Taking a short break from the Moscow series, I’d like to continue another collection of posts that I’ve been developing little by little each year: the former Yugoslavia grill project. I’ve already created a Croatian pljeskavica last year and a Bosnian ćevapi the year before, so today we’ll try a Serbian pork neck steak.
While the classic mixed grill platter from Serbia or Montenegro generally includes a pork steak, this is rarely the highlight of the meal: the meat, cut thin, is overcooked and tough, its only saving grace the juices running from the grilled fat. To be fair, good pork steaks are hard to come by everywhere, especially since they have to be cooked to at least 57 C / 135 F and most people prefer eyeballing and turning them into shoe soles rather than fussing with a thermometer. Choose a tender cut, and the lean meat ends up too dry. Pick a fattier cut, and the meat isn’t tender. And no, pork belly (which has more of a chance to be both tender and juicy at the same time) is not a steak!
One of the choicest cuts in the pork-eating parts of former Yugoslavia is the pork neck, aka pork collar, or cabecero in Spanish, which is sometimes how it’s known in the US. This isn’t tender meat, but it compensates with robust flavor and generous but not entirely excessive amounts of fat. If only we could magically give it a less rubbery, more pleasant texture…
Well, magic is what we do here at Food Perestroika, and there’s a solution: cook the meat sous-vide to tenderize it. (Remember, this is exactly what I did to turn a beef brisket into a steak for my Roumanian steak.) Then, cut the pork into generous 2.5 cm thick pieces, and finish on the grill. Now that’s a pork steak to look forward to! And if you don’t mind buying in bulk, you can get sublime Iberico pork collars here.
Then comes the question of the sides. More often than not, during my Balkan trips, the sides haven’t been a question at all. You get potatoes – roasted potatoes or French fries. So I’m serving a few roasted potatoes with my pork steak, but to find something a bit more interesting, I also opted to look back at the vegetarian appetizers and mains I recently ate in Belgrade. Enter an unlikely dish for Serbian cuisine: the Imam bayildi.
Originally, Imam bayildi was a famous Turkish dish consisting of small eggplants stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomato, and roasted in liberal amounts of olive oil. The name means “the Imam fainted”, and there are several theories as to why a man of Allah would faint after eating eggplant: the dish tasted so good that he swooned with pleasure; he collapsed when he heard how much oil when into making it; he used to eat it every day for dinner, and fainted when his wife told him they’d run out of olive oil. Or maybe it was just an olive oil-induced food coma, who knows?
What we do know is that the dish made lasting impressions in many areas of the former Ottoman Empire. Greeks, Bulgarians, and Albanians all have their own versions of Imam bayildi, often distorting the name. Belgrade’s Ambar restaurant serves a bujurdi (without the Imam) described as “sheep’s cheese, eggplant, Moravska salsa, Kalamata olives.” This rendition drifts pretty far from the original dish: no onion or garlic, but sheep’s milk cheese and olive jam instead. As for the tomatoes, they’ve been integrated into a genuinely traditional Serbian dish, the Morava salad (called Moravska salsa on the menu, maybe because it’s chopped into small dice). Moravska salata is made with red peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, and sometimes garlic, green onions, or leeks. It’s a favorite appetizer in the Southern Morava Valley, where the requisite red peppers grow, and particularly in Leskovac and Niš, where it’s often consumed with cheese as a main course. You can find a classic recipe in Serbian here.
Ambar’s two-in-one interpretation is what I’m taking inspiration from, and the olive jam makes for a great pairing. If you ask me, between these and the pork neck steak, the Imam finally has a few good reasons to faint.
Pork neck sous-vide
Yields about 4 servings
800 g pork neck (in one piece)
4 g salt
- Season the pork with salt on all sides. Heat the oil in a pan over high heat, and sauté the meat, turning regularly, until brown on all sides.
- Tie with butchers twine like a roast, then transfer to a sous-vide pouch, and vacuum seal. Cook in a 52 C / 125 F water bath for 72 hours (3 days).
- Take the pouch out of the water, let cool, and refrigerate overnight.
Black olive jam
Yields over 4 servings
30 g sugar
20 g apple juice
50 g pitted oil-cured black olives
7.5 g butter
2.5 g grated parmesan
5 g lemon juice
- In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and apple juice to a simmer, stirring constantly. Mix in the olives, and cook for about 30 seconds.
- Transfer to a blender, add the butter and parmesan, and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice, and blend for a couple seconds more. Transfer to a container, let cool, and refrigerate.
Yields 4 servings
320 g fingerling potatoes of various colors
20 g olive oil
black pepper, ground
- Cut the fingerling potatoes into 2 or 3 pieces each, depending on their size. Transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment paper, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then toss and spread into a single layer.
- Bake the potatoes in a 220 C / 425 F for about 50 minutes, until tender inside. Toss the potatoes a couple times during cooking to brown them on all sides. (Try to time your cooking so the potatoes are finished just when you’re ready to eat).
Yields 4 servings
2 Italian eggplants (about 400 g)
60 g olive oil
60 g peeled onion, small dice
10 g peeled garlic, minced
125 g peeled and seeded tomatoes, small dice
180 g feta, crumbled into large chunks
- Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, and season with salt. Proceeding in batches, sauté the eggplant halves in 3/4 of the olive oil in a pan over medium heat, until lightly browned on both sides. Eggplants tend to absorb all the oil you give them, so my advice is to pour just enough oil to cook one side, brown that side, then repeat with the other side.
- Remove from the heat, and reserve. If the eggplant halves are more than 2 cm thick, gently press with a spatula to flatten.
- Using the same pan still on medium heat, sauté the onions and garlic in the remaining oil until soft. Stir in the tomatoes and remove from the heat.
- Place the eggplant halves skin side down in an oven dish or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with the onion-tomato mixture, and top with the feta.
- Bake in a 220 C / 425 F oven for about 25 min, until the cheese starts to brown. (Try to time this so the bayildi are finished just when you’re ready to eat).
Yields 4 servings
125 g seeded red peppers, small dice
10 g olive oil
10 g lemon juice
5 g mint leaves, chopped
5 g parsley leaves, chopped
- In a pan over high heat, sauté the peppers in the olive oil for just 1 minute, to soften them a little. Season with salt, and remove from the heat.
- Transfer the peppers to a bowl, add the lemon juice, mint, and parsley. Toss well. Reserve at room temperature.
Yields 4 servings
pork neck sous-vide
4 g salt
black pepper, ground
black olive jam, room temperature
- Take the pork neck out of its sous-vide pouch, and cut into 2.5 cm thick steaks. Season the steaks with salt on both sides.
- Heat your grill (gas; charcoal; stovetop griddle) until very hot. Grill the pork steaks, flipping them occasionally, until both sides are very brown, and the internal temperature reaches 57 C / 135 F to 60 C / 140 F. Transfer to a plate, season with black pepper, and let rest for a minute. (The meat will still look pink inside because of the sous-vide cooking, but will be perfectly safe to eat.)
- Top the bayildi with Morava salad.
- On a large round platter, alternate the steaks and bayildi in a flower pattern, and place the roasted potatoes in the center. Serve the black olive jam in a bowl on the side.
- When serving, slice each steak and arrange across each plate, with a bayildi and some roasted potatoes. Garnish with a few dots of olive jam.