Sunday, August 30, 2009

Recipe #2: Шопска салата (Shopska Salad)

Шопска салата (Shopska salad) is a Bulgarian staple and is as delicious as it is easy to make. It is best with vegetables fresh from the garden as opposed to the store-bought variety, which tend to be bland and comparatively flavorless.

1 large or 2 medium cucumbers – peeled and diced
2 tomatoes – diced
1 bell pepper – seeded and diced
½ an onion – minced
¼ cup grated or crumbled сирене (sirene or white cheese)
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
black pepper
fresh parsley

Mix vegetables. Drizzle on oil and vinegar. Add salt, pepper, and parsley to taste. Top with сирене (you can substitute feta for сирене … just don’t tell a Bulgarian).

Home Sweet Home

It’s now been just over a month since I moved to my permanent site, or, better said, my home for the next two years. I know many of you are curious to know where I am living and what my standard of living is. Let’s just say I got very lucky. I am living less than 30 km from Sofia in a small town of less than 10,000 people, and I have the best of both worlds. Life here is peaceful and relatively slow-paced, and the people are friendly and welcoming. And Sofia, with all the perks and conveniences of a national capital and a city with a population of more than 1,000,000 people, is just a short bus-ride or train-ride away. And, unlike many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, who will be living in old communist block apartments, I am living in a simple one-story house at the back of the best garden in town. Most importantly, because of where I live, I essentially have a second host family who has been every bit as welcoming and generous as my host family in Boychinovtsi.

A view of the garden from the path leading away from my house.

A similar view on a nicer day a few weeks later.

A different area of the garden.

The path leading to my house through the garden.

This is our BBQ area. It's a wonderful place to spend an afternoon or evening enjoying company, food, and drink.

My living room/bedroom.

The kitchen.

The bathroom.

Yes, I do have a toilet. And it's inside my house. No more long walks late at night.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vitosha (Витоша)

This past Sunday, I accepted an invitation to join a group of friends from my town here in Bulgaria to visit Витоша (Mount Vitosha). Rising from the outskirts of Sofia and easily accessible by public transport, Vitosha is, not surprisingly, the most frequently visited mountain in Bulgaria. Considered by many to be part of the Sofia skyline, Vitosha reaches an elevation of 2,290 meters (7,500 ft) at its highest point, Cherni Vruh. At lower elevations, the mountain is covered by acres of beech forest which gradually give way to white spruce and pine. At the higher elevations, boulder strewn meadows, junipers, and bogs predominate. I wish I could say the mountain offers stunning panoramas of Sofia, and maybe it does on some days or at certain times of the year. On our visit, however, Sofia was obscured by a thick blanket of smog rising up from the city and encircling the mountain. Pollution aside, it was still a great day to be on the mountain. Being late in the summer, the grass had turned from green to gold and the ubiquitous raspberry bushes bore little fruit. But there were some flowers still blooming, the weather was excellent, and the scenery was as varied as it was lovely.

Various landscapes from Mount Vitosha.

I promise Sofia can be found under the blanket of smog.

This weather station, which can be found on the top of the mountain, was built in 1935 and has been in operation since.

An abandoned military base at the top of Mount Vitosha.

Obligatory wildflower closeups.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bulgarian Women

Before arriving in Bulgaria I did some reading about the country, and, from what I could gather, Bulgaria’s main claims to fame were a tortured history, its mountains, the Black Sea coast, and its women (жени). Numerous travel writers, including Rick Steves and Bill Bryson, have gushed about Bulgarian women. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get here and see for myself what all the fuss was and is about.

It took me a while, but, after two months, I finally scored my first Bulgarian girlfriend. I’ve long been a sucker for a girl with big brown eyes, and my girlfriend is no different. She’s a natural blond and the object of everyone’s affection. She’s not perfect. She has bad breath, a big nose, floppy ears, and very sharp teeth. She’s a sloppy kisser, and she’s not particularly well behaved. She’s a bit short for my tastes, and she’s also a little young for me. Heck, she isn’t even fully potty trained yet. But she loves me unconditionally and enjoys many of the same things I enjoy – going for walks, playing outside, eating gluttonous amounts of food. Best of all, she’s OK with me seeing other women. Her name is Pupa. I think you’d like her.

Recipe #1: Баница (Banitsa)

Perhaps it’s a reflection on me, or perhaps it’s a reflection on my friends, but the two things about which people seem to be most interested with respect to Bulgaria are Bulgarian food and Bulgarian women. For those of you interested in the former of these two subjects, you should appreciate this post. Following the lead of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m going to do my best to post a new recipe for a Bulgarian dish once a week. So, if you like to experiment in the kitchen and try new things, here’s your opportunity to cook and taste some traditional Bulgarian dishes.

The first recipe is for banitsa (Баница), a traditional Bulgarian pastry. Banitsa can be made with spinach, apples, pumpkin, and various other fillings, but the traditional filling is a mixture of crumbled white cheese (сирене), whisked eggs, and butter. Every Bulgarian grandmother (БаБа) has her own recipe for banitsa, but this one is relatively straightforward.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease the bottom of a round pan with butter or oil. Take 2 or 3 pastry sheets (phyllo or filo) and brush with butter. Place sheets one atop the other. Spread 1/5 of filling (the number of sheets used will depend on their thickness). Roll up the phyllo sheets and put this little “snake” in the middle of the pan. Repeat with the remaining sheets and mixture, spiraling your way outward in the pan until filling the pan. Once the pan is full, brush the top with butter. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Ingredients for cheese filling:
4 eggs
pinch of baking soda
1/4 kg sirene or feta cheese
Beat eggs, adding baking soda, keep beating and add crumbed cheese until thoroughly mixed.

A pan of homemade banitsa.

A slice of banitsa.