Gypsy Kitchens: Serbian Tomato Paprika Kačamak

A woman in a small Belgrade market overheard us talking about “kačamak” and interrupted with her own recipe.  “Put corn in water on fire and then…”  She trailed off and made a motion with her hand like she was shooing us away.  “Kačamak,” she said, and shrugged.
The woman is right.  It’s one of the simplest dishes in the Serbian repertoire, but it isn’t and doesn’t need to be boring.  Essentially the same thing as grits or polenta, Serbs usually eat it as a sweetened porridge for breakfast. Other varieties turn the cornmeal into a firm cake or a kind of hardened, simple bread.  Some recipes use milk or yogurt instead of water, and a lot of cooks add cheese, lard, ham or bacon to the mixture.  The most common addition, though, is potato – it’s what separates Serbian kačamak from other polenta-like dishes.
We wanted a cake that was flavorful, vegetarian, savory and distinctly Serbian.  This is a non-traditional dish that mixes ingredients and elements from a handful of traditional varieties: tomatos from the greenhouse, coarse paprika, leeks, parsley, sheep cheese.  Also, beautiful, pink-skinned fingerling potatoes.
Kačamak begins with cornmeal (the genitive element), but the cooking process begins with everything else.  At the market, we bought dark, shiny dried peppers in a bundle.  They were mild and tasted of the Hungarian plains to the north – the kind of low-intensity, woody peppers that have given this region its primary flavor.  Chopped small, they added flavor more than heat, and a pleasant sweetness.  To give our cake a little more spice, we also used a more fiery type of paprika, already ground into flakes and sold to us in a loosely-tied bag.  In America, one could use a combination of paprika and ancho-chili powder, or something similar.  Or, of course, the recipe could forgo spice altogether.
We found a wonderful Serbian cheese called “zlatarski sir” to add to our cake.  It’s a semi-soft, sharp, sheepy cheese that releases salty liquid from its holes and smells strongly of the barn.  Substitute feta as a poor approximation, or any other strong, soft sheep cheese.  A blue sheep type like Roquefort would be interesting.
The main divisional line between types of kačamak is drawn by comparing the fineness of the cornmeal.  Finer, white meals are typically used to make more-breadlike versions or very uniform mush.  Coarse, yellow corn is used for gruels and cakes.  It cooks easily.  It's a tactile process. You can tell when it's done by the movement of your spoon.
The potatoes we found were yellow-fleshed, bright pink and deeply flavorful.  About half the market vendors were selling them, piled up in glistening heaps on their tables.  The sellers kept them fresh and damp by sprinkling water on them from dirty plastic bottles.  They had already been cleaned and de-eyed when we bought them, their ruddy-cheeked skins scrubbed and ready to eat.
Before you can cook the potatoes, though, immerse yourself in the more vibrant flavors and smells of cooking alliums and spices.  Begin with a little olive oil (or butter!) and one big, chopped leek.  Sautee until beyond fragrant, adding the spices along the way and working them into the oil – how much you used depends, as always, on how spicy you want the meal to be and how powerful your ingredients are.  When the onion is satisfyingly softened and on the verge of browning, add in two medium tomatoes (chopped casually into whatever size chunks) and a few cloves of diced garlic.
Cook the mixture however you’d begin a favorite tomato sauce – we kept it very simple, softening and bleeding the nightshades, letting the mixing sugars of leek and tomato caramelize a little, waiting until we could smell the cooking garlic.  Towards the end of this process, add in about a half cup or a cup of fresh parsley.  Things don’t have to be cooked well – they’ll have plenty of time.  But it’s a good thing if the ingredients seem irresistible right then.  That’s the best part about cooking – it’s also a process of building the appetite.
The next step is to ruin everything by dumping in a quart and a half of water (color diluted, heady scent diminished, bits of pepper and parsley floating palely).  With the water, add two cups of loosely cubed potatoes (skin on or off, it’s up to you).  Bring to a boil and then simmer rapidly for half an hour or so until the potatoes are very tender when pricked with a fork – they should be cooked, in other words.
When the potatoes are done, add two and a half cups of cornmeal to the water and keep boiling.  Make sure to stir the liquid well as it cooks and take the opportunity to smush the bits of potato as much as you can in the process.  The Serbs use a special tool called a "kačamalo" for this mashing and stirring – it’s a four pronged, wooden implement that’s something between a crusher and scraper.  The point is to loosely break up the potato and assimilate the two starches into one mixture without letting it stick on the bottom of the pot.
The cornmeal should soften and begin to congeal within a few minutes, the whole pot should be orange with tomato and spice, the bubbles should become bigger and more purposeful (volcanic, maybe) as everything thickens.  If there’s not enough water, add a little.  If, after about twenty minutes of stirring, the mixture seems nowhere near thick enough, add a quarter cup more cornmeal (and more if that’s not enough).  When you sense that it’s done enough, add in your cheese.
The density of this batter is difficult to describe, and it might be hard to get it right without guessing.  Basically, it should be difficult to stir and seem almost ready to hold it’s shape.
Pour or scoop everything into a greased, pre-head pan and cook over high heat for a few minutes until it seems the underside might be about to begin actually frying.  Then, remove from the heat altogether and let cool for an hour.  Carefully flip the kačamak cake out onto a plate when you think it’s hardened enough.  If it’s too soft, it’s not really a problem – it’s still good if it’s broken up or a little loose.
Here’s the recipe:

Tomato-Paprika Kačamak Cake
3 cups coarse, yellow cornmeal
2 cups chopped fingerling potatoes
2 medium tomatoes, cubed
1 leek, cut up
4 cloves garlic, diced
¼ pound semi-soft sheep cheese
1 cup de-stemmed fresh parsley
Spices derived from peppers
Olive oil or butter
1 ½ quarts water

-In a large pot, sauté leeks in oil for a few minutes with the spice.  Add tomatoes and garlic when onions are cooked.  Cook at a nice simmer for a while until everything is sweet, thick and delicious.  Add the parsley.
-Add potatoes and water.  Bring to a boil and then cook at a rapid simmer for about half an hour, or until potatoes are very fork-tender.
-Stir in cornmeal.  Break up potatoes with a wooden or slotted spoon, or lightly with a masher.  Keep stirring as meal breaks down and thickens, making sure to keep the bottom of the pot clean and un-stuck.  If the mash thickens too quickly, add a little water.  After about twenty minutes, begin adding cornmeal until the mixture becomes very thick and seems about to become cake-batter like.  Use good judgment and trust yourself to guess.  Stir in the cheese.
- Serve the kačamak as is, as a hot polenta, or pour into a greased saucepan and cook over high heat for a minute or two, until it seems the bottom might be about to begin frying.  Remove from heat and let cool for about an hour, or until firm enough to slice or plate.
Before we found kačamak, it seemed impossible to cook Serbian vegetarian dishes.  Serbs themselves might dismiss it as peasant food, but we were in love - it's both decadent and light, flavorful and versatile.  The cake reminded us of a savory, moist corn muffin made large, something you could use for a hearty sandwich or a starch alongside a meat, fish or salad.

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