Food with a Slice of History

Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way

Two heads of green broccoli

Image courtesy of Allen Lau on Pixabay

Broccoli lasagna isn’t part of the Bulgarian national cuisine.  There’s no Italian influence on the cooking of my native country.  The original recipe came from a British cookbook for easy-to-prepare meals.  The British might have had colonial interests in “the sick man of Europe,” to whom Bulgaria once belonged, but they don’t have much to do with the foods Bulgarians eat on a regular basis either.  The territories of what is now modern Bulgaria used to be provinces of the Ottoman Empire.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the populations of cities like Plovdiv, where I grew up, were diverse and culturally rich.

In Plovdivska khronika (The Chronicles of Plovdiv), a treasured book in my parents’ library, Nikola Alvadjiev describes the colorful ethnic neighborhoods in my hometown a century ago: Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Romani, and Turkish.  In their work and leisure activities, Plovdiv’s inhabitants commingled peacefully and influenced each other’s practices: coffee drinking, smoking, and cooking.  This is probably the reason why I have a tender spot for Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cooking when I’m at home.  When I travel, I also seek out restaurants serving Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.  Even though not exactly Bulgarian, this is the type of cooking that speaks to me.

The ingredients in this broccoli lasagna might not be Bulgarian, but I would claim that the way I present the recipe is:

About three-good-sized broccoli heads with their stems; two or three tubs of ricotta; about a cup of bread crumbs; two-thirds of a cup milk; some grated Parmesan; a pinch of nutmeg; and whole-wheat lasagna sheets.

As far as this last item is concerned, I personally like the Barilla brand best, even if it’s not organic. I might be opinionated on the wholesomeness of an organic diet, but on this point I’m surprisingly flexible.  After all, experience has taught me that, if results are to be agreeable, I have to challenge my own preconceived ideas.

Providing a list of ingredients without any precise quantities is common in Bulgarian recipes in the form that they’ve been handed down to me.  For a very long time, I could neither understand nor accept this.  My mother reinforced my resentment by observing how precise German recipes tended to be.  Because of their meticulous attention to detail, when followed to the letter, the result was foolproof.  No wonder that they assured my mother’s success as a baker.  Why couldn’t we, Bulgarians, be more like the Germans instead of remaining stuck in the habits of a muddled Oriental mind?  Being exact and focused obviously helps with making progress and winning prestige and respect, even if only as a baker …

As a clueless cook, Bulgarian recipes seemed out to get me.  Struggling to prepare the dishes for which they were written, I felt alienated from my own Bulgarian roots.  Why couldn’t I just wing making Bulgarian food?  Wasn’t I supposed to claim its heritage as something given and easily accessible to me?  Having to struggle in order to secure success at something that I assumed was mine by birthright made me resentful to say the least.  It seemed that my heritage was limited to slowness, incapacity, and unfitness: traits that colonial Europe had associated with an Oriental mind.  These qualities still haunt me because they are at the bottom of present-day prejudices against Bulgarians and other inhabitants of the Balkan region.

It was especially hard for me to cook under the scrutinizing gaze of my German or French flatmates during my years of study abroad.  I felt that I was a living proof of their unflattering stereotypes.  It was as if my clumsy actions were not just ruining a Bulgarian recipe, but also finishing off the nineteenth-century “sick man of Europe” right in front of everybody at the kitchen table.  While I would stare at my Bulgarian culinary fiascos, a feeling of injustice would hold sway over me.  I felt as if I was held responsible for something that had taken place before me, something whose truthfulness I had neither proved or witnessed, and to which I was linked only by chance.  In my frustration, I turned to recipes in cookbooks written in other languages that I knew: English, German, and French.  At the time, I felt that these recipes would both save me from painful embarrassment and secure my success.

Now that my long-term experience in the kitchen has eased my insecurities as a cook, I have found an explanation for the form in which Bulgarian recipes were handed down to me.  In their ambiguity, these recipes appear open to interpretation because they must have been originally written with a community cooking experience in mind.  I want to imagine that in a Plovdiv kitchen at the end of the nineteenth century, one could find Bulgarians cooking alongside Armenians, Greeks, Jews, or even Turks, who divided chores and shared responsibilities.  They all had a different — but equally rich and complex — experience with food.

