Slavonian beef with lettuce salad
My mum swears she invented this recipe, and after failing to find any beef dish in any Balkan restaurant with exactly the same delicious flavour, I was starting to believe her, until I visited Jerusalem.
While walking through the Jewish quarter of the old city, my Israeli friend and guide, Zvits, suggested an itinerary for the rest of the day—martini’s at the King David Hotel followed by his favourite hip and happening restaurant in the city where they served the famous ‘beef superior’.
‘The beef superior is so good that people come from miles around to try it. It’s kind of like a pilgrimage’ he exaggerated as he huffed and puffed up the steps of a narrow street, past gift shops selling real crowns of thorns for a few shekels—who in the hell wants to buy a crown of thorns as a memento of their visit to Jerusalem?
I rested on a balcony at the King David, and watched the sun set on the walls of the old city. They quickly turned a deep shade of pink before my eyes, sending me back through time to listen to Jerusalem’s past—a moment I would never forget. Zvits necked an ice cold martini and waved his arms around a bit in a windmill fashion oblivious to the stares of the hotel’s well dressed clientele. ‘Spliff?’ he asked. I declined.
An hour later I was in Zvits’ favourite restaurant, perched on a bar stool, with a plate of ‘beef superior’ on the bar in front of me—apparently all Israelis prefer to eat at the bar rather than a table, and often there are queues out onto the street for the stools while table chairs remain neglected. I forked a piece of the ‘beef superior’ into my mouth and was immediately teleported back to my mum’s kitchen; the flavour of this beef was exactly the same as hers. I couldn’t believe it. How could this be? My mum is from Slavonia and this ‘beef superior’ is quite obviously a Jewish specialty? Three martinis helped me work up a theory—
These days Slavonia comes under the jurisdiction of Croatia and borders Hungary and Serbia, but it has changed hands more times than half a bottle of cheap vodka in a park full of tramps. At one time—before the last couple of wars—Slavonia had a healthy mix of Serbs, Croatians, Hungarians, Jews, Germans and Roma. I imagined my grandmother as teenager hanging out in Slavonia. Maybe she had some Jewish girlfriends from the neighbouring village. Maybe one of them was the grandmother of the chef at Zvits’ favourite restaurant, and maybe they swapped recipes many years ago, and then, maybe they both had to think about escaping the local Nazis during the Second World War, and maybe—scattered across the world—they ended up teaching their daughters and sons how to cook beef, and here decades later I was connecting their grand old spirits again on my taste buds. Surrounded by a warm kerfuffle, maybe that’s what I liked to think while I filled my gut with ‘beef superior’.
One more thing, I have included a lettuce salad with this dish. On the face of it, it shouldn’t work should it—a lettuce salad with oven cooked beef? Well it works. The lettuce refreshes the palate in preparation for more delicious beef.
One more thing, the reason I am calling this ‘Slavonian beef’ is because it’s a dish that I think reflects the cuisine of all the communities of Slavonia past and present.
Slavonian govedina i zelena salata — ‘gove-a-dean-a ee zellelana sa-la-ta’
The beef steaks should be about an inch or two inches thick. Cut them up into assorted sizes so that you have about six pieces.
Make a marinade with 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil, a good pinch of salt and pepper, a teaspoon of Hungarian paprika, a teaspoon of Vegeta, and four cloves of bashed garlic. Marinate beef for at least one hour.
Put the lettuce in the fridge. Pre-heat oven to 150c.
Bring half a pint of beef stock to the boil and sprinkle with a teaspoon of Vegeta. Remove from heat.
Grease a good size casserole pot with a tablespoon of sunflower oil. Chop the onion into quarters and then halve quarters, and make a bed with the quartered layers in the bottom of the pot. Chop parsnips and carrots into chips and scatter over onion bed. Take the bashed garlic from the marinade and decorate carrots and parsnips. Finely chop half a bunch of flat leaf parsley and sprinkle over carrots and parsnips.
Place beef steaks on the vegetable bed. De-seed two red bell peppers, quarter then halve each quarter and cover beef steaks with peppers. Finally, roughly chop two large tomatoes and distribute over peppers. Pour beef stock over tomatoes.
Put a lid on the pot and place in your pre-heated oven. Cook for three hours. I say three hours but after three hours if your steaks are not tearing easily, pop back in the oven for another half an hour—add 250ml of just boiled water if liquor in the pot is threatening to dry out.
About two and a half hours into cooking peel, quarter, boil potatoes, and set aside.
When the beef is ready, switch off the oven, and add boiled potatoes to the pot before returning to the warm oven.
Remove lettuce from fridge and tear leaves into pieces your mouth can manage, wash, and drain thoroughly. I like to put the leaves in a clean table cloth, pull the ends of the cloth together, and then I like to stand in the garden and wave the cloth bag of lettuce above my head in big circles, you may prefer a salad rinser to drain your lettuce.
Dress the salad with a traditional vinaigrette of three parts virgin olive oil to one part white wine vinegar. I like my salad to not only refresh but zing so for every tablespoon of vinegar I add another teaspoon of vinegar. Grind rock salt into the dressing to your taste, whisk and dress salad.
Garnish ‘Govedina’ with remaining parsley and serve with salad and rocks of fresh bread for liquor dipping.
1 kg of assorted beef- flank, brisket, and shin beef steaks (aka stewing, braising beef)
1 large onion
2 large tomatoes
400 ml beef stock
2 teaspoons of Vegeta* (or other vegetable stock)
4 small carrots
2 red bell peppers
3 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 teaspoon of Hungarian paprika (or Spanish Pimenton) **
4 cloves of garlic
3 large potatoes
A bunch of parsley
Salt and pepper
6 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar
*Vegeta originates from Croatia and is the Balkan vegetable stock that everyone in the Balkans uses. It’s stocked in all good delicatessens, Polish corner shops and Asda.
** I recommend a mild sweet Hungarian paprika, but you might prefer a hotter one, either way ‘The Spice Shop’ is the place to go for the best selection of Hungarian paprika in London. http://www.thespiceshop.co.uk