Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat
There are times when you are elbow deep in minced meat and onions, carefully and lightly rotating the meat bit by bit to blend everything in without toughening the fibers, when all of a sudden you start to doubt yourself. You start to wonder if you’re doing things right, if its supposed to feel like this, and if your lofty dinnertime ideals will come crashing down in the form of dryly sub-par kebabs in a stale pita. This is the time to phone a friend.
Admittedly, I’m usually the friend who gets phoned, and I love it. I can imagine no greater pleasure than waxing poetic for 20 minutes over the various ways to salvage an over-salted soup while my anxious friend starts to hem, haw, and then anxiously murmur her goodbyes so that she can finish making dinner. But wait! Have you tried a potato? Just kidding, that actually doesn’t work. But WAIT! Have you tried thinning it with dairy and then thickening it with beurre manie? WAIT, WAIT! I HAVE MORE!! Okay…..say hi to the hubs for me…….
Halfway through making cevapi, a Balkan style minced meat kebab which is grilled and then often served in pita, I started to worry. Could I really call this a Balkan or Bosnian dish if I hadn’t asked my favorite Balkan or Bosnian friend about what she would do differently? What if I was rapidly veering off track and making a mockery of the char-grilled delights of Balkan barbecued meat? Heck, there was no way that I was going to let that happen! I hastily wiped the beef fat from my fingers and start fat-padding the keyboard of my cell to call one of my best girls, Maja, my favorite Bosnian in the whole wide world.
Tina: “Maja? It’s T. I’m making cevapi -“
Maja: “OOOOH! You’re making CEVAPI! That’s GREAT!”
Tina: “…but I don’t know if I’m doing it right. I want to know how you do it. I have about a pound of beef and a pound of lamb…”
Maja: “Okay. Beef and lamb.”
Tina: “And I’ve got two cloves of minced garlic and some really finely chopped onion…”
Maja: “NOT TOO MUCH ONION! YOU CAN’T ADD TOO MUCH ONION! BE CAREFUL OF –“
Tina: “Okay, okay! Not too much onion. Cool. So does your Dad add baking soda? Or soda water? Because I was going to add some…”
Maja: “Yeah, you can add some soda water.”
Tina: “Huh. But would YOU add some soda water?”
Maja: “Yeah, you can add some soda water.”
Tina: “Wait, but would YOU– “
Maja: “Is your water hot? Your water needs to be hot.”
Maja: “It’s a science thing. There’s proteins and amino acids and they change and stuff.
Note: I met Maja in a university biology class. She is both a brilliant person and an excellent science teacher. “Proteins and amino acids and they change” INDEED.
Tina: “I also have about two tablespoons of chopped parsley.”
Maja: “Fine. That’s fine.”
Tina: “So…anything else? Other than salt and pepper?”
Maja: “Yeah! Tell me how they turn out!!!”
Lord love a duck, and lord love Maja even more because I certainly do. But hey, good news: they were delicious.
Four hours later, by text message….
Maja: “My Dad says that he uses baking soda. How did the cevapi turn out?”
Tina: “They were DELICIOUS.”
Cevapi, or cevapcici, are small minced meat kebabs that are commonly made of ground beef or a mix of beef mince with other meats such as pork, veal or lamb. The flavors are reminiscent of one of my favorite kebab, Lebanese kafta, but the rolls are much smaller and more delicate. The Turkish influence on this dish is clear, and there are many regional variations that play with the size, shape, meat mince and blend, flavorings, and final presentation. In Bosnia, the cevapi are short, squat and slightly fat. Each one is a mere hungry mouthful or two full of meat. Croatian cevapi are slightly longer, and Bulgarian cevapi are thick and fat like short sausages.
