Tasting Slovenian Cuisine Right at the Source
Slovene cuisine: Simple, hearty food infused with an Old World spirit
Wine and Food Tours in Slovenia
Slovenian kitchen: JP resident cooks up his grandmother's Central European specialties
Traditional Slovenian Foods
Kulinaricna Slovenija
A taste of Slovenia
How to make Potica
Memories of potica
Slovene chef with fusion at his fingertips

Janez Zrnec / Delicious "kraški pršut" - air-dried ham. Karst ham - one of the specialities of the coastal region cuisine, served with olives, home-made cheese, various seafood salads and Karst Teran wine.
Tasting Slovenian Cuisine Right at the Source

A small vineyard sits next to a hayfield in the Karst region of southwest Slovenia.
The Karst region of southwest Slovenia is home to many tourist farms, called kmetije, offering lodging and fresh, local food. As early as the 19th century, Italian vacationers began crossing into the country to spend summer weekends on farms. Left, a small vineyard sits next to a hayfield.

July 5, 2009

LEAVE the highway from Ljubljana and wend your way west through the lush, vineyard-dotted region of southwestern Slovenia known as the Karst, and eventually you will come upon the tiny village of Tomaj and the flower-fringed courtyard of the Skerlj family farm. Walk in, take one of the guestrooms in the converted stone stables and settle in for a few days of well-prepared traditional foods and local wines, the fruits of the fields and orchards outside your window.

The Karst, a limestone plateau bordering the Friuli region of Italy, is known for its gastronomic heritage, and visitors take away vivid memories of its food: Karst prsut (pronounced per-SHOOT), prosciutto that is air dried for 14 days in the sharp burja winds; chewywheat bread smothered with fresh horseradish or zaseka (a spread of cold smoked ground bacon and lard); risotto with just-picked asparagus and nettles; homemade gnocchi with fried pancetta; fish caught off Slovenia’s short but idyllic Adriatic coastline.

One way to experience this cuisine — with fresh, seasonal ingredients — is at a kmetija, or tourist farm.

Rabbits at the Skerlj farm, which is an hour's drive from the capital, Ljubljana. The number of kmetije in Slovenia has doubled to more than 600 in the past decade, as farmers looked to supplement their incomes.

Agricultural tourism is not new in Slovenia, which is about the size of New Jersey and just east of Italy and south of Austria. As early as the 19th century, residents of Trieste would spend summer weekends on farms in the Karst.

Farm holidays became popular again after World War II, said Renata Kosi, Slovenia’s advisor for development of rural tourism, and have recently taken off, with the number of kmetije doubling to more than 600 in the past decade , as farmers looked to supplement their incomes. The average Slovenian farm is six hectares, less than 15 acres, Ms. Kosi said, and without some extra source of funds, “you can’t survive if you only have six hectares.”

Milojka Skerlj serves meals, prepared from her vegetable garden and orchards, in her renovated farmhouse. Visitors to the Karst region often take away vivid memories of the fresh, local food.

The tourist farms offer activities like horseback riding and swimming (the Skerlj farm has an inviting swimming pool and lets guests use its bicycles), and guests who are of a mind to sample the country life in earnest can sometimes pitch in baling hay or picking cherries.

Typical rooms recall those in a Swiss hut: spare but immaculate, with lots of unfinished wood. Prices are a fraction of those at a tourist hotel.

But the outstanding attraction is the food.

Pot roast at the Skerlj farm

At the Skerljes’ on a sunny afternoon last summer, the arriving visitor’s first sight was a view of a gently sloping field blanketed on one side by cherry, peach, plum and apricot trees and on the other by row upon orderly row of asparagus, spinach, lettuce and beans. A pretty young woman in jeans — the owners’ daughter, Irena Ozbic Skerlj — led the way into a renovated farmhouse, where she poured a glass of the house wine.

Guests who are of a mind to sample the country life in earnest can sometimes pitch in baling hay or picking cherries.

Awards were displayed above the bar: a first place for linden honey in a 2005 competition; another for the family’s 2006 teran, a young red wine made from the refosk grape.

At dinner that evening, Milojka Skerlj — farmer, cook, mother of Irena — described the origins of each dish.

“It’s been raining too much lately,” she said as she served a first course, heaping portions of wild cep mushroom lasagna. “Our grapes and other fruit are in danger, but the rain is very good for the mushrooms!”

A green salad topped with brown beans. Vegetables at the Skerlj farm are picked and served on the same day.

Next came green salad topped with brown beans and sautéed eggplant, finished with olive oil and sea salt from nearby salt pans. Then it was roasted veal with herbs and sides of roasted red peppers, gnocchi and a narrow slice of zucchini-flower frittata (called frtalja) with fresh herbs. The vegetables had been picked that day, the meat recently slaughtered.

As a small group of guests, Britons and Americans, chatted over the meal, the door clattered open and a handsome man wearing mud-smeared overalls entered the dining room and sat at his own table — Milojka’s husband, Izidor. The life of a Slovenian farmer is not easy: Izidor gets up at 6 a.m. to feed the pigs, cows and rabbits, then goes out to prune the vines or plow the fields. Milojka prepares meals, preserves produce and works in the vegetable garden or the orchards.

Dessert was Milojka’s homemade honey ice cream. (At breakfast the next morning, the Austrian influence was in evidence as the family served another sweet, its struklji, a swirl cake made, in this case, with walnut paste, raisins and cottage cheese.)

A plate of cured meat at the Skerljes

After dinner, Milojka led her guests into the meat-curing cellar, built into the hillside by Izidor’s ancestors 300 years ago. Dozens of pig legs and shoulders hung from the sturdy arched ceiling, and a framed, hand-written family tree dating back to the 1600s was propped up against a wall. Milojka offered shots of her homemade schnapps, made of teran, vanilla, sugar and cherries.

“I think this is a woman’s drink,” she said, laughing.

Nevertheless, the men drained their glasses, too.

