Nearly landlocked and bordered by six countries, the Black Sea has been an important waterway since the dawn of recorded history.
Now, writer Caroline Eden shares her culinary tour of the region in her new cookbook, “Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light.”
Her journey uncovers the foodways resulting from thousands of years of history and diaspora. The book’s connecting thread is Eden’s exquisite travelogue, but it’s also packed with beautifully photographed recipes of her Black Sea adventure.
I wanted to walk the path of her journey, so as Eden starts “Black Sea” in Odessa, Ukraine, so did my cooking.
Herring isn’t in everyone’s comfort zone, but adding it to a salad of apples, eggs and thinly sliced radishes might expose it to a wider audience of eaters. My husband and children enjoy pickled herring at Christmas, and they also like soft-boiled eggs, so I figured, “Why not?”
The recipe for herring and apple salad is actually a scaled-back version of another Ashkenazi Jewish dish, which also includes Tabasco, scallions, bread and sour cream. This simplified and more accessible recipe had me brining herring with tart green apple, then serving it with radishes and quartered eggs.
I was wary of how this salad might be received at dinner, but all three children and my herring-loving husband readily asked for a plate, and ate it all.
Next, we traveled with Eden to Romania to try out a traditional sheep herder’s food, shepherd’s bulz.
These bite-sized polenta balls stuffed with melty cheese and served with roasted tomatoes felt simple but satiating. We agreed they would be lovely stuffed with a mixture of vegetables or ground lamb. The bulz went together like Romanian cornmeal onigiri, or maybe arancini — minus the frying. Either way, the bulz were simple to make and easy to store for lunch the next day.
For dessert, we finished in Turkey’s Black Sea region. Small strawberries cooked down with chili and served over a large dollop of cream cheese and yogurt provided a sweet, tart and spicy end to our Black Sea meal. If ever I need a quick solution to “serve with vanilla ice cream,” it’s going to be to whip up cream cheese and yogurt, then call it good.
“Black Sea” continues to other regions, but we were too full to continue. Next trip, perhaps we’ll sample Bulgaria and the creamy savory zelnik pie, then to Istanbul for walnut and garlic Circassian chicken, and finish in Yalta with a rich hazelnut chocolate bebe cake.
Herring and apple salad
Eden suggests serving this salad with matzo, dark rye or toasted challah.
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon superfine sugar
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
4 marinated herring fillets, cut into chunks (such as Elsinore)
Combine the oil, vinegar, sugar, apple and herring in a large bowl, squeeze the lemon juice over and grind over some pepper. Leave to marinate for at least 2 hours in the fridge.
Boil the eggs for 10 minutes and, when cool, peel and quarter them. Very thinly slice the radishes, using a mandoline or swivel vegetable peeler.
Drain off most, but not all, of the liquid from the herring mix, transfer the salad to a new bowl to serve in, and drizzle over a little of the extra liquid as a dressing. Add the egg quarters to the top of the salad and serve. Serves 2 as a side salad.
Roasted tomatoes lend a punch of flavor to these rich and cheesy polenta balls. Comte or Fontina cheese can be substituted for the ossau-iraty, should you not be able to track it down. I found it easier to make a patty of sorts then press in the cheese mixture to the center, folding the polenta around the cheesy center and rolling into a ball. I used more than the amount of cheese called for and increased the baking time for my tomatoes to the full 25 minutes and then some. Makes 25-30 small bulz or 10-15 larger bulz.
1¼ cups water
1 cup whole milk
1 to 2 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing
1¾ cups fine or medium cornmeal
1½ tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
⅓ cup pecorino, grated
¼ cup ossau-iraty cheese, grated
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for oiling your hands
1 teaspoon paprika
1 to 1½ cups cherry tomatoes
Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy-bottomed pan or flameproof casserole, bring the water to boil, then add the milk, ½ teaspoon of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Reduce to a simmer and stir in the butter. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting and immediately start, very slowly, pouring in the cornmeal, all the while stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook until the mixture reaches a thick porridge-like consistency, then remove from the heat but keep stirring for another minute or 2. It will thicken very fast and may split and bubble, so keep stirring until it looks set.
Put the lid on (or use foil) and leave for 5 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Turn out the polenta (cooked cornmeal is called polenta) and, using a spatula, spread it onto a large, clean surface, shaped into a rectangle of about 8 by 12 inches, and leave it to cool. It should be firm, springy and not wet.
Meanwhile, butter a baking tray and, in a bowl, mix the thyme leaves and grated cheese is together.
Once the polenta is cool, lightly oil your hands and mold into balls (bulz) about the size of a walnut. Using the handle of your wooden spoon, wiggle it to make a hole big enough to stuff some of the cheese and thyme mixture in, and reseal the hole. Spread the paprika out on a plate and dip the bulz into it, just covering a quarter or so, and place the bulz on the buttered tray. I find keeping an open bottle of oil nearby to keep oiling my hands helps the rolling when you get going and the polenta dries out more.
Bake for 20-25 minutes. At around the 15-minute mark, turn the bulz and put the cherry tomatoes into the oven on a separate baking tray to roast, drizzled with the tablespoon of olive oil. By the time the bulz are ready, the tomatoes will be, too. Serve together and, if you have any cheese mixture left, scatter it over.
Red, hot and cool strawberries
To mimic the small flavorful berries which grow in the Kure Mountains close to Safranbolu in Northern Turkey, I opted for frozen berries rather than the larger, often less flavorful large berries found out of season in the grocery store. I tried this with New Mexico chilies and a pinch of Aleppo pepper. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, a spice grinder works just fine.
1 dried arbol chili, or similar
1 cup strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and chopped into ½ inch pieces
¼ cup sugar
Squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
⅔ cup thick yogurt
⅔ cup cream cheese
A few mint leaves, to decorate
First, cut open the chili, taking off the stem and discarding the seeds. Toast to the chili, opened flat out, in a hot, dry pan until the nutty aroma is released, then place the chili in a mortar and crush it with a pestle.
Next, place to hulled strawberries in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the chili, leaving out any larger uncrushed pieces, to the strawberries along with the sugar, and stir to combine. Heat the mixture over a fairly high heat until the sugar melts and starts to bubble. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and keeping an eye on it — be ready to remove the mixture sooner if the strawberries start collapsing. You want the strawberries to roughly keep their shape. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. If it’s too sweet, add a little squeeze of lemon to counter excessive sweetness.
While the strawberries are cooking, whisk together the yogurt and cream cheese in a mixing bowl until smooth. Then cover the bowl and place in the fridge to chill.
When the strawberries are cool and you’re ready to serve, fill 4 tumblers or small bowls with the yogurt mixture and spoon over the chili-strawberries. Top with some whole mint leaves.
— Reprinted with permission from “Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light” by Caroline Eden. Quadrille Publishing, 2019.
By Caroline Eden
Quadrille Publishing. 280 pages. $35.
Who should buy this? Home cooks who want a travel adventure with their cooking. Or adventurers who want a bit of local cuisine with their travels.