When the skill and knowledge of cooks from different backgrounds are blended in the name of one overall convincing result, decisions are taken in the moment and rules are adjusted.  The proportions of ingredients are negotiated in order to satisfy the taste of all who are present in the kitchen.  Thus, in a rice dish, one could add olives or tomatoes, as well as vary the amount of chubritsa (summer savory) and the way in which one combines it with parsley or dill.  A bean dish could be flavored with djodjen (spearmint) or sage and cooked with peppers or tomatoes and carrots.  Bread could be seasoned with chubritsa and sweet paprika, or fenugreek and thyme.  Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that recipes noted only general directions and basic ingredients with suggestions for quantities, rather than prescribed a set method for preparing a dish.  The experience of cooking in the moment was decisive for the way the dish turned out.

In light of this realization, I have re-written the Italian recipe I found in that British cook-book and transformed it into my Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way.

***

A good tomato sauce brings together all layers of a Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way in agreeable harmony.  For this reason, I always make the sauce first with the following ingredients:

Olive oil; one or two onions; at least three gloves of garlic; some tomato paste; two to three cans crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce; oregano; thyme; sugar; and kalamata olives.

Whenever my mood is discordant and I need an especially sweet sauce to regain personal balance, I chop two big onions and heat some olive oil in a heavy enamel-coated or ceramic pot.  These type of pots help with the acidity of the tomatoes and prevent the sauce from turning sarcastically sour.  Just when the oil is hot but not smoky, I encourage the onions to slide gracefully off the cutting board into the pot with the edge of my knife.  I stir in some salt, turn the heat down, and put the lid back on.  At this point, I almost give in to a temptation to check my messages, write a quick email, or read the electronic news.  Luckily, my Oriental slowness prevails over the allure of modern technology and I remain loyal to my onions’ well-being.  I stir them lovingly, listening to the sounds that they make while twisting and turning in the oil.  I breathe in the scent of their golden sweetness and think to myself: What does it take for us to get along with others?  A willingness to accept our imperfect selves so that we are less tempted to blame others for our own faults? An avid curiosity that makes us seek closeness with those who are aberrant and different?  Or is it a generous imagination that conjures up a possibility of cordial agreement with those who usually perplex and vex us?

After about twenty minutes of careful stirring and unwavering attention, I add the garlic and herbs.  I give the contents of the pot the patience of my stirring hand for another five minutes.  An Italian friend whom I visited in Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, taught me how to enhance the flavor of tomatoes with sugar.  While quickly recalling bits of our conversations, I let the sugar and tomato paste join the onions and herbs. However, I don’t allow myself to get too emotional, for I need to add the tomatoes to the mellifluence in the pot.  I stir everything with a flourish, giving away my Oriental temper.  Nonetheless, I’m extra careful: not a single red drop trickles down the pot’s side to bring up memories of past failure due to hot temper, irritability, intolerance, or sulkiness of mood.  As I recall that not all of the conversations with my Italian friend were easy, I add the finely chopped black kalamata olives — like tiny glistening marcasite drops — that remind me of the stones on my great-grandmother’s pendant.  Now all the ingredients can be left undisturbed as they exchange whispered secrets with each other under low heat for another twenty minutes.

While the onions, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and olives learn to speak each other’s language in the warmth of the olive oil, I show the broccoli some engagement and action (a phrase that I owe to Boris Fishman, whom I respect both as a writer and American-Belarusian cook).  My Bulgarian grandmother, who was born only shortly after Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, taught me never to waste food.  Perhaps it’s a thrifty Oriental habit, but I peel the broccoli stems, slice them into rounds, and steam them together with the florets to a bright green tenderness.  A modern-day food processor then comes in handy to purée these.  Lastly, I mix all the other luscious ingredients of the filling together in a large bowl, and assemble the final dish according to the directions on the pasta’s box.  While I’m waiting for my Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way to bake to pleasing perfection, I’m thinking: Who could I invite to share this home-cooked meal with me? Who have I fallen out with? Who haven’t I seen for nine years?

***

Bulgarian cuisine is part of my cultural heritage.  I have Oriental roots, which largely have to do with how the European colonial West wanted to view the Balkans and their inhabitants.  The formative years that I have spent in Germany, France, and the US have also shaped me.  Ultimately who I am is an ongoing negotiation between the experiences I’ve had in different cultures. How these all blend together depends on the particular circumstances of a give moment. At times, my identity traits fall into discord, and at others, like a good tomato sauce, they align in harmony.  Because of this, I constantly have to deal with who people assume me to be.

I was recently speaking German with a friend in a US public library when a complete stranger chose to reproach me, saying that I didn’t ‘look German’.  I smiled at her and thought to myself: depending on the circumstances, a good tomato sauce for a Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way might need one or two onions, two or three cans of tomatoes, a tea spoon of sugar … or even a little bit of honey.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you again Penwhisk for invoking the feelings, aromas, and sites of your native Bulgaria. It’s always a delight of the senses to read your stories.

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