A view of the Skerlj farm, which has an inviting swimming pool and lets guests use its bicycles.

An attraction of many of Slovenia’s tourist farms is their proximity to the country’s major tourist sites. The Skerlj farm, besides being just an hour’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana, and 15 minutes from Trieste, is within biking distance of the dramatic Skocjan Caves, a Unesco World Heritage Site; the Lipica stud farm, where Lipizzaner horses have been bred, give or take a few wars, since 1580; and the tasting rooms of some of Slovenia’s best winemakers.

Two hours north of Tomaj is Triglav National Park, an unspoiled tract of snow-dusted Alps, forests of larch and spruce, and meadows speckled with gentian and edelweiss. Though development within Triglav is strictly regulated, the park contains dozens of villages where Slovenes live and sell agricultural products like sheep cheese or wool or run restaurants, hotels or tourist farms.

There, you’ll find the Pri Plajerju kmetija, an organic farm that sits in the shadows of the Julian Alps, overlooking the iridescent Soca River. Marko and Stanka Pretner, the owners of Pri Plajerju, tend a big vegetable garden and raise sheep and goats. Three tourist apartments are in the main house and two are in Swiss-style huts.

Close to the glassy alpine Lake Bled, Slovenia’s most beloved resort, Joze and Damjana Mulej offer eight spacious rooms and five two-story apartments at their farm, Turisticna kmetija Mulej. The Mulejes have a herd of about 50 grass-fed dairy cows — which means fresh milk, cheese and yogurt at breakfast. Guests can ride the family’s two horses and bikes for no extra charge.

Nearby — 10 miles northwest of the town of Bled, which sits on the east side of the lake — Kmetija Psnak, run by the Lipovec family, has tourist apartments but also welcomes travelers who just want a meal. Lojzek Lipovec, the patriarch, just celebrated his 80th birthday, and still harvests the family’s honey himself. The rustic fare at Psnak ranges from pork and handmade sausages to zganci — a thick polenta made of either buckwheat or corn, often served with pork cracklings — and cottage cheese-stuffed buckwheat dumplings called ajdovi krapi with sauerkraut.

Think of it as fuel for climbing to the top of Mount Triglav — something every Slovene is said to do at least once.

Farms that take guests are listed on the Slovenia Tourist Board’s Web site, www.slovenia.info/touristfarms, and on the Web site of the country’s Tourist Farms Association, www.farmtourism.si.
Crna kuhinja, kot so jo nekoc poznale slovenske domacije in kjer se je pripravljalo slovenske dobrote.
Kranjska klobasa - Slovenija ima bogato in izjemno kulinariko. Ena najbolj prepoznavnih slovenskih jedi pa je zagotovo kranjska klobasa, katero je, med drugim, posadka NASE, popeljala s seboj v vesolje.

dolenjska idila

Še ena izmed znacilnih slovenskih dobrot. Le kdo, od sladokuscev, je ne pozna? Slovenska potica, ki naj vam posladka dan.

Slovenia at the Green Week - Berlin 2009 (Slowenien auf der Gruenen Woche Berlin)
Slovene cuisine: Simple, hearty food
infused with an Old World spirit

Idrijski zlikrofi is a kind of potato dumpling. The taste is somewhat similar to gnocchi, but much lighter.
Delaware online
By Patricia Talorico • The News Journal • September 17, 2008

SPODNJA IDRIJA, Slovenia -- Klavdij Pirih is trying to be polite, but he has had enough of my notetaking and questions.

"How much did you use?" I ask, so absorbed in getting down on paper every detail about his Slovene dumplings that I haven't noticed that the chef has stopped blending together his mix of water, flour, eggs and salt.

Klavdij Pirih, a chef at the Kenda Manor hotel, in Spodna Idrija, said “I don’t measure anything. It’s about feeling.”
Pirih is a chef at the Kenda Manor hotel, a 14th-century Relais & Châteaux property in the tranquil town of Spodna Idrija, where I stayed and took cooking and wine-tasting classes last fall. He is eager to share with me and several other students his version of idrijski zlikrofi, potato balls flavored with bacon, onions and herbs that are wrapped and cooked in a thin dough.

Sweet, earnest and cute, Pirih is an instinctual chef who can tell by sight, smell and touch what a dish needs. He gently taps me on the shoulder and points to his eyes, meaning he wants me to watch him make dumplings, not write.

When I glance down again at my notes -- Pirih hasn't handed out recipes -- the tall, muscular blond chef takes away my pad and pen and hands me an apron. I rush off to wash my hands and on my return, he mushes them into the dough.

Idrijski zlikrofi is a kind of potato dumpling. The taste is somewhat similar to gnocchi, but much lighter. Klavdij Pirih, a chef at the Kenda Manor hotel, in Spodna Idrija, said "I don't measure anything. It's about feeling." Pirih makes idrijski zlikrofi, potato balls flavored with bacon, onions and herbs that are wrapped and cooked in a thin dough.
My kneading is tentative. Pirih shakes his head. He jumps behind me, places his hands over mine and shows me how to press and stretch with the heel of the hand to create the elastic dough he wants.

The women in the class, who have been sipping Slovene wines, begin to snicker and tease. This is starting to resemble a G-rated culinary version of the pottery scene from the movie "Ghost." Soon, we're all giggling like a bunch of teeny-boppers crushing on The Jonas Brothers.

"I don't measure anything. It's about feeling," says Pirih, who chuckles at our silliness, but seems more determined than ever to make us understand and appreciate a dish that is an important part of Slovenia's cultural heritage.

You're going where?

A view of Spodna Idrija from the Kenda Manor hotel

When I tell someone in the U.S. that I'm spending part of a three-week European vacation in Slovenia, the reaction is similar to the one I get telling people outside the Mid-Atlantic region that I live in Delaware. Most stare blankly, with little or no recognition.

