fresh produce, amazing homemade olive oil – sold in plastic Coke bottles – and plenty of cheap wine.

If you don’t know where Dalmatia is, you’re likely not alone. The region sits on the southern end of Croatia’s Adriatic coast, facing Italy to the west. The craggy, dry coastline dotted with hundreds of islands has long been a popular summer destination and gets mobbed by tourists every year.

One of the downsides of shoestring travel is that fine dining is mostly out of the question. We ate well in Croatia, but unfortunately missed indulging in Dalmatian specialties like black (squid ink) risotto and seafood. Another downside of traveling in tourist-rich places is that good food is either wildly expensive or unavailable – most menus I remember offered a choice between boring pasta, pizza and salad.

Thanks to chef Ino Kuvačić’s elegant book “Dalmatia: Recipes from Croatia’s Mediterranean Coast,” I can now get some of the tastes I missed right in my own kitchen.

Kuvačić is originally from Split, Dalmatia’s largest city, where he studied to be a chef before moving to Australia about 20 years ago and opened his own Croatian cuisine restaurant in Melbourne in 2014. The recipes in the book are traditional dishes that came from Kuvačić’s family, a long line of farmers and wine merchants.

“My father’s ancestors were proud Croatian farmers, working the dry Dalmatian land, which consists mainly of rock and only a little soil,” Kuvačić writes in the introduction.

“They weren’t able to produce much, but what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality and flavor.”

Dalmatian food incorporates common Mediterranean elements like fresh seafood, pasta and raw vegetables, with central European and Turkish flavors – think hearty stews and grilled meat. Some of Kuvačić’s recipes might be familiar, like mussel pasta with red sauce; marinated and pickled sardines; or Dalmatian silverbeet – Swiss chard and potatoes. As Kuvačić points out in his introduction, vegetables and seafood feature prominently in Dalmatian food, as do two ubiquitous parts of any Croatian meal – olive oil and brandy.

Most of Kuvačić’s recipes use fairly common ingredients with light seasoning – often salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Some of the seafood and meat recipes call for sourcing forethought – it may be tricky to find cuttlefish ink, fresh sardines, lamb kidneys or partridge – but in most cases, ingredients can be found at any supermarket.

Instead of trying Kuvačić’s take on pašta fažol – one of my favorite soups of beans, pasta and meats – I decided on the slightly more elaborate Stuffed Eggplants Dubrovnik-style. Stuffing anything can seem complicated, but I found the preparation, layering breadcrumbs, meat, tomato sauce and fresh herbs into eggplant cavity quick and easy. I reattached the eggplant tops with toothpicks and had to cook the four stuffed vegetables in two separate batches, because I didn’t have a pan large enough to hold them all at once. The resulting dish was fantastic. The eggplants were soft and flavorful, but still firm enough to stay intact and keep the savory stuffing inside. The tomato sauce blended with the eggplant liquid, creating a rich, deep-red sauce. It was one of the few times I can remember when a dish I prepared looked just like the cookbook photo.

My success with the stuffed eggplants makes me want to try more from Kuvačić’s book, and helped transport me back to long, lazy days of bright sunlight and tranquil Adriatic seas.

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

STUFFED EGGPLANTS DUBROVNIK-STYLE

Serves 4

4 eggplants

2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

50 milliliters (3 tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil

100 grams (1/4 pound) ground beef

1 egg

50 grams (1/4 cup) grated Parmesan or similar cheese

100 grams (1/4 pound) prosciutto or ham, finely diced

2 cups Dalmatian tomato sauce (recipe follows)

1 bunch basil, chopped

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

DALMATIAN TOMATO SAUCE:

14 ounces large ripe tomatoes

3 garlic cloves, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped chili

1 tablespoon sugar, optional

To make the eggplant, cut the tops off the eggplants and set aside. Using a knife and spoon, hollow out the centers of the eggplants, leaving 1/2 inch of flesh around the edge. Season the eggplants inside with salt and let them drain upside down for about 30 minutes; they will lose some bitterness that way.

In a frying pan over medium eat, saute the breadcrumbs in the olive oil until golden brown. Remove the pan from the heat and set the crumbs aside to cool.

In a bowl, mix the minced beef with the egg and cheese and season well.

Grease the insides of the eggplants with olive oil and start filling them first with breadcrumbs then some of the beef mixture, some prosciutto and a tablespoon of Dalmatian tomato sauce. Sprinkle with chopped basil. Keep filling the eggplants in this order evenly (you should end up with three or four layers of each ingredient). When all the eggplants are filled, replace the eggplant tops.

Place the filled eggplants in a saucepan greased with olive oil. Add the remaining tomato sauce, 1 and 1/3 cup water and drizzle with olive oil.

Cook over low heat for about an hour and serve.

To make the sauce, bring salted water to a boil in a large sauce pan.

Score the tomatoes at the base with a knife and blanch them for a couple of minutes. Peel the skin off the tomatoes and discard. Cut the peeled tomatoes into 1/2 inch cubes.

In another saucepan over high heat, cook the garlic in the olive oil for a few seconds, making sure it doesn’t start to color. Add the tomato and chili and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about one hour. It is very important to make sure the sauce is cooked on low heat, never going above a gentle simmer. If the sauce is cooked at too high a temperature, it will change the flavor and taste a bit dull. Adjust the seasoning and add the sugar if the tomatoes taste too acidic.

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