Albania is a small country in Europe, sharing borders with Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. It has a coastline on the Adriatic Sea with mountainous areas inland. Meat is used heavily in dishes throughout most of the country and seafood is commonly eaten in the coastal regions. Vegetables are also an important factor in Albanian meals which are usually purchased fresh from farmers markets on a daily basis.
Albania threw my around the world cooking into a bit of chaos. An Albanian white bean soup called Jani me Fasule, which was my original cooking attempt, didn't end up getting eaten as the soup it was intended to be. A hefty amount of ground cinnamon was mistakenly added to the soup rather than cayenne pepper which threw the flavours out of whack - I posted about how this blunder was resurrected into some decent tasting burgers recently. After this mishap, I wasn't keen to make the soup again and hunted around for more Albanian recipes.
It didn't take long to find another Albanian dish that sounded appealing yet it took over a month to get around to making it. An oven baked leek casserole called Tave me Presh sounded like a perfect mid-winter dish to veganise using French puy lentils and mushrooms in place of ground meat. The only uncertainty I had regarding the original ingredients was mild red pepper. I wasn't sure if this was intended to mean red capsicum/bell pepper or a sweet paprika and decided to use the latter.
This casserole has a fairly short ingredient list and didn't take long to construct. As I wasn't confident of winning the man and young man over with this dish, I served it with some of their favourite sides – roasted carrots, broccoli and garlic bread. They neither loved nor disliked the casserole, this was a win in my eyes. Apart from it being slightly underseasoned which was easily rectified at the dinner table, I really enjoyed the oniony flavours of the leeks paired with the earthy lentils and mushrooms. Perhaps it was fate the soup hadn't worked out after all as I certainly didn't regret making this hearty dish.
Tave me presh/Albanian leek casserole - (Adapted from this recipe page containing 20 Albanian recipes)
½ cup French puy or standard brown/green lentils (or use a 400g tin of drained and rinsed lentils)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large leeks, white and light green parts, sliced into 2cm rounds
1 onion, diced
150g mushrooms, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup vegan beef stock (or use vegetable stock)
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 200C.
If using dry lentils, place them in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes until tender. Drain the lentils in a colander.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep sided frying pan and sauté the leeks over medium-high heat for 5-10 minutes until softened and beginning to colour. Transfer the leeks to a 20 x 20 cm casserole dish.
Heat the other tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and fry the onion for 2-3 minutes until softened then add the mushrooms and cook until they are soft and beginning to release juices. Add the beef stock, lentils, tomato paste, paprika, salt and pepper to taste and allow to simmer for a minute. Pour the mixture over the top of the leeks in the casserole dish.
Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Most of the juices will have evaporated after this time and the top will have browned slightly.
Did you know?
The local name of Albania is called Shqiperia which can be translated to "Land of the Eagles" or "Children of the Eagles". The main emblem of the Albanian flag is a two headed eagle.