Low-profile Slovenia, which has been an independent country only since 1991, isn't exactly high on America's list of favorite tourist destinations. (Quick! Name a famous Slovenian? All I could come up with was Donald Trump's third wife, Melania Knauss.)

Barely the size of New Jersey, Slovenia has gently rolling hills, vineyards and lush valleys, some memorialized in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."

Earlier this year, the former Yugoslav state -- bordered by Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary -- raised its profile when it took
over the European Union presidency for six months and became the face and the voice of the 27-nation bloc of 500 million people.

From Spodna Idrija, we took side trips into Ljubljana, a Baroque gem and Slovenia's capital, and lunched at Branko and Vasja Cotar's vineyard in the Komen village in the southwestern Kras region. There, we tasted funky, regional wines like Vitovska, Terra Rossa and Teran, which seem to marry best with the local cuisine, including cabbage and nettle soups, beans, potatoes, breads, ham and sausages.

Later, we spent an afternoon at the Colja Jozko farm in Sgonico, on the Slovenia border, not far from Trieste, Italy, that's also known as an osmizza.

Owners were once allowed to sell only local wines, and other home-grown products, for a period not exceeding eight days per year. Osmizza derives from the Slovene word osmen which means eight. Sales at farms, now mostly seasonal, are announced by an ivy branch or wreath hanging by the front entrance. (We were Colja Jozko's first American visitors, and owners showed us abundant kindness along with abundant amounts of homemade meats, cheeses and wines.)

Not far from 11-room Kenda Manor hotel was the town of Idrija, known for lace-making and the second largest mercury mine in the world. Mercury production ended in 1994, but Slovenians are still fiercely proud of their mining history, the main industry for five centuries.

During an afternoon cooking class taught by chef Pirih and Bogdan Toncic, a Kenda Manor employee who often served as our guide in Slovenia, the men explained that one of Idrija's most traditional local specialties is idrijski zlikrofi. These are hand-rolled, potato-filled dumplings, actually more like a ravioli, that housewives made to nourish their miner husbands.

The dumplings are often served with bakalca, a hearty lamb sauce. During the class, we also learned to make struklji or rolled dumplings that can be savory or sweet.

We started the class with glasses of wine and greetings of dober dan (DOH-ber dahn), the Slovene word for good day. (For days, I thought people were saying "Dumbledore," the name of Harry Potter's Hogwarts headmaster.)

To make the filling for zlikrofi, Pirih explains that he first boils potatoes in water (no salt added) until tender and forces them through a potato ricer. He then mashes the potatoes by hand until they are smooth. Finely chopped chives and marjoram are added to the bowl, along with melted butter, grinds of pepper, minced, smoked bacon and onions that have been caramelized in the bacon fat.

How much of each? I don't know. Pirih isn't bound to exact ingredient amounts; he simply tastes as he goes.

The potato filling is set aside as Pirih begins the dough, just a simple blend of water, flour, eggs and salt. The kneading is most important to the dumplings, Pirih explains -- after the "Ghost" moment giggling subsides. He adds that the dough must be allowed to rest, in a plastic wrap for at least 30 minutes.

While Pirih uses a light, soft flour in the dough, a different kind of flour, one with a much more granular texture, is sprinkled on a flat surface when the dough is rolled into long, thin sheets with a wooden pin.

Notebook and pen back in hand, I asked Pirih and Toncic to tell me the name of the coarser flour. But we encounter a lost-in-translation moment. Neither knows the English word, and I can't translate Slovene.

(Toncic later sends me an e-mail, explaining more about the dish, but doesn't mention the different flours. "If you will need any further information, I am on your disposal," he writes.)

The potato mixture is then rolled into marble-size balls. We line the potato balls onto a sheet of dough -- each one about index finger apart. Another layer of dough is carefully rolled over the top of the potato balls. Pirih and Toncic show us how to cut and then pinch off the dough to encase each potato ball individually. The dumplings, which now resemble individually wrapped penny candy, are given a quick finger poke to create a dimple in the middle.

The zlikrofi will be cooked in boiling, salted water for several minutes and served with a hearty sauce, usually lamb, though Pirih says he also sometimes uses various meats, mushrooms and other vegetables.

At dinner later in the hotel dining room, one of the courses that waiters serve us is idrijski zlikrofi. The taste is somewhat similar to gnocchi, but much lighter. However, this zlikofri is beautifully formed and we begin to wonder if the kitchen staff didn't perhaps toss out the humble dumplings we made earlier that day and replace them with this better-looking batch.

Pirih and Toncic won’t say if a switcheroo occurred. But, this time, it’s their turn to laugh.
The New York Times
Wine and Food Tours in Slovenia

Published: August 31, 2008

New Jersey has more than 30 wineries. Slovenia — roughly the same size — has more than 400. Slovenia, independent from the former Yugoslavia since 1991, hasn’t had much time to promote its culinary and wine-making riches. But Insider’s Slovenia (www.insiders-slovenia.com), a new company, hopes to change that. Its “Insider’s Gourmet Tour of Slovenia,” Oct. 10 to 18, Nov. 7 to 15 and also scheduled for next May and June, will give access to Slovenia’s traditional and nouveau restaurants, and the chance to sample over 60 wines. Cities explored include Ptuj, near the Hungarian border, known for delicacies like pumpkin seed oil; Maribor, the country’s second-largest city and home to the world’s oldest wine-producing vine; Piran, a coastal town known for its fresh seafood; and the capital, Ljubljana, with its riverside market and restaurants. Prices, per person in double occupancy, start at 4,850 euros, about $6,290 at $1.53 to the euro, and include all meals, wine tastings, guides and hotels.
Boston Herald.com
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
By Mat Schaffer

Slovenian kitchen: JP resident cooks up his grandmother's Central European specialties
When Zare Kokotovic hankers for a taste of the old country, he goes into the kitchen. The Slovenian attorney-turned-international business consultant does most of the cooking at the Jamaica Plain home he shares with his wife, Betty.

Kokotovic says he prepares Central European fare at least once or twice a week.

