In the Balkans, as in most places, the dining table becomes a genealogy artifact, a mirror of life, an object so important that along with imprints of a thousand sit downs, it also holds a kaleidoscope of stories, experiences, and events lived by one family. Aida Ibišević invites you to join her for a family lunch.
Some of my favorite childhood memories involve getting together around the same table during holidays and regular family dinners. This sturdy, dark, wooden creature holds memories even we have forgotten. For one, it was a loyal companion to my family throughout the lovely 1980s when we used to visit grandma at least once a week for a family meal. Overcrowded and filled to the brink, it held the richness of our cuisine and the love poured into preparing it.
Across the globe, sitting around the table precipitates a certain coming of age. It’s a place where each of us learns how to communicate, how to be polite, and how to be kind. It starts when we are so small we lift our chins up high to be able to see our fingers testing out cutlery like real grown ups. Soon after, we have our first discussions, which over time morph into intelligent debate, as we grow older. The table is where we find out what our siblings are up to, and watch our parents exchange tender looks as the glasses clink. It’s where life happens.
In the 1990s the table was transferred to our home, where it became the epicenter of our family during tough times. One would expect this table not to have seen much in terms of food during those years. Yet it saw miracles as mom transformed humanitarian aid into decent meals. And, although candles replaced electric lighting, we still held family dinners regularly.
When we moved to the U.S. the table was empty during most of the year. Yet, as soon as the summer holidays would arrive, the family descended and assembled from different parts of the world. We partook in long dinners during which we excitedly recounted stories of our new lives, hoping we would not lose that thread of connection that held us together.
The table is especially busy these days, as our family lives in one place once again. To this end, I’m sharing with you my first family dinner of 2017.
Large family dinners in the Balkans generally start with a good chicken or beef soup with grits noodles. Afterwards, one dives into different pies stuffed with meat, cheese and vegetables. Numerous sauces find their place in between plates and glasses, and wait to be tried with fresh bread. And then there are the salads. The main one is usually the fresh shredded cabbage bathed in lemon juice, but there are fermented options too.
We are a culture deeply entrenched in meat. Dried. Baked. Fried. Grilled. Cooked. Roasted. It doesn’t matter which shape or form, the main attraction of a family dinner is meat of some kind. There is this intrinsic belief in this part of the world that a meal is incomplete if you haven’t eaten a solid piece of meat. In fact, if you don’t feel a slight heaviness after eating, the meal was only an inadequate prelude.
My favorite roast has always been the veal shoulder roast (‘pečenje od teleće potplećke’). This moist and tender meat separates itself easily. It has the softness that makes it versatile so it’s equally good with a side of potatoes and baked string beans, as it is in a sandwich or a salad. Most importantly, veal gives you the feeling of having eaten a solid meal, but doesn’t cause excessive heaviness and a slightly hypnotic spell the way pork or lamb roasts do.
Don’t be intimidated, as surprisingly enough this is one of the easiest ways to roast you’ll come across. Veal shoulder is marinated with mustard and seasonings the night before you plan to roast it. (You can choose other cuts; I’ve listed them in the recipe below.) On the day of the lunch, preheat the oven and then place the veal in. If you follow this simple rule, your roast will be perfect every time: roast the meat for as many hours as it has kilograms (1 kilogram = 2 pounds). So if it’s a 2 kg piece of veal, you’ll roast it for two hours and it’s finished.
Although nowadays more people eat out on regular basis in the Balkans, this trend has not yet replaced the family dinner. It’s still an unusual occurrence to see people walking down the street and eating something on the go. Dining tables are still as important a gathering place as they were before, and will stay so for a while.
Wherever you are right now, I bet your dining table is just as busy. You probably notice fresh faces around it nowadays. Some faces are missing. A glance at your mother’s hands will tell you she’s getting more vulnerable. You are too. Thus these moments around the table when we share the space and time together are ever so ephemeral, and ever so sweet.
Veal Shoulder Roast and Roasted Potatoes
Prep time: 10 minutes
Wait time: overnight (or 4-5 hours)
Roast Time: 2 hours
Marinade veal shoulder the night before you plan to roast it. Start by spreading mustard over it on all sides (use hands). Follow with seasoned salt, and seal it all in with a coat of 40 milliliters of oil. Use the remaining oil to coat all sides of your roasting pan. Place the veal shoulder in the pan, cover the pan with foil, and use a toothpick to prick 4-5 small holes in foil. Leave the pan with veal shoulder in the fridge overnight.
The following day, heat oven to 250C (480F).
Place the pan covered with foil on the middle rack and roast for 20 minutes. Lower the temperature to 200C (390F), and continue roasting for another 60 minutes. At this time, take the pan out and carefully take off the foil. Inspect how the meat is doing, and flip it to the other side. Roast for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and cut potatoes into wedges, and salt them to taste.
Take the foil off the pan, and place the potatoes around the veal shoulder. Roast the veal another 20-25 min, uncovered. Take the meat out and transfer to a serving platter, while returning the potatoes back to the oven for another 20-25 minutes.
Cut veal into chunks anyway you like, and serve with potatoes.
*Ask the butcher to make a few deeper cuts in the meat with a machete, about 2-3 inches apart.
Instead of the shoulder you can go for the ribs, loin, sirloin or leg for your roast. My recommendation is to go with the shoulder, bones in. The unwritten rule is that you’ll roast the veal for as many hours as there are kilograms in the piece you are roasting. So for our recipe, we’ll be roasting 2 kg of veal for about two hours.
**Vegeta is the most used Balkan spice, consisting of crushed vegetables. In simplistic terms it’s sort of a mix between seasoned salt and bouillon cubes, so you can use either one if you can’t find Vegeta.