In addition to size, how to serve your cevapi varies enormously. In some regions the cevapi might be served on a bed of fresh hand cut potato fries. In other areas, cevapi (which is a traditional street food) can only be found in a pita smothered in sauce. On the counter I had a jar of Balkan red pepper spread, a tub of sour cream and a little bowl of finely sliced onions, but I had to ask Maja how she ate hers. She was barely halfway through telling me, “You put them in a pita and there’s a bit of onion and some kajmak –” when her husband, a Scotsman but still a cevapi afficionado, grabbed the phone to say, “Ajvar. You spread your pita with ajvar, pile on the cevapi and top with onions and sour cream. It’s the BEST way to eat them, in fact, it’s the ONLY way that I’ll eat them and nothing else compares even if Maja –“
Maja, grabbing the phone back: “Yes, sweetie. She heard you. You like ajvar on cevapi. She can add whatever she wants. Tina, you can add whatever you want.”
So, with my direction straight from the horse’s mouth, I set off to make my cevapi.
Cevapi: Balkan Grilled Minced Meat
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1 lb lean ground lamb *
- 1 small yellow onion (1/2 cup finely chopped)
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 4-5 sprigs parsley (2 tbsp finely chopped)
- 1/4 cup hot water
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- salt and pepper to taste
* Mixing your meats will enhance the flavor and texture of these sausages. If you prefer, you can use all beef or a combination of pork and veal if you don’t like lamb.
Finely chop the onion it is almost minced. Chop the garlic and parsley as thoroughly as you possibly can. Add these to the meat in a mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste (I used about 1 tsp of kosher salt and slightly more than 1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper).
Mix baking soda with 1/4 cup of hot water (not boiling, just hot) and pour that into the meat. Gently start to turn the meat with your finger tips, working the seasoning through the meat and combining the two varieties. When you do this, have a fairly light touch. You’re not digging in and kneading the meat, squeezing it through your fingers, or pounding it down. Imagine that your hand is like one of those automated claws in an arcade game (you know, the one where you spend twelve bucks trying to grab the digital camcorder, and all you end up with is a plastic pompom that has a face even your cats won’t deign to play with). Reach down, turn, lift up. Reach down, turn, lift up. You want the meat to stay fairly loosely packed, airy, and coarse.
Put the meat mixture back in the fridge and let it sit for at least 2 hours, or overnight if possible. This will allow the garlic and onion to penetrate and tenderize the meat, as well as making the whole mass easier to shape.
After the meat is sufficiently chilled, pinch off a piddly amount that is about the size of a small meatball. Pat and form this into a small sausage (it would kill me to say “small log of meat”, so sausage it is) which is just slightly smaller than a breakfast sausage. If they’re a little bit big or a little bit small, not to worry. In certain parts of the Balkan area you will find cevapi that are long and spindly like fingers (or merguez sausage), and in other areas the cevapi will be as short and stout as a thumb which was hit with a hammer. I opt for an in between, forming the cevapi about the length of an index finger, and just slightly fatter than the thickest digit on my meaty paw.
Heat your grill to medium high and cook the cevapi for about 2-3 minutes per side, turning once, until they are cooked through and a gorgeous deep brown color. Remember that the meat is lean, so do your darnedest not to overcook the wee lads.
Cevapi, like kafta, can be eaten on a platter with salad and fries or wrapped in a pita. A good mix of accompaniments on the side would be red or white onion (finely sliced or chopped), ajvar and kajmak.
And yes, I keep saying “ajvar and kajmak” as if everyone knows what they are. Ajvar is a roasted red pepper spread which can be sweet, hot, or somewhere in between. You can make a po’ man’s version of ajvar by pureeing roasted red peppers with a bit of onion, a tiny bit of garlic, a glug of vinegar and a touch of oil. As for kajmak, it is a thick and slightly sour fermented dairy product, which can be both an acquired taste and also difficult to locate. My Bosnian girl swears that manufactured kajmak tastes nothing like it’s supposed to, and I do trust her, but frankly I’ve never had “real” kajmak so I don’t know any better. Store bought is perfectly fine. If you can’t find kajmak, sour cream or a thick Balkan yogurt can substitute nicely in it’s place.
We followed the James approach for cevapi and slathered thick pita with ajvar, piled on a heap of steaming grilled meat, sprinkled it with onions and dolloped a goodly amount of sour cream on top. It was divine.
We’re heading into grilling season, folks. Why not put the burgers and dogs aside for a minute and try something different? Something delicious and Balkan? Something like CEVAPI.