This is food you won't just find in Slovenia but also in Austria, southern Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary," he said. "It's regional food that people recognize as their own."

Kokotovic learned how to cook from his grandmother Leopoldina, who was a private chef for an aristocratic Italian family in Trieste before World War I.

"She taught me everything I know," he said. "She taught me the logic of food and the feeling of food. I still remember making strudel with her - from scratch - rolling out the dough on the dining room table."

Kokotovic embraces a "slow" approach to cooking.

By that I mean `traditional' cooking when you prepare everything from the natural ingredients," he said. "The flavor of the natural ingredients must dominate the food. When you eat fish, you must taste fish - not something else!"

The Kokotovics don't stock any prepared foods. "It's all homemade," he said. "You can get great ingredients from local farmers here in Massachusetts. That is very important to emphasize."

One recent evening, Kokotovic treated guests to a slew of Central European specialties. He started several hours in advance, chopping onions and preparing sauces. He measured ingredients by hand and eye, eschewing tablespoons and measuring cups.

He made stuffed peppers from "white" peppers his wife discovered at Verrill Farm in Concord and hunter-style beef, braised in red wine, mustard, assorted herbs and juniper berries. He served them with a Serbian salad of cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and olive oil ("never any vinegar") and boiled dumplings made of stale bread, milk, eggs and butter. It was a feast.

You don't always have to make a complicated meal like this," Kokotovic said. "If you're a smart and regular shopper, all you need is one hour. One hour and you can have dinner on the table. No matter how busy you are, everyone has one hour."

Zare's stuffed peppers
For the sauce:
2 T. vegetable oil
1 T. flour
2 c. beef stock
3 T. tomato paste
1 lb. tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 t. sugar
1 t. sugar
1 apple, peeled and cored
Dash of cinnamon
4 or 5 whole cloves

For the peppers:
8 medium-sized "white" or light-colored, thin-skinned bell peppers
1 lb. ground beef and pork
1 egg
2 small onions, diced and sauteed in a little olive oil until tender, 3 minutes
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
3 slices uncooked bacon, finely chopped
1 c. uncooked rice
-3 T. beef stock
2-3 T. sour cream

Prepare the sauce: In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly until the flour begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, tomato paste, tomatoes, sugar, apple, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the cloves and puree mixture in a blender. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Prepare the peppers: Cut off the tops of the peppers and remove the seeds. Set aside.

In a bowl, mix the ground meat together with your hands for a minute or two to work out any lumps. Add the egg, sauteed onions, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands until fully combined. Add the chopped bacon and rice and thoroughly combine. Add enough beef stock so that the mixture is smooth and pasty.

Stuff the pepper shells three-quarters full with the meat and rice mixture. Arrange in a large Dutch oven. Pour the sauce over and around the peppers. Bring the sauce to a bowl, turn off the heat, cover the Dutch oven and let the peppers rest for one hour.

Turn the burner back on and cook the peppers over medium low heat until they are easily pierced by a fork, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in the sour cream and serve.

Makes 8 appetizer portions or 4 entrees (accompanied by mashed potatoes).

Shopska salad
lb. cucumbers, peeled or unpeeled, cubed
1 small sweet onion, peeled and diced
3 medium tomatoes, cored and cut into eighths
1 T fresh chopped parsley
½ c. sheep's cheese or feta, grated
Olive oil
Sea salt

In a bowl, mix together the cucumbers, onion, tomatoes, parsley and cheese. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss gently and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.
Chicago, June 15, 2005
A taste of Slovenia

First-generation immigrants, such as Maria Petek, often are the last bastion for food traditions

Renee Enna
Tribune staff reporter

For a long time, Maria Petek recalled, the only potatoes her grandson, Clayton, really liked were McDonald's fries. Until he tasted her Slovenian potatoes.

"Now when he comes here, he always has to have krompir," Petek, 73, proudly announced in her kitchen in southwest suburban Countryside. Krompir is a fairly simple dish of russet potatoes sauteed in oil and garlic--which you probably wouldn't know unless you were from Slovenia, which Petek is. For Petek's four grown-up children, krompir also is a familiar dish--only they never make it. Petek's daughter, Rose Petrini, 40 (and also in the kitchen), explained why, pointing to her mother: "She makes it."

The same goes for Petek's pot roast with hren (horseradish), sour turnip soup and liver dumplings in broth. These are just a few of the countless Slovenian dishes imprinted in her culinary memory bank and enjoyed by the next generation.

"[Slovenian cooking] is flourishing, because there are still grandmas like Maria," said Corinne Leskovar, Maria's longtime friend who also was standing in the kitchen. (Yes, it was a little crowded in there. And did we mention the photographer?). "But I'm afraid that the younger generation is losing the traditional foods," Leskovar added. "I'm afraid this traditional cooking isn't going to last long." Leskovar is editor of Zarja (The Dawn), a national magazine from the Slovenian Women's Union of America.

Indeed, any cultures' cooking traditions are as strong as the members who cook. This is especially true for smaller ethnic groups like the Slovenian-Americans because in most cities--even a city as large as Chicago--there are few if any Slovenian restaurants or stores to maintain and celebrate their foodways.

"The food is extremely important," said Edward Gobetz, professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio and founding director of the Slovenian Research Center of America in Cleveland. "Based on my research, what survives the longest are the ethnic foods--what Grandma cooks is immensely important--then singing and music, and of course, the dances of the old country. These things survive longer than the language itself, or the politics of a country."

In the foreword to "More Pots and Pans," a Slovenian-American cookbook, Gobetz wrote, "Indeed, with the possible exception of the most isolated and primitive peoples, the art of cooking has always and everywhere--and particularly in America--exemplified and supported cultural pluralism as the truly enriching and civilizing condition of mankind."

For Chicago, a city so proud of its diversity, the loss of one more ethnic group's traditions is just another step toward the dominance of a mass-market food culture.

One busy stove
For now, though, the krompir situation is stable. Petek, 73, is part of a small but culinarily determined group of Slovenian-Americans who continue to embrace the culture of their homeland by way of their kitchens.

"My little stove in my little kitchen is always busy," said Petek, putting a pot roast into a stockpot of water, which would yield the meat entree as well as create the broth for her sour turnip soup. These were just two of seven traditional Slovenian dishes that took Petek less than four hours to make. She also served potica, a traditional sweet bread that Petek said is "as Slovenian as apple pie in America."

Petek nimbly moved from counter to stovetop to refrigerator, pausing only occasionally to give the photographer a wary glance: "Why does he keep taking pictures of me? I thought this was about the food, not about me."

For Petek's generation, it has always been about the food. She came to Chicago with her husband, August, after World War II, an era that witnessed a substantial immigration of Slovenians to the U.S. for economic as well as political reasons. The Slovenian Research Center in Cleveland estimates that there are about 500,000 Americans of Slovenian descent and that about 25,000 live in Illinois.

The Peteks' journey here was round-about. They lived in Prekmurje, a region in the northeast corner of Slovenia. (The country is east of northern Italy and was part of the former Yugoslavia; it declared its independence in 1991.) The government allowed them visits to Italy four times a year, Petek recounted, but they were forbidden to move. One of their visits to Trieste in 1958 became, essentially, their escape. They lived in an Italian refugee camp for 16 months before coming to Chicago.

Over the years, despite the temptation of supermarkets, takeout joints and the myriad restaurants that have lured so many away from their old country dishes, Petek has remained devoted to Slovenian foodways. It is why she cans her own peppers, beets and turnips, she told us. Especially the turnips. "You can't find sour turnips in a store," Petek said.

Rose listened as her mother described her canning rituals. "We harvest turnips in the fall," Petek explained. "We grate them, and we salt them and put in peppercorns. Then we leave them to pickle them." In Slovenia, the turnips would stay in a kad (wooden tub) throughout the winter and get washed every two or three weeks. Petek waits a few weeks before canning.
Rose interjected: "I wouldn't have time to do that." - "This is so easy!" Petek countered, tapping a jar of the turnips. Admittedly, "easy" for one generation is another thing altogether for the next. There is hope, though: Petek picked up most of her Slovenian cooking skills here, not there. She didn't learn to cook at her mother's side; that was her older sister's job. ("I was playing outside, climbing trees.") Marrying August was the initial motivation, and not long after their wedding they moved to Chicago. She was 26. They arrived, she said, with one daughter, Paula, and a suitcase.
"I cried so much when I was first here," she recalled. "I didn't know the language. That was hard. The best thing was when we moved from the North Side to St. Stephen's [neighborhood]. People were speaking Slovenian, there were Slovenian shops."
The neighborhood on Cermak Road stretched roughly from Wood to Leavitt Streets, Leskovar said, and was home to St. Stephen's parish. For Petek, the parish was where she and many other women picked up recipes and cooking techniques. "When we'd come together, we were always asking each other questions about cooking," Petek said. Leskovar nodded. "Food was pretty much always the subject at gatherings."
Slovenia's is a hearty food, sparked with garlic and onions, paprika and rosemary, mint and oregano. The dishes of Petek's native region are heavily influenced, she said, by neighboring Hungary and Austria. Fortunately, most of her regional Slovenian dishes use ingredients found at mainstream supermarkets. Only a few items have to be sought out or made from scratch, like the sour turnips, beets ("They just taste different from the beets you buy in a can.") and the array of spiced bell peppers--yellow, red and orange, no green--that are a traditional accompaniment to cold cuts and sausage.
Closing doors
Sausage, especially smoked sausage, is big in Slovenia. "We used to have [Slovenian] butcher shops," Leskovar recalled. "When I came here in 1952 from Cleveland, they were still thriving." But butchers selling the Slovenian kranjske klobase (smoked sausage links) in Chicago slowly closed their doors as families gradually left the city for the suburbs starting in the 1960s. Mostly Petek makes do with the sausage she finds at the market; occasionally she gets the real stuff from a neighbor who makes it at home, or from friends who travel to Cleveland, where Slovenian markets continue to exist.
But the butchers weren't the only ones to leave the old neighborhood. In 1998 St. Stephen's parish became part of the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School campus (though a Chicago branch of the Slovenian Women's Union of America still meets there). The Slovenian families responded in typical fashion. They built the Slovenian Cultural Center on the grounds of the Slovenian Catholic Mission in south suburban Lemont.
The 1,500 members enjoy a weekly Slovenian luncheon after the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass. Cultural classes teach youngsters the language, dances and music of Slovenia. Cooking classes, surprisingly, are not offered that frequently, though Petek did teach a strudel class a few years ago. And, Leskovar added, other baking sessions may be offered to members in the fall.
For all of Petek's prowess in the Slovenian kitchen, it is strudel for which she is renowned. It seems that the Slovenian Cultural Center's special events would not be special without Petek's cheese strudel. She has to make enough for 300 people each time she's asked, which might be why the three freezers in her home and garage are often filled with frozen strudel. The finished pastry is truly amazing, in terms of execution (to roll out, it requires a door-sized plywood board) and flavor (flaky, creamy, sublime). Mastering it was an evolutionary process, she said, learning "a little bit here and there."
The strudel connection
The strudel is but one example of why Petek's children, and the kids of many old-country cooks, are hard pressed to cook like their parents. Very little is written down and we didn't see Petek pick up a measuring spoon or cup the whole time we were visiting. And the strudel for which she is famous in Chicago's Slovenian-American community is complicated enough to make with a recipe. Ironically, it's the labor-intensive strudel that may become the link from the eldest generation to the youngest.
"I was thinking it would be intimidating to learn to make the strudel," Rose said. "But Flora [Rose's 8-year-old daughter] wants to learn to make it." Petek has been teaching her granddaughter slowly, starting with a strudel that uses an easier-to-make phyllo dough. Petek proudly noted that Flora brought some of the strudel to her school's heritage program to represent Slovenian culture. (Petek also added out of earshot that her four children--including Rose, despite her remarks to the contrary--do make a few Slovenian dishes.).
Leslie Cummings, 41, of Wheaton, offered more evidence that Slovenian cuisine will survive. Cummings, an active member of the Slovenian Women's Union of America, uses a New World tool--the Internet--to spread the passion of Old World foodways. She is responsible for the online list of Slovenian food, wine and restaurants on the Women's Union Web site (swua.org).

"We've really been working to update it--to get it to be interesting to younger members," Cummings said. "My sister and I both have an interest in our culinary heritage. Younger members are fitting [Slovenian cooking] in where they can."

Petek's knowing tosses of salt or vinegar, her improvised additions of garlic or sour cream after a quick taste, prove that measurements can be as elusive as the past. But it also is true that her mastery of Slovenian cooking evolved with practice to today's experience and confidence. And remember: That all happened here, not there.

Pronouncing those dishes

Pronunciations of the dishes mentioned in this story come from Corinne Leskovar, editor of Zarja (The Dawn), a national magazine from the Slovenian Women's Union of America:

Bujta repa (sour turnip soup): boo-EE-ta RAY-pah, Hrenova omaka (horseradish): ren-OH-va oh-MA-ka (with a slight "h" sound before you say the "r"), Krompir (Slovenian potatoes): crom-PEER, Mlecna kasa (milk kasha): MLEE-chna KA-sha, Potica: (a filled yeast bread): po-TEET-sa, Jabolcni strudel-strukelj (apple strudel): yah-BOLCH-nee sh-TRUE-dell sh-TRUE-klee, Sirov strudel-strukelj (cheese strudel): SEER-ov sh-TRUE-dell sh-TRUE-klee
Tips for Slovenian cooking
Maria Petek, of Countryside, prepared the recipes here during a cooking marathon at her home. Here are a few of her tips and comments:
Regarding the weathered Cuisinart food processor that sees frequent duty in her kitchen: "Convenience? It's a very good thing." Soup is important. "I have soup with every dinner. In Slovenia, you don't have dinner without soup."
For Slovenians, spring dandelions are a blessing, not a curse. "We make vinaigrette with bacon cracklings, then add red vinegar, pumpkin seed oil, salt and pepper, and pour it hot over dandelion greens." - Gardening: "Everyone has a garden in Slovenia. Even here they have a garden. "The Slovenian version of bon appetit and abbondanza? Dober tek!
Apple strudel (Jabolcni strudel-strukelj)
Preparation time: 45 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes Yield: 8 servings. - Because Maria Petek's recipe for strudel dough starts with a 5-pound bag of flour (about the only measurement we have because her recipe is created by instinct), we offer a recipe that starts with frozen phyllo from the supermarket. It's adapted from "More Pots & Pans."
1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 5 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed, 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted, 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fine dry bread crumbs, 4 baking apples, peeled, grated, 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl; set aside. Place phyllo sheets on a flat surface; cover with plastic wrap and a lightly dampened towel to keep from drying out.
2. Place 1 phyllo sheet on a work surface; brush entire surface generously with butter, working quickly. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the bread crumbs, leaving a 1-inch rim. Cover with another sheet of pastry; brush with butter. Sprinkle with crumbs. Repeat with remaining 3 sheets.
3. For the filling, press or squeeze grated apples to remove any liquid. Place the apples along the shorter side of the phyllo stack; sprinkle apples and dough with the cinnamon sugar. Fold short ends over filling; roll up strudel, brushing with melted butter at each turn. Place seam side down in a greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

4. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Set aside to cool at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving: 212 calories, 52% of calories from fat, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 163 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Slovenian fried potatoes with mushroom gravy (Krompir)
Preparation time: 35 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Cooling time: 5 minutes. Yield: 6 servings Maria Petek serves her mushroom gravy alongside the potatoes; "not on top!" she scolds.
6 medium russet potatoes, peeled, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 onion, chopped, 2 cloves garlic, minced, 1/2 teaspoon salt, freshly ground pepper. Mushroom gravy: 1 tablespoon butter, 1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced, 1/2 teaspoon salt, Freshly ground pepper, 1 cup sour cream.
1. Heat water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; cook the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove potatoes from water; set aside to cool, about 5 minutes. Cut potatoes into slices.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat; add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden, about 2 minutes. Add potatoes, salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low; cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile for gravy, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add mush-rooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mush-rooms soften, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to a simmer; season with salt and pepper; stir in sour cream. Cook 15 minutes. Serve with the potatoes.
Nutrition information per serving: 373 calories, 46% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 44 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 445 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Pot roast with horseradish sauce (Hrenova omaka)
Preparation time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Yield: 6 servings
Maria Petek simmers beef roast for an entree, then uses its broth in other recipes. Horseradish sauce is served with many meats, including sausages or most beef cuts, she said. In Slovenia, everyone grows their own horseradish, but here Petek happily opts for the jarred version.
1 beef chuck roast, about 5 pounds, 4 onions, quartered, 4 carrots, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, 1 teaspoon salt, 10 whole peppercorns 1 carton (8 ounces) sour cream, 1 jar (5 1/2 ounces prepared horseradish
1. Cover the beef with water in a Dutch oven; heat to a boil over medium-high heat. Drain; rinse beef in cold water. Return beef to Dutch oven; cover with water. Add the onions, carrots, salt and peppercorns. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer. Cover; simmer until beef is tender, about 2 hours. Remove beef; slice into serving portions. Discard carrots and onions.
2. Meanwhile, combine sour cream and horseradish in a serving bowl; pass at the table to spoon on top of beef.
Nutrition information per serving (with 2 table-spoons of sauce): 399 calories, 44% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 171 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 53 g protein, 120 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Milk kasha (Mlecna kasa)
Preparation time: 5 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Yield: 4 servings
This is Maria Petek's recipe for Slovenian hot breakfast cereal. It can be made with kasha (buckwheat) or hulled millet. Hulled millet is sold in supermarkets under the Bob's Red Mill brand name, as well in bulk at specialty stores such as Home Economist.
2 1/2 cups milk, 1/2 cup kasha or hulled millet, 1/4 teaspoon salt, Sugar, optional
Heat the milk to a boil in a medium sauce-pan over medium-high heat; stir in millet and salt. Cook, stirring often, until the millet softens but some milk remains, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 171 calories, 21% of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 223 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
The Slovenian Heritage Museum (431 N. Chicago St., Joliet, IL, 60432, 815-727-1926) is operated by the Slovenian Women's Union of America. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.
The Slovenian Cultural Center, 14246 Main St., Lemont, has a Web site: slovenian-center.org.  (http://www.slovenian-center.org/sys-tmpl/door/)
Cooking Slovenian
"More Pots and Pans: Slovenian-American Cookbook," from the Slovenian Women's Union of America, contains 600 recipes from Slovenian cooks across the country (including Maria Petek), as well as articles on the history and culture. It is sold at the Slovenian Heritage Museum, but also can be ordered by mail. Send a $15 check payable to the Slovenian Women's Union (price includes postage) with your name and address to the Slovenian Heritage Museum (address above).
The Slovenian Women's Union also offers recipes and a list of online sources for Slovenian foods and wines on its Web site: swua.org. (http://www.swua.org/index.html)
How to make Potica
Slovenian Nut Bread, Potica is a traditional Slovenian holiday treat.
Have seen it spelled Povitica and Orehova means Walnuts. Orehova Potica would be the most common type.
Memories of potica
A Slovenian nut bread bridged the cultures of a Minnesota mining town

By Eleanor Ostman
Special to the Tribune
Published February 21, 2007

On Minnesota's Iron Range when I was a kid, hardly anyone could be married or buried without potica being served.

Immigrant Slovenians and Croatians who found jobs and built homes in that necklace of small towns separated by huge open-pit iron mines brought the strudellike coffee bread to the Range, where it was quickly adopted by every ethnic group.

My Finnish mother and her Iron Range friends--Swedes, Serbs, Slavs, Italians, English--would circle someone's dining room table, which was covered with a sheet, and they would all pull potica dough until it was nearly transparent. Then they would slather the dough with a walnut-honey filling and, lifting one edge of the sheet, start rolling it into 20 to 30 layers.

Potica (pronounced po-TEET-za) was among the first words treat-eager Range children learned to say.

One of my missions on a trip to Slovenia and Croatia this past summer was to research potica, to see if what I knew from northern Minnesota is as authentic as the Old Country's. Turns out, it's even more authentic.

At Farm Firbas near the ancient town of Ptuj, Slovenia, where dinner and overnight guests are invited to sample the rural life in that storybook country, we asked for a potica demonstration. Majda Lovrec, the farm's cook, brought her dough into the dining room, along with a bowl of walnut filling for which she said she sauteed the walnuts in butter, and then added vanilla.

She gave the dough a hearty rolling. But where were the other ladies to do the stretching? Majda didn't need them. She just spread filling on a base that was still rather thick, rolled it about three turns, and called it good. What we sampled afterwards tasted like Iron Range potica, but it was more bready.

Potica-makers of my youth made it "grandma" style, tediously achieving paper-thin perfection. Today's modern Slovenians (an observation reinforced by the poticas we saw in bakeries there) can't be bothered with all the work of dough-stretching. A few whacks with a rolling pin is now considered adequate.

In urban areas such as Chicago, with sizable populations of Slovenians and other Eastern Europeans, women continue to make homemade potica. But it is a diminishing art, even on the Iron Range. Several bakeries now fill that void, none more than Sunrise Bakery in Hibbing. Owner Ginny Forti is the Queen of Potica, making an estimated 100,000 or more of the rich nutty coffee breads last year. In her production bakery, a rolling machine does the initial flattening, but then, at a table at least 40 feet long, she and six bakers stretch the dough until you could read newspaper headlines through it.

Nancy Jean Pajunen, my classmate at Hibbing High School, is half Finn and married to a full Finn. But her mother and her grandmother were Slovenian. Grandma Josephine Koslucher came from the town of Vinica at the turn of the century, enduring a rough Atlantic voyage on her way to Minnesota. "I never make that trip again," Grandma vowed, but she had her potica recipe to remind her of Slovenia.

"Everybody has a slightly different filling," Pajunen said. Her formula uses evaporated milk instead of whipping cream, or sour cream as favored by others. When her daughter, Brigid Pajunen, was married last year, more than five dozen Mom-made poticas were ready for the dessert buffet.

"I can make two batches a day if I'm feeling energetic," the baker said. She does the dough-stretching all by herself, circling the cloth-covered table countless times. The room must be warm when working with the dough, she advises. A hot summer day is ideal -- or in winter, crank up the furnace.

The classic potica recipe offered here was the version favored by Big Helen Drazenovich Berklich, who was regarded as the best cook on the Iron Range, especially when she owned a restaurant in the mining town of Nashwauk. My mother cooked there as well, so I got to know Big Helen. Her potica was equally famous.

She gave me this recipe 25 years ago, just before she moved into a senior citizen's home in nearby Grand Rapids.

"My legs are giving out," she told me then, admitting they were supporting 280 pounds of Big Helen, some of them, no doubt, piled on by eating potica. Her new digs, she said, would be right across from a YWCA where she intended to enroll.

"The next time you see me, I'll be like Venus de Milo, but with arms."

I never did see her again, but this potica recipe remains her legacy.

Eleanor Ostman, for more than 30 years food writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, is the author of "Always on Sunday."

Big Helen's walnut potica

Preparation time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 loaves (about 72 slices)

1 cup milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons
2 teaspoons salt
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
4 eggs, beaten
5 cups flour, or more as needed
Walnut filling:
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup each: honey, sugar, milk
8 cups finely ground walnuts
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. For the dough, heat milk almost to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; pour into large bowl. Add the butter, 1/2 cup of the sugar and salt. Set aside to cool. Stir yeast into warm water in a small bowl; stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of the sugar until dissolved. Set aside until foamy.

2. Add yeast mixture to milk mixture. Beat in eggs with a mixer. Beat in flour, 1 cup at a time, just until dough can be handled without sticking. Knead dough on a floured board until very smooth, about 20 minutes. Transfer the dough to a greased bowl; cover. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. (Do not knead dough after it has risen.)

3. Meanwhile, for filling, melt the butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the honey, sugar and milk; raise heat to medium-high. Heat to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, mix walnuts, eggs, cream and lemon juice in medium bowl; pour the butter-honey mixture over the walnut mixture. Mix well.

4. Spread a large cloth or clean sheet on a table; sprinkle with flour. Spread dough on cloth. Roll the dough out; pull with hands from the center to the outer edge of the table until dough is very thin, similar to strudel dough. The dough should be at least 3 feet square. Cut off any thick edges. Divide the dough into four 18-inch squares. Spread the walnut filling over each square. Starting at one edge, roll up the dough tightly, as for a jellyroll. Cut each roll into 2 pieces. Pinch the dough together at the ends. Place seam-side down on 2 large greased baking sheets. Cover with cloth; let rise in a warm place until puffy, about 30 minutes. Uncover.

5. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Bake until nicely browned, about 1 hour. Cool; cut into slices. (Loaves will last quite a long time if tightly wrapped. They also can be frozen.)

Nutrition information per slice:
199 calories, 54% of calories from fat, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 29 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 93 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Slovene chef with fusion at his fingertips

By Elisabeth Rosenthal International Herald Tribune
Pictures are courtesy of Carantha

One doesn't normally expect to find a delicate gourmet fusion meal at inns in the remote mountain valleys of western Slovenia. Perhaps a roast and some kraut, or goulash. But here, against a backdrop of sheer cliffs and raging Alpine rivers, a 22-year-old Slovene named Tadej Kržišnik cooks on weekends in a 1 million custom kitchen - which he calls a "laboratory"- creating dishes like trout steamed in green tea or a salad of New Zealand rabbit baked with Tolmin cheese and rhubarb.
Cuts of Alpine cheese (planinski sir) produced in the mountain regions around Tolmin and Kobarid.

Especially in summer, customers at the inn are 80 percent foreign and often make the pilgrimage for a special meal. They are Austrian, British, Croatian, French and Italian. The biggest wine producer in Japan came to taste the fare at the inn, called Hiša Franko. For Kržišnik, a thin intense man with piercing blue eyes, food is not just an occupation; it is wrapped up with philosophy, art and passion. He collects cookbooks and studies food technology the way most young men his age collect CDs. Last year he collaborated with an art museum to create dishes that would complement paintings.

"My food is not just about eating and survival - this is something else," he said. "I want you to remember the food. To think about it." Cooking gourmet food was not a natural career for a young Slovene, who at one time wanted to become a diplomat. A lackluster student, he dropped out of high school instead. His mother encouraged him to learn a trade so that he could earn a living. "I was searching for myself," he said.

In frustration with their aimless only child, his parents sent him to work at Hiša Franko, a mountain inn run by family friends, Valter and Ana Kramar, in Staro sedlo. He was there to do the cleaning. But pretty soon the restless teen had graduated from sweeping floors to doing prep work for salads and appetizers. Soon after that the Kramars declared that the boy "had potential" and arranged for him to leave Slovenia for cooking school in Italy.

Growing up, his mother had an herb garden and his grandmother was a cook in the former Yugoslavia; Slovenia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. "As a kid, I liked to experiment in the kitchen, but it didn't turn out well and I never thought of it as a profession," he said. But three years at cooking school in Trieste, Italy, provided a kind of culinary liberation from his homeland of less than two million people. "I loved it right away," he said.
"Everything here is instant, pre-cooked, pre-prepared," Kržišnik said, sitting in a coffee shop in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, on a recent morning. "In Italy, I learned how to use fresh ingredients, how to find providers, how to make pasta and pastry with my own hands." At last, he proved a conscientious student. He ate in restaurants around Europe as if they were reference libraries, and he interned at a few of the most famous ones in Italy and Slovenia. He collected green teas as if they were fine violins. "You can't stay here and be a cook. You have to travel and open your mind," he said.

While working summers back at the inn, he began combining nouvelle cuisine with local Slovenian ingredients, creating recipes like cottage cheese and pumpkin flowers, sole marinated in orange juice, and delicate Greek pastry filled with trout. Ana Kramar would come up with a new idea, and he would figure out how to execute it.

Upon returning home after graduation two years ago, he already had the reputation of a rising star, invited to create recipes for restaurants and to cook at international festivals. Hiša Franko received glowing reviews in Austria and Italy. A gallery curator asked him to make dishes to accompany Impressionist paintings. On weekends he still takes the bus into the mountain to cook at Hiša Franko.

Trout from the river Soca (Isonzo), a favourite dish of the region.

The five- to six-course menu changes every two months depending on the season's ingredients. The herbs are from his garden. The meat is organic. These are blended in a kitchen overflowing with technology. His latest experiment is to steam fish and meat in a partial vacuum for long periods of time. "I have the freedom to do things at Hiša Franko that I couldn't do elsewhere."
Each year, in the slow season, the Kramars allow him to take time off to study with another chef. This year it will be with Heinz Beck at the Pergola Restaurant at the Rome Cavalieri Hilton, the only restaurant in that city with a two-star Michelin rating. Next year he hopes to go to Tokyo to learn more about raw fish. His goal is to be more of an inventor than a hands-on chef. He said: "Ten years from now I don't want to be in a kitchen 80 hours a week. I want to create recipes and sell them."